Reminiscing with Stéphane Grappelli

By Peter Anick (originally published in Fiddler Magazine)

The first time I saw Stéphane Grappelli was in 1976, just a few years after his appearance with the all-strings Diz Disley Trio at the Cambridge Folk Festival had re-ignited his already brilliant career. Nearly seventy at the time, he played a long and energetic set, looking completely relaxed as he spun off unpredictable, serpentine phrases and joyously sparred with his guitarists. The last time I saw him was twenty years later in 1996, on what may have been his last American tour. Nearly ninety now, he looked much frailer and took the stage in a wheelchair. However, his playing remained supple, bright, and imaginative, and if you closed your eyes, the charm, vitality and grace with which he approached each tune made you quickly forget his age.

Like his playing, his memory had also remained lucid. In this interview held the morning before the show, he readily recalls his first violin, the details of his historic recording session with Django Reinhardt and his long-held desire to play for a strictly listening audience free of distracting dancers. We began the interview discussing some of the tunes that he and Django had composed together and which have now become standards for afficianados of "Hot Club" jazz.

I’d like to reminisce about some of the tunes that you have written.

SG: Well, we used to compose together with Django. Django used to improvise, because he can’t write, you know. He had no knowledge of music at all. It was all naturelle. But I was there to put it down when we found something.

Did you help compose the tunes?

SG: We played together and when we had an idea... sometimes out of the blue, we got something, we develop it, and then I write.

Would you be playing on a tune and hear a phrase you liked?

SG: Yes.

Did you ever specifically say, "Let's make up a tune today"?

SG: No. We never worked that way. It was improvised, you know. We never prepared anything. Because when you prepare something, it's not very good. It's not very naturelle. The difficulty, when we got an idea, is to remember! Because it's like a bird - when you open its cage, he goes out and you don't see him. Improvisation is like that. On the moment you want to write it down, it's already forgotten.

What was the first tune that you composed together?

SG: We worked for years together, and then one day we decided to put that on paper. I think the first tune was "Minor Swing." I think that was the one. Very easy. And another one was "Daphné", because when I was tuning up - dah dah dee dee - with the harmonics. I do the harmonics to see if it (the violin) is in tune, you know, and that was enough material to build something.

That's a beautiful song. Where did the name " Daphné " come from?

SG: Well, it was a friend of mine. I said, "Why don't we call that ‘Daphné’ instead of something else?" You know those stupid titles sometimes - "The Moon Shining Tonight"? Better to honor somebody!

And Minor Swing?

SG: [sings the melody] Ah tiens! And Django - boom boom boom boom boom! [imitating the strummed chords] He was an extraordinary man, you know. Many times, we improvised on the spot. Like the free jazz, you know, we did that fifty years before.

Old Decca album of Django and Stéphane. When I showed this to Stéphane, he immediately pointed out that they had misspelled his name, using a "y" instead of "i". Of course, he was signing his name with a "y" himself in those days!

If you were playing a concert, would you create a new song on the spot?

SG: No, we never did that. It's no good, that. Because if you have no inspiration, it may finish badly! When we were playing on the stage, everything was settled down. Of course, if I played the piano, I'd improvise an introduction. You can improvise that. Django, he never did the same; when we played a tune, he did an introduction but never the same, of course.

How about "Ultrafox"?

SG: That was to compliment the young man who gave us a chance to register (record). In those days, in 1934, that is 62 years ago, it was something new, you know - playing jazz with guitar and violin! The people said, "What?" In those days, it was the trombone, trumpet, the drum. Alors, they wanted us to do a little concert, you know. They telephoned their friends and they managed to get a decent room. So we gave the concert. It was Panassié, Charles Delaunay, and another one Pierre Noury. Those three young men liked modern stuff and all that, so they tried to make us register and make a record. It was new, because they never registered with three guitars, violin, and bass. They wanted clarinet, they wanted trombone and all that. So finally they found a young man who said, "OK, I will accept the challenge!" His name was Raoul Caldérou. And we went there one morning at nine o'clock, because in those days, it was from 9 to 12 and 2 to 5. The 2 to 5 was reserved for the star, for the well known singer, and the beginner, unknown person - 9 o'clock. And I remember there were two gentlemen there; they were dressed like doctors with the white jackets. In those days it was not like today with the ribbon (tape), you know. It was - what do we call that? - the crêpe. "Pancake", you know. One inch, and they got that from the frigidaire. It was in wax, you know. And then we were obliged to do two records - one record with two faces. That made four tunes, four compositions. And they got for that eight records, eight matrices - two for each tune. So, if you made a mistake, it's finished! So you must not make a mistake. Of course, if something wrong happens, a string breaks, then they put another pancake. Mais if you are not informed or something goes wrong, they never do a record! So, alors, our appointment was at 9 o'clock there. You must be there at quarter to nine at least to get in, tune up, and all that. Django was not there! Always like that. Django, it's too early for him. So somebody goes there to pick him up. He arrives at half past ten. We did all the four records, all four tunes in one hour and a few minutes - the arrangement, how we start, how we will finish, in that. And I remember what we played for that; that was in 1935. We played "Sweet Sue", "Lady Be Good", "Tiger Rag", and "I Saw Stars." Those four. And it remained two pancakes they didn't use! We only did that with six. Voila, that was the first record we did, for Ultraphone. And of course we composed a tune to thank the guy who took a chance with us. So we called the tune "Ultafox."

Why the "Fox"?

SG: Mais "Ultrafox", we did that ourselves, because the name of the recording company was Ultraphone, and we composed something, Ultra - fox. Fox trot.

And later you did one called "Stomping at Decca."

SG: We went to another company, because nobody wanted us (originally), because nobody did that. Except in the same time, I think, there was Joe Venuti and Eddie Lang. I think that was the only group that did the same. Joe Venuti was a great friend of mine. I have a great love for him. Terribly amusing, you know. And I’ll tell you something. Duke Ellington was on tour in Italy, playing in the principal towns – Rome, Firenze, Milano. Alors, about twelve concerts he engaged Joe Venuti and me, and that's the way I met Joe Venuti. And in Italy, we’d been playing together with the Ellington band, we got such a triumph! An incredible success - but I found out what it was! "Venuti" "Grappelli". Mais ils sont tutti Italiano! (They are both Italian!) Hah!

Did you ever make a recording with Django and then not like what you played and stop in the middle?

SG: Oh, yes. We did. That's why I told you with that story, that we only used six crêpes instead of eight. Some artists couldn't make a record, because they used all the tape there and they did nothing. In those days, it was very difficult to make a record.

The Quintet of the Hot Club of France

Was it sometimes difficult playing with Django?

SG: Well, he was very lazy. He didn't care, you know. He was like that. Fortunately, he was in good form; he apologized that he was late and everything was happy. It was a family affair, more or less, with him. Because on the guitar he had his brother and one of his cousins. Of course, he used to like me because I told him what to do. Django was illiterate. He couldn't read. He couldn't write.

Did he know the names of the chords?

SG: Oh, yes. That he knew… As a matter of fact, I don't remember if he knew that as well, because everything was instinct with him.

Sometimes we were two, three days without speaking. Speaking of what? He was illiterate; he couldn't read. He was obliged to take a taxi when he went somewhere, because he couldn't read the station in the metro. Well, he had a good life you know. He was a personage! No one would believe what he was doing. Incredible! He was so clever! Nobody could do that, you know.

In those days, we break the strings easier. Industry was not developed like today. Today those strings can last, but in those days, you must be careful, you know, ‘cause if you are too strong, you break a string. So, we were in a big concert once. And you know he never carried his guitar. His brother did it. So, one night, he breaks a string. So I went to the piano to entertain and then when he came back, I learned after at the end of the concert, he didn't have any string. So he did a knot! With the string. And he's been playing in a concert with that, and nobody saw or heard anything wrong.

There was another song, "Mystery Pacific", a train song?

SG: It is a succession of chords, and then you go up by semitones, dah dah dah dah. And you accelerate the tempo, and of course you are "daah" [imitates the train whistle]. No that's nothing much, you know, but you must do it!

Another tune I remember - "Tears"?

SG: Tears, yes. But that's Django. I put it down, mind you. And you know, the tunes with Django were very easy. It's a beautiful tune but very easy. For instance, "Tears", there are only two or three notes. There is nothing much, and he does something with that small material! He did something which is charming.

He did a lovely melody, "Le Manoir de Mes Reves". And some (tunes), even me, I don't know. I was not always with him. I had my own career because he was so eccentric sometimes. We were engaged at the Palladium in London and the opening date, he was not there, and I must swim my way with the brother, the cousin, and the bass. He was in the street. He was looking at his name electrified (in the marquis). "Tonight - Django Reinhardt, Stéphane Grappelli." And there he was so fascinated to see his name turning on top of the theatre, he didn't realize that I was waiting for him inside. You know about Django! He was incredible, but not amusing for all the time, you know. I have a great souvenir with him. He occupied my life for twenty years.

When you played with the Quintet in clubs, did you play for dancing or for listening?

SG: It was very rare (to play for listening only). Last time we played for cabaret with Django Reinhardt, that was in 1937 in Paris, for the international exhibition in Paris, and we were engaged for the time of the exhibition by an American called Bricktop. She's very well known among the musicians of that time. And she used to live in Paris, because she was a kind of queen of nightclubs. They'd call her Bricktop because she had her hair red. And she engaged us for the duration of the exhibition. It was a clientèle, very top, you know. We got the visite of Cole Porter, even Gershwin before he died, and people like that, and we were there. And when she found a locale in Montmartre and when we were discussing, she said, "I'm going to keep that little space in case the people want to move about." I said, "Oh, no. Why not with the Quintet instead to play like the (string) quartets? The quartet, nobody dances, you know. Classical quartet, they all stay quiet. Why don't we play like those people? It's a good music." She said, "That's a good idea, I can put three or four tables more." So when opening started, we were playing and no dancing. That's what I wanted for ages! No dancing! Listening to our music, instead of dancing sometimes out of rhythm. You know, some people can't dance - they have no ear. It was ridiculous on top of that. And it worked, you know. So we had people even come every weekend from London to listen to us. One was Constant Lambert, the director of music, and he came one weekend with Richard Addinsell, the composer of the Warsaw Concerto. So all those people make an ambiance. Cole Porter was there every night. It was the first time we were playing for no dancers and it worked. People came there for listening or to be between them - everyone was not musician, you know. But it was a nice clientèle, intelligent.

That must have been a lot more fun, eh?

SG: My dream came true. I always think of that - why can't we play like those classical people? Nobody dances in front of them! And I wanted that way. So Bricktop was happy, too.

My first meeting with Stéphane in Rockford, Illinois in 1976. I was playing in the Wisconsin-based Mango Brothers swing band at the time, with Frank Furillo (top in the photo). On the right is guitarist Diz Disley. Stéphane was on his way to California to play on the King of the Gypsies film with David Grisman.

Today you will be performing with Bucky Pizzarelli. Do you find that you play differently depending on who the guitarist is?

SG: Of course, instinctively, I go with the partner, of course. Now it is difficult for me to travel, but I've gotten satisfaction in my life. When I arrive here I have a good accompagnateur. I've got Bucky Pizzarelli and Jon Burr, a very solid bass. That's what I need. That's enough for me. I don't need the philharmonic. Of course, sometimes I play with the philharmonic and I'm delighted! But as you can't have that every day, you know, you must be satisfied with two persons. And I'll finish my life with pleasure, you know.

You appear to play with a light touch.

SG: Oh, I don't force. Of course, you don't need it.

Your way of phrasing, you make even the simplest melody come alive.

SG: And you know I am not a violinist; I never had any teacher. I learned by myself. My father gave me a violin when I was thirteen years old, when he came back from the first war. My father was Italian, you know. When he came back from the first war, he knew somebody the same nationality who was selling a bit of everything. So my father saw a three quarter violin and he got the idea to buy that and give it to me – "to amuse me," he said. We never knew I would do my profession of it. Suppose he didn't go that day that street! Tis fatalité. So to amuse myself, I took an interest.

How did you know what to do on the violin?

SG: I didn't know. In those days, there were some people playing in the courtyard and in the street as well. They were three or four and with a singer, selling the words they were singing, little sheets, you know. Alors, I saw some violinist and I saw the way he held his violin and I asked him how he held his violin.

You were lucky there was somebody there to watch!

SG: Yes! When you are young, everything is easy. So I looked, I looked le position. Sometimes I found somebody who showed me the notes.

Do you like certain keys on the violin better than other keys?

SG: Oh, yes. For the violin, flat is no good. Flat is terrible. Sharp is better. F, Bb, Eb, that goes. But Ab, Db, and Gb, that's terrible. And sometimes, when I have a lot of flats to do, I transfer that into sharps.

Do find it easier to improvise at some times than others?

SG: You know, with Bucky for instance, we play naturally - things coming when you don't expect them. And of course, when we hold something, we keep it. You know what I mean? On rehearsal, when we find something interesting, we are not putting (it) in the dust bin. We keep it! I am lucky. As a matter of fact, my life started when I met Django. Because in those days, before him, I was a musician, playing here, playing there; but I realized when I was with Django, we can produce something not ordinary. I could believe that because everywhere we went, there was great success with Django. They never heard a phenomenon like him. All the guitarists were inspired by Django.

Do you think there is a big difference between composing and improvising?

SG: I don't know. To me, it's like a river. I like all the music, everything. For instance, I would be not surprised to hear Louis Armstrong after the Ninth Symphony of Beethoven. I can hear Beethoven and I can hear Louis Armstrong immediately after, or Art Tatum. Because they are great artists; they are musical. That means I like everything - on condition it is music and art.

    My last meeting with Stéphane in Worcester, Massachusetts in October 1996, the evening after this interview. I brought along my son Jason, who is now a jazz violin student at the Hartt School in Connecticut. Evan Price (now playing with the Hot Club of San Francisco) was also there, joining Stéphane on stage for a multi-fiddle arrangement of "Lady Be Good".


Back to Peter's page