The room fades to black around a beam of dusky light. A hush creeps over the audience at a Los Angeles jazz club as Michel Petrucciani, 21, is carried onstage in the arms of his wife, Erlinda. Gingerly she places him on a bench before a grand piano that seems gargantuan by comparison. A special elevated pedal rises to meet his tiny legs. His slender hands are large and wonderfully agile as they begin their gentle, rhapsodic play across the keyboard. With eyes closed and tongue poking between his lips, Petrucciani embarks on a romantic swirl of melodies and chords, one hand seeming to surprise the other. An hour later he ends his first set in a tumult of applause.
Only when he is scooped up by his wife are listeners reminded that the young marvel weighs a mere 50 pounds and is no taller than a yardstick. “I’m not really self-conscious about being looked at,” says Michel, who was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, a crippling disease marked by a calcium deficiency that makes bones brittle and retards growth. “It would be ridiculous to go on stage and say to people, ‘Close your eyes.’ ”
Backstage after Michel’s performance, a worshipful few have come to flatter and mingle. When the conversation turns pretentious, Michel puts three cigarettes in his mouth and one up his nose, then turns to a visitor and mumbles, “Got a light?” “I’m a brat,” he says. “My philosophy is to have a really good time and never let anything stop me from doing what I want to do.” He is serious only when it comes to music. “I don’t play to people’s heads but to their hearts,” he says. “I’m trying to cast a spell that lasts forever.”
His career has flourished since Michel moved to California from his native France in 1981. Through a friend he met composer-saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who was impressed enough to come out of seclusion and form a quartet that included the young virtuoso. In 1982 they were honored with the Prix d’Excellence at Switzerland’s Montreux Festival. In Kool Jazz Festival performances in 1983 at Washington’s Kennedy Center and New York’s Carnegie Hall, Michel’s solo artistry thrilled reviewers and crowds. He was described by the laureate of jazz critics, Leonard Feather, as a “phenomenon…the biggest new talent in piano jazz.” Earlier this year the New York Times raved that “his scintillating, impressionistic tone clusters and kaleidoscopic changes of tempo evoke a natural world as unpredictable as it is dazzling.”
Now the pianist is poised for his biggest year yet. Michel’s second American album is due this month. A PBS special with Charles Lloyd will follow and another world tour is planned before summer.
Neither his outsize talent nor his undersize physique bothers him. “I don’t think things like ‘Why me?’ ” he says. “It’s too complicated for me to come up with an answer.” When Michel was growing up, his bones were so fragile that he suffered some 160 fractures. “It shortened his childhood,” his wife said, “and made him cherish things others take for granted.” In recent years Michel has had fewer fractures, more because his bones have stabilized than because of special precautions. He has risked hang gliding, for example, and sailing. “When you shake his hand you can sense his fragility,” says his producer, Gabreal Franklin, “but Michel would reach right out and shake hands with a gorilla.”
That pluck helped him surmount an early fear of the piano. “When I was a little kid I thought the keyboard looked like teeth,” he says. “It was as if the piano were laughing at me. You have to be strong enough to make the piano feel little. That takes a lot of work.”
His enchantment with the piano and jazz began at the age of 4 when he discovered Duke Ellington on television. The youngest of three sons born to a part-time jazz guitarist in Orange in southern France, Michel began lobbying for a piano. At Christmas that year he received a pink toy miniature, which he promptly splintered with a hammer. Shortly afterward his father brought home a real but somewhat battered piano, with the proviso that his son be trained in the classical tradition. His tutors taught him Bach but Michel cared only for the blues. At 9, he began performing at local clubs (with his father and two brothers on guitar and bass) and soon he was joining visiting jazz artists as a sideman.
Migrating to Paris at 17, he played backup on two albums but didn’t like the scene, so he invited a musician friend to accompany him to New York and paid for the tickets with a bad check (père later picked up the tab). “I didn’t speak any English and was really lost,” he remembers, “but I stayed in Greenwich Village a couple of weeks, acting like a punk, wearing shades and lookin’ bad at 4 in the morning until I was broke and went home, made some money, then came to California.”
Michel quickly mastered English (by reading jazz biographies) and can now mimic a range of American dialects, but he has yet to conquer his persistent stage fright. “Before I go on I smoke cigarettes, drink beer, take two shots of cognac to calm me down,” he admits. “Then I talk to myself. When I’m at the keyboard and start to play, it’s so easy I wonder why I get so nervous.” His trepidation has not slowed his performing schedule, which kept him on the road nearly eight months this year.
At a Big Sur benefit concert in 1981, Michel met Erlinda Montañto. “She introduced herself, there was that first look and that was it,” says Michel. “I was so shy to call her that I had a friend dial her number.” Married since 1982, they rent a Big Sur house with a wraparound view of the Pacific. Each morning Michel practices for several hours. Afternoons are reserved for cooking. A vivacious host, he entertains lavishly every evening he is home. Afterward he often returns to the piano. “At night you’re full of ideas—it’s a funky kind of time,” he observes. “For me composition is a need, like hunger. But if I don’t feel it, it just doesn’t come.”
Unfulfilled wishes spur him on. “I’d like to write a symphony and make music for films,” he says. “And I would like to be really old, with my feet up on a chair, holding a glass of wine and telling stories to all my great-grandchildren. As a child my dream was to become who I am now.” He adds, “Sometimes I think someone upstairs saved me from being ordinary.”