Stéphane Grappelli (26 January 1908 – 1 December 1997) was a French jazz violinist.
One of the all-time greats – often called ‘the grandfather of jazz violinists’ – his longevity and consistently enthusiastic playing did a great deal to establish the violin as a jazz instrument.
Grappelli began playing the violin at the age of 12 and was mainly self-taught, although he did study at the Paris Conservatoire for a few years when he was older.
He started busking at the age of 15, which soon led to playing in pit bands and theatre orchestras. While working at the Ambassador in 1928, he heard jazz violinist Joe Venuti and was inspired to develop his own jazz-influenced style.
Hoping to get better-paid gigs, Grappelli taught himself to play piano and joined a big band, but once the band leader heard how he could play jazz on the violin, he was soon persuaded to return to his first instrument.
In the early 1930s, Grappelli met gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. They got on together musically straightaway but their respective band commitments prevented them from working together until 1934 – when Pierre Nourry, secretary of the Hot Club de France, invited them to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Django’s brother Joseph and Roger Chaput on guitar, and Louis Vola on bass.
The Quintette was a great success, performing regularly at La Grosse Pomme nightclub and the R-26 artistic salon in Montmartre. Their recordings helped popularise gypsy jazz and many of their compositions have become jazz standards, including ‘Minor Swing’, ‘Daphne’, ‘Belleville’, ‘Djangology’, ‘Swing ’42’ and ‘Nuages’.
In 1939, though, the Second World War broke out. The Quintette were playing in London at the time and while the rest of the band stayed in England, Django decided to return to France, effectively ending the group. Grappelli soon teamed up with young pianist George Shearing in a new band that worked steadily throughout the war.
In 1949, Reinhardt and Grappelli reunited for a brief tour of Italy. During this time they recorded about 50 tracks with an Italian rhythm group, about half of which were later compiled for the album Djangology.
Grappelli appeared on hundreds of recordings, including sessions with Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani and Claude Bolling, jazz violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, vibraphonist Gary Burton, classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin and orchestral conductor André Previn, among many others. He also collaborated extensively with British guitarist and graphic designer Diz Disley and with now renowned British guitarist Martin Taylor.
During the 1950s and 1960s, Grappelli performed in clubs throughout Europe, and in the early 1970s began to tour the world. He continued to perform throughout the 1980s and remained at the top of his field even when he was 89.
In 1997, Grappelli received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He is also an inductee of the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
This early footage shows the Quintette du Hot Club de France playing ‘J’Attendrai’.