An Inside Look at Jazz's Most Unlikely Giant

A documentary at the Tel Aviv Museum on February 1 will retrace the stellar career of French pianist Michel Petrucciani.

Itamar Zohar
Itamar Zohar
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The fragile bones he was born with never broke Michel Petrucciani's spirit. Though he was less than a meter tall, he climbed to great heights thanks to his piano playing - much higher than anyone could have imagined when he was a child. A documentary about him will be shown at 9:30 P.M. tonight at the Tel Aviv Museum as part of the Epos International Art Film Festival.

Michael Radford, who has directed high-profile films such as "Il Postino" - directed the documentary, which came out in 2011 and premiered at Cannes. Radford admits that he was hardly familiar with Petrucciani's work and hadn't directed a documentary for around 25 years. But for him every film is a journey that culminates in a sense of wonder.

Petrucciani, right. He used his unusual appearance to his advantage.

Petrucciani, who wanted to live life to the fullest, suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as brittle bone disease, which confined him to a wheelchair or crutches. He was born in Orange in southern France to a French-Italian family. The doctors didn't believe he would live beyond 20.

He had other plans. Jazz and other music genres conquered his heart when he was very young. In the film, he describes how he saw Duke Ellington perform and was awestruck.

"It was kind of - wow! I wanted a piano to play like he did," he says, wearing dark glasses and the impish smile of someone who knows he'll get everything he asks for thanks to his enormous willpower.

Since he never attended school, he stayed at home and practiced the piano, to which he devoted 10 hours a day. The keys, in return, gave him their love.

He began performing in his youth and recorded albums in France, but his big dream was to cross the ocean. Like so many other things for him, America didn't seem too far away. There he met jazz saxophonist Charles Lloyd in an encounter that, according to him, changed his life.

As a performer, he used his unusual appearance to his advantage. Wearing a black fedora, he was aware of the magic and charm that flowed from him when he played. Now it was the audience's turn to gape.

Petrucciani, who performed at the Red Sea Jazz Festival in Eilat in 1989 and 1998, was not only a lover of life. He was also attracted to drugs and became as addicted to them as to the music. But the music didn't stop. He was signed by prestigious Blue Note Records and recorded albums alongside Roy Haynes, Wayne Shorter and many others.

He was faithful to them, but much less so to his women, it appears, maybe because he felt that his time was short. He was married several times, once for only three months. His heart was broken after he had a son with the same genetic disease.

In 1999, a few days after his 36th birthday, he was taken to a Manhattan hospital after his condition had deteriorated. He died and was buried in Paris' Pere Lachaise Cemetery, next to Chopin. The documentary, a French-Italian-German co-production, testifies that his musical spirit remains a legacy.