August 20, 2011

The Embodiment of Jazz Violin

Stephane Grappelli: A Life in the Jazz CenturyStéphane Grappelli: A Life in the Jazz Century (DVD, 2003) presents a fascinating look at the life of the great Stéphane Grappelli (1908–1997), who, one could argue, was the Louis Armstrong of the jazz violin.

Born in Paris, Grappelli was thrust out into the world at a young age. His mother died when he was four and his father went off to fight in World War One, and the young Grappelli was left at the Isadora Duncan dance school, where he became enamored of the French impressionistic music popular at the time. He went on to study music and busked on the streets of Paris to support himself. He soon gained fame as a violin virtuoso.

It was hearing Joe Venuti play violin in the late 1920s that turned Grappelli to jazz. In the 1930s, he teamed up with guitarist Django Reinhardt to form the famous Quintette du Hot Club de France. His work with the Quintette was to cast a shadow over the rest of Grappelli’s career, particularly after the Django’s death in 1953. He could never quite live up to the legend.

During World War Two, he played in England with George Shearing. He continued to record during his entire life, producing an extensive discography that is impressive in its breadth and variety. He recorded with the likes of Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Martin Taylor, classical violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Dave Grisman, cellist Yo Yo Ma, Paul Simon, and Pink Floyd.

Grappelli’s violin sound is instantly recognizable - a tone pure as a birdsong. He never played a bad note. But his wide range of collaborations and the fact that he played the cocktail hour at the Paris Hilton in the 1960s has left Grappelli with an unjustified lightweight reputation. I would say that his life embodies the history of the jazz violin.

Some might balk at the comparison to Armstrong. Grappelli was certainly not in the ranks of Armstrong as an innovator - Armstrong was a force of nature in jazz without peer. However, Grappelli’s time with the Quintette ranks as one of the high points in jazz history. There is also a parallel with Armstrong in the fact that Grappelli maintained his playing style throughout his life (lack of innovation) and had a reputation as an entertainer, which the jazz cognoscente sniffed at.

This film presents a thorough look at Grappelli’s life, including extensive interviews with the man himself and considerable concert footage. Thoroughly enjoyable.

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