NEW YORK (Reuters) - It could be a scene from a film noir: Michel Legrand is sitting in the suffused elegance of the St Regis hotel sipping tea, while a downpour lashes the streets.
“It’s pouring rain in Manhattan...,” the 77-year-old French jazz and film-music legend sings playfully, when a reporter asks if the torrent inspires him to write a song.
A smiling Legrand toys with the thought for a semibreve longer, then breaks the magic. “No, I don’t think so...not today!
“Inspiration doesn’t happen the day the adventure happens,” he explains. “In five years’ time, I might say: ‘I want to write something about the pouring rain and New York’...and then my memory comes back and I can explain everything. But today I don’t need or want to write a song.”
Legrand, it seems, has been drawing on his memory forever, scoring films and writing indelible movie melodies. But, as he is at pains to point out, that was just one phase of a career that also embraces jazz, opera, classical works and musicals.
It’s just that when you have written film scores and songs like “I Will Wait For You” from “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg” (1965), “The Windmills of Your Mind,” from “The Thomas Crown Affair” (1968) or “What Are You Doing the Rest of Your Life?” from “The Happy Ending” (1969), people tend to file him away under “movies”
Legrand, who has won three Oscars and five Grammys, is driven to always try something new. Currently he is touring selected North American cities playing jazz piano as well as some of his most popular pieces, along with singer Dionne Warwick. They play New York’s Lincoln Center on Nov 21.
“I hate to have the same lunch, or eat the same thing every day,” Legrand said in a recent interview with Reuters. “When I was young, I said I want to be able to do everything in music. I’m very ambitious, I don’t want to be rich or famous ....but what counts for me is am I able to accomplish that?
“When it’s something I have never done yet, I say yes immediately, it’s important to put yourself in danger.”
That’s why he gave up Hollywood a decade ago, wrote a stage musical, “Amour,” which played in Paris and briefly on Broadway, and is working on an opera about the Dreyfuss Affair as well as a concerto and works for his harpist wife.
After he finished his music studies in Paris in the 1950s, Legrand became an arranger for French singers, including Edith Piaf. “But one day I said: ‘That’s enough. I stopped because I knew I was starting to be less interested and when you start to be less interested, you start to be less good.”
So he worked in the ‘60s for French film directors, such as Agnes Varga, Jean-Luc Godard, Claude Lelouche and Jacques Demy. But after 10 years, again he said enough!
“I flew to America and I did one bad movie and one lousy movie — and then I did ‘The Thomas Crown Affair.’” The film, starring Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway, featuring “Windmills of Your Mind” — which won the Oscar for best song — was a hit and made Legrand one of Hollywood’s most sought-after musicians.
Legrand loves to tell the story.
“Hank (Henry) Mancini was supposed to score. He said to Norman Jewison the director, ‘I don’t want to do your movie, but ask Michel Legrand, you’ll be very happy with it.’
“They screened it for me with Hal Ashby the editor and the movie was about five hours. And Norman and Hal said to me: ‘Michel, we don’t know how to make the edits, we don’t know where to start.’
“I said to them: ‘If you don’t know how to edit the film, why don’t we let the music decide?’”
He giggled as he recalled telling Jewison and Ashby to go off on vacation for six weeks while he wrote an hour and a half of music based on what he had seen in the rough cut.
“And we did it — cut the movie together, from the music. The first time it was ever done,” said Legrand. “The chase scene? I wrote a piece that was about 6-1/2 minutes, and we put the images onto the music.
“If they had done it without the music the scene would be maybe 35-40 seconds. The music decided it, because the music had a pace. We used nearly all the music, I never recorded anything else and the movie was as it is now.”
Legrand went on to win another Oscar for “The Summer of ‘42” (1971), featuring the song “The Summer Knows,” and in 1983 won a third for the Barbra Streisand movie “Yentl.”
His true passion though, is jazz, which he first heard while growing up in post-war Paris, from American GIs.
“I have spent a good time of my life with my fellow jazz monsters,” he laughed. “I worked with Miles (Davis), with Dizzy (Gillespie), Stan Getz, Oscar Peterson and they’re all dead.
“I have loved jazz since I was four years old. I feel a part of it, it’s really in me. I fell in the casserole of jazz when I was very young and I lived with it all my life.”
Reporting by Steve James; editing by Dean Goodman