Stephane Grappelli; France’s Pioneering Jazz Violinist

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

Jazz violinist Stephane Grappelli, whose mid-1930s partnership with the legendary guitarist Django Reinhardt in the Quintet of the Hot Club of France resulted in some of the first important jazz performances to emerge from players born outside the United States, died Monday in Paris.

According to his manager, Michel Chouanard, Grappelli died of complications after undergoing a hernia operation. He was 89.

In a career that reached from the 1920s to the mid-1990s, Grappelli, the last survivor of a small group of pioneering jazz violinists who emerged in the pre-World War II years, demonstrated a capacity to play in virtually every imaginable musical environment without abandoning the essentials of his own style.


“If jazz had been born in France, this is how it might all have sounded,” wrote jazz critic Leonard Feather in 1985, “suave and sophisticated, its rhythms infinitely gentle yet quintessentially swinging.”

Different in style and manner from the other significant jazz violinists of his era--Stuff Smith, Eddie South, Joe Venuti and Sweden’s Svend Asmussen--Grappelli was their equal in terms of creativity and swing. In addition, his musical open-mindedness has had significant impact upon such younger violinists as Jean Luc Ponty, Didier Lockwood and L. Subramaniam.

Born in Paris on Jan. 26, 1908, Grappelli was essentially self-taught as a jazz violinist and pianist, although he attended the Paris Conservatory from 1924 to 1928. Playing in dance bands and movie pit ensembles, he met Reinhardt in the late ‘20s. But their initial partnership was reduced by the stock market crash of 1929 to cafe and street appearances. In 1934, the duo were selected by French critics Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay as the official combo of their jazz society, the Hot Club of France.

The Grappelli/Reinhardt violin/guitar combination was described by some critics as a European version of the duo of violinist Joe Venuti and guitarist Eddie Lang, who began playing together in the 1920s. But Grappelli, in a 1992 interview with Bill Kohlhaase for The Times, said there was no connection.

“No, I never copied anybody,” he said. “I played with [jazz violinist] Eddie South in 1937, but I didn’t know him before. . . . And Joe Venuti. Those were the only violinists I knew before World War II.”

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France became the most influential and popular European jazz band from 1934 to 1939, and Grappelli and Reinhardt continued to perform and record together until the guitarist’s death in 1953.


Grappelli left the quintet in 1939 to move to London for the war years, where he had an extensive musical association with pianist George Shearing. Less active as a leader in the ‘50s and early ‘60s, he nonetheless toured extensively, primarily in Europe.

“You know, I think I was more of a Gypsy than [Reinhardt] was,” he told The Times. “He was a sit-down. He didn’t like to move, which is very rare for his people. But me, I live to move.”

His first visit to the United States, to perform at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969, followed by a series of recordings with classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, generated his first significant attention from the American media. Over the next two and a half decades, he performed frequently at festivals and jazz clubs. He recorded with artists from nearly every genre of jazz, including musicians from every decade, among them Earl Hines, Oscar Peterson, McCoy Tyner, Joe Pass, Larry Coryell, Barney Kessel, mandolinist David Grisman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma.

His repertoire, equally diverse, ranged from originals composed with Reinhardt to jazz standards such as “I Got Rhythm” to French ballads (“Mon Homme,” introduced by singer Mistinguett in the early years of the century) and contemporary tunes such as “You Are the Sunshine of My Life” and “Fifty Ways to Leave Your Lover.”

His playing has been profusely recorded, and Music Central Online, the Internet source for CDs, lists more than 100 recordings, nearly half featuring Grappelli as the primary artist.

Despite his many U.S. appearances, Grappelli remained incontrovertibly French, living in France for most of his life, passionately dedicated to his music.


Describing the division of his time between Paris and Cannes, he identified Paris as “my business home, because everything happens there,” and Cannes as a place for “pleasure,” because there are “so many interesting rendezvous places there.”

“That is what my life is like,” Grappelli concluded. “It is quite well occupied. And I will keep playing till the end.”

His last public appearance was on Sept. 11 at the Elysee Palace in Paris, where he received the country’s highest civilian honor, the Commander of the Legion of Honor. Grappelli is survived by a daughter, Evelyne, and a grandson, Gilles.


* AN APPRECIATION: With the violin, Stephane Grappelli evoked a range of jazz expression few could match. F5