Written by Emilie Pons from National Public Radio
Michel Petrucciani was the first important jazz pianist I ever saw live. In retrospect, it’s hard to believe that he would make it to Guéret, my tiny hometown in the middle of France. But in 1992, on a tour called “Like father like son” (“Tel père tel fils”), Petrucciani came to perform with his father, guitar player Tony Petrucciani.
It was a delightful and intimate evening. Though known as a virtuoso, the pianist also played moving, beautiful melodies. The saxophone player Sylvain Roudier, who also grew up in Guéret, later recollected his impression that the pianist seemed capable of much more than that particular duo setting permitted.
It was also a surreal moment, hearing such beautiful music emanate from such a man. Petrucciani had a genetic disease called osteogenesis imperfecta, or brittle bone disease. He was extremely short — three feet tall — and his bones would break all the time. His hands were normal, but he required special modifications to actuate the piano’s pedals.
But the music, much more than Petrucciani’s physical appearance, grabbed everybody’s attention. Here was a sort of meteor who came and left almost in one breath — Petrucciani died in 1999, at age 36 — in a small town in the middle of France.
British filmmaker Michael Radford (The Postman) felt Petrucciani had an amazing talent, to which his new documentary Michel Petrucciani pays tribute. The film was screened at the Cannes Film Festival last year and released in France, Italy, Belgium, Greece, Germany and the Netherlands.
Radford described Petrucciani to me: “He would sometimes get from being a technical virtuoso to become this person who plays very simple melodies and expands on them as only a few great jazz pianists do,” Radford said. “‘Cantabile,’ for instance, is just four notes. It is really touching and moving as a piece of writing.”
The new documentary paints Petrucciani as much more than a disabled artist. Radford wanted to make sure people understood Petrucciani’s good and bad sides — that, in addition to his talent and disability, he was also an imperfect human being. The film portrays Petrucciani partying gregariously and hints at his hedonistic excesses. “The great freedom for a handicapped person is the freedom to be bad,” said Alexandre Petrucciani, the artist’s son, who is also affected by osteogenesis imperfecta.
But in all that, he could still make music that was “devastatingly beautiful,” according to Mary Ann Topper, Petrucciani’s New York manager. “[He] embodied the entire spirit of jazz … He understood the classics from Ellington to the bop era.” Topper describes him as “a great mischievous elf” who had “the sense of an old soul.”
Michel Petrucciani’s parents did not send him to school, where, considering his physical appearance, he could have been bullied. As a result, Petrucciani was able to focus solely on music from very early on. “He never went to school, yet was a highly intelligent man,” Radford said. “He had a very solitary childhood, but he was very lucky to have that [musical] gift. … He was one of those beings that’s put on earth to be musical. Like a UFO. He just arrived filled with music. It was his way of expressing himself.”
As an aspiring jazz musician, Petrucciani knew he had to get closer to his American idols. So he moved to California in 1982, where he convinced the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, on hiatus from music at the time, to go on tour with him. Shortly after, Petrucciani moved to New York.
In 1984, Petrucciani released the album 100 Hearts, and in 1985 cut Live at the Village Vanguard. Both albums were released under the Concord Records label, and Blue Note reissued them in 2002. “He has the greatest right hand I have ever heard in the business,” said Bruce Lundvall, head of Blue Note at the time.
When Petrucciani first moved to New York, the pianist stayed with drummer Barry Altschul and his French wife, who was Petrucciani’s godmother. At the time, Petrucciani idolized the pianist Bill Evans. “I put him down a lot for playing like Bill Evans,” Altschul said. “The advice I gave him was that every time he heard himself play a Bill Evans lick or phrase, to change it. And within a period of time, he certainly became ‘Michel.'”
Guitarist John Abercrombie, who also appears in Michel Petrucciani, was one of the musicians who admired Petrucciani’s talent. He recorded two songs on the 1987 album Michel Plays Petrucciani and did a short European tour with the pianist. “Michel’s sense of swing was powerful,” Abercrombie said. “And he really understood harmony very well. He was extremely intelligent. His English was so good. You could say anything to him.
“Michel was a serious musician who had a great joy in playing music,” Abercrombie adds. “It was really what he lived for … he was an extremely funny person and an extremely serious musician.”
Upon moving to New York, Petrucciani quickly became an international star, recording frequently and touring the world. He performed at the 1984 Newport Jazz Festival, alongside the likes of Ray Charles, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis, Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz. Ten years later, in 1994, Petrucciani received a Legion d’honneur in Paris.
All this reads like the biographies of hundreds of talented musicians who made it in the U.S. But through it all, Petrucciani was literally in pain. His condition led to frequent bone fractures; he had to be carried to and from the piano until his 20s.
Topper, his manager, also booked performances and toured with the pianist. “He had a 50 percent chance of making the tour,” she said. “He could fall off the bench or bump into the chair the wrong way, turn his wrist the wrong way and it would break.” Topper added that Petrucciani often lied — which enabled him, for instance, to simultaneously sign two contracts with two different labels so that two of his albums were released around the same time. “It was very difficult, but one of the most rewarding careers I have ever had,” Topper said.
Married several times, and involved in several serious relationships, Petrucciani was also an adulterer. “It was not enough for Petrucciani to marry a woman and be with a woman — he had to betray them,” Radford said. “They were devastated, but at the same time they sort of understood him.”
Radford sees plenty of positives to Petrucciani’s story, too. “It is about the triumph of the human spirit,” he said. “It is a life lesson to everybody, not just to handicapped people.” Radford says he’s convinced that Petrucciani “was musically underestimated. Because he was handicapped, he was a curiosity. One had to see him. … He managed to communicate music to a lot of people.
“We were able to build up a portrait of him which is funny and kind of moving, too, because it’s about much more than jazz, actually. … I think it’s very American in many ways. It reaches to the heart of things. This is a guy who was born with all the possible handicaps you can imagine, and who beats them.”
John Abercrombie also sings his praises: “He was such a strong person and determined to become a really great musician in spite of his problem — which may have made him even stronger,” Abercrombie says. “He was unique in all ways.” For Mary Ann Topper, Petrucciani “could be extraordinarily charming.”
As writer David Hajdu notes in his 2009 profile, Petrucciani once told an interviewer: “I don’t play to people’s heads, but to their hearts. I like to create laughter and emotion from people — that’s my way of working.”
That might explain why, to this day, he still attracts so much attention.