Improvising with Jazz Violinist Stéphane Grappelli

Body and soul and all that jazz

Stephane GRAPPELLI, 1970 Credit: David Redfern/Redferns/Getty

MY GRANDMOTHER USED TO TELL ME that, when I was three years old and on an outing with her to a toy store, I grabbed and tried to make off with a pretty, stuffed, violin-playing monkey — much like the storybook chimpanzee that throws itself on ladies' hats decorated with artificial fruit. In fact, it wasn't the monkey I wanted, but rather that irresistible violin which I tried, unsuccessfully, to wrench from the prehensile grasp and chin of that obdurate and well-made creature.

Three years old is the beginning of the end. At home I pined away, comforting myself with a little 78 rpm phonograph on which I incessantly played a recording of Mischa Mischakoff performing treacly standards like Dvořák's "Humoresque" and Fritz Kreisler medleys.

Six months later, however, my Weltschmerz vanished upon receiving from my grandmother an 11-inch-long Mexican wooden toy violin (a relic which my mother, obviously sensing a legendary career in its formative stages, still keeps in one of her closets).

At seven, two things happened to change my life: first, I discovered Jascha Heifetz, whose electrifying recordings suggested to me, then and even now, the possibility of perfection. And second, my mother bought me a quarter-size violin, and I began taking lessons and practicing, scratchily and irritably, those miserable Ševčík exercises that are the bane of parents and next-door neighbors. I progressed to fifth positions, but prodigy I was not.

I was eventually to enjoy the communal experience of performing Haydn and Schubert string quartets with my 13-year-old colleagues (though the arguments over who would play first violin were hardly harmonious). But aside from the Bach unaccompanied sonatas and partitas (which I attempted to struggle through later on) and the Brahms, Schoenberg, Berg and Stravinsky violin concertos (which were always beyond my technical command), I began to lose interest in what I considered to be the mostly sentimental Romantic violin repertoire. And when, at 14, I flubbed my way through a Vivaldi concerto in front of an audience of parents and peers, I turned to "Heartbreak Hotel" and "Roll Over Beethoven" for solace. I started having fantasies about and casting furtive glances at sensual-sounding oboes and English horns, and realized that my love affair with the violin was over.

Or so I thought until January of 1976 when, almost by accident, I went to Carnegie Hall to hear the great jazz violinist Stéphane Grappelli performing with the Diz Disley Trio. I had, of course, earlier admired Django Reinhardt's and Grappelli's Quintet of the Hot Club of France recordings of "Mystery Pacific," "Nuages," "Ain't Misbehavin"' and "Hot Lips," among others. But I hadn't quite expected the faultless intonation, crisp upper-register sonorities, wine-dark lower-string timbres, rhapsodic phrasing and vespertine lyricism of that shining, graceful, Pierrot-like figure — reminding me lightly of my grandmother in former times — playing the most mellifluent version of "Body and Soul" I had ever heard.

That night at Carnegie Hall brought on one of those Proustian moments of involuntary memory, taking me body and soul back to my three-year-old's obsession, as I repressed the thought of dashing onstage and running off with that beautiful violin.

In December of last year I was on the phone to Paris. "Hello, is this Stéphane Grappelli?"

"You're calling from New York? You want to see me in Paris? Incroyable! Bien sûr, you're invited, my dear, and bring Rockefeller Centaire when you come!"

JAZZ VIOLINISTS HAVE ALWAYS HAD to be usually resilient to survive," Nat Hentoff has put the matter bluntly, "because until recent years their instrument has not been regarded as a legitimate jazz axe." Considering the dominant position held by the piano and reed instruments, however, it is important to remember the efflorescence in the Twenties and Thirties of such inventive pioneer jazz violinists as Joe Venuti, Eddie South and Stuff Smith (once described as the "palpitating Paganini"), who in turn inspired Svend Asmussen and Ray Nance and, more recently, Michael White, Leroy Jenkins and Jean-Luc Ponty.

Stéphane Grappelli not only partakes of this hardly supernnuated tradition — a tradition he himself has shaped and developed — but today, at 69, the violinist is at the height of his imaginative and technical powers.

He lives in a compact, modest Upper West Side-looking apartment on the Rue de Dunquerque — an apartment filled with books, records and souvenirs from his travels. It is just one of Stéphane's home bases (he has a room in Amsterdam and apartments in London and Cannes, where his daughter lives) and, in fact, he is continually traveling at a clip that would exhaust a person half his age. During the last three months of 1976, for example, Stéphane played in eight American and seven Canadian cities, then flew off for performances in Edinburgh, London, Amsterdam, Lyon, Stuttgart and Hamburg.

"We are all gypsies, my dear," Stéphane says to me as we sit down in his study. "As a matter of fact, I don't like living in any one place. I don't like doing the same thing every day. The only thing in this life is to find people to have a little talk to … that's agreeable. I really don't envy [pronounced en-vee, lovely is lov-lee, chopped liver is shopped lee-vair] people staying in the same place. I'm not blasé at all. I prefer to be an ignorant and be amazed when I see something that's new to me. Sometimes it helps to be an imbecile: you don't need a name or a tax collector coming after you.

"I like New York in June (though I once got the most celebrated flu of my life there), San Francisco in the summer. But best of all I love New Orleans in the fall. I was there a few weeks ago and it's the best thing I ever saw in my life. We played at Rosy's. Rosy owns the club, she likes music very much and she even sang 'Summertime' with us. 'Summertime' in a cool night."

"The French writer, jazz critic and singer Boris Vian, who died in 1959, loved New Orleans, too," I mention to Stéphane.

"Oh, I knew him and loved his books," Grappelli says enthusiastically.

"Do you know about the Clavicocktail Machine that he describes in his novel L'Ecume des Jours [The Froth of Days]? It reminds me of your playing."

"I read that book so long ago. It's a machine?"

"A machine that makes drinks to music," I say. "For each note there's a corresponding drink — either a wine, spirit, liqueur or fruit juice. The loud pedal puts in egg flip and the soft pedal adds ice. For soda you play a cadenza in F-sharp. And if you feel like a dash of fresh cream, you just play a chord in G major. The quantities depend on how long a note is held, but the alcoholic content remains unchanged. So you can make a 'Weather Bird' drink or a 'Loveless Love' potion. Imagine what cocktails you could concoct with your music!"

"A marvelous contraption," says Stéphane. "You know, Boris Vian used to play the trumpet, and I was pinching myself not to laugh. But what a brain! He was a very spiritual man, and he used to compose some very light but amusing songs. In fact, I have a rare edition of I Spit on Your Grave, the detective novel he wrote which was banned in France. He used to come to Club St. Germain about 20 years ago almost every night when I was playing there. I'll never forget him. Near the end, he was completely white. I think he was suffering with his art [heart] a long time before. It was not very solide.

"Me, I'm A-okay. I was just checked up. I used to smoke a lot, but no more. I started when I was ten. It was during World War I so, alors, when I see an American I ask him, but they didn't often give a cigarette to me because I was too small. So I smoked the leaf of the chestnut tree … maronnier. But I stopped cigarettes in 1970. It was easy, and now my cerebral is clearer.

"Do I smoke anything else? Well, I've tried like everybody, but I'm not a dope. One thing that helps me through when I'm playing something that I've done over and over for 54 years is a couple of whiskies before I go on the stage. When I'm at Carnegie Hall, for example, I get a little nervous, it's normal. But when you must attack — bang! — you need a little support behind. I always arrive one hour before I'm supposed to perform, put my fingers into good order — maybe it sounds pretentious — I take a little drink, some quick conversation like that, and then I'm onstage. Maurice Chevalier once told me: 'You must start very well, finish very well and in the middle it's nobody's business.' But me, I try to do the business in the middle, too."

"Whiskies or no," I say to Stéphane, "I'm amazed that you can play those same pieces and make them sound new after all these years."

"The big groups of today," he replies, "like the Rolling Stones, always do the same thing: 'I love you, I love you, I love you.…' You see what I mean? Any time you go to see those people they're always saying: 'I love you, baby.' I try to catch them changing, but it's impossible. I can't bear those screams for nothing at all without nécessité.

I did that on my violin, it would be in pieces! I recently heard Morgana King singing 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life.' Now, I could listen to her say 'I love you' for one month! But she's intelligent, she doesn't say 'I love you' for one month. She says: 'You are the sunshine of my life,' which at least is a change. But I don't want to criticize too much because these people do their best to please a certain clientele.

"Alors, me, I, too, am saying 'I love you' or 'I don't love you' with my violin. It's basically the same program every night, but sometimes we start with the entrée and end up with the appetizer. And we've got the dessert as well. No dessert in the middle, though, that would be a bad menu. And when the public is nice, we add a little salt, pepper and a better bottle of wine. Voilà!

"I prefer performing for young people than for the people who ask for mustard when I'm playing 'Nuages.' That's why I like performing at the Bottom Line in New York or at the Great American Music Hall in San Francisco. A lot of atmosphere and no soup.

"I like my programs to have something soft, something energetic, something slow, something blue, something red, something burning. And it's quite difficult to do that with just two guitars, string bass and violin. We are a bit victimized by the new aspects of electric music. We're playing like classical people except that we're doing jazz music. Segovia or Ike Isaacs — one of the guitarists I play with — is to me the same sound. I don't dare to say I'm playing like Heifetz. I play my own style — I bought it myself from my body — but I'm trying to get that sound. Those classical guys go very fast, but I go fast, too, in my music. Why not? It keeps you alive."

STÉPHANE HAS SOME ERRANDS TO DO AND ASKS if I'd mind joining him on a little walk around the neighborhood. When I we get outside — a chilly December day — he mentions that we're just a couple of minutes away from the first apartment he ever lived in as a child.

"My childhood was like a Dickens novel," Stéphane says as we start walking. "I lose my mother, who was French, in 1911 when I was three. And my father had no choice but to put me in a very poor Catholique orphanage. My father, who was Italian, was a very strange and interesting person. He was the first heepie I ever met, a Latinist and a teacher of philosophy. He did translations from Virgil and Italian into French, and he spent most of his time in the Bibliothèque Nationale. Occasionally he worked as an instructor in a place like Berlitz, but he was incapable of making a penny. We were very good friends. But I'm the opposite of him. I'm very practical, he was theoretique, always reading and writing. He thought he could get well by reading a book instead of going to a doctor, but he died in 1939. You know, my father got remarried, but I didn't get on with my stepmother. It's probably the reason I never got married.

"My first impression of live music was when I was six. My father wanted to take me out of that orphanage, and since he knew Isadora Duncan, who had a school then, he asked her if she wanted another student. 'Bring me the child,' she said. Of course, in those days, I was not looking like what I look like today. So she said: 'Oh, yes, I like him!' But I wasn't very successful as a dancer. I played an angel, but when you're not an angel it's difficile. I did, however, hear some grand music there. Musicians used to play in her garden, and I remember hearing Debussy's Afternoon of a Faun and the music made me feel the faun.

"After Isadora Duncan I had to go to another orphanage because the war was breaking out. We slept on the floor and I suffered from undernutrition. That's why I like desserts now. I never ate much of anything there, and I wasn't very sunny. So I escaped that damned place and wandered in the streets. Finally I move back with my father. And because of him I become a musician. Every Sunday he used to take me to hear orchestras, and that's when I first become acquainted with a lot of Debussy and Ravel. I wanted to play something. And my father wanted to distract me and keep me a bit quiet. So he took me into a store on Rue Rochechouart and bought me a three-quarter violin. All the way home I hugged it so hard I almost broke it. In fact, I still have that violin in my desk at home — there are no cracks in it and it is one of the only things of mine that wasn't destroyed during World War II. I'll show it to you. It's my only fetish.

"There was no money for lessons, so my father takes out a book from the bibliothèque, and we learn solfeggio together. I never had a teacher, so I learn good position and posture from sheer luck. The technique came along slowly. When I needed some more notes I had to wait. I can't play the notes with the correct classical fingering. On the other hand, a classical musician can't play jazz easily either. It's a different way. Maybe if I practiced I could succeed in playing the Beethoven concerto from beginning to end, but I'd never play like Isaac Stern or Menuhin because my hand is deformed, my brain is deformed. I love bluegrass fiddling, but maybe I could catch it if I lived down South for six months. Because learning to play music is like a language — you've got to learn it on the spot. But you can't catch anything on the street except a cold.

"At 14 I got a job in a pit band in a cinema. That's where I really learned to play and to read music — three hours during the day, three in the evening. I played in tune, and that's why they kept me."

We reach Stéphane's dentist's office, and he goes upstairs to give the dentist — "a nice guy" — two of his albums (Stéphane Grappelli Plays Cole Porter and Stéphane Grappelli Plays George Gershwin). When he comes smiling back down the stairs, I suddenly realize how much his bearing and music remind me of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton.

"Did you ever play music for Chaplin films?"

I ask. "Oh yes, my dear, I was dying of love for his films. I used to love so deeply that sometimes I was sick. But I can't love like that today. Rarely do I have what we call fou rire. But, you know, the only kind of movie I don't like is those family-affair films in which they dispute and go back with everybody kissing at the end. I can't bear that.

"It's interesting that just about this time I heard my first jazz. I don't want to sound stupid or pretentious, but I think I'm more near the black beat than the white. I was first attracted to black musical interpretation and atmosphere by chance. I remember hearing a tune called 'Stumbling' on a record performed by a group called Mitchell's Jazz Kings. It drive me insane. Soon after that I listen through the door of a nightclub to a pianist, saxophone and drums playing 'Hot Lips,' and that drive me mad, too. Practically just two notes and the chords change all the time. So when Charlee Chaplin comes on the screen in that cinema, I start playing 'Stumbling' with the other musicians.

"Then one day I went out and saw musicians playing in a courtyard and decided I wanted to earn some pocket money for some pastry, so why don't I try it? I remember concierges chasing me out with their brooms, but one or two accepted me, and I got a little money. I did this two years — though I never tell my father — and I earn more than I make from playing in silent-movie cinemas.

"In the courtyards I play little classical tunes — Berceuses by Fauré, melodies from Thaïs and the Serenade by Toselli, which was a great success. It was the 'You Are the Sunshine of My Life' at the time, and if you wanted to make money you had to play that. So I begin to make some money, and my father and I move into a bigger apartment. About this time I hear Louis Armstrong and Bix Beiderbecke and teach myself the piano. I like its harmonique aspect and discover that I can make money playing it at private parties."

Stéphane and I have now arrived at the local optometrist, who chats with Stéphane as he loosens the violinist's glasses ("I'm very farsighted"), and out we go again.

"When did you meet Django Reinhardt?" I ask. "Oooh, more questions about Zhango! Information about him is everywhere. In the subways even! One day I may sit down and write things no one knows about him. He was a very secret person. But I meet him casually when I am playing piano in southern France in 1930 or '31. I had been playing piano at the Ambassadeurs in Paris — where I hear Paul Whiteman, Bing Crosby, Oscar Levant and George Gershwin perform — and then with Gregor and his Gregorians in Nice. Gregor got me playing the violin again, and one day I meet Zhango who was looking for a violinist to 'play hot.' But I lose touch with him. Then at Hotel Claridge in Pans in 1933 we both met up again in the same hotel orchestra. One day when the tango orchestra was on we find each other backstage. I had broken a string and was tuning up, and all of a sudden we start fooling around playing 'Dinah' together-pretending we are Eddie Lang and Joe Venuti."

Stéphane is tired of telling Django stories, so I fill in the rest. Django, his brother, his cousin and bassist Louis Vola formed the legendary Quintet of the Hot Club of France which, as Ralph J. Gleason once wrote, was the first and only European group of that time "accorded major-league status in jazz by musicians and fans alike."

Reinhardt was a gypsy whose third and fourth fingers on his fretting hand were left withered and paralyzed by a fire in his caravan, forcing the guitarist to develop a unique "cross-fingering" technique with which he created a dazzling musical style. A man who told time by the sun, Django, more often than not, was off playing billiards, fishing or painting when he was supposed to be onstage.

In fascinating interviews with Whitney Balliett in the New Yorker and with Dan Forte in Guitar Player, Stéphane remembers Django as "a great artist but a difficult man. His chords were always there, but he was not there himself." Stéphane was constantly trying to get Django to gigs on time. "But when he was annoyed with me," Stéphane recalls, "he would give me some funny chords."

They were in London together just about the time the Germans invaded France. "I used to get up very late," Stéphane told Dan Forte, "six o'clock in the afternoon. Django, as a gypsy, would always get up early. Any time, he'd get up. Three in the morning, he'd go be listening to a bird somewhere. He'd hear a bird and say, 'Oh, it's the spring.' The spring was my worst enemy, because when the new leaves came on the trees, no Django. During the war we were in London, but the first siren Django heard, he said, 'We must go, we must go!' He was in the street when he called me, and I said, 'Fuck off, I'm not going to get up. We'll see you later on.' But when I got up, it was too late. And that was good for me, because at least I was not with the Germans."

During the war, Stéphane played in London with pianist George Shearing. "I played with George for the troops. And the bombs dropped quite often. I remember one time we finished up playing in a club in Golders Green. The sirens started, so we flew out of there to get to the deepest underground station nearby, which was Hampstead Heath. We started walking fast down the street, and George said: 'There's no need to run, we're underground.' He didn't know where we were because he was blind.

ONE FRIDAY NIGHT WHEN WE WERE performing, there was a terrible bombing. I didn't want to disturb George, who was playing his solo, so I ask the manager of the club if we should stop. 'Keep blowing forever!' he shouted. And I didn't dare go because he had our check! Another time I remember a singer we were accompanying who was singing 'As Time Goes By' as the bombs came down. You should have heard the tremor — 'Ti-iy-i-me go-oo-es bi-yi.' It was awful! We laugh now, but those damn V-2s could drop anywhere. Always that bloody blitz started when we started. It was a signal."

After the war Stéphane rejoined Reinhardt in Paris, but they played less frequently together. In 1953, Reinhardt died of a cerebral hemorrhage while playing billiards. Stéphane kept a low profile for a while, performing at nightclubs, then for five years at the Paris Hilton and later at Ronnie Scott's Jazz Club in London. During the past ten years he has performed all over the world and has recorded prolifically, releasing at least five albums a year with musicians as diverse as Duke Ellington, Jean-Luc Ponty, Gary Burton, Bill Coleman, Paul Simon, Stuff Smith, Baden Powell, Barney Kessel, George Shearing and Yehudi Menuhin. Two of the most wonderful of Grappelli's post-Reinhardt albums are: Duke Ellington's Jazz Violin Session (Atlantic Records SD 1688), with Svend Asmussen, Ray Nance, Billy Strayhorn and Grappelli himself; and Stéphane Grappelli — I Got Rhythm (Black Lion Records BL-047), recorded live in London in 1973 with The Hot Club of London. With Menuhin he has collaborated on two scintillating albums of music of the Thirties (Jalousie and Fascinating Rhythm, both on Angel Records), eliciting the following comments from his classical friend: "Stéphane Grappelli is a colleague whom I admire and would love to emulate. Although his repertoire is entirely different from mine and he plays the violin in a different style, he brings to it an imagination, a perfection of technique and a spontaneous expression of feeling which would be the envy of every violinist."

"Where will you be playing next?" I ask Stéphane. "A trip to Tunisia and then in March I'll be performing at the Hong Kong festival, and back to the States again in May. I do get about. By being hectic I keep young. But here we are at Anvers Square — it's the highlight of our little stroll. I wanted to show you this square because I used to play here as a child. It's changed a lot since then: there's an underground parking lot now, and the statues have been torn down. I used to hang around here and do little things to earn some money like opening doors of taxis, helping people with luggage, working in a laundry nearby and delivering hats. One day I delivered a hat to a prostitute at her home. Her boyfriend and a friend of his were there playing banjos, and that woman had a violin around, so the three of us had a wonderful concert that afternoon."

BACK IN STÉPHANE'S STUDY, I NOTICE a framed photograph of a beautiful woman hanging on the wall. "She was a close friend of mine," Stéphane says, "a hostess in one of the clubs I played at in London during the war. One night a bomb dropped and killed her. I lost another friend — an ice-skating champion — at that time, but in a different way. I was the Prince of Violins, but one day she met the King of Sardines, and I couldn't compete. He was an American colonel and he took her to America after the war, but a year later I received an announcement from her saying that she was marrying another guy. By that time I forget.

"In 1975 I was confined in New Zealand and Australia, the most faraway places in the world. And for some reason I had a desire to read something — anything, it could have been the telephone directory. I was feeling homesick and worried about my daughter and grandsons. And by chance I found a copy of Madame Bovary, which I read as a child. But in New Zealand I came across two lines in the book which told me exactly what I was feeling: 'How to describe that elusive sickness whose aspects change like clouds in the sky and which whirl around like the wind.' When you feel something like that, it's an impalpable disease. It's dreadful. But it wasn't too bad and I soon forget. One gets fed up with the same thing.

"Unlike Zhango, I like a classical life. I like everything classical. I don't like that abstract business. I like Louis Quatorze, the music of Couperin and Rameau. But I always come back to jazz music. Not so much to the great jazz violinists, but rather to pianist Art Tatum. For me, my god is Art Tatum [pronounced Ta-toom]. Tatum's melodic line is influenced by Ravel and Debussy, you know, and by orchestral work. Art Tatum is an orchestra. I've played with Count Basie, Joe Turner, John Lewis, Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, Erroll Garner, Fats Waller … but, alas, never Art Tatum. My greatest ambition is to be the Art Tatum of the violin. That's why I want to keep good health and try to go on."

IT WAS TIME FOR ME TO LEAVE. Stéphane, too, had an appointment, so we walked to the Metro together, and he treated me to a ticket for the first-class section.

"It's our type of chic," he said smiling.

I noticed the red French Legion of Honor stripe in his lapel. "I wear it, my dear, so that I don't have to carry identification papers."

For some reason I also noticed what large ears Stéphane has. "Did you know, Stéphane, that Stravinsky once said that musicians have bigger ears than most other people?"

"A donkey as well," he replied, giving me a warm bear hug as he got up to say goodbye.... beaming the way my grandmother used to, the way Stéphane always does when he plays his beautiful violin.

"When I'm playing I'm blissful, I'm happy, I improvise."