Michel Legrand: Rien n’est grave dans les aigus (Autobiography)
(Cherche-Midi, 307pp. In French. Book Review by Sebastian Scotney)
The reach and the scale of Michel Legrand‘s career as songwriter, film composer and jazz musician make this autobiography a necessary book.
An early chapter concerns his five years of intense study with Nadia Boulanger. Hers was tough love indeed. He describes her ‘sub machine-gun stare’, tells of the uncompromising work demands she placed of him, and of her idiosyncratic teaching style. When they were walking together to her home one day, she came out with the advice:“You walk with your legs. You should learn to walk with your head”.
Legrand tells the story of how he put together a never-to-be-repeated line-up including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans and Ben Webster for the album Legrand Jazz in 1958. He also tells the story of the later collaboration with Miles Davis on the film Dingo, where he managed to find a method of working with Miles which meant that he carried through with the film, rather than abandoning it. It was to be Miles’ very last album.
The book also gives tantalizing musings on how differently things could have turned out. It was the Conservatoire composition teacher Henri Challan who steered Legrand towards Boulanger’s class. Legrand says: “I do owe Challan eternal gratitude: if he had pointed me in the direction of Olivier Messiaen, my life would have taken a radically different path”.
Then there were the projects which never quite got off the ground, like a piano concerto which Legrand and Bill Evans were discussing, just days before the American pianist died, or a film with Jacques Demy, a sequel to the Demy/Legrand triumphs Les Parapluies de Cherborg and Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, planned to be set in Russia. The Minister of Cinema of the Brezhnev government was offering them not just a big budget, but also the opportunity to make use of the entire Bolshoi ballet company.
Other people whom Legrand encountered briefly are appraised cleverly. Henry Mancini stands out as magnanimous in the extreme, Maurice Chevalier as ridiculously, comically penny-pinching, Charles Trenet as uncaring and impossible.
The book is written by Legrand in the first person, and is based on extensive conversations with the discographer and former university lecturer Stephane Lerouge, who has effectively ghosted and co-authored the book. Legrand in his early eighties is still involved in all kinds of projects, and each chapter uses a current or recent event as the stimulus and jumping-off point to tell the story of episode from the past.
For the reader of French, it’s a lively narration. Legrand’s astonishing, punishing work-rate comes across strongly. He also uses a colorful language, and can’t resist punning whenever the opportunity arises. He is also candid about tougher episodes such as the severe depression he went through when living in California.
I would guess that the book probably won’t get translated into English, but would argue that the chapter on Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis, and the one on Nadia Boulanger, are, at the very least, of significant and broad interest to anyone with an interest in 20th Century music.
There are also insights into what shapes the mind of the composer. Legrand was fortunate to get first-hand advice about composition as a teenager from no less an authority than Stravinsky. He had been been taken along by Nadia Boulanger to hear the great man rehearse. “One day we were in the canteen. I found myself between Nadia and the great Igor.” Legrand plucked up his courage, and asked him about Boulez’analysis and deconstruction of the Rite of Spring. Stravinsky said to him: “ he has attributed to me secret intentions which I had never thought of.” Stravinsky then made a remark, about the magic and the alchemy of composing which Legrand says was to light up his life: “You should know one thing. When you are a true creator, you never know very well what it is you are doing.”