Michel Petrucciani overcame severe physical disabilities – he was born, on December 28, 1962, with osteogenesis imperfecta, known as “glass bone disease” – to earn wide renown as a pianist and composer. “Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary,” he said.
Petrucciani was born to Italian parents in Montpellier, France. He could not walk and his bones fractured constantly. He grew to only three feet tall and weighed barely 50 pounds. Petrucciani had to be carried on to the stage and had a special attachment to use the sustaining pedal of the piano. Yet his long, graceful fingers played with a seemingly tireless energy and verve.
Strong enough to make the piano feel little
He first became interested in the piano as a toddler after seeing Duke Ellington on the television. Petrucciani was encouraged by his father, a Sicilian jazz guitarist, who had a job at a military base and brought home a battered piano left behind by British soldiers. The instrument changed the youngster’s life.
“When I was young I thought the keyboard looked like teeth,” Petrucciani recalled. “It was as though it was laughing at me. You have to be strong enough to make the piano feel little. That took a lot of work. The piano was strictly for classical studies – no jazz – for eight years. Studying orthodox piano teaches discipline and develops technique. You learn to take your instrument seriously.”
After deciding to swap classical music for jazz, and with Bill Evans as an early influence, Petrucciani’s first significant appearance was at an outdoor jazz festival in Cliousclat, when he was 13. “That year’s guest, trumpeter Clark Terry, needed a pianist for his set,” said Petrucciani. “Someone sent for me and Clark thought that I was just a kid and that someone must be playing a joke on him. So, kidding around, he picked up his horn and played mock bullfight music. I said, ‘Let’s play the blues.’ After I’d played for a minute he said, ‘Give me five!’ and gave me a hug, and that was it.”
At 18, Petrucciani left France for America and was mentored by the saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who hired him for his quartet. They toured Europe and recorded a live album together, Montreux 82. Between 1985 and 1994, the pianist made seven albums for Blue Note Records, including his acclaimed LP of original songs, Michel Plays Petrucciani. Among his other fine albums for the famous jazz label are Pianism, Music and Playground.
Notable moments throughout his career
“My biggest inspiration is Duke Ellington, because in my very early age he gave the inspiration to play the piano,” said Petrucciani. He was particularly proud of his 1992 album Promenade With Duke, on which the Frenchman honored the music Ellington composed and played; his seven-minute version of “Caravan” explores every nuance of the 1936 hit Ellington wrote with trombonist Juan Tizol. Throughout the album, Petrucciani showed his masterful ability to create a mood and the album is one of the finest solo piano performances of Ellington’s music.
As well as his own remarkable solo career, Petrucciani was an in-demand collaborator and sideman for some of the great names in music. He was invited by trumpeter Freddie Hubbard to join his All Star band and also worked with the tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson. Petrucciani also recorded albums with saxophonist Lee Konitz (Toot Sweet) and violin maestro Stéphane Grappelli (Flamingo). Van Morrison was delighted that he agreed to play with him at the 1984 Montreux Jazz Festival, and it was at that venue, two years later, that Petrucciani joined Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall to record the superb live album Power Of Three.
One of the pianist’s greatest collaborations was with Joe Lovano for the album From The Soul, which was recorded on December 28, 1991, at Skyline Studios in New York. Petrucciani and bassist Dave Holland weave magical patterns behind Lovano on the tenor saxophonist’s first Blue Note album. “We met on my first European tour with Paul Motian, in 1981, when Michel was playing with Charles Lloyd,” said Lovano. “We played together at different times throughout the 80s, which led to this session. Michel Petrucciani was real virtuoso and a total natural.”
Petrucciani was also awarded the prestigious Prix Django Reinhardt and in 1984 his solo album 100 Hearts won a Grand Prix Du Disque, the French equivalent of a Grammy award. In 1994 he was made a knight of the Legion Of Honor in Paris.
Petrucciani said he did not believe in genius, he believed in hard work. He was still full of plans and musical ambitions when he was rushed to Beth Israel Hospital in Manhattan at the start of 1999. It was there that he died on January 6, aged 36. He used to joke that he was told he would not live past 20, but had outlasted Charlie Parker, who died at 34. Petrucciani is buried in Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, next to the tomb of Chopin.
Petrucciani was a national hero in France, and Jacques Chirac said the pianist gave himself up to his art with passion and courage. “Michel Petrucciani was an example for everyone,” said the French President. In 2011 he was also the subject of a fascinating documentary film by British director Michael Radford, who is best known for his Italian-language hit film Il Postino. The documentary shows the pianist as a charismatic and fun-loving character. “Michel symbolizes the combat of the human being,” said Radford. “It is the combat that consists in overcoming where we start from and in living to the full, getting everything we can out of life.”
Discover more jazz legends with The 50 Best Jazz Pianists Of All Time.