Jazz pianist Michel Petrucciani, a child prodigy born with a bone disease that stunted his growth but not his gifts at the keyboard, died at a New York hospital Wednesday. He was 36.
Petrucciani was being treated at Beth Israel Medical Center in Manhattan for a lung infection when he died, according to his Paris agent Bernard Ivain. Hospital spokeswoman Michelle Pipia confirmed Petrucciani’s death but would not release any other information.
Inspired by giants of the jazz piano such as Bill Evans, Duke Ellington and Bud Powell, music was the core of the pianist’s fragile life. He was born with osteogenesis imperfecta, or “glass bone disease,” which causes a calcium deficiency that can stunt growth and leave bones brittle and easily broken.
Petrucciani grew to just 3 feet tall and weighed about 65 pounds. His pianos were equipped with custom-built pedal extensions, and he frequently had to be carried to and from the piano bench because his bones were so fragile.
But his large, tensile hands were adept at shaping well-known melodies into wonderful flights of improvisation.
“The amazing thing about hearing and seeing Petrucciani in action was how quickly his physical disabilities faded away,” said Don Heckman, The Times jazz writer. “Aware, initially, of his size and the complicated manner in which he approached the piano, one quickly set that aside as he began to play with an intensity, a driving sense of swing and a harmonic subtlety that were completely irresistible.
“At his best he was comparable to the finest American-born jazz artists,” Heckman added.
Petrucciani was not an introvert by nature. “I like to create laughter and emotion from people,” he once said. “That’s my way of working.”
He began playing piano at the age of 4. His father, jazz guitarist Antoine Petrucciani, introduced him to jazz, insisted that he receive classical training and urged him to play in a family jazz band that included his brothers, Louis, a bassist, and guitarist Phillipe.
“I think he did the greatest thing he could have done for me because it did save my life,” Petrucciani said of his father some years ago. “Today, I couldn’t be accepted like I am if I didn’t have that musical talent.”
But the secret of his musical success, Petrucciani said, was the limitations imposed on his life by his disease.
“Instead of playing soccer outside with the kids, I spent a lot of time at home practicing on the piano because of my physical handicap,” he once said in an interview. “I could stay in front of the piano for five or six hours a day instead of an hour . . . and it all adds up over the years.”
Genius? “I don’t believe in genius,” he added. “I believe in hard work.”
His style had been compared to Evans’, combining technical mastery, talented improvisation and a romantic sense of harmony.
Petrucciani admitted he could hear signature Evans’ riffs in his playing. “We all have a father, a spiritual father,” he said. “That’s part of keeping the tradition.”
Born in Orange, France, and raised in Montelimar, Petrucciani made his professional debut at age 13 at an outdoor jazz festival in France, playing alongside American trumpeter Clark Terry. Petrucciani said Clark’s initial reaction was to tease him because of his size, playing children’s songs like “Frere Jacques.” But the teasing stopped as soon as Petrucciani began to play, and the two became friends.
In the early 1980s, Petrucciani moved to the United States, living for several years in Big Sur where he met saxophonist Charles Lloyd, who was then something of a recluse and not playing much. Their relationship fueled Lloyd’s return to an active schedule.
“He just made me want to play,” Lloyd later told reporters. Petrucciani stayed with Lloyd’s quartet for three years before moving to New York to form his own trio.
He recorded more than a dozen albums, making his first, “Flash,” at age 16. In addition to “Promenade With Duke,” a homage to Ellington, he made a number of albums for the Blue Note label, including “Pianism” (1986), “Michel Plays Petrucciani” (1990), and “The Best of Michel Petrucciani--The Blue Note Years” (1994), a compilation of his seven years with the label. His most recent albums were produced and distributed under the French label Dreyfus Jazz.
Despite his success at the keyboard, he remained very sensitive about his handicap. “People don’t understand that being a human being is not [about] being 7 feet tall; it’s what you have in your head and not your body. . . . When you’re short, people think you’re a kid and treat you that way. . . . I get tired of that.”
He is survived by his wife, Erlinda, and two children.