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Michel Legrand: Legendary Composer, RIP

Ordinarily, to mark the death of somebody, especially somebody from the enchanting world of music, I'd put up a "Song of the Day." As it happens, I am days away from beginning my fifteenth annual Film Music February, which will culminate on February 24, 2019, the date of the 91st Academy Awards. And it was on that date in 1932 that one of the greatest composers of our time was born: Michel Legrand. So, appropriately, I have planned and will post one of his many wonderful compositions to conclude my film music tribute next month. Today, he died at the age of 86.

In truth, however, I have featured scores of his compositions throughout these last fifteen years. In fact, on September 1, 2004, my very first Song of the Day was "What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?" [YouTube link to Michel's arrangement caressed by the Divine One, Sarah Vaughan]. It began a "Song of the Day" practice that has continued to this day (now well into the 1600s!]. With the romantic lyrics of his frequent collaborators, Alan and Marilyn Bergman, and the melodic loveliness of Legrand's music, that song has remained one of my all-time favorites. That Oscar-nominated masterpiece from the 1969 film, "The Happy Ending," lost out to "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head." But Legrand would earn three Oscars, including one from "The Thomas Crown Affair" (for which he won for Best Original Song, "The Windmills of Your Mind") and one each for the lush orchestrations of "Summer of '42" and "Yentl" [YouTube links].

I had the honor of seeing Legrand perform live at Hunter College in April 1996; I went backstage to shake his hands, ever-so-gently, after he had played a grand piano in a remarkably energetic two-hour performance of so many of his greatest compositions. I told him that the year before, in April 1995, my mother had passed away, after a five-year bout with lung cancer, and that one of the joys of her life was his music, which she listened to almost to the very day she died. He was so genuinely moved, and I was deeply touched by the endearing and comforting expression on his face. He could not thank me enough for what I had said to him.

I felt as if I were in the presence not merely of genius and boundless talent, but of a man of genuine human grace.

Let me remind those who may think of Legrand as a "film score composer" that he was also one of the greatest jazz musicians, arrangers, and conductors of his generation---indeed, of all time. His "Legrand Jazz" is a milestone recording of its genre, featuring such jazz greats as Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and John Coltrane (check out Side One and Side Two on YouTube). And if you have not heard Legrand's Grammy-winning three-movement suite, "Images," with alto saxophone soloist Phil Woods, you're in for a treat. The album itself won the 1976 Grammy for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album and the suite won a Grammy for "Best Instrumental Composition." Turn up the volume, and get ready to blow a hole through your ceiling [YouTube link].

Today, sadly, I feel as if the news of Legrand's passing has blown a hole through my heart. But the legacy of his music will swiftly turn the heartache back into joy. RIP, Michel, with love.