Dec 30, 2012

Stephane Grappelli: An Appreciation by John Medd

Big thanks to UK reader (and writer) John Medd for contributing this nice appreciation for Stephane Grappelli - co-founder of The Hot Club of France, and tops in that ever under appreciated subgenre of jazz: jazz violin. Take it away, John:

By the late 1960s/early 1970s the artist formerly known as Stephane Grappelly (he changed the spelling mid career as he was tired of people pronouncing it ‘Grappell – eye’) was playing to ever diminishing audiences. His best years, seemingly, were behind him. Grappelli’s friend Django Reinhardt, the gypsy jazz guitarist who he'd formed the iconic Quintet of The Hot Club of France, had died in 1953 leaving Grappelli to make a succession of lacklustre albums, often with disinterested musicians.

But in 1973 a very strange thing happened. Grappelli was asked to play the Cambridge Folk Festival in the UK. At first he was reticent thinking he was too old - he was 65 - and that nobody would turn out to hear a pensioner playing jazz. He was wrong on both counts. Very wrong. Not only did they love him, but he was the hit of the festival. Overnight he’d found a new audience, a younger audience, who lapped up his intoxicating gypsy jazz stylings.

His appearance at Cambridge was a turning point. All of a sudden the white haired, flamboyant shirt wearing fiddle player was in demand. And everyone wanted to play with him; not least classical virtuoso Yehudi Menuhin, with whom he would go on to make some six albums, notably Strictly For The Birds and Tea For Two. They played every major concert hall in the world from Sydney Opera House to Carnegie Hall. And who can for get their legendary television performance on the Parkinson chat show? 

Photo by Murdo MacLeod, via The Guardian

But it was in 1979 when he met UK guitarist Martin Taylor that Grappelli really got his second wind. Taylor was introduced to Grappelli by another jazz guitar great, Ike Isaacs. When Taylor was asked to deputise for Grappelli’s then guitarist who was injured, Grappelli was so impressed that he asked Taylor to stay. Taylor’s love of gypsy jazz meant he was the ideal sparring partner for Grappelli - who must have seen more than a glimmer of the young Django Reinhardt in Taylor’s playing (Taylor would later go on to form his own band, Spirit of Django, where he kept the gypsy jazz flame burning).

Grappelli made several albums with Taylor over a ten-year period and much of their output remains some of Grappelli’s most satisfying recordings of his 60+ year recording career. From 1983’s We’ve Got The World On A String to 2003’s Reunion, the pair seemed able to read each other’s minds; such was the brilliance of their playing together. I remember seeing them perform in Mansfield, Nottinghamshire, in the late 80s, where I shook Grappelli’s hand, and I will never forget his spell binding performance that evening.

He never retired, always saying that he would ‘play ‘til the final curtain.’ He died in 1997 after a hernia operation.

John Medd

Editors note - In case you thought Grappelli was just an old jazzer, check out this version of "Wish You Were Here" from the Experience Edition of the famed Pink Floyd album:

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