Obituary: Stephane Grappelli
Tuesday 02 December 1997
All his long career, Stephane Grappelli maintained an effortless balance between art and entertainment. He was one of the last of the classic musician- performers, for whom playing jazz was inseparable from playing for people.
Born in the Paris of the belle epoque, Grappelli lost his mother before he was five. He was raised by his loving but impecunious father, who placed him in the experimental school run by Isadora Duncan, where an orchestral performance of Debussy's Prelude a l'Apres-midi d'un Faune gave him his first deep musical impression. The coming of the First World War, however, shunted him into squalid orphanages and, sometimes, hand-to-mouth existence on the streets. Grappelli often described his childhood as "like a Dickens novel", and it made him a lifelong survivor. Ever after he would be, as he said, "a bit careful" with money - what others might call parsimonious - and he was always aware of the spectre of poverty. At the same time he never lost a grateful delight in the pleasures of life, an outlook reflected in his joyously spontaneous playing.
He began to play for his living after the war at the age of 12, busking in courtyards with a junior-size violin. He taught himself the fiddle, though, with characteristic diligence, he took a course in solfeggio and harmony at the Paris Conservatoire, and at 15 got a job in an orchestra accompanying silent films. Shortly afterwards came his overwhelming exposure to the new American music, on a primitive juke-box. He knew instantly this was what he wanted to play. "I felt I was born with jazz" - and he sought out fellow enthusiasts and records by his first heroes, Armstrong and Beiderbecke.
Finding work as a jazz violinist hard to come by, Grappelli made himself a second career as a pianist. He played both instruments with Gregor and his Gregorians in the late Twenties and Thirties, and even doubled for a while on alto saxophone. His first meeting with Django Reinhardt came in 1931, but it wasn't until 1934, during intervals at the Hotel Claridge's the dansant, that the legendary Quintet of the Hot Club of France was born.
Records like "My Sweet" and "Minor Swing" established them as the first European group worthy of comparison with the Americans. Grappelli's wiry lyricism perfectly complemented Reinhardt's dominant, angular attack, though, on a personal level, the guitarist's wilful gypsy ways often exasperated his scrupulous partner.
Grappelli's long, happy association with Britain (which he called his "second country") began inadvertently and inauspiciously when he was stranded in London at the beginning of the Second World War. Landing on his feet as usual, he built up a considerable public following through his work with Hatchett's Swingtette in the West End, broadcast and toured extensively with his own groups, and forged a stimulating musical partnership with the young George Shearing.
The success and security he had won in Britain made him reluctant to renew his chequered alliance with Reinhardt after the war's end. Apart from a few records and tours with the old line-up, they went their separate ways, Grappelli opting for a full if relatively uneventful life playing a variety of music for a variety of audiences. He carried on in the same fashion when he returned to France in 1954, respected by the younger generation of beboppers as a "monster musician" always interested in new developments, but taken for granted by the general public. In terms of recognition, his sturdy professionalism worked against him, denying the attention his ever-ripening jazz talent deserved.
This benign neglect persisted into the 1960s, increased by the onset of rock and free jazz, two developments alien to Grappelli's otherwise catholic taste. In 1967 he accepted a residence at the Paris Hilton and remained there until 1972, surrounded by diners and dancers, while concerts and recordings made it clear he was playing better than ever.
Part of his decision to leave the Hilton was due to his famous appearance on Michael Parkinson's television show with Yehudi Menuhin, in December 1971, which led to a sequence of celebrated duets. But part of it was simple boredom, his realisation that, as he said, "it is stupid to stay in one place for so long".
Going back on the road, he was soon active in many more places than he'd been before. In 1973 the guitarist Diz Disley reunited Grappelli with the guitar and bass accompaniment of the Hot Club days and introduced him to a vast and enthusiastic audience of young people, who were captivated by his natural, fatherly effervescence, after the psychodramatics of rock. Grappelli's huge success with the Disley trio at the 1973 Cambridge Folk Festival inaugurated his rise to international fame, which expanded throughout the Seventies, and continued until his death.
The Grappelli style was unmistakeable. His sometime protege Nigel Kennedy called it "the most like speech of almost any musician working today". On a ballad like "The Folks Who Live on the Hill", he was tenderly eloquent, on medium-tempos such as "Sweet Georgia Brown" unfailingly swinging, while up-tempos like "Them There Eyes" shone with agile and exhilarating energy.
On any tune he treated the melody with imagination and respect. Like many musicians of his generation he believed that a melody line had its own value, as much as an improvisation, and by colour and nuance he could turn a familiar theme into a personal statement. The purity of his music and sincerity of his manner gave Stephane Grappelli's concerts a classic quality. They were wholly free from hype and gimmicks - except perhaps for his flowered shirts. At one Grappelli concert I overheard a father- son exchange, the son observing that, though he liked the music, a rock show would use lights and such for extra stimulation. "Oh crazy, man," said his father sardonically, "you mean you have to listen." That seemed to sum up Grappelli's timeless appeal, which made simply listening a pleasure.
Happily that quality comes through on his many recordings, though it's fair to say he recorded too much and sometimes too casually, putting his formidable technique on automatic pilot. As a committed public performer, he felt deprived of audience contact in the studio. But there are plenty of sparkling moments in his scores of record with an astonishing array of partners, from Duke Ellington to Menuhin, Earl Hines to Gary Burton. And there are the great performances with Django Reinhardt. They were ideal foils for each other, and you can already hear in Grappelli's playing the gifts that became richer and more assured throughout his life - the fluency and invention, warmth and grace that made him one of the best- loved communicators in jazz.
- Geoffrey Smith
The partnership between Grappelli and Reinhardt was often precarious and yet it was both fundamental and important to the violinist's career, writes Steve Voce. He acknowledged this when, in the decades after the death of the guitarist, Grappelli would have an empty chair placed on stage "for Django".
The two were the first to prove that Europeans could match and often better the American musicians at playing jazz. But the pairing was grotesque. Grappelli was educated and played with a classically trained sophistication. Reinhardt lived in a caravan. "Django was a gypsy who had burnt his hand in a caravan fire and only had three fingers," the tenorist Flip Phillips recalled. "All he could steal was bowling balls." Because of his reformed hand Reinhardt had developed an unorthodox guitar technique which to some extent matched his character.
Grappelli was reliable and businesslike. Reinhardt had no care for time- keeping and was generally erratic in his behaviour. "Django was always late and often he forgot to appear at night because his only clock was the sun," said Grappelli. Reinhardt was also illiterate, though he taught himself to read later. The guitarist, who trusted his senior partner implicitly, was sensitive about his inability to read and would pretend to check contracts after Grappelli had approved them. On one occasion he pretended to read a contract the two were being offered by a promoter for a booking in London. To make his charade convincing he pointed to a line in the contract and said that it was unacceptable. Furious, Grappelli took the paper from him and read the line. It was to guarantee the two first-class return airfares to England.
The violinist disliked flying and because of this postponed his first visit to the United States until 1969 (Reinhardt's death in 1953 had forestalled a planned trip to New York by the duo). He first played at Carnegie Hall in 1974 and returned there to celebrate his 80th birthday in 1988 with a concert which teamed him with the cellist Yo Yo Ma, the Juilliard String Quartet and a distinguished assembly of American jazz musicians.
Grappelli's instrument is barely compatible with most jazz combinations, but this iconoclast of the violin played with and sometimes recorded with such diverse jazz characters as Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Gary Burton, Oscar Peterson, Earl Hines and Phil Woods, to say nothing of his albums with Yehudi Menuhin and Yo Yo Ma. His playing continued to improve as he gave concerts in the Nineties and his recording career, which stretched over seven decades, is probably the most formidable in the whole of jazz.
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