French Jazz Violinist Stephane Grappelli Dead At 89
By Lee Yanowitch
PARIS (Reuters) - French jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, whose lively,
elegant style captivated audiences for more than a half a century, died in
Paris Monday after undergoing a hernia operation. He was 89.
A self-taught violinist, Grappelli came into his own with a style mixing
tender lyricism and vivacious swing that made him one of the living legends
of jazz in France as well as in the United States.
Regarded as the grandfather of jazz violinists, he continued staging
concerts around the world well into his 80s, cutting a striking figure on
stage with his thinning white hair, gaudy print shirts and violin tucked
under his chin producing haunting music.
When asked on his 85th birthday if he was considering retirement, Grappelli
replied: "Retirement! There isn't a word that is more painful to my ears.
Music keeps me going. It has given me everything. It's my fountain of
His agent, Jacques Chartier, told Reuters Grappelli died in a Paris clinic
where he had undergone a hernia operation last week.
"His family called me this afternoon to tell me he was dead," Chartier said.
The Paris-born son of a philosophy teacher of Italian origin, Grappelli
first worked as a pianist, accompanying silent films in a cinema to help
his father pay the bills.
Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a great admirer of Grappelli's
improvization skills, once commented: "Stephane is like one of those
jugglers who send 10 plates into the air and recovers them all."
The Hot Club of France quintet, a band he formed with gypsy guitarist Django
Rheinhart in the 1930s, will be remembered as his major musical contribution.
The two met at the Croix du Sud Montparnasse nightclub in early 1934. Then,
in Grappelli's own words: "One day he was strumming on his guitar, and I
started to improvise with him."
With Reinhardt's brother, Joseph, and Roger Chaput on guitars and Louis Vola
on double bass, the idea of the quintet was born.
"There were no microphones then, so it was hard for a violin to be heard.
It was a revolution to play jazz only with string instruments," Grappelli
With their lively style and technical excellence, the group very quickly
seduced the world. But World War II found Grappelli in London and Reinhardt
in Paris, and though the quintet reformed in 1946, it never reached its
Grappelli took to performing separately and made hundreds of records. In
his later years, he was best-known for his recordings with Oscar Peterson,
Jean-Luc Ponty and Menuhin, with whom he produced six records and performed
his 70th and 80th birthday concerts.
Born Jan. 26, 1908, Stephane Grappelli grew up in Paris's lively 10th
arrondissement. His mother died when he was 4, and he was sent to an
orphanage when his father was mobilized during World War I.
When the war was over, he was reunited with his father, but the two were
It was during this period that Grappelli developed a passion for Claude
Debussy and Maurice Ravel, two composers who had an enormous influence on
the personal style he later forged.
When he was 13, Grappelli's father gave him a second-hand violin and taught
him the scales. Enchanted, the boy learned with fervor.
His first concerts were in the courtyards of buildings and in restaurants,
but by the time he was 15 he was working as a piano accompaniest for silent
"In the cinema, I had to play Mozart principally but was allowed some
Gershwin in funny films. Then I discovered jazz and my vocation and kissed
Amadeus goodbye," he said.
He later got a job as a pianist with Gregor's Gregorians, the most popular
French show band of the time. When Gregor heard him play the violin one
night, he persuaded Grappelli to devote himself fully to it.
Soon afterwards he met Reinhardt and they formed their famous quintet. But
when the war broke out, Grappelli was in a London hospital and unable to
return to France.
He established a band to play in hospitals and military bases. "But all the
Englishmen had been called up, and so I had to recruit the handicapped.
Blind George Shearing was on the piano and the bass player had one leg,"
He tried to re-form the Hot Club after the war, but a new style had come
in. "Later there were groups like the Beatles who completely changed the
direction of music," he said.
But Grappelli continued to attract audiences. When he played, it was as if
he was in a world of his own, eyes half-closed and a smile that gave him a
look of utter bliss.
"I play best when I am happy or sad, or when I was young and in love. If I
have ordinary troubles, I forget everything when I play. I split into two
people and the other plays," he said.
Even late in life, he improved his technique. "One hears something when
listening to recorded music that one doesn't hear while playing it. And you
find yourself saying, 'gee, one shouldn't do that, one should do it
Grappelli had one daughter, Evelyn, and a grandson.