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Michel Legrand 1932-2019

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Last summer I discovered that Michel Legrand, who died on Saturday, was one of those interview subjects who present you with the problem of what to leave out. We had an hour together in his apartment in the Marais, an hour packed with stories. When I wrote the piece up for the Guardian, some of them had to be omitted for reasons of space and continuity. Here’s one that began when he talked about scoring movies.

When I write music, my music talks. It’s not a music that says nothing, a tapestry where nothing happens, like most of the composers. Such a bore. I always wrote adventurous, original, different. But it happened a few times that producers or directors…

He fell silent. I prompted him. They didn’t like what you gave them? May I have an example?

For instance, I did one score for Joseph Losey on The Go-Between. Joe called me. He lived in London, I was in Paris. He said, ‘I’ve finished a movie called The Go-Between and I’d love you to write the score.’ So I fly to London. I love the movie. I said to Joe, ‘It’s extraordinary. It’s the best film you ever made.’ So we go to his house and before we have dinner together he played a record for me, saying, ‘This is the type of music that I want in my movie.’ And I heard it. Strings, with a tenor sax screaming, bleeding, like the music in bordellos. So I said to Joe, ‘That’s what you want?’ He said, ‘Yes.’ I said, ‘Goodbye!’ He said, ‘But what would you do?’ I said, ‘I don’t know yet – but that I would never do, because it’s not good for your movie at all.’ He thought for a bit and said, ‘Do it. Do what you want. I trust you.’

“So I go back home and write. Six weeks later I go back to record and the first cue he says, ‘No, it’s not for my film.’ I said, ‘Joe, I’ve finished. I recorded every single thing.’ I said, ‘I know you hate it, but you asked me to score your movie so in return you owe me to put it in your film. Call me and I’ll come back and if it’s really a catastrophe, we’ll find a solution.’ November, no news. December, no news. January, no news. Joe Losey never used the telephone. Much too modern for him. He communicated through telegrams. March, not a word. Then I see in the French papers that The Go-Between represents England in the Cannes festival. May, publicity everywhere. At the end of the festival, he wins the Palme d’Or.

“So the next morning I received a 100-line telegram saying, ‘Michel, this is exactly what the film wanted. I’m sorry for my behaviour.’ I send him back a huge telegram saying, ‘Dear Joe – I hate you. I used to love you. Not any more. I don’t want to work with you any more. Forget me.’ So what happened after that, some stars in London who worked with Joe, every time he showed the movie with my music in private screenings, everybody said the score’s extraordinary – and he hated it. Finally he said, ‘I might be wrong.'”

Did you work with him again?

“Yes.”

* Here is John Fordham’s excellent obituary. Here is my Legrand interview as it appeared in the Guardian. And here is the Go-Between music. 

11 Comments Post a comment
  1. Don’t forget his LeGrand Jazz, particularly his chart on Jitterburg Waltz and his remarkably polyglot band on the session, including Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Herbie Mann, and Phil Woods.

    January 28, 2019
  2. If you read the interview to which I provided a link, you’ll see that I didn’t forget it.

    January 28, 2019
  3. Corinne Drewery #

    Thank you Richard. My world had to stop to read your piece .. we have lost such a unique musical mentor… but what a legacy he has left us. Please write a book of your untold stories…
    Corinne x

    January 28, 2019
  4. Richard Harris #

    Your Guardian interview with him left me wanting more! Oddly, a few nights ago I was listening to Barney Wilen’s great “French Ballads” album, and particularly the Legrand composition, “What are you doing the rest of your life”. From the Jean Simmons film “that only eighteen people saw”! Three minutes of pure genius (and life experience) from them both.

    The other Legrand that always gets me is that scene from Les Demoiselles de Rochefort when Catherine Deneuve and her equally wonderful sister, Francoise Dorleac, dance around the music room in primary colour frocks. The music to that, once heard, is embedded.

    January 28, 2019
  5. Sedat Nemli #

    And less we forget, Legrand had some other great songs in the early-mid ’60s such as
    “Le Cinema” (covered by the wonderful singer Claude Nougaro), and “Quand on S’aime / “Connais-tu?” which he recorded as a duet with Nana Mouskouri.

    January 28, 2019
  6. Matthew Wright #

    Lovely story, Richard. His compositions and arrangements gave so much to the films, but also to individual artists, as previous contributor noted, notably Barney Wilen. (Hardly an album of his without a Legrand number.) And not to be forgotten, Legrand’s trio on “Paris Jazz Piano”, evoking memories of a long lost Paris.

    January 28, 2019
  7. Conal #

    I love an improvisation that art pepper played on a michel legrand tune called “the summer knows -summer of 42” I would urge anyone who doesn’t know it to check it out. It was a perfect tune for art’s narrative conversational style of playing

    January 28, 2019
    • Matthew Wright #

      Yes, beautiful, on The Trip. Wilen did it on French Ballads (1987)

      January 28, 2019
    • Richard Harris #

      Phil Woods also cut a very fine quartet version with Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson. “Musique du Bois” 1974 Muse.

      January 28, 2019
  8. Adam Glasser #

    Completely wonderful anecdote… gold dust! Thanks Richard – any chance of publishing the other stories you were obliged to leave out due to lack of space? 😉

    January 30, 2019
  9. Anthony Wills #

    Thank you. I interviewed Legrand twice for BBC Radio 2 and my own obituary can be found on http://www.londonlightmusic.org.uk/news Do try to listen to his score for the 1977 movie The Other Side Of Midnight – it is one of his best. (Incidentally I’ve just noticed that his dates almost coincide with those of Francis Lai.)

    February 2, 2019

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