Today is the birthday (1908) of Stéphane Grappelli, French jazz violin legend who founded the Quintette du Hot Club de France with guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1934.
Grappelli was born at Hôpital Lariboisière in Paris and christened with the name Stéfano. His father, an Italian marchese, Ernesto Grappelli, was born in Alatri in Italy, and his French mother, Anna Emilie Hanoque, was from St-Omer. His father was a scholar who taught Italian, sold translations, and wrote articles for local journals. His mother died when he was five, leaving his father to care for him. Though living in France when World War I began, his father was still an Italian citizen and was drafted to fight for Italy in 1914. Because Ernesto was familiar with the dancer Isadora Duncan, who was living in Paris, he appealed to her to care for his son whilst he was away in army. Stéphane was enrolled in Duncan’s dance school at age six, where he learned about French Impressionist music, but with the war encroaching, Duncan, as a US citizen, left the country. She turned over her château to be used as a military hospital, and Ernesto Grappelli entrusted his son to a Catholic orphanage. Grappelli said of this time:
I look back at it as an abominable memory… The Place was supposed to be under the eye of the government, but the government looked elsewhere. We slept on the floor, and often were without food. There were many times when I had to fight for a crust of bread.
Grappelli compared his early life to a Dickens novel and said that he once tried to eat flies to ease his hunger. He stayed at the orphanage until his father returned from the war in 1918, settling them in an apartment in Barbès. Having been sickened by his experiences with the Italian military, his father took him to city hall, pulled two witnesses off the street, and had his son nationalized as a Frenchman on July 28th, 1919. His first name “Stéfano” was Gallicized to “Stéphane”. He began playing the violin at age 12 on a three-quarter sized violin that his father bought after pawning a suit. Although he was sent to violin lessons, he preferred learning on his own:
My first lessons were in the streets, watching how other violinists played…The first violinist that I saw play was at the Barbès métro station, sheltered under the overhead metro tracks. When I asked how one should play, he exploded in laughter. I left, completely humiliated with my violin under my arm.
After a brief period of independent learning, he was enrolled at the Conservatoire de Paris on December 31st, 1920, which his father hoped would give him a chance to learn music theory, ear-training, and solfege. In 1923 Grappelli graduated with a second-tier medal. His father married Anna Fuchs and moved to Strasbourg. Grappelli remained in Paris because he disliked Fuchs.
At age 15, Grappelli began busking full-time to support himself. His playing caught the attention of an elderly violinist who invited him to accompany silent films in the pit orchestra at the Théâtre Gaumont. He played there for six hours daily over a two-year period. During orchestra breaks, he visited Le Boudon, a brasserie, where he listened to songs from a US proto-jukebox. Here he was introduced to jazz. He was playing in the orchestra at the Ambassador in 1928 when Paul Whiteman was performing with Joe Venuti. Jazz violinists were rare, and though Venuti played mainly commercial jazz themes and seldom improvised, Grappelli was struck by his bowing when he played “Dinah”. He began developing a jazz-influenced style.
Grappelli lived with Michel Warlop, a classically trained violinist. Warlop admired Grappelli’s jazzy playing, and Grappelli was jealous of Warlop’s income. After experimenting with piano, Grappelli stopped playing violin, choosing simplicity, new sound, and paid performances over familiarity. He began playing piano in a big band led by a musician called Grégor. After a night of drinking in 1929, Grégor learned that Grappelli played violin. Grégor borrowed a violin and asked Grappelli to improvise over “Dinah”. Delighted, Grégor urged Grappelli to return to violin.
In 1930, Grégor ran into financial trouble. He was involved in an automobile accident that resulted in deaths, fleeing to South America to avoid arrest. Grégor’s band reunited as a jazz ensemble under the leadership of pianist Alain Romans and saxophonist André Ekyan. While playing with this band, Grappelli met Django Reinhardt in 1931. Looking for a violinist interested in jazz, he invited Grappelli to play with him at his caravan. Although the two played for hours that afternoon, their commitments to their respective bands prevented them from pursuing a career together. In 1934 they met again at Claridge’s in London, and they began a musical partnership. Pierre Nourry, the secretary of the Hot Club de France, invited Reinhardt and Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France with Louis Vola on bass and Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitar.
In 1937, American jazz singer Adelaide Hall and her husband Bert Hicks opened the nightclub La Grosse Pomme in Montmartre. She entertained nightly and hired the Quintette as one of the house bands. Also in the neighborhood was the artistic salon of R-26, at which Grappelli and Reinhardt performed regularly. The Quintette du Hot Club de France disbanded in 1939 at the outbreak of World War II. Grappelli was in London and stayed there during the war. In 1940, jazz pianist George Shearing made his debut as a sideman in Grappelli’s band.
In 1949, Reinhardt and Grappelli reunited for a brief tour of Italy, and made a series of recordings with an Italian group. The two recorded roughly 50 tracks during this time. Grappelli played on hundreds of recordings, including sessions with Duke Ellington, jazz pianists Oscar Peterson, Michel Petrucciani and Claude Bolling, jazz violinists Svend Asmussen, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Stuff Smith, Indian classical violinist L. Subramaniam, vibraphonist Gary Burton, pop singer Paul Simon, mandolin player David Grisman, classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, orchestral conductor André Previn, guitar player Bucky Pizzarelli, guitar player Joe Pass, cello player Yo Yo Ma, harmonica and jazz guitar player Toots Thielemans, jazz guitarist Henri Crolla, bassist Jon Burr and fiddler Mark O’Connor.
Grappelli collaborated extensively with British guitarist Diz Disley, recording thirteen albums with him and his trio (which included Denny Wright in its early years), and with British guitarist Martin Taylor. His Parisian trio of many years included guitarist Marc Fosset and bassist Patrice Carratini.
Grappelli made a cameo appearance in the 1978 film King of the Gypsies with mandolinist David Grisman. Three years later they performed in concert. In the 1980s he gave several concerts with British cellist Julian Lloyd Webber. In 1997, Grappelli received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He is an inductee of the Down Beat Jazz Hall of Fame. He died in Paris at the end of 1997 after undergoing a hernia operation. He is buried in the city’s Père Lachaise Cemetery.
Grappelli was a regular in clubs in Montmartre in the 1930s and a favorite dessert in the clubs was tarte au citron – simple and elegant. An after dinner drink, a piece of tarte, and jazz seems like a perfect late night.
Tarte au Citron
1 recipe sweet pastry (see HINTS)
2 egg yolks
285 g caster sugar
185ml heavy cream
250ml lemon juice
finely grated zest of 3 lemons
Preheat oven to 190°C /375°F.
Roll the pastry to line a greased 23cm round tart tin. Chill pastry for 20 minutes.
In a stand mixer, beat the eggs, egg yolks and sugar together. Add the cream with the beaters on, and then add the lemon juice and zest.
Blind bake the pastry for 10 minutes with greaseproof paper and baking beads, then for a further 3-5 minutes without. The pastry should be barely cooked and pale. Remove from the oven.
Reduce the oven to 150°C/300°F.
Put the tin on a baking tray and pour the filling into the pastry case. Return to the oven for 35-40 minutes, or until set.
Leave to cool and dust with powdered sugar just before serving.