Michel Petrucciani (pianist) was born on December 28, 1962 in Orange, Vaucluse, France and passed away on January 6, 1999 in New York City.
Michel Petrucciani came from an Italo-French family with a musical background. His father Tony played the guitar, his brother Louis played the bass and his brother Philippe also played the guitar. Michel was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, which is a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and, in his case, short stature. It is also often linked to pulmonary ailments. This disease caused his bones to fracture over one hundred times until he reached adolescence. The disease caused pain that continued throughout his entire life. “I have pain all the time. I’m used to having hurt arms,” he said. In Michel’s early career his father and brother occasionally carried him, literally, because he could not walk far on his own unaided. In certain respects though he considered his disability an advantage as he got rid of distractions, like sports, that other boys tended to become involved in. And he hints that his disability was helpful in other parts of his life. He said: “Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary.”
At an early age Michel saw Duke Ellington on television and wished to become a pianist like him. When Michel was four, his father bought him a toy piano of his own, but Michel smashed the piano with a toy hammer. “When I was young, I thought the keyboard looked like teeth,” he said. “It was as though it was laughing at me. You had to be strong enough to make the piano feel little. That took a lot of work.” Soon after this, Michel’s father bought him a real piano.
From the beginning, Petrucciani had always been musical, reportedly humming Wes Montgomery solos by the time he learned to speak. The musician that would prove most influential to Petrucciani was Bill Evans, who he began listening to at around the age of ten. Petrucciani’s layered harmonies, lyrical style, and articulation of melody have always been linked most strongly to this early exposure to Evans. Petrucciani trained in classical piano starting at the age of four, and was making music with his family by the age of nine.
Petrucciani gave his first professional concert at the age of 13. At this point of his life, he was still quite fragile and had to be carried to and from the piano. His size meant that he required aids to reach the piano’s pedals, but his hands were average in length. This had its advantages, however. At the beginning of his career, Petrucciani’s manager would often smuggle him into hotel rooms in a suitcase in a bid to save money.
Petrucciani felt he needed to travel to Paris to begin his musical career, but he found it difficult to leave home. His father was protective, constantly concerned for his son’s wellbeing and reluctant to put him in any danger. Petrucciani’s drummer Aldo Romano said of Michel’s father: “He was an idiot. He didn’t trust anybody. He wanted to keep Petrucciani as a partner, to play music with. He was very jealous. So I had to fight to take him to Paris, because his father didn’t want me to, because he wanted to keep him, like you would cage a monster.”
But at the age of fifteen Petrucciani made it to France. There he played with Kenny Clark in 1977 and Clark Terry in 1978. His breakthrough performance occurred in the jazz festival in the town Clioucat. Clark Terry was missing a pianist, and when Michel was carried onto the stage Terry thought it was some kind of joke—Petrucciani was not more than three feet tall. But Michel astounded Terry and the rest of the festival with his prodigious talent and virtuosity, especially given his size and condition. Clark Terry said, “When I heard him play—oh, man! He was a dwarf, but he played like a giant. I said, ‘listen, little guy—don’t run away. I’ll be back for you.”
Petrucciani’s subsequent trip to Paris harbored mixed experiences, but was undoubtedly musically and personally transforming. Michel reports, “It was mostly to do with drugs and weird women, but I was lucky and got out safe.” Michel’s attitude during his time in France was largely immature and insecure, despite his considerable talent. He tended to overcompensate for his young age and small size by playing many more notes than necessary. He wore a yachtsman’s cap and frequently referred to people as ‘baby’. “He acted tough and pushy, and his playing was tough and pushy. He even knew how to say ‘motherfucker’ in French,” said Michael Zwerin, who met Petrucciani when the pianist was fifteen. Petrucciani played in a trio with Kenny Clark during his time in Paris, and rose to stardom.
After his stint in Paris, Petrucciani returned to his family only for a brief visit. He began his professional life living with the drummer Aldo Romano. He was free of the protective presence of his father and was able to start living a truly adult life. Petrucciani began recording with Owl Records and began a friendship with the recording company’s owner, Jean-Jacques Pussai. Pussai recalls that Petrucciani always seemed to be in a hurry to record, saying, “I don’t want to lose time.” But eventually Petrucciani desired independence from Romano too. Romano remembers: “He didn’t feel free with me. So he had to kill his second father somehow to move on. He needed to escape. He needed to go very far, as far as he could go, and that was California.”
Petrucciani travelled to the US after his trip to Paris, but it is not known whether he stopped in New York first. “Michel was really into bullshiting… he would lie to your face,” said French journalist Thierry Peremarti. This calls into question Michel’s strange account of his time in Manhattan. He claimed to have scammed his way into the city on bad checks and hid out in Brooklyn with the help of Sicilian family connections. He also claimed to have played piano in a midtown brothel.
What is known for certain is that he ended up in California in 1982, where he visited the retired saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Lloyd had stopped playing when people began to view his sidemen as more fashionable than he himself was. After hearing Petrucciani play, the saxophonist was so inspired that he agreed to tour with Michel. Lloyd said to Michel, “I was here not planning to play again. You triggered me. I heard this beauty in you and I said, ‘well I have to take you ’round the world cause there’s something so beautiful, it was like providence calling.” Petrucciani and Lloyd’s tour of the West Coast was a huge success, and they continued their internationally. On February 22, 1985, with Petrucciani cradled in his arms, Lloyd walked onto the stage at Town Hall in New York City and sat him on his piano stool for what would be a historic evening in jazz history: the filming of One Night with Blue Note. The film’s director John Charles Jopson would later recall in the reissued liner notes that the moment moved him to tears.
Petrucciani and Lloyd’s performance at the Montreux Jazz Festival was made into an album, and in 1982 they won the 1982 Prix d’Excellence. But Petrucciani expressed mostly disdain and frustration at the awards he felt were being heaped upon him, believing that he was receiving so many at least in part because people believed he was going to die young.
Petrucciani moved to New York City 1984 and spent the rest of his life there. This was one of the most wildly productive periods of his career. He recorded with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall, producing the trio album Power of Three. In 1986 Petrucciani recorded a live album with Wayne Shorter and Jim Hall. He also played with diverse figures in the US jazz scene including Dizzy Gillespie.
But he also made a priority of recording solo piano. Michel said: “I really believe a pianist is not complete until he’s capable of playing by himself. I started doing solo concerts in February 1993, when I asked my agent to cancel my trio dates for a year in order to play nothing but solo recitals… I had a wonderful time playing alone, and discovering the piano and really studying every night. I felt like I was learning so much about the instrument and about communicating directly with an audience. So it was an incredible experience. I really loved doing that, and afterwards getting on stage with a group again and playing with other people was a piece of cake!”
On the personal side, he had five significant relationships: Erlinda Montano (marriage), Eugenia Morrison, Marie-Laure Roperch, the Italian pianist Gilda Buttà (the marriage lasted three months and ended in divorce) and Isabelle Mailé (with whom he shares his grave). With Marie Laure he fathered a son, Alexandre, who inherited his condition. He also had a stepson named Rachid Roperch.
In 1994, he was granted a Légion d’honneur in Paris.
In the late 1990s, Petrucciani’s lifestyle became increasingly taxing. Musically, he was moving at a frenetic pace. He was performing over one hundred times per year, and in 1998, the year before he died, he performed one hundred and forty times. His social life was also becoming more costly—he began to drink more heavily and experiment with cocaine. He became too weak to use crutches and had to resort to a wheelchair. Petrucciani’s final manager said, “He was working too much—not only recording and doing concerts, but he was always on television, and he was always doing interviews. He got himself overworked, and you could see it. He pushed too much.”
Michel Petrucciani died just after his 36th birthday from a pulmonary infection. He was interred in Le Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris.
On February 12, 2009, the French music channel Mezzo broadcast a special event paying homage to Petrucciani and the ten year anniversary of his death.
The first two American albums featuring Michel Petrucciani were produced by Gabreal Franklin. The first, 100 Hearts, a solo album, was produced at the famous RCA Studio A, on the Avenue of the Americas in New York City. The second was a trio album, recorded live at Max Gordon’s old Village Vanguard club in New York City. These were among the first albums to use newly developed digital recording technology, on Mitsubishi X80 recorders, so early on that the only manuals available were in Japanese; but Franklin and Tom Arrison managed to get them to function by trial and error, and produced excellent results.
Wayne Shorter summed up Michel Petrucciani’s essential character and style in this quote:
“There’s a lot of people walking around, full-grown and so-called normal—they have everything that they were born with at the right leg length, arm length, and stuff like that. They’re symmetrical in every way, but they live their lives like they are armless, legless, brainless, and they live their life with blame. I never heard Michel complain about anything. Michel didn’t look in the mirror and complain about what he saw. Michel was a great musician—a great musician—and great, ultimately, because he was a great human being because he had the ability to feel and give to others of that feeling, and he gave to others through his music.”