Urtreger was born in Paris and began his piano studies at the age of four, studying privately first, and then at the Conservatory. He studied with an orientation toward jazz, playing in a small Parisian club, the "Sully d' Auteil." Conducted by Hubert Damisch, the Sully boasted an orchestra of talented students including Sacha Distel and Louis Viale.
In 1953, he won first prize in a piano contest for amateurs, and from that moment decided to be a professional musician. In 1954, he accompanied in a Parisian concert two great American expatriates: saxophonist Don Byas and trumpeter Buck Clayton. Their collaboration in the "Salon du Jazz" became one of the most highly-requested French performances by the American musicians that toured the French capital.
After serving in the military from 1955 to 1957, Urtreger would play in a club on the left bank of the Seine, the famous Club Saint-Germain. Again he collaborated with two jazz masters: Miles Davis and Lester Young. His work so impressed the latter that Urteger accompanied Young for a short tour of Europe in 1956. In December 1957, he was part of Davis's group which recorded the soundtrack to the film Ascenseur pour l'échafaud (Elevator to the Gallows).
In the late 1950s he worked with the likes of Lionel Hampton, Stan Getz, Chet Baker, Dexter Gordon, Sonny Rollins and Ben Webster among others. Shortly thereafter, he broadened his focus to accompany other artists of other genres, largely due to financial necessity. His canon of jazz work is still widely regarded as sensitive with a full, dense sound of swing. The Academie du Jazz of France formally recognized his accomplishments in 1961 with the Django Reinhardt prize for outstanding jazz artist of the year.
In 1977, he reappeared on the Paris jazz scene with the intention to resume his career. His renaissance was as a small-ensemble accompanist, with Lee Konitz, Aldo Romano or Barney Wilen. His 1980 performance at the Antibes Jazz Festival was an important performance of his later career. He was also featured at "Le Jazz Cool, Le Jazz Hot: A Celebration of Modern Jazz in Los Angeles and France" at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles (November 2007).
In an interview, Urtreger said "Jazz is supposed to be a music of improvisation, of madness".
Grand Prix SACEM (1997), Grand Prix du Disque (2000), Victoire de la Musique Category Jazz for the album HUM (2000), Honorary Victoire de la Musique for his Overall Contribution (2005), Officer of the Order of Arts and Literrature (2006)
- René Urtreger Plays Bud Powell (1955)
- Récidive (1978)
- HUM w Daniel Humair & Pierre Michelot (1979)
- Masters (1987)
- Tentatives (2006)
- "Full cast and crew for Ascenseur pour l'échafaud". IMDB. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
- "René Urtreger". IMDB. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
- "Côte à Côte—Coast to Coast: Art and Jazz in France and California". The Getty. Retrieved 2008-07-27.
- O'Sullivan, Mike (12 December 2007). "French Pianist Says Jazz Builds Cultural Bridges". VOA News (Voice of America). Retrieved 2 January 2009.[dead link]