Composer and Pianist Michel Legrand Dead at 86

The multiple Oscar and Grammy winner worked with many classic jazz artists over a 60-year career

Michel Legrand
Michel Legrand at the 2015 Cabourg Film Festival (photo: Georges Biard)

Michel Legrand, the French composer, pianist, conductor, and arranger best known for scoring an estimated 200-plus films, died Saturday (Jan. 26) in Paris. The cause of death has not yet been revealed. Five-time Grammy winner Legrand—whose credits include the Oscar-winning hit song “The Windmills of Your Mind” from the 1968 film The Thomas Crown Affair, as well as several high-profile titles of the French New Wave—was 86.

Among those paying tribute to Legrand was Tony Bennett, who tweeted, “Michel Legrand wrote the music for one of my most treasured songs to perform, ‘How Do You Keep the Music Playing?’ His music will last forever and we will keep singing it. He was a wonderful composer and beautiful human being and he will be missed.”

In addition to his composing, Legrand was a prolific jazz pianist who recorded more than 100 albums in all as a leader or collaborator. Artists that he worked with include Ray Charles, Sarah Vaughan (on the Grammy-nominated “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?”), Stan Getz, Frank Sinatra, Stéphane Grappelli, Barbra Streisand, Phil Woods, Aretha Franklin, Lena Horne, and many more. One 1958 album alone, Legrand Jazz, featured contributions from Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Bill Evans, Woods, Ben Webster, Art Farmer, Herbie Mann, and Milt Hinton.

Legrand’s 1972 recording of “Brian’s Song,” from the TV program of the same name, made the Billboard singles chart. Five of his albums landed on the trade publication’s LPs chart, with two, 1955’s Holiday in Rome and 1956’s Castles in Spain, making it into the top 10. His discography includes a trio session, At Shelly’s Manne-Hole, from 1968, with bassist Ray Brown and drummer Manne, and a solo piano album, Michel Legrand by Michel Legrand, in 2002. He also recorded classical music.

In addition, British singer Dusty Springfield’s cover of “Windmills of Your Mind,” from 1969’s Dusty in Memphis, rose to the top 40 in the U.S.

Michel Jean Legrand was born Feb. 24, 1932, in Bécon-les-Bruyères, a Parisian suburb. He studied at the Conservatoire de Paris and became interested in jazz when he saw Dizzy Gillespie (with whom he would later collaborate) in concert. Legrand’s own recording career began in 1954 but his emphasis shifted toward the areas of composition and arranging early on.

By the late 1950s and early ’60s, he’d become a prolific composer for film, contributing music to works by such renowned directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy. His work on the latter’s innovative 1964 musical The Umbrellas of Cherbourg furthered his reputation, and two years later Legrand moved to Hollywood, where he found work easily, remaining active in both film and television, as well as some Broadway productions, until shortly before the time of his death. His music has been used in films directed by Robert Altman, Clint Eastwood, and others.

Legrand was nominated for 13 Oscars in all, winning three. His nominations also included one Emmy, one Tony, and several Golden Globes, the latter for his work on films such as Yentl, Summer of ’42, and Lady Sings the Blues.

Jeff Tamarkin

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Jeff Tamarkin is the former editor of Goldmine, CMJ, Relix, and Global Rhythm. As a writer he has contributed to the New York Daily News, JazzTimes, Boston Phoenix, Harp, Mojo, Newsday, Billboard, and many other publications. He is the author of the book Got a Revolution: The Turbulent Flight of Jefferson Airplane and has contributed to The Guinness Companion to Popular Music, All Music Guide, and several other encyclopedias. He has also served as a consultant to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, NARAS, National Geographic Online, and Music Club Records.