Philippe Bertaud is walking toward a tall oak tree at the side of a lake. There is something undeniably welcoming and thoughtful about his presence. Or maybe that's just the heavy French accent. He turns and says, "You know, sometimes I just need to take a break. Who doesn't, right? So I like taking a trip to the woods, and uh..." he trails off, his brow furrowing.
There are thousands of how-to play guitar videos on YouTube. This is the only one that starts like that. But then, no one could play guitar like Bertaud. He built a career as a singular musician with a repertoire of soulful, eclectic compositions and interpretations. In 2005 he moved to North Texas with his family. He was first diagnosed with lymphoma in 2008 and, after a recovery and five years without symptoms, the cancer returned last May. Bertaud suffered a heart attack on November 9 and died on Friday, February 7.
Bertaud was born in Nice, France in 1967. He started playing guitar at 14 and studied at the National Conservatory of Nice. His first recording came when he was 16, and he spent years touring some of the world's most renowned concert halls. His own compositions reflected his omnivorous musical passions, incorporating sounds from Asia, Brazil and New Orleans with his classical upbringing.
His daughter, Jade Bertaud Smith, grew up listening to her father's music; every day for nearly his entire life, he woke up at 4 a.m. and played for hours. Jade graduated from TCU in 2011 and moved to Paris. "We never thought [the cancer] would come back. But he started showing intense symptoms in May," she says. She returned to Texas to be with her family. "My dad's a very, very spiritual man. He saw his cancer as a blessing, a way to work on himself spiritually."
He continued to play and even tour despite his failing health. The last time Jade saw him in concert was last fall in Mansfield, outside of Fort Worth, where she grew up. "He had to be brought onstage by a wheelchair. There were times he couldn't even lift up his guitar -- my brother had to help him," she says. "But he was still playing with full strength. I don't know how.
"He said that he would play with his soul. It wasn't his body playing any more; it was something much higher. Playing was what kept him going. It's what nourished him."
Bertaud did not have health insurance, and the bills his family now face total $300,000. They started a donation campaign while he was still in hospice care, and any contributions that still come in will go toward paying the outstanding bills. You can give here.
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There will be a memorial service at 2 p.m. this Sunday, February 16, at the Marty Leonard Chapel in Fort Worth. The family requests that you wear "white, a white item of clothing, or light colors, symbolizing light, purification, honoring and peace."
In addition to his playing, Bertaud was an accomplished guitar teacher. He taught private lessons in Fort Worth. That video by the lake was posted in 2010, a sort of flyer for his business (the location and web site are listed in the description) but also a complete, 11 minute lesson on mastering tremolo in your guitar tone. There is generosity in his delivery.
As he stares out at the lake, the camera cuts to swans and geese and songbirds and crickets in frantic succession. His even voice cuts through the racket.
"You know what? The wind in the leaves? The birds? I don't know what you think. But it sounds like.." And here his look of concentration breaks into a joyful smile. "It sounds like a tremolo!"