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A Master of Gallic SwingCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1997
Grappelli, StephaneStephane Grappelli became one of the best known musicians ever to play jazz in the course of a long career which took him from the clubs and cafes of 1920s France to the international concert circuit. His particular brand of melodic, swinging jazz violin playing proved adaptable to all kinds of settings, and he was a fluent, highly inventive improviser.
Grappelli found his sound and his style early in his career, and made an instantly identifiable trademark of it, but it would be wrong to think that he simply stuck with the discoveries of the halcyon Hot Club days of the 1930s. The process of refining and developing his music continued throughout his career, albeit within well-defined boundaries.
In the context of his own groups, he worked with a limited and well-defined repertoire over many years, favouring jazz standards like "Honeysuckle Rose", "Sweet Georgia Brown", "How High The Moon", "Lady, Be Good", or several variants on the "Rhythm" theme, including "I Got", "Crazy", and "Fascinatin'". All were shaped and moulded to fit his own particular contours as comfortably and as individually as an old pair of slippers, but each was also in a state of continuing development as the violinist found new improvisational nuances within them.
At the same time as he maintained a largely static repertoire in his own music, however, he was ever willing to experiment with unexpected collaborators, including classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, bluegrass fiddle maestro Vassar Clements, and the great Irish folk fiddler Frankie Gavin. He even sat in on a Scottish Fiddler's Rally (basically, a huge fiddle orchestra) in Aberdeen in 1990, an experience he claimed to have enjoyed, adding that "real Scottish music is not so easy!"
Grappelli's adoption of music as a career was in part a response to the practical difficulties of his early life. Born in Paris, he was an orphan from the age of three, when his mother died. He was presented with a three-quarters size violin by his often-absent father as a 12 year old in 1921, and taught himself to play what was to become his ticket out of poverty and menial labour. He went on to study the instrument more formally for a time, but by the end of the decade, he was playing regularly in dance bands and commercial orchestras in Paris.
Drawn to American jazz in his teens, Grappelli began to play the music on both violin and piano (he generally included the latter instrument at some point in his shows). He first met guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1929, but the group which was to make them famous, the Quintette du Hot Club de France, was not formed until 1934, when both men found themselves playing in the ranks of an orchestra at the Hotel Claridge in Paris.
Grappelli always claimed that the idea for the Hot Club band occured spontaneously in a backstage room during a break in the show. The violinist had broken a string, and went into the room where Reinhardt habitually withdrew to replace it. As he tuned up, the guitarist began to improvise around the notes, and the distinctive Hot Club sound was born.
The lightly textured but furiously swinging music produced through the combination of guitar, violin and bass was a new sound in jazz of that period, and one which became a major success when influential French critics Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay adopted them as the official band of their famous Hot Club.
While the fastidious Grappelli and the mercurial, notoriously unreliable Gypsy guitarist had something of a tempestuous personal relationship, they were a phenomenally successful musical combination, at least before the intervention of the war, most of which Grappelli spent in London, where he played with pianist George Shearing.
If Reinhardt was clearly the dominant creative figure in the group, Grappelli's contribution to the evolution of their music was an important one. The classic Hot Club recordings of the 1930s were the first European jazz records to challenge the great American masters, but sporadic post-war re-unions were only intermittantly as rewarding.
Reinhardt's death in 1953 ended the partnership, and the violinist fell from fashion as the emphasis shifted from swing to more modern jazz forms. He continued to make a comfortable living by returning to the cabaret circuit, interspersed with more jazz-oriented projects like his recordings with jazz violinists Stuff Smith and Joe Venuti.
His jazz career was revived fully when the English guitarist Diz Disley talked him into a tour of English folk clubs in 1972, using the guitar and violin format of the Quintette. That tour, and a subsequent highly successful appearance at the Cambridge Folk Festival in 1973, provided a vital springboard back onto the international jazz circuit with his most famous format, and he continued to lead a Hot Club-style line up thereafter, pared down in recent years to a trio, with his violin accompanied by guitar and double bass.
It proved to be a vintage period for his playing, both in the recording studio, an environment he disliked intensely, and on stage, and he maintained that momentum in the ensuing decades. Guitarist Martin Taylor was one of the players who worked with Grappelli in the 1980s, and went on to record a duo record with him for Linn Records in 1993.
At that time, Taylor made the point that while "a lot of people keep going back to the Hot Club era, Stephane lives in the present. He has never lost his sparkle or simply become a museum piece. People say that he doesn't do anything new, and there is some truth in that. He never liked to change his set much when I played with him, but then he didn't need to -- he created his own thing, and his audience would probably be upset if he had tried to change it."