Written by from National Public Radio
Piano Jazz celebrates the centennial of the grandfather of the jazz violin: Stephane Grappelli. Born in Paris in 1908, Grappelli grew up very poor — his mother died when he was 4 and he spent time in orphanages and boarding schools (including one run by the famous dancer Isadora Duncan) when his father was called away to WWI. Father and son were reunited after the war.
Grappelli was largely self-taught as a musician. He began learning to play piano in cafes and cabarets, convincing club owners to let him practice on their house pianos during off hours. When he was 13, his father bought him a secondhand violin, and Grappelli earned money playing the popular music of the day on the streets of Paris and Montmartre. As a teenager, Grappelli provided piano accompaniment for silent films and took various other musical jobs around town. While subbing as a pianist for a popular group called Gregor and His Gregorians, Grappelli was convinced by the bandleader to pursue the violin full-time.
In 1934, Grappelli met a young gypsy guitarist named Django Reinhardt. Along with Reinhardt’s brother Joseph, guitarist Roger Chaput, and double bassist Louis Vola, they formed the Quintette du Hot Club de France — one of the earliest and most influential jazz groups in Europe. The group toured Europe with a style of music dubbed “Gypsy Jazz.” The outbreak of WWII put an end to the group when Grappelli decided to reside in London while Reinhardt returned to France. Grappelli soon formed a group with a young pianist named George Shearing, with whom he worked around England during and after the war.
At age 60, Grappelli experienced a resurgence in his career, marked by his American debut at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1969. Throughout the ’70s and ’80s, Grappelli made celebrated recordings with such greats as Oscar Peterson, Toots Theilemans, McCoy Tyner, and Gary Burton. He also worked with several classical masters, including Yo-Yo Ma, Yehudi Menuhin, and Andre Previn.
Among his many honors, Grappelli received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, as well as the Ordre National de la Legion d’honneur, France’s highest civilian honor. He was also inducted into the Downbeat Jazz Hall of Fame.
Grappelli died on Dec. 1, 1997, at the age of 89.
Originally recorded Oct. 5, 1989. Originally broadcast April 7, 1990.