Stéphane Grappelli

Stéphane Grappelli
Stephane Grappelli Allan Warren.jpg
Grappelli in 1976, by Allan Warren
Background information
Birth nameStéfano Grappelli
Born(1908-01-26)26 January 1908
Paris, France
Died1 December 1997(1997-12-01) (aged 89)
Paris, France
GenresSwing, continental jazz, Gypsy jazz
InstrumentsViolin, piano, saxophone, accordion
Associated actsDjango Reinhardt, Quintette du Hot Club de France, Yehudi Menuhin, Oscar Peterson, David Grisman

Stéphane Grappelli (French pronunciation: ​[stefan ɡʁapɛli]; 26 January 1908 – 1 December 1997) was a French jazz violinist who founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1934. It was one of the first all-string jazz bands. He has been called "the grandfather of jazz violinists" and continued playing concerts around the world well into his 80s.[1]

For the first three decades of his career, he was billed using a gallicised spelling of his last name, Grappelly, reverting to Grappelli in 1969. The latter, Italian spelling, is now used almost universally when referring to the violinist, including reissues of his early work.


Early years

Grappelli was born at Hôpital Lariboisière in Paris, France, and christened with the name Stéfano. His father, an Italian Marchese,[citation needed] Ernesto Grappelli, was born in Alatri, Lazio, and his French mother, Anna Emilie Hanoque, was from St-Omer. His father was a scholar who taught Italian, sold translations, and wrote articles for local journals.[2] His mother died when he was five, leaving his father to care for him.[3] Though living in France when World War I began, his father was still an Italian citizen and was drafted to fight for Italy in 1914.

Having written about American dancer Isadora Duncan, who was living in Paris, Ernesto Grappelli appealed to her to care for his son. He was enrolled in Duncan's dance school at age 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.[4] Ernesto Grappelli 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[4]

Grappelli compared his early life to a Dickens novel[3] and said that he once tried to eat flies to ease his hunger.[4] 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, his father took him to city hall, pulled two witnesses off the street, and had his son nationalized as a Frenchman on July 28, 1919.[4] His first name "Stéfano" was Gallicized to "Stéphane". He began playing the violin at age 12 on a three-quarter sized violin that his father bought after pawning a suit. Although he was sent to violin lessons, he preferred learning 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.[4]

After a brief period of independent learning, he was enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris on December 31, 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.[4] His father married Anna Fuchs and moved to Strasbourg. Grappelli remained in Paris because he disliked Fuchs.[4]

At age 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.[5] 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. He was playing in the orchestra at the Ambassador in 1928 when Paul Whiteman was performing with Joe Venuti. 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".[5] He began developing a jazz-influenced style.

Grappelli lived with Michel Warlop, a classically trained violinist. Warlop admired Grappelli's jazzy playing, and Grappelli envied Warlop's income.[5] After experimenting with piano, Grappelli stopped playing violin, choosing simplicity, new sound, and paid performances over familiarity.[5] He began playing piano in a big band led by a musician called Grégor. After a night of drinking in 1929, Grégor learned that Grappelli played violin. Grégor borrowed a violin and asked Grappelli to improvise over "Dinah".[6] Delighted, Grégor urged Grappelli to return to violin.

In 1930, Grégor ran into financial trouble. He was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in deaths, fleeing to South America to avoid arrest.[6] Grégor's band reunited as 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 at his caravan. Although the two played for hours that afternoon,[7] 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 they 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.[8]

In 1937, American jazz singer Adelaide Hall and her husband Bert Hicks opened the nightclub La Grosse Pomme in Montmartre. She entertained nightly and hired the Quintette as one of the house bands.[9] Also in the neighborhood was the artistic salon of R-26, at which Grappelli and Reinhardt performed regularly.[10]

For the first three decades of his musical career, Grappelli was billed "Stéphane Grappelly", a Gallicized form of his name. He took back the Italian spelling of his last name, he said, to keep people from pronouncing his surname "Grappell-eye".

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


Stephane Grappelli in London

In 1949, Reinhardt and Grappelli reunited for a brief tour of Italy,and made a series of recordings with an Italian group. The two recorded roughly 50 tracks during this time. About half were compiled for the album Djangology (released in 2005).

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 first collaborated with the classical musician Yehudi Menuhin when British chat-show host Michael Parkinson introduced them on TV in December 1971 to duet playing Jalousie. Another Parkinson TV performance followed in 1976, by which time the pair had put out three albums together on EMI. In the TV show[11] Menuhin played his prized Stradivari dating from 1714, while Grappelli revealed his instrument was made by Goffredo Cappa in 1695.

Grappelli collaborated extensively with British guitarist Diz Disley, recording thirteen albums with him and his trio (which included Denny Wright in its early years), and with British guitarist Martin Taylor. His Parisian trio of many years included guitarist Marc Fosset and bassist Patrice Carratini.

In April 1973 he was invited as guest for concerts at the Jazz Club "Jazz Power" in Milan, where he performed with an Italian jazz combo, including guitarist Franco Cerri, pianist Nando De Luca, bassist Pino Presti, and drummer Tullio De Piscopo.

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".[citation needed] 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.

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