Stephane Grappelli, a French jazz violinist who helped shatter the image of jazz as an exclusively American art form, died Monday. He was 89.
Grappelli was the last surviving member of the Hot Club Quintet - the rage of European jazz fans in the 1930s when he teamed up with Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt.
Having begun his musical career at 15, Grappelli tirelessly performed into the 1990s, recording more than 100 albums.
He died of complications after undergoing a hernia operation several days earlier, and only months after giving his last concert, said his manager, Michel Chouanard.
Grappelli played or recorded with dozens of jazz greats, including Oscar Peterson, Joe Pass, Michel Legrand, Louis Bellson, McCoy Tyner, Quincy Jones, Earl Hines, Larry Coryell, Bill Coleman, Hank Jones, Gary Burton, classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, cellist Yo-Yo Ma and bluegrass mandolinist David Grisman.
The son of a philosophy professor, he started his career as a pianist for silent films.
After stints playing sax, accordion and drums, “I chose the violin because there is not too much competition,” he once said. “Some are very good but there aren’t a lot, like saxophonists.”
The young Grappelli, born Jan. 25, 1908, won a scholarship to the Isadora Duncan school, where he received classical training in violin and piano, then continued his studies at the Paris Conservatory.
At about 19, he discovered the recordings of Louis Armstrong and violinist Joe Venuti. Still, he struggled in cafes, where some patrons sneered at his attempts to play jazz on the traditionally classical instrument.
After the economic crash of ‘29, Grappelli wandered the streets of Paris with his violin, playing for money and food. He met Reinhardt during the time and they struggled together.
“In France they didn’t like jazz much,” he said. “They wanted to hear the Charleston.”
In 1933, they joined bassist Louis Vola’s orchestra at the Hotel Claridges. Between sets, the two would have jam sessions with Vola and other guitarists, including Reinhardt’s brother Joseph.
The group impressed top French critics Hugues Panassie and Charles Delaunay enough to make them the official combo of their jazz society, the Hot Club.
The Quintet of the Hot Club of France became the most influential and popular European jazz band from 1935-39.
Around Reinhardt’s accompaniment, Grappelli constructed simple, elegant melodies. His style matured from encounters with American artists like Eddie South, Benny Carter and Coleman Hawkins.
World War II broke up the combo. When France declared war, Grappelli found himself in England, where he led a series of small groups and played during the Blitz with keyboardist George Shearing, among others.
“We were playing a theater, and Beryl Davis, the singer, was with us,” he said. “Sometime in the middle, a bomb dropped. Beryl was singing ‘As Time Goes By.’ We managed to get out. We were lucky.”
When bebop exploded on the scene in the 1950s, he began assimilating the style but remained identified harmonically with the Swing Era and was largely forgotten for more than a decade. Reinhardt died of a brain hemorrhage in 1953.
“I’m not a be-bopper,” Grappelli later said. “I don’t like to critique anyone else. I just prefer my own cooking, my own cuisine.”
Grappelli returned to touring in the late 1960s, fronting a group similar to the original quintet of the 1930s and maintaining an active globetrotting schedule into the 1990s. His sets were filled with romantic songs of America’s golden age of jazz: works by George Gershwin, Jerome Kern and Cole Porter.
Among those he inspired and played with was Jean-Luc Ponty, the French jazz fusion artist he honored with a violin - marking him as the instrument’s next great talent.
Grappelli’s albums include “Live at Carnegie Hall,” “Jazz Round Midnight,” “Plays Jerome Kern,” “Tivoli Gardens,” “Satin Doll,” “Stardust,” “For Django,” and “Plays Gershwin.”
In 1994, he had surgery to replace an artery in his neck, and that kept him off the stage for two months.
Still, Grappelli seemed unstoppable and planned another tour next year.
“I love to tour. I have to tour! I am like a shark; I won’t stop,” he once said. “I will play until the final curtain.”