"I am like a shark," Stephane Grappelli once said. "I won't stop. I will play
until the final curtain." Sadly, that curtain fell on Monday, when the
legendary French jazz violinist died in a Paris clinic from complications
following a hernia operation. Although 89 years old, Grappelli kept to his
word: He gave his last concert only a few months ago.
It may sound trite to refer to a popular artist as being "beloved" by his
fans. But if there were ever one genuinely deserving of such a description,
it was surely Grappelli, who was to the jazz violin what Vladimir Horowitz
was to the classical piano. With his lively, elegant swing style, his colorful
shirts and spirited smile and a youthful exuberance that lasted through
eight decades of live performance and an unparalleled 100-plus recordings,
Grappelli won the hearts of music lovers on both sides of the Atlantic.
Born in Paris on Jan. 25, 1908, Grappelli started teaching himself to
play the violin at the age of 13, when his father, a philosophy professor,
brought him a second-hand instrument. At 15, he was helping to pay the bills
by working as a piano accompanist for silent films. Grappelli later got a job
playing piano with a French show band, but when the band leader heard him playing the violin
one night, he encouraged Grappelli to devote himself fully to that instrument.
Initially, Grappelli struggled to get people to accept his attempts at playing jazz music on a traditionally classical instrument. After several years of performing to lukewarm reception in restaurants and cafes, he met up with gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt and began playing with him. Their late-night jam sessions, which included bassist Louis Vola and guitarists Roger Chaput and Reinhardt's brother Joseph, so impressed top French critics that they made the group the official combo of their jazz society, the Hot Club. The unconventional, all-string Quintet of the Hot Club of France became the most influential and popular European jazz band of the mid-to-late
'30s. Through his work with the Hot Club, Grappelli helped to put jazz violin on the map,
setting the stage for later talents such as John Blake and jazz fusion artist
Although World War II broke up the quintet, Grappelli, who was in England at
the time, continued to play with a series of small groups. In the decades that followed, he toured extensively with a quintet similar to the Hot Club, devoting himself mainly to the romantic melodies of the great American songwriters George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and
Cole Porter. Even in the age of bebop, this was the music that spoke to him;
he, in turn, made it speak to his audience, performing it with his smooth, lyrical, swing technique.
Some of Grappelli's best-known ventures were collaborations with other
artists. Through the years, he played and/or recorded with dozens of the
great legends of jazz, including Duke Ellington, Coleman Hawkins, Joe Venuti,
Oscar Peterson, George Shearing, Joe Pass, Earl Hines, Quincy Jones, McCoy
Tyner, Bill Coleman and Hank Jones. What many fans of Grappelli don't know,
however, is that the grandfather of jazz violin was trained as a classical
musician -- first at the Isadora Duncan school and later at the Paris
Conservatory. But when Grappelli heard his first Louis Armstrong recording at
the age of 19, everything changed. "I discovered jazz and my vocation," he
said, "and kissed Amadeus goodbye."
But that didn't keep Grappelli from having an influence on some of the late-20th century's most celebrated classical string players. In the 1970s,
Grappelli formed a popular partnership with violinist Yehudi Menuhin that
resulted in six albums. Menuhin, who was a great admirer of Grappelli's
improvisational skills, once remarked that "Stephane is like one of those
jugglers who send 10 plates into the air and recovers them all."
More recently, Grappelli performed and recorded with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, as well as
bad-boy British violinist Nigel Kennedy, whose new CD, "Kafka,"
features the octogenarian artist in what is presumably his final recording.
The gypsy-jazz quality of some of the tracks on "Kafka," all of
which were composed by Kennedy, are strikingly reminiscent of Grappelli's
early work with Reinhardt.
It seems that retirement was never an option for Grapelli. Even after a string
of illnesses in the mid-1990s, he continued to perform, and was even planning
a tour next year in honor of his 90th birthday. "Music keeps me going," he explained. "It has given me everything." Looking over his remarkably long and fruitful career, it's fair to say that Grappelli gave it all back.