After my father arrived in this country from France 50 years ago, one of his first nonessential purchases was a record by the Quintet of the Hot Club of France. The bubbling speedball swing of guitarist Django Reinhardt and violinist Stephane Grappelli took him back to his Paris childhood, and to the night at the Salle Pleyel concert hall when he saw them performing Le Jazz Hot.
Grappelli died in Paris Monday at age 89, but his music--and the kindness he showed a young student abroad--still fills me up.
When I was 19, my parents and I piled into the car and headed for Boston, where they would put me on a Paris-bound plane for a “junior year abroad.” We stopped outside New York to visit old friends, and as I perused the newspaper, an ad jumped out at me: David Grisman and Stephane Grappelli, performing together that night at a little club on Long Island.
Mandolinist Grisman was my musical hero of the moment, while Grappelli was my father’s musical hero of some 40 years past. We had to go.
Despite sheets of rain, we all got back into the car. In the nearly 20 years since, I haven’t been so wired over a concert. The club was barely half-full because of the weather, but as Grappelli and Grisman launched into the old Hot Club standard “Minor Swing,” nothing else mattered. The set was musical bliss.
Grappelli was 71 then and still swinging like mad. His tone was warm and rich, his vibrato could break your heart, his improvisation on melodies he’d played 10,000 times was endlessly inventive. My father and I somehow got backstage and found ourselves before a tired, seated Grappelli.
Pop told him of seeing him long ago, and how wonderful it was. Grappelli waved off the compliments with a smile and a self-deprecating shrug. I asked if he’d be playing in Paris soon, as I was on my way there. “Come and see me,” he said. “I’m in the phone book.”
It took me six months to get up the courage to knock on Grappelli’s door. His building was one of those glorious Old World structures, with a huge spiraling marble staircase wrapped around an elaborate wrought-iron elevator.
As I walked up the stairs, I realized the distant sounds I’d heard were notes from Grappelli’s violin. I sat in the stairwell outside his door and listened for what must have been 15 minutes. I couldn’t believe it! Stephane Grappelli, perhaps the greatest jazz violinist who ever lived, was practicing scales. He’d move from a scale into a recognizable snippet of a song before shifting keys and starting over.
Finally I knocked. He answered with a quizzical look, his instrument tucked under his arm. I reminded him of our meeting, and he invited me in with a sweep of his bow. It was a few days past his birthday and he’d been receiving guests, he said. Pointing to the enormous French windows standing open to the elements, he explained that his guests had smoked and he was airing the place out. The winter breezes were stiffening his elbow, so he was playing to limber it up. Did I mind if he continued for a bit?
He took me by the arm and sat me in an overstuffed armchair. “Sit, sit.” A moment later, he placed a tumbler of Chivas Regal in my hand and said, “Is there anything you’d like to hear?” Anything, anything, I’m sure I said. Just play.
And play he did, for nearly an hour. Old jazz standards, Broadway tunes, Gypsy airs, scales and more scales. He dipped and swayed as he played. His eyes were mostly closed, but when he opened them, I swear they twinkled. In recounting this to French friends, they proclaimed me naive, as Grappelli’s flamboyant homosexuality was well known. My protestations were laughed off, but Grappelli was ever the gentleman.
He insisted I accompany him to dinner at a friend’s. We traveled by subway the length of the city. His presence went unnoticed by commuters as he spun out story after story: parties with Josephine Baker, arguments with his volatile Gypsy partner Reinhardt, jam sessions with the Duke of Windsor on the Co^te d’Azur (the duke played drums, and wasn’t half bad).
When I asked about a slew of recent recordings--almost all of them duets with great musicians--he explained: “All is vanity, mon vieux. I record with these people to beat them!” His pride led him to record in later years with Oscar Peterson, Yehudi Menuhin, Ella Fitzgerald, Larry Coryell, Joe Pass. “They underestimate me,” he whispered conspiratorially, “but after we play, they remember who I am!”
Grappelli was one of the most distinctive musicians of this century, and he stands at the top of the very short list of accomplished jazz violinists. His work influenced nearly every violinist since, from fiddler Mark O’Connor to classical hotshot Nigel Kennedy. His legacy rests not only on his hundreds of recordings from the 1930s but also on decades of bringing jazz standards to life time and again with his astonishingly fluid style.
Two years ago at a concert at the Smithsonian Institution, Grappelli proved more than capable of recapturing his glory days. I had the chance to talk to him, and though he didn’t remember me from all those years ago, he was happy to talk. I asked him why, at his age, he was on such a strenuous tour. “The music brings me joy like nothing else,” he said. “I will play to the final curtain.”