PARIS— One midsummer evening in 1978, pedestrians on the narrow unpaved main street of the village of Cliousclat in the Drome region were startled when what looked like a puppet wearing Count Basie's yachting cap leaned out of an old tinny Citroen 2CV and exclaimed: "Hey baby!"

It was Michel Petrucciani. At the time they were the only words of English he knew. Living in the city of Montelimar, he was the headliner of Cliousclat's monthly jam sessions. Provencal musicians were talking about a 15-year-old piano player of Corsican ancestry in a provincial backwater. He already played jazz like an African-American veteran.

It's a good thing he started early because he was not going to last all that long. Petrucciani died last week from a pulmonary infection at 36. He suffered from osteogenesis imperfecta, also known as "glass bones," which stunted his growth and made his bones brittle.

By 15 he had played with the legendary drummer Kenny (Klook) Clarke, who is credited with "discovering" him. Clark Terry, Joe Pass and the bluesman Sugar Blue "discovered" him shortly thereafter. The word was spreading. There is an early photo of Clarke flanked by Petrucciani's brother, the bassist Louis, and his father, Tony, a Wes Montgomery-style guitarist, who was carrying Petrucciani in his arms.

Later Petrucciani grew chunkier and his bones became somewhat sturdier and he could get around astonishingly well on his own with crutches. But when he was young, he had to be carried. Somehow there was always a carrier available. He looked embarrassed, and bemused at the same time. With raised eyebrows behind oversized glasses, his expression seemed to say: "Do you believe what happened to me?" Michel Petrucciani

He was carried by his family and a succession of buddies. When he began to play with his good friend the French drummer Aldo Romano, and with such respected American musicians as Jim Hall, Lee Konitz and Charles Lloyd, each had their turn carrying him. It was something of an honor to be among those who carried Petrucciani. There were good-natured jokes about forming a club. He inspired good nature.

Lloyd had performed his rock-oriented jazz in Tallinn, Estonia, in the Soviet Union, in 1967 with a band of longhairs, including Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. It was an event; the story was on the front page of The New York Times. Then, after "sitting on a mountain pulling metaphorical weeds" in California for most of the 1970s, Lloyd came out of retirement when he met Petrucciani. "Michel changed my life," he said. "I never thought I'd ever play again."

In August 1980, when he was 17, Petrucciani was sitting between takes at a piano in a remote studio in southern France. It was his first recording, he was a sideman. Still, he was the guiding force. He may not have been the official leader, but he provided the focus.

There was silence while the musicians decided what to play next. Petrucciani asked: "Does anyone know 'Giant Steps?"' An up-tempo John Coltrane tune with fast-moving chords, it was a sort of test that divides the men from the boys. Nobody wanted to admit they might not pass it. Suddenly, Petrucciani announced: "Well, I do," and he erupted with great confidence into a solo version at breakneck speed.

His hands were large enough to span a tenth on the keyboard, an essential minimum for a normal professional pianist. As the years went by, he learned that he could live a normal life in other ways. Women were attracted to him. He had three important relationships and two children, one who also has "glass bones" and one adopted. He was proud to have children. He said: "My father never expected grandchildren from me. I think he respects me now."

He liked to party, to swing in more ways than one. He began to be seen as a sort of gangster of love. (This New Year's Eve he was in the Village Vanguard until dawn.) His small and fragile bones indirectly caused the pulmonary infection that killed him. His organs were compressed inside his shrunken trunk; he had had problems with asthma; he was pushing it. Some sort of breakdown always seemed to be lurking.

His sense of humor, however, was always solid. The accent was on irony. Although he frequently predicted that he would not live very long, his friends did not take him seriously. In retrospect, he was lucky to have lasted as long as he did. Even a small fall could have been fatal years earlier.

As a young pianist, he'd had to sit on a special stool to enable him to get a proper perspective on the keyboard; and his tiny legs pumped a custom-built pedal extension. In a musical sense, his disease was a blessing in the form of a handicap. Like being blind, there was no choice other than the piano. He could not go and ride his bike or turn on television. why not?? He practiced for as much as six or seven hours a day. But it was a lot more than practice. It was The Gift. The Muse had chosen to give The Gift to Michel Petrucciani.

It was his confidence as much as his ability that caught your attention. He had no doubts about himself. He could do just about anything, and he kept learning to do more. As he grew older and better known, he became very well paid. In 1998 he played something like 140 concerts. He acquired more maturity, technique and individuality — particularly his solo playing. His between-tunes microphone patter drew good-natured laughter. He lost some soul along the way, becoming increasingly dependent on the applause. And it was always there.

His attitude, his talent, his humor and his take-no-prisoners approach to improvisation, combined with his affliction and the way it made him look, put him in a unique place. Cliques, racism and phobias disappeared when he was around. Everybody was honored to play with him — black and white, old and young, French and American, traditional and avant-garde.

After his death, the French press called him, along with Django Reinhardt, one of the best French jazz musicians ever. And one of the very few to have become a star in America. True enough, but he was way beyond such everyday qualifications.

Petrucciani reminded people of Dostoyevsky's "Idiot" — the "wholly beautiful man" whose function it was to disseminate a new state of being. He led them to re-evaluate their definitions of ugliness and beauty and of bad and good luck. He was a redeemer. Charles Lloyd called him an "avatar." It can be said without rhetoric that he was the personification of the victory of the spirit over the flesh.