Stéphane Grappelli

Stéphane Grappelli (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.

Grappelli was born in Paris, France, to Italian/French parents: his father, marquess Ernesto Grappelli, was born in Alatri, Lazio. His French mother died when he was four and his father left to fight in World War I. As a result, at six he was accepted into Isadora Duncan‘s dance school, where he learnt to love French Impressionist music. Grappelli started his musical career busking on the streets of Paris and Montmartre with a violin.[1] He began playing the violin at age 12, and attended the Conservatoire de Paris studying music theory, between 1924 and 1928. He made his living by busking on the side until he gained fame in Paris as a violin virtuoso. He also worked as a silent film pianist while at the conservatory[2] and played the saxophone and accordion. Grappelli called his piano “My Other Love” and (many years later) released an album of solo piano of the same name.

For the first three decades of his musical career, Grappelli was billed as Stéphane Grappelly. Grappelli’s own explanation for the changed spelling was that he was tired of people mispronouncing his last name as “Grappell-eye”. It has also been suggested that Grappelli changed his name in order to avoid military service in Italy, although this claim has been greeted with skepticism by Grappelli’s biographers.

His early fame came playing with the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Django Reinhardt, which disbanded in 1939 due to World War II. In 1940, a little known jazz pianist by the name of George Shearing made his debut as a sideman in Grappelli’s band.

After the war he appeared on hundreds of recordings including sessions with Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani and Claude Bolling, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, jazz violinist 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 and fiddler Mark O’Connor. He also collaborated extensively with the British guitarist and graphic designer Diz Disley, recording 13 record albums with him and his trio (which included Denny Wright in its early years), and with now renowned British guitarist Martin Taylor. During the 1960s he played for cocktail hour at the Paris Hilton.

Stephan Grappelli 1991 Live in Warsaw

Grappelli recorded a solo for the title track of Pink Floyd’s 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”.[3]

Grappelli made a cameo appearance in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies, along with noted mandolinist David Grisman. Three years later they performed together in concert, which was recorded live and released to critical acclaim. In the 1980s he gave several concerts with the young 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. He died in Paris after undergoing a hernia operation. Grappelli is interred in Paris’ famous Père Lachaise Cemetery.

In 1992 I had the opportunity to see Stephan Grappelli perform at Davies Symphony Hall, in San Francisco. I had been listening to Grappelli for years, but it was the first time I had ever seen him live. His performance was extraordinary. As the lights came up, he walked very slowly across the stage, picked up his violin and began to play. He was instantly transformed into a man half his age with boundless talent, energy and charisma. When the second part of the show began after a brief intermission, Grappelli said, (I’m paraphrasing) Most of you know me as a jazz violinist but on occasion I also like to take a stab at playing the piano. What I saw and heard next was unbelievable. Grappelli sat down and played jazz/stride piano the likes of which would have put a smile on Art Tatum’s face and had Oscar Peterson dancing in the aisles. He was that good.

Stephan Grappelli in 1963 Playing the George and Ira Gershwin Song, “Lady Be Good”

Sources: Wikipedia, YouTube, First Hand Account.


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