Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Grappelli, Stéphane

Stéphane Grappelli modernized the sound of the violin with his balance between gentle lyricism and active swing. Considered one of the pioneers of jazz on his instrument, his work with guitarist Django Reinhardt helped bring the musical traditions of his native France into the broader conversation of jazz.

  Stéphane Grappelli, by Jos L. Knaepen

Stéphane Grappelli was born on September 26, 1908 in Paris, France. When he was three years old his mother, Anna Emilie Hanocque Grappelli, passed away, and he had no choice but to stay in a Catholic orphanage while his father Ernesto was serving in the military. Upon his discharge, Ernesto began to take care of the boy. Ernesto was an Italian-born expatriate nobleman from the town of Lazio (Alatri), who worked as a philosophy teacher, translator and sometime journalist and shared his love for the arts with his son.

When Stéphane was six years old, his father enrolled him in a dance school run by noted American dancer Isadora Duncan, at the Hotel Bellvue in Paris. Stephane had little interest in his lessons, but on one of these excursions he heard a live performance of composer Claude Debussy’s “Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun,” which became one of his first musical inspirations. It was also during this time that he discovered the music of composer Maurice Ravel. The two composers made quite an impression on the young boy, and began to draw his interests towards music.

When World War I broke out, Duncan closed her school, and Ernesto was called to serve in the Italian military. With nowhere to go, the boy was sent to yet another orphanage in Paris, where he stayed until age ten. The conditions of the orphanage were deplorable, and Stéphane was often left without food, constantly fighting with other children and frequently sleeping on the floor.

Ernesto was eventually reunited with his son, and the two lived together in a room near the Montmartre district of Paris. He took Stéphane to free concerts which featured works by Debussy and Ravel, and helped the boy cultivate his musical interests by bringing home music books from the library, from which he learned to read music with the solfeggio method. He purchased a used violin for his son from an Italian shoemaker in the neighborhood, and the boy quickly became confident in his abiliites.

Stéphane's first experiences in performing were as a busker on the streets of Paris. In late 1920, he became a student at the Conservatoire National Superieur de Musique de Paris, where he received three years of formal musical education. In 1923, Ernesto moved with his new wife to Strasbourg, France, but the budding violinist decided to remain in Paris. At the age of fifteen, Stephane was living on his own in Paris and busking around the clock in order to survive.

Like other Paris street musicians, Grappelli would troll through the city's courtyards, in the hopes of coaxing coins out of the apartments above. On one evening, he was offered a job to replace a second violinist in a movie-house orchestra. Stéphane was soon performing with the orchestra full-time accompanying silent movies. It was during this time that he discovered jazz. He heard a recording of “Stumbling” by Mitchell’s Jazz Kings and was intrigued with what he heard. He spent the next few years performing a variety of gigs at dancing schools, hotels and resorts in the south of France.

Throughout the late 1920s, Grappelli found more work performing on the piano than on the violin. He began to listen to the early trendsetters of jazz, including trumpeter Louis Armstrong, cornetist Bix Beiderbecke,guitarist Eddie Lang and violinist Joe Venuti.

Armstrong's vocals and Beiderbecke's composition “In A Mist,” in particular, had a profound influence on him in his early development of the jazz language.

During the Great Depression, Grappelli was performing on the piano on a regular basis with a band called “Gregor and his Gregorians,” whose style was often compared to that of bandleader Paul Whiteman’s. The leader of the band convinced him to start performing on the violin again and he soon focused his attention on the violin.

Grappelli first met guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1931, however he said that he saw him perform as early as 1929. When Grappelli was performing at the “Le Croix du Sud” club in Montparnasse, Django was in the audience and asked Stephane to join his group. Stéphane was apprehensive, due to Django’s menacing appearance, and his reluctance to give up his steady gig. But the two began to perform together casually over the next few years, where they discovered how much they shared, especially in their love for the early jazz innovators.

Grappelli and Reinhardt formally began to perform together in 1934, with the assistance of Hugues Panassié and the other founders of the Hot Club of France. After several performances where they experimented with instrumentation, the two men constructed an unprecedented jazz lineup of three guitars, bass and violin, which they dubbed the “Quintet of the Hot Club of France.” Grappelli, Reinhardt along with guitarists Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput, and bassist Louis Vola helped France develop its own sound as a jazz nation.

The quintet drew their inspiration from American jazz and Gypsy tradition. The quintet continued to influence the growth of jazz into swing, recording American pop songs throughout 1934-1939. These compositions would ultimately comprise the quintet’s stylistic heritage. The success of the quintet was largely due to Stephane and Django’s astonishing technique and expanding the harmonic boundaries of a string band.

One of the quintet’s most famous songs was “Ultrafox.” On this track, Grappelli effortlessly plays the introduction melody, perfectly executing the medium tempo of the song. Stephane proves to be a powerful counterpoint to Django by taking the rapid language of Reinhardt and combining it with his more subtle technique.

While on tour in The United Kingdom at the start of World War II, Grappelli decided to remain in U.K. while Reinhardt returned to France, which led to the breakup the quintet. Without Django, Stephane became depressed and performed small solo gigs and on the radio.

During the early 1940s, Grappelli founded several ensembles with pianist George Shearing as his chief accompaniment. With Shearing, he performed on several radio shows, early TV variety shows and made acquaintances in England’s music industry. With the end of World War II he was able to perform on a more frequent, and more financially secure, basis. In 1946, Stéphane and Django began the first of numerous reunions, but they would never regularly work together again.

At the end of the 1940s, Grappelli returned to Paris and took residence at the Hilton Hotel. He felt that he was largely taken for granted by the people he performed for though he was making a considerable income. During these years, Stéphane performed at the Club Saint Germain and several other Parisian clubs. Ironically, Reinhardt's death in 1953 led to a new interest in the Quintet’s work. With this, Grappelli began record and tour again.

In 1954, Grappelli was recording a session with one of his heroes, American jazz violinist Stuff Smith, in an ensemble that featured pianist /encyclopedia/peterson-oscar-emmanuel"> Oscar Peterson, guitarist Herb Ellis bassist Ray Brown and drummer Jo Jones.

In 1958, he was featured on the album One World Jazz, which included trumpeter Clark Terry, trombonist J.J. Johnson, pianist Hank Jones and tenor saxophonist Ben Webster. The idea of the album came from jazz critic Leonard Feather, who had an idea to record an album that featured international musicians on one exclusive recording.

In 1962, Grappelli released the album Feeling + Finesse = Jazz. Recorded for Atlantic Records, the album features a quintet that included guitarist Pierre Cavalli. In 1965, Stéphane and Smith recorded the song “How High The Moon.” On this track, the two pioneers of jazz violin exchange beautiful solos in a conversation which clearly indicates their personalities. Stéphane’s intricate lines show the influence of Django while retaining a fresh sound.

In 1963, he recorded the album Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Summit, which featured himself with violinists Svend Asmussen and Ray Nance with an Ellington-led trio as the rhythm section. In 1965, Grapelli and Asmussen recorded the album Two Of A Kind, which featured bassist Niels Henning Orsted Pedersen.

In 1969, Grappelli recorded separate albums with Joe Venuti, Barney Kessel and Gary Burton, which were given substantial reviews by the press. Stephane was invited to perform at the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival, an experience he didn’t enjoy due to the audience wishing to hear more of the rock-oriented acts on the festival’s bill.

The same year, Grappelli founded an ensemble that he would tour with during the 1970s. Over time, the group included guitarists Diz Disley and Denny Wright, bassists Lennie Bush, Jack Sewing and Len Skeat and pianist Alan Clare and Marc Hemmeler. He also continued his associations with Kenny Clarke, Oscar Peterson and Roland Hanna. He also served as a mentor for on the rise musicians like violinist Jean-Luc Ponty and guitarist Philippe Catherine.

In the early 1970s, Grappelli began a collaboration with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin. The two masters began to record classical and jazz renditions of popular songs from the 1930s. Their collaboration yielded a rewarding professional relationship, which was captured on several recordings. In 1974, Grappelli wrote original music for director Bertrand Blier’s film Les Valseuses.

Grappelli continued to be active throughout the 1980s and 1990s with tours, recordings and appearances. In 1980, he recorded the album Happy Reunion with pianist Martial Solal which featured the Bud Powell composition “Parisian Thoroughfare.” On this track, Grappelli's lightning-fast lines showcase his intelligent flair. The control that he has when performing such lines are astounding, only slurring occasional notes for dramatic effect.

In 1983, Grappelli was inducted into Down Beat’s “Jazz Hall of Fame.” In 1988 he recorded a sold-out concert at the Olympia Theater in Paris, which featured Asmussen and Solal. In 1990 he recorded original music for director Louis Malle’s movie May Fools.

In 1991, he recorded the album First Class with noted French pianist Claude Bolling. In 1992, Stéphane and cellist Yo Yo Ma recorded Anything Goes, an entire album dedicated to the music of Cole Porter. In 1995, he was inducted into the “Big Band and Jazz Hall of Fame.” In 1997, Stéphane was given a Grammy Award for “Lifetime Achievement.”

Grappelli passed away on December 1, 1997 at the age of eighty-nine due to complications from hernia surgery. He was still performing and improving his technique until his death. On his 85th birthday, when asked whether he would retire he said, “Retirement! There isn’t a word that is more painful to my ears. Music keeps me going. It has given me everything. It’s my fountain of youth.” Stephane was laid to rest at the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris. He is survived by his daughter Evelyn and a grandson.


As Stéphane Grappelli

Improvisations (1956)

Feeling + Finesse = Jazz (1962)

I Remember Django (1969)

I Hear Music (1970)

Afternoon In Paris (1971)

Young Django (1979)

Vintage 1981 (1981)

Olympia ’88 (1988)

Stephane Grappelli In Tokyo (1993)

Live At The Blue Note (1995)

It Might As Well Be Swing (1996)

With Svend Asmussen

Two Of A Kind (1965)

With Claude Bolling

First Class (1991)

With Duke Ellington

Duke Ellington’s Jazz Violin Summit (1963)

With Barney Kessel

Limehouse Blues (1969)

With Django Reinhardt

Django Reinhardt/Quintet of the Hot Club of France – First Recordings! (1997)

With Stuff Smith

Violins No End (1957)

With Martial Solal

Happy Reunions (1980)

With McCoy Tyner

One On One (1990)

With Joe Venuti

Venupelli Blues (1969)


The Dozens: Essential Stephane Grappelli by Scott Albin

Contributor: Eric Wendell