Today we’re shining a light on the influential ‘grandfather of the jazz violin,’ who was born on 26 January 1908


Photo: Allan Warren | Wikimedia Commons

Stéphane Grappelli (right) with Yehudi Menuhin 

Who was Stéphane Grappelli?

Born on 26 January 1908 in Paris, Stéphane Grappelli was a French violinist whose flowing, relaxed playing style and improvisation helped elevate the genre of jazz violin in the 20th century, garnering him the nickname ‘grandfather of the jazz violin.’ He is well known for his collaborations with pioneering guitarist Django Reinhardt and performances with the Quintette du Hot Club de France, as well as numerous others immortalised through television and recorded footage.

Grappelli’s mother died when he was only five years old, leaving his father, Ernesto, as the sole parent. As Ernesto was an Italian citizen, he was drafted into the Italian army at the outbreak of the First World War, leaving Stéphane in the care of US dancer Isadore Duncan. He enrolled in Duncan’s dance school at the age of six, but with the threat of war, Duncan fled the country, leaving Stéphane in a Catholic orphanage.

Following his time in the orphanage, which he later described as ’Dickensian’, Stéphane was reunited with his father after the war in 1918, where they settled in Barbès, Paris. Grappelli began playing the violin at the age of 12, on a three-quarter sized instrument, taking lessons but preferring to learn by observing street musicians. Eventually, he attended the Paris Conservatoire from 1920 to 1923, graduating with a second-tier medal.

Grappelli supported himself from the age of 15 by busking, accompanying silent films in a pit orchestra at the Théâtre Gaumont and playing in hotel orchestras. He was introduced to jazz after encountering jazz violinist Joe Venuti at the Hotel Ambassador, and is said to have been struck by his bowing style.

Grappelli met guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1931, and the two formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934 with Louis Vola on bass and Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitars. The quintet disbanded in 1939 due to the outbreak of the Second World War, but Grappelli and Reinhardt continued to play together when the war ended.

Stéphane Grappelli’s career and collaborations

Grappelli continued to play and record with Reinhardt until Reinhardt’s death in 1953, aged 43. While he struggled to find opportunities as a jazz violinist during the 1950s, he made regular studio appearances on the BBC Light Programme, French Public Radio, and Radio Luxembourg in the 1960s. In 1967, he took up a residency at Le Toit de Paris restaurant in the Paris Hilton Hotel, which he kept until 1972.

Grappelli famously appeared with violinist Yehudi Menuhin on Michael Parkinson’s chat show in 1971, where the two musicians performed a duet. Despite their differing musical origins, with Menuhin distinctly classically trained as opposed to Grappelli’s less formal training, the duo’s performance was considered a success with the British public. The pair went on to record three albums together between 1972 and 1976.

Throughout his career, Grappelli collaborated with numerous musicians, appearing in sessions with Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and Claude Bolling, jazz violinists Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stuff Smith, pop singer Paul Simon, orchestral conductor André Previn, guitarist Joe Pass, cellist Yo Yo Ma, and fiddler Mark O’Connor.

Grappelli recorded a solo for Pink Floyd’s track Wish You Were Here, however, the original recording was barely audible in the final mix and Grappelli was not credited. The track was remastered in 2011 with Grappelli’s contribution now audible.

He appeared in the film 1978 King of the Gypsies with mandolinist David Grisman, as well as a 1975 cameo in the television series Little House on the Prairie. During the 1980s, he appeared in concert numerous times with British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. He received a Lifetime Achievement Grammy Award in 1997 and was inducted in to the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.

Grappelli continued performing and touring up to the last year of his life in 1997, including a UK tour and performances in Australia and New Zealand. He died in Paris on 1 December 1997, aged 89.

What violins did Grappelli play?

His first, three-quarter sized violin that he received when he was 12 years old was obtained by his father, who pawned a suit for it. During his 1971 television appearance on Parkinson with Menuhin, Grappelli revealed that he played a violin by Goffredo Cappa (1644–1717) made in 1695, alongside Menuhin’s 1714 ‘Soil’ Stradivari violin. He also played a Nicolò Gagliano violin from 1742, a Montagnana and a violin made by arch-top guitar maker Robert Benedetto in 1987.

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