The Life and Career of Jazz Violin Great Stéphane Grappelli
Considered the grandfather of jazz violinists, Stéphane Grappelli 1908 – 1997 was a French violinist who had a long, prolific career spanning into his late 80’s, and founded one of the first all-string jazz groups, the Quintette du Hot Club de France.
Early jazz violin
Jazz violin and jazz violinists began to appear in groups in New Orleans in the early 1900s.
Early ragtime orchestras often included violin and the big bands of Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Earl Hines, and others had violin sections – though the violin was not usually utilized as an
It was in the late1920’s and ’30s, that individual artists such as violinists Stéphane Grappelli
and Joe Venuti, brought the violin to the forefront as a solo jazz instrument.
Stéphane Grappelli was the son of an Italian nobleman (a scholar and philosopher), and his
French wife, who died when Stéphane was 5 years old. At the death of his wife, Grappelli’s
father left him with acclaimed dancer, Isadora Duncan, who enrolled young Stéphane in her
dancing school. When Duncan left France for America shortly after, Grappelli was then taken by
his father to an orphanage. He regarded this time as out of a Dickens novel: a life of hard work
and hunger. In 1918 his father moved with him to Barbès.
Grappelli began lessons on the violin at age 12. He was also was very interested in the
street violinists and started modeling his playing after them. He was trained at the Paris
Conservatory and graduated with a medal in 1920.
Grappelli began busking at the age of 15, and played in pit orchestras and hotel orchestras.
Interested in all kinds of music, in 1928 he heard jazz violinist, Joe Venuti, when solo jazz
violinists were rare. In 1931 he met gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Reinhardt and Grappelli formed one of the first all-string jazz bands, Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934. The band broke up in 1939 but Reinhardt and Grappelli continued to play and tour together.
Check out an album of Reinhardt and Grappelli’s music “I Got Rhythm” below.
Classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, a great admirer of Grappelli’s improvisation skills, once
commented, "Stéphane is like one of those jugglers who send 10 plates into the air and
recovers them all.”
His jazz style largely self-taught, Grappelli’s playing mixed a lyricism and fast (hot) swing that
made him a living legend of jazz in France as well as in the United States.
Throughout his career, Grappelli played on hundreds of recordings, including 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, guitar player Joe Pass, cello
player Yo Yo Ma, and fiddler Mark O’Connor, to name just a few.
Grappelli also collaborated with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin. During their sessions,
Menuhin played his Stradivarius violin, and Grappelli revealed that his instrument was made by
Goffredo Cappa in 1695.
Grappelli recorded a solo for the title track of Pink Floyd's 1975 album Wish You Were Here.
Unfortunately, the violin was almost inaudible in the mix but a remastered version with
Grappelli's solo (with good sound) was released on the 2011 edition of Wish You Were Here.
In 1997, Grappelli received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and was also an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Below is a link to a video of Grappelli appearing on the tonight show with jazz/bluegrass
crossover violinist Mark O'Connor on guitar!
Stéphane Grappelli continued performing and staging concerts around the world well into his
80s. On his 85th birthday, he was asked 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 youth."
Top photo by Allen Warren, courtesy of wikicommons