Michel Petrucciani: Amazing Virtuosity Despite All Odds

In the summer of 1981, I went to Paris on vacation. I squeezed in a few visits to record labels as part of my job as KCRW’s Music Director. The station was known in Paris and other French cities because we always sent various record companies our playlists, and I frequently sent my interviews to Jazz Magazine and other music publications there.

One of the labels I visited was OWL Records, run by Jean-Jacques Pussiau. OWL issued fantastic jazz records by Steve KuhnStephane Grappelli, and Paul Bley, among others. On my visit, Jean-Jacques put on a test pressing without telling me who it was. I heard a mix of Herbie Hancock, Bud Powell, Erroll Garner, yet this artist, whoever he or she was, was clearly an original, too. It turned out to be a young pianist named Michel Petrucciani, born in Montpellier, France in 1962. His grandparents had moved to France from Naples.

I subsequently learned that it was a miracle of overcoming severe physical disabilities that made such a recording possible.  Michel was born with brittle-bone disease—clinically known as osteogenesis imperfecta—a congenital bone disorder in which the body can’t assimilate calcium, the result being that the bones can’t develop. As a result, Petrucciani as a grown man stood three feet tall and weighed around 60 pounds.

His parents, knowing his love of music and the limitations imposed on him by his condition, gave him a toy piano. He smashed it with a hammer and told them he wanted a real piano. Although playing piano caused his arms and hands constant pain, Michel endured. His bones would fracture more than 100 times over his lifetime. In spite of it all, he maintained a sense of humor, a love of life, and a cavalier attitude that buoyed him through tough times. He once said, “I love humor, I love to laugh, I love jokes, I love silliness, I love that, I think it’s great, I think laughter is worth a whole lot of medicine.”

Michel overcame the disabilities that life rained on him and transcended them all. He married twice and had a son, who inherited his disease. He was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 1994. He moved to New York City to live in jazz music’s epicenter, and played with the best. Michel (1962-1999) only lived to the age of 36. Many people with this degenerative disorder never make it into their 20’s. He is buried in Le Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris.

I played Michel’s music often on MBE. When he visited the station in the 80’s to play live on our nice Yamaha grand, a local TV network came to film it, but I haven’t been able to find it online. He had a gig that night at Le Café on Ventura Blvd., an intimate upstairs boîte. Watching a small human being carried to the piano bench, then use special extenders so he could reach the pedals…it all was amazing. How he could even get the reach of both his arms and his fingers on the piano was incredible. He had the keyboard power of a big man like Oscar Peterson.

The solo concert featured on this week’s show is of a performance at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées on November 14, 1994. The venue is famous as the place Diaghilev premiered The Rite of Spring with Les Ballets Russes in 1913, causing a riot — Stravinsky had to escape out of a bathroom window. The medley we’ll hear is a tour-de-force of classics, including “Maiden Voyage,” “My Funny Valentine,” “Take the A Train,” “Autumn Leaves,” and more. Petrucciani explores different styles — modern, stride, swing.

Overall, he is a supreme jazz pianist and I feel it necessary to revisit this amazing 1994 Parisian show again. Fortunately, the album is still available. Listen and be convinced to buy it—it is extraordinary.

Rhythm Planet Playlist for 10/7/16:

  1. Michel Petrucciani / “Medley of My Favorite Songs” / Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees Live / Dreyfus Jazz
  2. Michel Petrucciani / “Love Letter“/ Au Theatre Des Champs-Elysees Live / Dreyfus Jazz


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Tom Schnabel