Violinist, pianist, composer
The only virtuoso violinist in jazz history to inspire four generations of musicians, Stephane Grappelli has achieved international renown as much for his longevity as a public performer as for his distinctive improvisatory style. His life as a jazz player compasses two world wars, a half dozen revolutions in jazz style, and several dramatic shifts in popular musical taste. Not only has Grappelli survived these developments, he has ably assimilated them to become the world’s most respected and best-known jazz violinist.
His early life did not promise such a future. Three years after Grappelli’s birth, in Paris, on September 26, 1908, his mother died, and he was thrown into the exclusive care of his Italian-born father, a political emigré to France who taught philosophy, translated the classics, and wrote occasional journalism. After first placing his son in one of Paris’s free Catholic orphanages, Ernest Grappelli enrolled the six-year-old Stephane in famed American dancer Isadora Duncan’s free-expression dance school, housed in the hotel Bellvue. The youngster did not take well to the nouveau artistic climate of the school, but it was there that he received his first telling musical influence—from a live orchestral performance of Debussy’s Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun (Prelude a I’Apres-midi d’un Faune).
The outbreak of World War I caused the closing of the school, and Grappelli’s father was called up for Italian military duty. These events consigned Grappelli to another Parisian orphanage where he lived in what he has described to interviewers as “Dickensian” conditions. In this way he spent his years from six to ten: deprived of adequate food and clothing, often sleeping on the floor, and constantly fighting with other boys.
Young Grappelli’s musical aptitude flowered into competence on the violin and piano in the period between 1918 and the end of the Roaring Twenties. His father rescued him from the orphanage and rented a room near Montmartre, took him to free concerts—where he heard more Debussy and also Ravel—and brought home music books from the library from which the boy was taught to read music by the solfeggio method. A harmonium in the room, together with a used violin bought from an Italian shoemaker in the neighborhood, gave Grappelli further impetus to learn to play well enough to perform publicly.
For the Record…
Born September 26, 1908, in Paris, France; son of Ernest (a teacher, translator, and journalist) and Anna Emilie Hanocque Grappelli; children: Eveline. Education: Attended Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, 1920-1923.
Played in Parisian courtyards and silent cinema houses; performed in clubs, hotels, and restaurants with various European combos, 1918-1933; co-leader (with Django Reinhardt) of the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, 1934-1939; recorded and performed with various ensembles and appeared on radio and television, 1969—. Composed score for film May Fools, Orion Classics, 1990.
Addresses: Booking agent —Abby Hoffer Enterprises, 223 East 48th St., New York, NY 10017-1538.
Seeing musicians playing the courtyards of Paris for sous thrown to them from apartment windows, he decided to try it too. Thus his first professional experience came from this public entertainment, which the English call “busking.” Late in 1920, he enrolled for a three-year course at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris. This would be his only formal musical training. When his father decided to move to Strasbourg with his new wife, in 1923, Grappelli chose to remain in Paris on his own, busking full-time. He was 15.
Playing in a courtyard, he was offered a job replacing a second fiddler for a night in a cinema orchestra. Grappelli did this for a year, during which he also discovered jazz through a primitive recording of “Stumbling,” by Mitchell’s Jazz Kings, an early New York jazz band. For the next few years Grappelli found various gigs, first at dancing schools, then at the posh resort hotels in Paris and the south of France where the rich and beautiful people of the “Jazz Age” were congregating.
During the late 1920s he played more piano than violin because it provided more work. He was introduced then to the jazz innovators of mid-1920s American recordings: Louis Armstrong, Bix Beiderbecke, Joe Venuti, and Eddie Lang. Armstrong’s singing and Beiderbecke’s piano composition “In a Mist” especially influenced him. When the Depression came, he was playing piano steadily with a showy jazz-like band, often compared to Paul Whiteman’s, called Gregor and his Gregorians. It was this ensemble’s flamboyant Turkish emigré leader who persuaded Grappelli to start playing violin again.
Accounts differ about the history-changing meeting of Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt, the great Belgian gypsy guitarist. Grappelli has told biographers that they saw each other as early as 1929 in Paris, either busking or playing neighboring hotel gigs. In 1931, Reinhardt approached Grappelli in the Montparnasse jazz-and-tango club Le Croix du Sud and told him he wanted a violinist “who plays hot” for a new band he was forming. Grappelli was chary of giving up his steady gig to join forces with this sinister-seeming young fellow, whom he described, according to biographer Geoffrey Smith, as looking like a “gangster straight out of an American film,” with “skin the colour of cafe au lait and greasy hair black as coal.” But they jammed together informally a few times during the next two years and discovered a great mutual affinity as jazz improvisors.
Grappelli and Reinhardt officially joined forces in 1934, with the help of several musical associates and the founders of the first French jazz association, the Hot Club of France. After a trial concert performance, they formed the uncommon jazz assemblage of three guitars, bass, and violin, henceforth known as the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. This French ensemble, inspired by early American jazz, proceeded to influence the development of hot jazz into swing, making the 1934-1939 recordings of American pop songs and original compositions that would constitute the Hot Club Quintet’s stylistic legacy. The group owes its worldwide success and importance to its unmatchably virtuosic, if unlikely, co-leaders: rumpled gypsy and natural genius Reinhardt, who created the most astonishing guitar solos yet heard from Europe (or anywhere), and fastidious, self-made professional musician Grappelli, who would define swing-style jazz violin for the rest of the century.
On tour in England at the outbreak of World War II, Grappelli decided to remain there, whereas Reinhardt returned to France. This was the end of the Hot Club Quintet. “The war years were unkind to Stephane,” author Raymond Horricks wrote. “Without Django he had nothing like the drawing power he does today.” Fighting low spirits and recurrent illness, he played restaurants, did radio broadcasts, and toured. He formed recording quartets and quintets throughout the early 1940s, with George Shearing on piano as his main accompaniment, played every kind of post-war radio and (early) TV variety show, and made valuable friends in England’s music business. After the war, Grappelli was again able to take up playing for dancing and in cabarets, which was slightly more lucrative.
The exacting performer succeeded in keeping busy and maintaining his technique, Horricks reported, “but through the 1950s and well into the ’60s he remained largely forgotten.” Returning to Paris at the end of the 1940s, he buried himself for five years at the Paris Hilton, where he earned a substantial salary but was “largely unappreciated by a clientele (rich American tourists, French parvenus) who knew little about jazz and cared considerably less.” Reinhardt died in 1953, which occasioned a new rush on the Hot Club Quintet’s recordings. Grappelli decided to renew his recording and concert touring.
Back in Paris in 1954, he found himself in a recording session with one of his idols, American jazz violinist Stuff Smith, in a group comprised of Oscar Peterson on piano, Herb Ellis on guitar, Ray Brown on bass, and Jo Jones on drums. Four years later, he took part in a recording experiment titled One World Jazz, which featured international musicians like Clark Tery, J. J. Johnson, Hank Jones, and Ben Webster. And in 1963 Grappelli recorded Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session, a Paris event that joined Grappelli, Danish jazz violinist Svend Asmussen, and Ray Nance with an Ellington-led trio functioning as a rhythm section. Another “violin summit” followed in 1966, with the young Jean-Luc Ponty as well as Asmussen and Smith on violins, and a rhythm section that included pianist Kenny Drew and bassist Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen.
In 1969 Grappelli began his ascent to the enormous respect that would characterize his later reputation. He made separate records with Joe Venuti, Barney Kessel, and Gary Burton; these sessions, along with earlier dates, were received favorably by the august jazz magazine Down Beat. Grappelli was invited to participate in the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, an experience soured for him—as for many other legitimate jazz players—by the inclusion of rock musicians in the festival for the first time and by the unhappy climate, which made the young crowd surly and inattentive. He later remarked of the outing, as quoted by biographer Smith, “It was not a concert, it was a revolution.”
1969 also saw Grappelli form the various groups that would tour widely throughout the 1970s and put the name Stephane Grappelli back near the top of the international jazz rolls. These consisted mostly of English musicians, including guitarists Diz Disley and Denny Wright, bassists Lennie Bush, Jack Sewing, and Len Skeat, and pianists Alan Clare and Marc Hemmeler. Grappelli also continued to record with the likes of Kenny Clarke, the Oscar Peterson Quintet, and Roland Hanna, as well as up-and-coming players like Ponty and Philippe Catherine, heir apparent to Reinhardt’s guitar throne.
The early 1970s marked the beginning of Grappelli’s collaboration with the redoubtable classical violin master Yehudi Menuhin on a multiple-year recording project of classical/jazz renditions of popular 1930s songs—the repertory for which Grappelli is in fact best known. A lasting mutual admiration grew out of these recordings. In his 1977 biography Unfinished Journey, Menuhin said of Grappelli: “He is a man I envy almost as much as I love him, who off the cuff can use any theme to express any nuance—wistfulness, brilliance, aggression, scorn—with a speed and accuracy that stretch credulity.” It was also through this gratifying professional relationship with the eminent concert violinist that Grappelli the jazz fiddler became the hero and promoter of English violin prodigy Nigel Kennedy.
The phenomenal success story of Stephane Grappelli continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s—the musician’s eighth decade—with a prodigious number of recordings, concert tours all over the world, and first places in international jazz polls. Through it all, the irrepressible energy and meticulousness of Grappelli’s personality have infused his playing, which critics unanimously cite as technically impressive, graceful, inventive, and, above all, sweetly melodic.
Later triumphs of Grappelli creativity and sound included his original soundtrack for Louis Malle’s film May Fools —the director once said, “I could hear Stephane Grappelli’s violin conversing with my characters”; a sold-out recorded concert at Paris’s Olympia theater in 1988, which Stereo Review contributor Chris Albertson called “a delightful hour-plus of the kind of music that has kept Stephane Grappelli’s career going full force for about sixty years”; an album of 15 “romantic keyboard solos” called My Other Love; and a Tokyo concert in 1990, which Down Beat reviewer Jon Andrews praised for its characteristic “sweetly singing, Gallic violin, the standards, the cadence and swing of his music.” Grappelli’s basic 1990s group contained two guitars and a bass, frequently featuring two young modernists on guitar named Martin Taylor and Marc Fosset, and sometimes augmented by a drummer. Longtime colleagues made regular guest appearances, as is the case on Olympia 1988, which boasts the contributions of pianist Martial Solal and violinist Svend Asmussen.
Throughout Geoffrey Smith’s 1987 biography of the violinist, tributes are paid by many of Grappelli’s peers to the purity and naturalness of his sound, his blending of diverse musical influences, adaptability to new jazz styles, commitment to the jazz life, strong communicative presence, and his modesty. Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, for example, explained, “The jazz form has allowed him to keep all these different influences without that being something that puts him in the category of not being serious.” French drummer Daniel Humair declared, “He doesn’t know how important he is.” And Charles Delaunay, the French critic and Reinhardt biographer, had long before called Grappelli’s talent “like clear water that came to him.” In a New Yorker profile reprinted in American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, Whitney Balliett regarded the violinist as a “superb melodist” and noted that the younger generation who began hearing Grappelli in the 1970s were “astonished by his joyousness and honesty and musical aplomb.” Finally, Down Beat’s Jon Andrews, listening to the 1969 album Stephane Grappelli Meets Barney Kessel, was reminded of classical piano colossus Vladimir Horowitz: “Like Horowitz, Grappelli is a visitor from another time and place, steeped in a European romantic tradition which is all but gone, still baffling musicians young enough to be his great-grandchildren.”
One World Jazz, Columbia, 1959.
Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Session, Atlantic, 1963.
Violin Summit, Prestige, 1966.
(With Gary Burton) Paris Encounter, Atlantic, 1969.
Stephane Grappelli Meets Barney Kessel, Black Lion, 1969.
(With Joe Venuti) Venupelli Blues, Affinity, 1969.
(With Yehudi Menuhin) Jealousy—Hits of the Thirties, EMI, 1972.
Stephane Grappelli and the Oscar Peterson Quartet, Prestige, 1973.
(With Menuhin) Fascinatin’Rhythm, EMI, 1975.
(With Diz Disley Trio) Violinspiration, Pausa, 1975.
(With George Shearing) The Reunion, Verve, 1976.
Stephane Grappelli and His American Friends, Black & Blue, 1978.
Stephane Grappelli/Joe Pass/Niels-Henning Orsted Pedersen, Pablo-Live, 1979.
Skol, Pablo-Live, 1979.
Young Django, Pausa, 1979.
Stephane Grappelli at the Winery, Concord, 1980.
Stephane Grappelli/Yehudi Menuhin With Nelson Riddle, EMI, 1981.
Stephane Grappelli: Vintage 1981, Concord, 1981.
Stephane Grappelli Plays Jerome Kern, GRP, 1987.
Stephane Grappelli: Olympia 1988, Atlantic, 1988.
Stephane Grappelli in Tokyo, Denon, 1990.
My Other Love, CBS, 1990.
(With Michel Legrand) Legrand/Grappelli, Verve, 1993.
(With Hank Jones) London Meeting, Black & Blue/Koch, 1993.
With Django Reinhardt; on GNP/Crescendo
’35-’39 Django Reinhardt.
Quintet of the Hot Club of France.
Balliett, Whitney, “You Must Start Well and You Must End Well (Stephane Grappelli and Django Reinhardt),” American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz, Oxford University Press, 1986.
Horricks, Raymond, Stephane Grappelli, or the Violin With Wings: A Profile, Hippocrene Books, 1983.
Menuhin, Yehudi, Unfinished Journey, Knopf, 1977.
Smith, Geoffrey, Stephane Grappelli: A Biography, Pavilion, 1987.
Down Beat, November 1991; September 1992.
National Review, February 11, 1991.
New Yorker, July 18, 1988.
Stereo Review, December 1990.
—Peter W. Ferran