sat 24/08/2019

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand | reviews, news & interviews

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand

theartsdesk Q&A: Composer Michel Legrand

He worked with everyone: the veteran composer tells his life story

No. I have worked with so many different characters. A film director is basically a writer, an actor, a technician, a cameraman, a photographer. Music: nothing. Nothing. He knows nothing. He knows about everything but music. So most of the time when they make the editing they use records and day after day after day they listen to the same piece of music of their films so when the cutting is almost finished and they ask the composer to come and the director says, “This is the type of music I want in my movie,” there have been many times when I have said, “OK, goodbye. If you want this take this. But if you ask me to do it let me do something very different. I don’t know what I’m going to do but what I know is I’m not going to do that.” I understand why because they are used to it.

‘I decided when I was 20 that I wanted to be married with every woman. I wanted to sing, I wanted to play, conduct, jazz, classical. I wanted it all’

The worst which happened to me was with Joseph Losey on The Go-Between. I did a lot of films with Joe. It’s one of the most extraordinary films, I loved it very much. So I go to his home for dinner after the screening, he put a record in, and it was tenor sax, slow stuff with big strings underneath. He said, “That’s what I want.” I said, “Goodbye.” He said, “What do you mean?” I said, “Joe, I don’t know what I’m going to do but that…” He said, “That goes very well.” I said, “No, it does not.” You know, a kind of sexy saxophone. I said, “Jesus Christ.” So one month after that I called him. “It’s not a saxophone, no string, nothing. It’s a chamber orchestra with two piano solos.” He said, “Fine, go.” I go to London. The first cue Joseph said, “Ah, Michel, it’s terrible, not for the movie, it will never work.” Second cue - “Ah terrible.” Third cue – “Terrible.” I said, “Joe, let me finish it.” He said, “Michel, it will never work.” I said, “Fine but you asked me to write it so do me a favour. Dub the film with it because I worked for months so you owe me that.” He said, “That’s fair."

The opening theme from The Go-Between

So it was in September. Joe Losey never telephoned. He sent only telegrams. He never phoned once in his life. So I go back home and I wait - September, October, November, December. Not a word. I didn’t want to call him or to write him. January, February, not a word, so I didn’t know what happened with this film. March I see in the French paper that it represents England in the Cannes film festival in May. I said, “With which music?” I didn’t know. April, not a word. May, I don’t go to Cannes. Palme d’Or! Not a word from Joe, nothing. The next morning early he sent a telegram. Two hundred lines. “Michel, you were right.” That’s the fight that we have to do! I’m sure that when he was editing his film he put the saxophone and string on it. He was used to it.

And yet you’ve spent many years of your life with directors. So you found out how to accommodate them.

No, I never wanted to accommodate them. I had big fights with director sometimes and sometimes they threw my music out of the movie unless I wanted to rewrite it. I don’t care. But I never compromised once with anything.

No one else can claim to have worked with Miles Davis and Kiri Te Kanawa.

That’s beautiful because that’s a variety of working in music. Music is music. What I learned with Nadia Boulanger and other teachers – I spent years and years and nights learning everything and I decided when I was 20 that I wanted to be married with every woman. So I wanted to embrace everything. I wanted to sing, I wanted to play, conduct, jazz, classical. I wanted it all. So I tried to have it all. Because it’s like a game.

Who is the most surprising person you worked with?

The first one is Ray Charles. When I gave a tiny melody to Ray when he starts to sing, I’m destroyed, I’m on the floor because of what he does with it. I know how good this is, what I wrote, but when he sings it it’s a million times better and he’s the only one. If anyone else tries to sing it, even the great ones, it’s nothing. The emotion was so high because he understood so deeply every little crotchet. For me he’s not a singer; he’s a huge inventor. You give him a string quartet and when he sings it’s a symphony orchestra. Streisand, she sings so well and she’s so musical instinctively. When she sings it’s better than what I wrote too. But Ray was the highest one of them, because every note had a life with him. There were some extraordinary instrumentalists. Ivry Gitlis in violin. I used him many times. The horn players -  Vince DeRosa, Georges Barboteau - I’m speechless. Miles, of course. All the greats.

Bill Evans. It’s terrible because Gil asked me once to write a piano concerto for him after recording with Stan Getz. He recorded so many of my songs, Bill Evans. I said, “Fine.” So once I flew to New York and I looked in the book and Bill Evans is playing in a little club where I played myself called Fat Tuesday Mardi Grass. I went to the club and heard Bill play so well. We had supper together. He said to me, “When you write the concerto don’t write it too difficult” because his fingers were puffy. He goes home that night, during the night he feels sick, goes to the hospital and one week after he died. And that was something terrible because one of my principal goals of my life is to write something for him and I didn’t.

I was really lucky to work with Kiri Te Kanawa whom I worship. She was a bird, she wasn’t a singer. Extraordinary. You know all those people are so extraordinary.

"Now You're Gone": Michel Legrand and Stan Getz

Who would you like to work with?

I never worked with Sinatra but it’s too late. I’ll work with him later when we’ll be in the same boat. I don’t know. I like the things to come to me. When there is someone I want to meet, for instance a great poet like Louis Aragon, I need to be surrounded by those extraordinary people. I need to talk. I’m famished to learn.

That hunger will never go away?

No. I want to learn. I don’t want to teach. I have been assaulted by so many saying, “Would you teach me?” No never, because I’m no good at it. I know I’m terrible at it because Nadia Boulanger got sick one night when I was a student, she said, “Can you do the class tomorrow morning?” I said, “Sure,” and the next morning I am ridiculous. I do a monologue for three hours. I cannot understand that what I know they don’t. If you start like that how can you be a teacher? It’s ridiculous. So I’m terrible and it’s boring and I have no patience. But to learn, yes, my God, my God, that’s my nourishment.

Have you ever suffered from blockage?

No. Hank Mancini was a very close friend in Los Angeles. He said to me, “Aren’t you afraid that some day you wouldn’t have any ideas?” I said, “No, I don’t think it will happen.” He said, “I’m scared of it.” I said, “You should not be because it seems to me that if we constantly work the spring will bring water.”

Have you ever accepted a commission just for money?

No. Never. I love good life, I love cars, planes. I lived all my life higher than my financial possibility always for one main reason: it would force me to go to work because I need to money to pay for what I organised around me.

MichelLegrandIn Los Angeles you lived like a king?

Not like a king but I had a huge house. Here too.

Can you afford this house?

I can barely afford it but I have to work like mad, which is good, because it makes me go ahead but never compromising with anything never. Because I want to be a happy man.

You seem happy.

I am. I practise my piano every day and I hate it but I do it  because I want to stay the best.

Are your fingers still working?

Still working? They have never played as good as now. And it’s good because when you do something very well it’s a huge augmentation of the pleasure. My mentor was Oscar Peterson with whom I worked a lot. I did the two last records of Oscar. I’m extremely ambitious for me, only for me alone. I don’t care if I’m famous or rich or whatever. The thing is I want to know how far can I go. That’s all. And for me alone I want to try everything possible.

If someone said you can only compose or play…

No I need both. I need everything.

Which composers did you grow up listening to?

Every one. Verdi, I can’t stand him. Rossini, I can’t stand him. The whole Italian opera school, sometimes there is one lovely melody but most of it you have to put it in the bin.


Pffff. It’s a lie. It’s a lie. All the music they wrote is operatised and all the stories are dramatic with knives, with killing, with murdering, and it just doesn’t work. In 1850 when there was nothing to put in the operas they took the plays. Verdi came to Paris with 38 operas in his brief case that he wrote in three months! For example in the States there is Stephen Sondheim. He is an extraordinary man, because he controls the book. That’s beautiful.

How many lyricists have you worked with?

Not many. In France I worked with three lyricists, and in the States I worked with two. The Bergmans, Alan and Marilyn, and Johnny Mercer.

‘If Miles likes you you’ll work in New York. If Miles doesn’t like you you’d better go home now’

I Love Paris sold eight million copies. You got $200.

I didn’t care. It was the first recognition of my orchestrating. It was the first time I was seen in America. I have to tell you, for this television show in New York on NBC the seven minutes I did I was paid $7000. I’ve never seen such a fortune before in my life. I was the king of New York. Every night I went to the best restaurants, I invited all my friends. I went to the clubs. At the time on Broadway there was the first Birdland. It was extraordinary. And I didn’t want to go back to France. I said to my friends, “I’m staying here.” I almost did. I Love Paris was a very good launch for me. I was very pleased with it.

I Love Paris: Michel Legrand and the Paris Jazz Trio

How soon did they offer you artistic remuneration?

Not money but they said, “We owe you something: which record do you want to make?”

How many years after?

Not many. Maybe two. They sold about seven million in less than two years. I said, “Fine, OK, great, thank you. I want to do this jazz album” and I gave them the names. They said, “Fine, we’ll pay for it.”

How difficult was it to get them?

It was very easy for them. I guess that Miles asked for a lot of money and they paid him so I was the happiest man on earth.

Can you remember the first time you met Miles Davis?

No, I don’t remember the first time but I remember the recording. Everyone in New York said Miles at that time in the Fifties was the king of the scene in New York and all the jazz guys with whom I worked said to me, “If Miles likes you you’ll work in New York. If Miles doesn’t like you you’d better go home now.” That’s exactly what they told me. They said, “When Miles goes to a session he arrives 15 minutes late on purpose, he opens the door of the studio and he stays at the door for five minutes to listen to it. If he likes it he gets in and undoes his trumpet case and he starts to play. If he doesn’t like it he goes out and you’ll never hear from him.” So I said, “Jesus Christ.” It’s exactly what he did, you know. At that time Columbia recorded in a church on 30th Street, extraordinary sound. So I was rehearsing with the orchestra and after 15 minutes the door opened the door and Miles arrived with his trumpet case and he stays at the door a few minutes, then he closes the door, he gets in, he sits down and he starts to play. The first take we did together he comes to me and he says, “Michel, you like the way I played it?” I said, “Miles, it’s not for me to tell you how to play.” He said, “Absolutely you have to tell me how you want me to play your music.” I was 26.

Do you listen to the CD still?

No. I don’t want to have anything in the past. I want to be a man without any past. For two basic reasons. First I don’t want to be tempted to listen to one of my old records which was a success and try to do it again. I don’t want to fall into the trap. Also I don’t want to listen to an old record or an old film and say, “Jesus God, how could I write such shit?” I don’t want to be tempted or to suffer.

How do you avoid the films on your television above the fireplace? You can catch them by accident?

No it’s no accident, because it’s easy to cut it.

When did you last turn off the television?

Not a long time ago because Cherbourg, they’re playing it all the time. At least very often. So I know it by heart. It’s a bore. It’s like when I enter a club or a hotel and if the pianist at the hotel recognises me entering I am scared because he starts to play and most of the time he plays so badly it’s terrible and I don’t know what to say. A long time ago I was on my motorcycle in the part of Paris on the Seine where you buy old books. I was alone and I was hungry, a beautiful day. I put my moto there and had lunch and I was sitting there outside and suddenly comes a guy with a violin who opens his violin just in front of me for money. He didn’t know me. He played so badly, so out of tune, it was terrible. I said, “Come here. Let’s have lunch together.” He said, “Sure.” I said, “Put your violin in your case.” Do you know I asked him many questions about his life. I didn’t tell him who I was. I said, “Do you tune your violin?” He said, “What for?” That was extraordinary.


Reading your article on Mr. Legrand's thought processes brings back sweet memories of my childhood days in the seventies as I listened to my father's Legrand vinyl collection. Michel Legrand remains the most sophisticated writer of film music in my generation.

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