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Jazz Violinist Stephane Grappelli Was Born in 1908

Dying in 1997, aged 89, Grappelli is remembered for his lively, elegant, improvisatory style and extraordinary public longevity


Born in 1908, Grappelli had a difficult childhood in Paris. His French mother, Anna Hanoque passed away when he was just four years old, and in 1914, his Italian father Ernesto Grappelli, was drafted to fight in World War 1. Stéphane found himself living in an orphanage until his father returned from the war, he recounts having to eat flies and fight for bread crusts to keep starvation at bay.

Once Ernesto returned, he would take Stéphane to concerts, eventually pawning his best suit to buy a 3/4 violin from the local Italian shoemaker. Stéphane was 12 when he began the violin and he preferred learning by watching other violinists busk on the street. About a year later, he enrolled at the Paris Conservatoire for violin, piano, ear-training, theory, and Solfeggio. At that stage, Ernesto remarried to a woman Stéphane did not like, so he decided to go his own way. He would busk on the streets to support himself.

While busking, Stéphane caught the attention of an elderly violinist who worked in the pit orchestra of the Théâtre Gaumont. He invited Grappelli to join the orchestra. Grappelli played there for 6 hours a day over 2 years, accompanying silent films.

It was during these years that Grappelli was first exposed to jazz with visits to Le Boudon, a brasserie that had American songs on a proto-jukebox, and then also as a member of the orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel, where he watched American bandleader Paul Whiteman (a hot jazz figurehead) and jazz violinist Joe Venuti perform. At this time, solo jazz violin was a novelty.

The biggest impact on his early career came from guitarist Django Reinhardt, a Belgian living in Paris. He and Grappelli founded Le Quintette du Hot Club de France in 1934, introducing the Paris scene to the concept of guitar and violin as solo jazz instruments. Grappelli went on to a long career as the father of European violin jazz and was musically active until his death.

Grappelli’s playing style can best be described as elegant, relaxed, and flowing. He produced a constant stream of perfectly executed melodic phrases, often at very high speed and with minimum effort. It is said that he rarely practiced, apart from when he was rehearsing with a band, and said of his performances “you play better when you’re not thinking of what you’re doing."

Yehudi Menuhin once described him as "like one of those jugglers who send 10 plates into the air and recovers them all". When ased on his 85th birthday if he was considering retirement, Mr 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 is my fountain of youth."

He passed away in Paris from heart failure after a series of minor cerebral attacks.



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