Stephane Grappelli

Grappelli, Stephane

Grappelli was born at Hôpital Lariboisière in Paris, France, and christened with the name Stefano. His father, Italian marchese Ernesto Grappelli, was born in Alatri, Lazio, while his French mother, Anna Emilie Hanoque, was from St-Omer. Ernesto was a scholar who taught Italian, sold translations, and wrote articles for local journals. Grappelli’s mother died when he was five, leaving his father to care for him. Although he was residing in France when World War I began, Ernesto was still an Italian citizen, and was consequently drafted into the Italian Army in 1914.

Having written about American dancer Isadora Duncan, who was living in Paris, Ernesto appealed to her to care for his son. Stéphane was enrolled in Duncan’s dance school at the age of six, and he learned to love French Impressionist music. With the war encroaching, Duncan as an American citizen fled the country; she turned over her château to be used as a military hospital. Ernesto subsequently entrusted his son to a Catholic orphanage. Grappelli said of this time:

I look back at it as an abominable memory … The Place was supposed to be under the eye of the government, but the government looked elsewhere. We slept on the floor, and often were without food. There were many times when I had to fight for a crust of bread

Grappelli compared his early life to a Dickens novel, and said that he once tried to eat flies to ease his hunger. He stayed at the orphanage until his father returned from the war in 1918, settling them in an apartment in Barbès. Having been sickened by his experiences with the Italian military, Ernesto took Stéphane to city hall, pulled two witnesses off the street, and had his son naturalized as a French citizen on 28 July 1919. His first name, “Stefano”, was Gallicized to “Stéphane”. Grappelli began playing the violin at the age of 12 on a three-quarter-sized violin, which his father purchased by pawning a suit. Although Stéphane received violin lessons, he preferred to learn the instrument on his own:

My first lessons were in the streets, watching how other violinists played …The first violinist that I saw play was at the Barbès métro station, sheltered under the overhead metro tracks. When I asked how one should play, he exploded in laughter. I left, completely humiliated with my violin under my arm.

After a brief period of independent learning, Grappelli was enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris on 31 December 1920, which his father hoped would give him a chance to learn music theory, ear-training, and solfeggio. In 1923, Grappelli graduated with a second-tier medal. Around this time, his father married a woman named Anna Fuchs and moved to Strasbourg. Grappelli remained in Paris because he disliked Fuchs.

At the age of 15, Grappelli began busking full-time to support himself. His playing caught the attention of an elderly violinist, who invited him to accompany silent films in the pit orchestra at the Théâtre Gaumont. He played there for six hours daily over a two-year period. During orchestra breaks, he visited Le Boudon, a brasserie, where he would listen to songs from an American proto-jukebox. Here he was introduced to jazz. In 1928, Grappelli was a member of the orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel while bandleader Paul Whiteman and jazz violinist Joe Venuti were performing there. Jazz violinists were rare, and though Venuti played mainly commercial jazz themes and seldom improvised, Grappelli was struck by his bowing when he played “Dinah”. As a result, Grappelli began developing a jazz-influenced style of violin music.

Grappelli lived with Michel Warlop, a classically trained violinist. Warlop admired Grappelli’s jazz-inspired playing, while Grappelli envied Warlop’s income. After experimenting with the piano, Grappelli stopped playing the violin, choosing simplicity, a new sound, and paid performances over familiarity. He began playing piano in a big band led by a musician called Grégor. In 1929, after a night of drinking, Grégor learned that Grappelli used to play the violin. Grégor borrowed a violin and asked Grappelli to improvise over “Dinah”. Delighted by what he heard, Grégor urged Grappelli to return to playing the violin.

In 1930, Grégor ran into financial trouble. He was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in several deaths, and fled to South America to avoid arrest. Grégor’s band reunited as a jazz ensemble under the leadership of pianist Alain Romans and saxophonist André Ekyan. While playing with this band, Grappelli met gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1931. Looking for a violinist interested in jazz, he invited Grappelli to play with him in his caravan. Although the two played for hours that afternoon, their commitments to their respective bands prevented them from pursuing a career together.

In 1934 they met again at Claridge’s in London, England, and began a musical partnership. Pierre Nourry, the secretary of the Hot Club de France, invited Reinhardt and Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Louis Vola on bass and Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitar.

Also located in the Montmartre district was the artistic salon of R-26, at which Grappelli and Reinhardt performed regularly.

The Quintette du Hot Club de France disbanded in 1939 upon the outbreak of World War II; Grappelli was in London at the time, and stayed there for the duration of the war. In 1940, jazz pianist George Shearing made his debut as a sideman in Grappelli’s band.

When the war was over, Reinhardt came to England for a reunion with Grappelli. They recorded some titles in London with the “English Quintette” during January and February 1946 for EMI and Decca, using a rhythm section consisting of English guitarists Jack Llewelyn and Alan Hodgkiss together with the Jamaican jazz bassist Coleridge Goode. Grappelli chose to remain in England, while Reinhardt returned to Paris before undertaking an only moderately successful visit to America, where he performed in a new style using an amplified archtop guitar with Duke Ellington’s orchestra. On Reinhardt’s return, he and Grappelli reunited periodically for concerts on occasions when the latter was visiting Paris; however, the pre-war Quintette was never re-formed. The pair also briefly toured Italy, where they were supported by an Italian rhythm section of piano, bass and drums; the tour was documented, with around 50 tracks recorded for an Italian radio station, about half of which can be heard on the album Djangology (released in 2005). This was to be the last set of recordings featuring the pair, with Reinhardt moving into a more bebop/modern jazz idiom and playing with younger French musicians prior to his early death in 1953, aged only 43.

Throughout the 1950s, Grappelli made occasional visits to the recording studio, but the opportunities for a swing violinist of his generation were becoming limited; despite attempts to modernise his style, Grappelli was never particularly interested in the bebop style which was then fashionable in the jazz world. He made a brief filmed appearance in Paul Paviot’s 1957 film Django Reinhardt, in which he plays “Minor Swing” alongside Joseph Reinhardt, Henri Crolla and others. In the 1960s, Grappelli made regular appearances on the BBC Light Programme, French Public Radio, and the pirate station Radio Luxembourg. In 1967, he returned to Paris to take up a regular engagement providing music for diners at the “Le Toit de Paris” restaurant in the Paris Hilton Hotel, a position he kept up until 1972, for it provided regular work plus accommodation at the hotel. He played in a standard “lounge jazz” format, accompanied by a pianist and drummer. Grappelli was making a living, but by now had very little impact on the jazz world.

In 1971, British chat-show host Michael Parkinson, a longtime jazz fan, came up with the idea of including Grappelli on his show, where he would be joined by the classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, with the two musicians performing a duet. Although Menuhin had no jazz training and a distinctly classical style of playing, the result went down very well with the British public. The pair went on to record three collaborative albums between 1972 and 1976, with Menuhin playing parts written out by Grappelli while the latter improvised in a classic jazz fashion. During their appearance on Parkinson’s show, Menuhin played his prized Stradivari dating from 1714, while Grappelli revealed his instrument was made by Goffredo Cappa in 1695.

In 1973, British guitarist Diz Disley had the idea of prising Grappelli away from his “lounge jazz” format with piano players to play once again with the backing of acoustic guitars and double bass, re-creating a version of the “Hot Club” sound, but now with Grappelli as sole leader. Grappelli’s reservations about returning to this format were dissipated following a rapturous reception for the “new” (old) format group at that year’s Cambridge Folk Festival, after which he favoured the guitar-based trio (with double bass) for a series of increasingly successful concert tours around the globe. These tours would virtually occupy the remainder of Grappelli’s life; away from the touring circuit, however, he also favoured numerous other instrumental combinations on record. Other guitarists in the British “Diz Disley Trio” providing his instrumental backing over the years included Denny Wright, Ike Isaacs, the Irish guitarist Louis Stewart, John Etheridge and Martin Taylor, while double bass was often provided by Dutchman Jack Sewing; in his later years, Grappelli also used a Parisian trio which included guitarist Marc Fosset and bassist Patrice Carratini.

In April 1973, Grappelli performed with great success during a week at “Jazz Power” in Milan, accompanied by such notable Italian jazz musicians as guitarist Franco Cerri, bassist/arranger Pino Presti and drummer Tullio De Piscopo.

Grappelli played on hundreds of recordings, including sessions with Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani and Claude Bolling, jazz violinists Svend Asmussen, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stuff Smith, Indian classical violinist L. Subramaniam, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pop singer Paul Simon, mandolin player David Grisman, classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, orchestral conductor André Previn, guitar player Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar player Joe Pass, cello player Yo Yo Ma, harmonica and jazz guitar player Toots Thielemans, jazz guitarist Henri Crolla, bassist Jon Burr and fiddler Mark O’Connor.

Grappelli recorded a solo for the title track of Pink Floyd’s 1975 album Wish You Were Here. This was made almost inaudible in the mix, and so the violinist was not credited, according to Roger Waters, as it would be “a bit of an insult”. A remastered version with Grappelli’s contribution fully audible can be found on the 2011 editions of Wish You Were Here.

Grappelli made a cameo appearance in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies with mandolinist David Grisman. Three years later they performed in concert. In the 1980s he gave several concerts with British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. In 1997, Grappelli received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He is an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.

Grappelli continued touring with great success up to the last year of his life; in 1997, although his health was by now poor, he toured the United Kingdom in March and then played concerts in Australia and New Zealand, giving his last public performance in Christchurch, New Zealand, before returning to Paris via Hong Kong. He made his final recording, four tracks with the classical violinist Iwao Furusawa, plus guitarist Marc Fosset and bassist Philippe Viret, in Paris in August 1996 (released as As Time Goes By: Stéphane Grappelli and Iwao Furusawa).

Grappelli died in Paris on 1 December 1997, suffering heart failure after a series of minor cerebral attacks. His funeral, on 5 December, took place at the Église Saint-Vincent-de-Paul, Paris, within sight of the entrance to the Lariboisière Hospital where he had been born 89 years earlier. His body was cremated and his ashes entombed in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.

Albums Featuring this Artist