Michel Legrand, 1932–2019
The prolific composer and jazz pianist who wrote hit soundtracks
As a boy, Michel Legrand said he had a simple musical ambition: “To do it all.” And he did. The French pianist and composer would write the soundtracks for some 250 films, winning Oscars for his scores for Summer of ’42 (1971) and Yentl (1983) and a Best Song award for “The Windmills of Your Mind,” a hypnotic number from The Thomas Crown Affair (1968). He played with jazz greats such as Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Bill Evans, recorded the works of classical composers Erik Satie and Aaron Copland, and wrote and arranged for vocalists such as chanteuse Edith Piaf, jazz legend Ella Fitzgerald, and pop singer Neil Diamond. “My dream is not to miss out on anything,” he said. “So I turn my hand to everything.”
Born in suburban Paris, Legrand was 3 years old when his composer father walked out on the family—and left a piano behind, said The Washington Post. “It became my only friend,” Legrand said, “my only love.” He mastered the instrument, and at age 9 was admitted to the Paris Conservatory. In the 1950s, he began orchestrating for Piaf, Jacques Brel, and other singers, and became a star in his own right with the release of 1954’s I Love Paris, a jazz album that sold 8 million copies worldwide.
Big-screen success came in 1964 with his score for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, a pop opera about star-crossed lovers that won him a devoted following in the U.S. He moved to Hollywood two years later and worked at a furious pace for the next five decades, said The Times (U.K.). At his death, Legrand had concerts booked throughout 2019. “I think I’ve been an adventurer,” he said in one of his last interviews, “in my life and in my work.”