Stéphane Grappelli remains, more than twenty years after his death, a quintessential jazz figure. His title as “grandfather of the jazz violin” shows the indelible mark he left on the art form, and his collaborations with the likes of the Django Reinhardt helped form our understanding of jazz to this very day.
Young Grappelli suffered a tumultuous childhood. He would later describe these years as an “abominable memory.” But for all of their hardships, they could not deter his budding musical genius.
He was born in Paris, France in 1908 to a French mother and Italian father. When he was only five, his mother died. World War I broke out a year later, and Grappelli’s father — still an Italian citizen — was drafted to fight for Italy. Grappelli’s father sent him under the care of Isadora Duncan and her dance school. It was there that Grappelli learned about music, particularly of the French Impressionist kind. When Duncan fled France when the lines of war drew nearer, Grappelli was sent to a Catholic orphanage.
His father returned from the war, and Grappelli began violin lessons. The youngster preferred to play with street musicians, learning more from their stylings than from formal lessons. Nevertheless, he received training at a conservatory.
The Leap to Jazz
Grappelli busked for a living by the age of 15, playing in the streets all day for tips. Soon, he was tapped for a silent film orchestra where he racked up six hours of playing time a day, going to brasseries on his breaks where he was introduced to American jazz.
He switched to piano for a while, playing in a big band led by the controversial character Grégor, but when Grégor heard Grappelli’s improvised violin stylings, the band leader convinced Grappelli to commit to the violin. In 1930, Grégor fled the country for South America after a multiple-fatality car accident. A change in band leadership soon followed.
A year later came the arrival of a gypsy jazz artist by the name of Django Reinhardt. Grappelli and Reinhardt fell head over heels for each other’s playing, but they wouldn’t see each other again until 1934 in London, England.
Upon reuniting, the two began the Quintette du Hot Club de France, accompanied by bassist Louis Vola and guitarists Roger Chaput and Joseph Reinhardt. This legendary quintet played as the house band for Hot Club de Paris and La Grosse Pomme, taking many other gigs as well. They made several European tours and became one of the most interesting, lively jazz groups to ever play.
The magical collaboration continued until 1939, with the breakout of World War II. Grappelli stayed in England through the war, now without Django at his side.
Maturity and the Rise of Bop
Grappelli played jazz through the war and reunited with Reinhardt once the fighting was over. They formed the English Quintet and had further success playing live shows and making recordings for both EMI and Decca. But Reinhardt gravitated to the new bop style in jazz, while Grappelli remained playing swing.
With the long lasting acclaim of his playing, Grappelli did not hurt for work, but the dominance of bop after World War II limited his opportunities for some time.
He played with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin on Michael Parkinson’s British chat-show, made regular appearances on BBC Light Programme, Radio Luxembourg, and French Public Radio. He contributed to recordings of so many important acts of the 20th century, including: Duke Ellington, Svend Asmussen, David Grisman, Jean-Luc Ponty, André Previn, Toots Thielemans and countless more. He even recorded on Pink Floyd’s 1975 classic Wish You Were Here, although the mix made his playing almost inaudible until a 2011 remastering.
Grappelli played well into his eighties, never losing his love for music or live performance. He died in 1997 in Paris, shortly after a hernia operation.
Stéphane Grappelli’s name resides on some of the most important, seminal work in jazz, and his long list of session work keeps him popping up through any retrospective. Despite the tempestuous state of Europe in the 20th century and the chaos it wreaked in his life, Grappelli played on. We are lucky that he did.