In Paris in 1923, at the age of 15, Stephane Grappelli heard his first American jazz, and it so impressed him that he decided then and there it was the music he wanted to play. Though he had been playing the violin for about five years, his training had been anything but professional. In fact, his entire life up until that point had been, as he says, “like a Dickens novel.”
He was born January 26, 1908, and due perhaps to his father’s poor financial situation (his mother died when he was three), Stephane spent much of his early life in orphanages. He was spared that fate only after World War I when alarmed by the boy’s poor physical condition, his father brought him home to a small flat in Paris to stay. Stephane fondly recalls his close friendship with his father whom he says lived somewhat like a gypsy, and was the first “hippie” he ever met. He was a strange and interesting man who devoted much of his time to reading and writing, yet as a philosophy teacher, Latinist and sometimes language teacher, was never financially at ease.
The fee for music lessons was out of the question, so his father took a book out of the Bibliotheque Nationale, and together they began working on solfeggio
It was his father, though, who first kindled Stephane’s interest in music and started him on his way. Each Sunday they would go together to hear the great orchestras of Paris, and in the loftiest (and cheapest) seats Stephane was introduced to the intricacies of melodic and harmonic music. As he became engrossed in listening to music, Stephane’s urge to play grew, and eventually, to his utter delight, his father bought him a 3/4 size violin from an Italian shoe repairman. The fee for music lessons was out of the question, so his father took a book out of the Bibliotheque Nationale, and together they began working on solfeggio. Though it was slow going at first, Stephane displayed considerable talent in this area: a great asset to any musician, especially violinists. As for technique, it was slowly picked up by watching violinists in the streets and elsewhere; and by “sheer luck.” As Stephane recalls, “I never learned to play the violin, but I always looked at the important people, the way they were bowing.”
The climax of Stephane’s musical ‘education’ came, however, in 1922 when through the deputising of a family friend he got a job in the pit orchestra of a silent cinema: two violins, one piano and one cello; playing six hours a day for two years. Though it was a struggle at first, as the job forced him to learn some serious sight-reading, the extensive playing perfected his technique (though not altogether classical).
Amazing as it may seem today, knowing Stephane’s playing, that was the extent of his early musical training. Sparse technically by any standards, it was a combination of desire, necessity, and Stephane’s incredible instincts. By 1923, when he wandered into a penny arcade next to the theatre and heard a Mitchell’s Jazz Kings recording of Stumbling, Stephane was a ripe candidate for the new American sound: le jazz. It was in fact at this point that Stephane decided to learn jazz. And it is no small feat that the musical vocabulary and improvisatory skills that he began to teach himself then not only helped develop him into one of the era’s best jazz violinists, but also carried him through over 50 years of performing in a myriad of musical settings.
Besides his most famous association with French gypsy-guitarist Django Reinhardt and the Quintet of the Hot Club of France (which ended when Django died in 1953), Stephane has been continually active in performance with anyone from the Boston Pops to the David Grisman Quintet. Along with an impressive list of pianists he has performed with, there is the standard two guitar, one bass group that accompanies him on his extensive world tours. He has recorded with a variety of musicians, from Duke Ellington to Paul Simon, as well as with a host of jazz notables. He is praised and admired on the classical side by the likes of Lorin Maazel and Yehudi Menuhin (with whom he has recorded two albums). Stephane plays anything from Gershwin to Stevie Wonder, always with the same results: an impeccable, emotionally charged performance with the familiar, rich, full tone; rhapsodic and lushly romantic; sometimes bouncing with the joyous jazz rhythms of the twenties and thirties; sometimes soaring and leaping like swing let loose in the eighties.
It is Stephane’s extraordinary gift for phrasing – creating melodies while improvising – that makes his artistry unique and lends to his music an enticing balance of the ‘sweet’ and ‘hot’
It is Stephane’s extraordinary gift for phrasing – creating melodies while improvising – that makes his artistry unique and lends to his music an enticing balance of the ‘sweet’ and ‘hot’. He has a knack for giving a logical beginning and ending to almost any phrase (at any speed), even in his most abstract moments. It is this ability to govern and refine the often wild drive inherent in jazz by threading it together with melodic phrasing, that is lacking in much of this music since the thirties. Yet, far from being an outdated player, today at 72 Stephane is sharper and more inventive than ever. His style adapts readily and instinctively to anything from the simplest guitar chording to the most sophisticated of piano accompaniment. And when on tour, the halls are packed with the most attentive and responsive audiences anywhere, made up largely of people who weren’t even born when Stephane first rose to notoriety in the mid thirties.
In an interview situation, Stephane is hard pressed when faced with questions pertaining to what exactly he does on his violin. He lives and plays music from the heart, and would rather play a passage to explain his style than to dissect it in terms of music theory. He more often than not will sum things up on any topic with a simple but vivid metaphor, to be absorbed more so than understood, cerebrally. Technical questions on improvisation are invariably nipped in the bud. “Oh, I can’t explain that!” he asserts, as if hopelessly stumped.
Stephane is extremely witty and intelligent, but not a man of technical explanations; they have no place in his life. In his gentle manner and soft voice (laced with the thickest of French accents) he shrugs off another query into improvisation: “You see”, he says almost apologetically, “it’s an inspiration of the moment.
“Of course you must have enough technique”, he adds, “and enough knowledge of harmony, because you don’t always improvise on the tune, you improvise on the chord, which is the most important.
“It’s not new that (improvisation), it’s always existed. Look at the partitas of Bach, it’s a theme and then there is a variation – they call it that. That caprice of Paganini, it’s one caprice with 24 variations. Jazz is the same.”
Throughout the jazz world Stephane is known as an inspired, master improviser. Yet the quality of his performance, be it in concert or a recording session, depends largely on the quality of his surroundings.
“The most difficult thing to do in our business is to play for a recording, because there is no public to excite you, there is only a little bit of iron.
‘I never practice, I hate that. I don’t want to play too much, because as you improvise, it’s like to have an appetite. But if you don’t play too much you like to play’
“I never practice, I hate that. I don’t want to play too much, because as you improvise, it’s like to have an appetite. But if you don’t play too much you like to play. And when you like to play, and if you have a good surrounding, a good system and all that, it gives you a fantastique envie to play.”
In his recent association with composer-mandolinist David Grisman, Stephane has found an almost perfect partner. Since their initial collaboration in 1978 on Grisman’s score for the film ‘The King of the Gypsies’, the two have joined forces for numerous concerts, recordings, and some television appearances.
Grisman’s music, which is dubbed “Dawg music”, is in every sense of the word eclectic, being an outgrowth of the mandolinist’s broad musical interests. It is ‘hot’, definitely having roots in swing and reflecting Grisman’s early association with bluegrass (though the chording is often very modern). There is also an undeniable Eastern European sound (especially in the pieces in minor) and a meticulous concern for arrangement which smacks of classical influences. It is on Grisman’s gypsy-like pieces that Stephane’s plaintive, romantic quality emerges like never before.
Another of Stephane’s musical passions is jazz piano, he being a pianist of superb quality himself. When he was still at the silent theatre he earned enough extra money playing in courtyards to move him and his father to a bigger apartment, and buy himself a piano. He had fallen in love with its harmonic aspects, and eventually taught himself well enough to play solo at private parties. He later landed a job as pianist for (amongst others) Gregor and his Gregorians, one of the best French bands of that period.
Stephane had actually at this time abandoned his violin, and we owe it to Gregor for having brought him back to it – one drunken night – and for having kept him at it until it stuck.
Today, Stephane still considers the piano his first and preferred instrument, but too hard to lug around on tours. And when he gets a chance, if there is a piano on stage, he will dazzle an audience with his agility and inventiveness.
He still has a fanatical infatuation with the music of Art Tatum, the one pianist he never got to play with. He is fascinated with Tatum’s orchestral sounds and melody line which he says were influenced by Debussy and Ravel. Stephane’s greatest ambition is to become ‘the Art Tatum of the violin’.
‘It’s not a question of old or modern. Nothing is old in music. You still play Bach, you still play Beethoven. Nothing is old, nothing is new’
And, never one to be trapped by styles, Stephane still laments not being able to have played with another sometime pianist: twenties cornet legend, Bix Beiderbecke. “I wish I could have played with him. I like that kind of music … it’s not a question of old or modern. Nothing is old in music. You still play Bach, you still play Beethoven. Nothing is old, nothing is new.”
During Stephane’s early days, the Beiderbecke recordings were an important influence on him – especially those in which Bix played piano; most often with Frankie Trumbauer on C-melody sax and Eddie Lang on guitar. There was, in fact, a time when, in the heat of enthusiasm, Stephane tried his hand at saxophone.
“Yes! I was very affected by Trumbauer, Bix Beiderbecke at the piano and Eddie Lang. And that give me an envie to play the saxophone. As a matter of fact I was playing quite well … that was a long time ago, more than 40 years. At that time I used to smoke, and after dinner when I was obliged to go to work, frankly I preferred a good cigar to that saxophone.
“I had a job to play and the woman, the directress, wanted me to play the saxophone. And in those days it was not so easy for me to find work. I promised her I’d play the saxophone and she asked me ‘Do you play the saxophone?’ and I said (I lie horribly) ‘Yes, of course.’ And that damn woman wanted to hear me (to see) if I played the saxophone or not. So I remembered where there was an old saxophone – not in good shape – to do an audition, and a friend who showed me where to put my fingers. At the audition I played a tune called I Want To Be Happy, but I was unlucky even with that! I made some terrible noise and finished up the audition by dancing the Charleston! … And she was terribly happy!”
Music’s universal appeal is never so vividly seen as in Stephane’s eyes when he bursts into song or grabs up his violin to demonstrate one of his musical loves. If a musician’s style is a reflection of how he perceives, absorbs, and relates to the entire spectrum of music itself, then in Grappelli there is something akin to being in touch with the essence of music. Stephane’s exuberance for all kinds of music, and his desire and ability to rely largely on his instincts, are undeniable assets to his growth as a jazz improviser; as well as to his uncanny ability to adopt his craft and style over the years.
“Maybe it’s vanity, but see, everybody tries to perfect himself. It’s in the blood of the nature. If you can, you like to do better and better to improve your sound, your technique, to please people who listen to you.
‘You know it’s not me that’s playing. It’s the people who play with me that make me play. If I play with Martial Solal, I will not play the same style as with Oscar Peterson or George Shearing. It’s one of those things … the water goes where it can. Music is the same’
“When I used to play with Django Reinhardt, and when I’ve got people who are playing like Django Reinhardt, instinctively I’ll go back to when I play 30 years ago. You know what I mean? Instinctively. But if I play with modern people, I try not to change the atmosphere. It’s normal. Some can’t do it. I notice some musicians who can’t do it. Suppose you get an old musician from New Orleans, and you make him play with McCoy Tyner. Poor thing, he can’t do nothing. But I think if I play with a marvellous musician like that … I’m sure that man will make me play differently than I’m doing now. I’m sure.
“It all depends … you know it’s not me that’s playing. It’s the people who play with me that make me play. See what I mean? If I play with Martial Solal, I will not play the same style as with Oscar Peterson or George Shearing. It’s one of those things … the water goes where it can. You know? Music is the same.”