Stephane Grappelli: Master of Jazz Violin

The popularity of jazz violin reached its heyday in the 1930s, thanks to a French violinist named Stephane Grappelli, who not only revolutionized the style, but also introduced it into mainstream jazz culture. Grappelli.

Having studied violin since the age of 12, Grappelli was admitted into the Conservatoire de Paris and got his start as an entertainer by busking in the streets, performing along the thoroughfares of Paris and Montmarte. He broadened his musical horizons by studying piano, saxophone and accordion as well, and even worked as a silent film pianist for local movie houses. These experiences exposed him to a variety of musical styles, and helped him develop a natural aptitude for adapting his own burgeoning style to the popular culture of the times.

In the early 1930s, Grappelli met a young gypsy musician from Belgium–a guitarist named Django Reinhardt. Together, the two of them would musically recreate the history of modern jazz. Both struggling to make a career, Reinhardt and Grappelli started having amateur jam sessions with other like-minded musicians, creating contacts that would serve them well in the years ahead. Several of these musicians joined Reinhardt and Grappelli as they formed a new band, the “Quintette du Hot Club de France.” Influenced by his idol Louis Armstrong, Reinhardt gave the band a sound that harkened back to the early jazz studio sessions of New Orleans musicians such as Armstrong and King Oliver, but with a difference; the “Quintette du Hot Club” was one of the few professional all-string jazz ensembles in the world.

The combination of Reinhardt’s melting guitar playing, along with the synchronated/pizzicato style of playing developed by Grappelli, gave the band a distinctive, lilting, sweet sound, contrasting with the brassiness of American jazz bands. Both players gave their instruments a voice not commonly heard; Reinhardt showed that the guitar could be a lead melody instrument in jazz, while Grappelli created a whole new language of jazz for the violin, a heretofore unheard-of concept.

For the next several decades, Django and Grappelli continued to perform together; although the Quintette disbanded at the beginning of World War II in 1939, the two reunited after the war. Grappelli also began to make a name for himself playing with other great jazz artists of the era, including Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Claude Bolling, Jean-Luc Ponty and Bucky Pizzarelli.

Grappelli’s influence on musicians–and in particular, jazz violinists–has been monumental. One reason for this is that, like Louis Armstrong, Grappelli’s musical style crossed many traditional borders and embraced a wide spectrum of styles. Also like Armstrong, Grappelli’s recording and performing career was exceptionally long lived, lasting from the 1930s until his death in 1997. In particular, Grappelli’s studio and stage work with modern folk, country, jazz and even rock musicians has helped bring his artistry to new generations. During the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, Grappelli toured, performed and recorded with two of the top young acoustic artists of the era, mandolinist David Grisman and violinist Mark O’Connor, both of whom have been strongly influenced by Grappelli.

While Grappelli performed in a wide variety of musical genres, from classical to folk to jazz, it is as a jazz artist that he is primarily known, and his recordings with Reinhardt, in which he reinvented the sound of jazz violin, continue to be revered by jazz aficionados today.