French-Armenian award-winning jazz musician and pianist Michel Legrand has died. He passed away at his home in France on Saturday, January 26. He was 86 years old.
Legrand started his musical education at a young age, studying at the Conservatoire de Paris with the renowned piano teacher Nadia Boulanger (who also taught such notable musicians as Phillip Glass and Aaron Copland), but irked his classical teachers when he began tuning his attention towards jazz and popular music.
Legrand eventually made quite a name for himself across the popular music, jazz and film industries, gaining notoriety early on for his arrangements for French stars like Édith Piaf and Yves Montand. Over the course of his life, he was the recipient of three Oscars, five Grammys and two awards from the Cannes Film Festival. He was known for composing prolific scores including “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”; “The Windmills of Your Mind,” an award-winning piece for the film The Thomas Crown Affair; and “You Must Believe in Spring” (of the 1977 film The Young Girls of Rochefort, which was later featured on the final album of the same name, by legendary jazz piano player Bill Evans).
Legrand was born to a French father, Raymond Legrand, a composer and actor who studied under Gabriel Fauré, and an Armenian mother, Marcelle (née der Mikaelian). He maintained a profound interest in his Armenian heritage all his life, and traveled to Armenia several times. His most recent trip was in 2012, for Yerevan’s 6th International Music Festival, in which he described his affinity for the country: “Armenia holds a special place in my heart. My Armenian grandpa died in 1942. As I lived for 10 years with him, I learnt much about Armenia. He used to show the chords on piano to accompany Armenian national music instruments. His love toward Armenia was filled with sorrow. When I visited Armenia for the first time in 2009, I met with my extended family members I had never heard before. I have equally suffered along with Armenians for past grievances.”
Legrand’s Armenian family is descended from Genocide survivors, who escaped the Ottoman Empire to France at the turn of the century, and it was a dream of his to voyage back to Western Armenia to visit his family’s village and he even applied for a visa to Turkey to do so. However, in 2010, the Turkish government, which still denies that a Genocide was ever committed against the Armenian people, rejected Legrand’s visa application.
Since news of his death, Armenians around the world have been paying tribute to the late composer. Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan tweeted in Armenian, that Legrand would “always stay with us in our hearts with his masterpieces.”
Հսկայական տխրությամբ ստացա Միշել Լեգրանի մահվան լուրը։ Հայ և ֆրանսիացի ժողովուրդների մեծ զավակը իր գլուխգործոցներով միշտ կմնա մեզ հետ, մեր սրտերում: pic.twitter.com/UW5TRaizoi
— Nikol Pashinyan (@NikolPashinyan) January 26, 2019
French Ambassador to Armenia Jonathan Lacote also expressed his condolences on Twitter. He wrote, “Melodies of Michel Legrand will be heard from all cafes and houses of Armenia to show [that] no one has forgotten the Armenian roots of this universal artist, and everyone is proud of his world fame.”
Musician and colleague Claire de Castellane told the Los Angeles Times, “Performing right up until the end ‘was a very beautiful way to say goodbye.” Legrand was ‘not afraid of death… it made him nervous—like the nervousness performers feel before going on stage — ‘but it didn’t frighten him.’”
Legrand continued to perform into his sixty-plus career year; he was scheduled to go on tour in France later this year.