John Etheridge is a wonderful guitarist who has made his name in rock, with Soft Machine, and folk and jazz (playing for years with Stephane Grappelli), and if you ever come across a duo record he not long ago made with violinist Chris Garrick, please buy a copy (At the Dimming of the Day, it's called). But when he left me open-mouthed the other day, it wasn't anything he played but something he had just said en passant.
He was on Radio 3 at the time, talking to Alyn Shipton about their favourite Django Reinhardt records, and Etheridge let drop that in many ways Stephane Grappelli's favourite instrument was the piano.
(If anyone should know about Grappelli, it must be John Etheridge. Playing with Grappelli for so many years meant living with Django Reinhardt at second hand, and listening to all Stephane Grappelli's stories about the great guitarist with whom Grappelli had had such a close yet uneasy relationship. But John lived with Grappelli at first hand.)
"Stephane never played the violin for fun," he said. "If he wanted to relax, he would sit down at the piano and play. If he wanted to listen to other musicians, he much preferred to listen to pianists." Violin was work. Piano was pleasure. That was the message.
And I think it's a bit of a bombshell, really. It's like Tiger Woods saying he'd prefer to be splashing up and down a swimming pool any day than playing golf, or Ted Hughes saying he'd rather be at the canvas and oils any day. (Though I am beginning to learn that you can never trust anyone talented in one field who says he much prefers his canvas and oils. Have you seen Miles Davis's rubbish paintings? They're nearly as bad as D H Lawrence's rubbish paintings ...)
Well, I have heard Grappelli playing the piano, on the occasional record, and he was all right. He could get by. Nothing special, though. You would never hire Grappelli as the pianist on a date and say to him, as an afterthought: "Don't bring the violin, Stephane piano will be enough".
No, I think the point behind what Etheridge said was not that Grappelli was some kind of undiscovered genius at the piano it was that what other people perceive as the centre of your being is often too close to you to be that important.
Take cartoonists, for example. You'd think that if you could draw and be funny, then being a cartoonist would be the big thing in your life. But I managed to eavesdrop on all the cartoonists at Punch for 15 years, from Bill Tidy to Trog, from Larry and ffolkes to Michael Heath, and I have to say that I rarely heard them talk about cartooning as such.
Money, yes, the stupidity of writers, yes, fame, nibs, inks, etc, but the art of cartooning? Hardly. I heard passionate debates about Renoir, Henry Moore, Magritte and Van Gogh, but the only concrete remark I can recall one cartoonist making about another was: "I wonder if David Langdon will ever get the hang of making a Ford car look like a Ford car ..."
Nor do humorous writers relax a lot reading humour. And I would guess crime writers don't snuggle up with a thriller. When oncologists get together, is cancer top of their agenda? I doubt it. The French painter Ingres was so keen on playing the violin, that to this very day "le violon d'Ingres" ("Ingres's violin") is the common French expression for the thing you really enjoy doing.
Or maybe we should now say "le piano de Grappelli".
Which reminds me, there was a young Scottish classical pianist called Stephen Osborne on Radio 3 the other day, talking about his favourite pianists, and when Petroc Trelawney asked him if he knew a specific piece and performance, Osborne said, "Well, I don't really listen to much classical music these days. It's far too much like work."
If you thought it was odd that Stephane Grappelli might prefer the piano to the violin, how odd is that?Reuse content