Michel Petrucciani (28 December 1962, Orange, Vaucluse, France – 6 January 1999, New York City, U.S.) was a French jazz pianist. From birth he had osteogenesis imperfecta, a genetic disease that causes brittle bones and, in his case, short stature. He became one of the most accomplished jazz pianists of his generation despite having arms that caused him pain.
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. He began learning classical piano at the age of four, and was making music with his family by the age of nine. The musician that would prove most influential to Petrucciani was Bill Evans, whom 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 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 hands were average in length, but his size meant that he required aids to reach the piano’s pedals.
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 well-being 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.”
Petrucciani made it to Paris at the age of fifteen. There he played with Kenny Clarke in 1977 and Clark Terry in 1978. His breakthrough performance occurred at the Cliousclat jazz festival. Terry was missing a pianist, and when Petrucciani was carried onto the stage, he thought it a joke; Petrucciani was not more than three feet tall. But he astounded Terry and the rest of the festival with his prodigious talent and virtuosity. 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 trip to Paris garnered mixed experiences but was undoubtedly musically and personally transforming. He reports, “It was mostly to do with drugs and weird women, but I was lucky and got out safe.” His attitude during his time in France was largely immature and insecure, despite his considerable talent. He wore a yachtsman’s cap and frequently acted pushy and tough, referring to people as ‘baby’.”He acted tough and pushy, and his playing was tough and pushy. He 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 Clarke during his time in Paris and rose to stardom.
After his stint in Paris, Petrucciani briefly returned to home before beginning his professional life. Living with his drummer, Romano, he was free of the protective presence of his father and began enjoying an independent lifestyle. Petrucciani began recording with Owl Records and struck up a friendship with the recording company’s owner, Jean-Jacques Pussiau. Pussiau recalls that Petrucciani always seemed to be in a hurry to record, saying, “I don’t want to lose time.” Eventually however 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 U.S. after his trip to Paris, but it is not known whether he stopped in New York first. “Michel was really into bullshitting…he would lie to your face,” said French journalist Thierry Peremarti. This calls into question his 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/