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G is for Stéphane Grappelli

Stéphane Grappelli (26 January 1908 – 1 December 1997) ‘the grandfather of jazz violinists’ was a French-Italian jazz violinist who founded the Quintette de Hot Club de France in 1934 with guitarist Django Reinhardt. It was one of the first all-string jazz bands. Stéphane Grappelli continued playing concerts around the world well into his eighties.

His French mother died when he was aged 5 and his Italian father had to go and fight in the Italian army in WW1. Grappelli was placed in a catholic orphanage for the duration of the war. He was often hungry and said that he even tried to eat flies to ease his hunger. When his father returned from war he had his son naturalized as a French citizen on 28 July 1919.

Stéphane Grappelli started learning the violin at 12 years old. Although he had lessons he preferred watching the street musicians and teaching himself. Grappelli was eventually enrolled in the Conservatoire de Paris on 31st December 1920 and graduated 3 years later around the same time his father remarried and went to live in Strasbourg.

At the age of 15, Grappelli began busking full-time to support himself. He was noticed by a violinist, who invited him to accompany silent films in the pit orchestra at the Théâtre Gaumont. He played there for two year s for six hours a day. During orchestral breaks, he visited Le Boudon, a brasserie where he was introduced to jazz.

In 1928, Grappelli was a member of the orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel while jazz violinist Joe Venuti was performing. Jazz violinists were rare, and though Venuti played mainly commercial jazz themes and seldom improvised, Grappelli was affected by this encounter and began developing a jazz-influenced style of violin music of his own.

Stéphane Grappelli spent World War II in London, where he often played with pianist George Shearing, sometimes under difficult circumstances. Once in the middle of a performance a bomb dropped whilst Beryl Davis was singing ‘As Time Goes By’ but they luckily managed to get out of that unscathed.

I was lucky enough to see Stéphane Grappelli just before my 12th birthday and still remember the impression it made on me even in the non salubrious surroundings of a sports centre hall in Basingstoke! (I even got his autograph - see image below!)

Stéphane Grappelli has played with numerous people from all walks of music and interpreted different styles in his own way.

I particularly like it when he plays with Yehudi Menuhin.

Here are a few other links for you to listen to

Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli and Eddie South improvise on Bach 1st movement of Concerto in D minor (1937)

Stephen Grappelli (In Japan) "Sweet Georgia Brown"

A portrait of Stephane Grappelli

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