This piece, published in the Sunday Herald in June 2011, was great fun to write – thanks to its subject’s wilful lack of co-operation … In the excitement of the jazz festival, I forgot to post it – but I’ve had requests recently to do so.
“Can you articulate slowly like I’m doing? Do you speak Russian? Or Japanese?” So begins my interview with the award-winning film composer and jazz arranger/pianist Michel Legrand, who is playing the Glasgow Jazz Festival next week. Instead of the anticipated Gallic charm, I find myself being treated to some Gallic grumpiness as he huffs and puffs and claims to understand neither my Scottish nor my French accent.
Just as I begin to fear for the future of the Auld Alliance, a miracle occurs. Without having to get a translator (or a neutral negotiator – he does live in Geneva, after all) involved – and before either of us hangs up on the other – he answers the original, troublesome question (which he had clearly understood perfectly well). And so begins an interview which really only improves once I twig that articulating like he does means pronouncing American names in an ‘Allo ‘Allo style – Deezy Gillespeee, Gene Kellee, Beex Beederbecke.
Actually, it’s only when he starts waxing lyrical about the great American jazz men that he’s heard that the 79-year-old temporarily stops being exasperated. Legrand, who had been a child prodigy on the piano, was studying classical composition with the legendary Nadia Boulanger when he became hooked on jazz.
“I first heard it on the radio when I was a kid. But at that time there was a German occupation in France and jazz was forbidden – so we heard some lousy jazz . Then, just after the war, in 1947 Deezy Gillespee came to Paris to give concerts. I was in the audience and I was ecstatic. I was extremely excited by it.”
The boy wonder of the French music scene in the 1950s, Legrand juggled playing jazz with being in demand as an arranger for such top stars as Edith Piaf and Yves Montand. Indeed, it was as Maurice Chevalier’s music director that he made his first trip to America. And it was there, in 1958, that he made his first recording with American jazz musicians – LeGrand Jazz, a collection of his contemporary reworkings of classic jazz tunes from earlier decades. It’s a sign of how highly regarded the young Parisian arranger was (he had already sold seven million copies of his LP I Love Paris in just two years) that he asked for – and got most of the biggest names in jazz at the time. John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Phil Woods, Hank Jones, Herbie Mann.
How did these guys react to a 26-year-old French kid running the show? “They were very kind to me,” recalls Legrand, homing in on the great tenor saxophonist Ben Webster who was “un bon papa” to him. One musician who could have been a handful was the star of the moment, trumpeter Miles Davis. Luckily, however, he behaved.
“Miles was adorable with me. I was told that when he’s hired to do a session, he comes on purpose 15 minutes late. He opens the door of the studio and before he enters, he listens to the rehearsal of the orchestra. If he likes it, he comes in and plays. If he doesn’t like it, he closes the door and he goes away and you never see him.
“So I knew this, and I was extremely nervous. And he did exactly that! He came 15 minutes late. He opened the door, he listened to the rehearsal of the orchestra for a few minutes, then he came in, sat down and after the first take, he came to me and said [Legrand assumes a growlly voice that sounds like a Glaswegian heavy]: ‘Michel, you like the way I play?’ I said: ‘Miles, it’s not my job to tell you how to play.’ He said: ‘Yes, it is – because it is your music.’ Isn’t that nice? That’s beautiful.”
In the late 1950s, Legrand began working with the young film directors who launched the New Wave style of cinema. One of his most enduring scores was written for Jacques Demy’s Les Parapluies de Cherbourg (1964), in which all the dialogue was sung. He and Demy – plus the film’s star, Catherine Deneuve, were reunited three years later for Les Demoiselles de Rochefort, a homage to the Hollywood musical which also starred Gene Kelly. Indeed, it was Legrand who brought Kelly to the project, having collaborated with him on various projects and become “very close friends”.
Perhaps one reason for Legrand’s longevity in the music and entertainment businesses is the fact that he finds he doesn’t want to do the same job for more than a decade at a time. After ten years scoring films in France, he relocated to the States where, almost immediately, he won an Oscar for his song The Windmills of Your Mind, from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). Among the many other film scores he has written are The Go-Between (1970), Summer of ’42 (1971), Lady Sings the Blues (1972), Never Say Never Again (1983) and Yentl (1983).
Barbra Streisand, the star of Yentl, has proved to be one of several notoriously difficult stars – Stan Getz and Miles Davis are others – with whom Legrand has worked extremely well. Perhaps, given what I experienced down a phone line from him, it’s a case of like likes like …