Stephane Grappelli, a world renowned French jazz violinist who, along with equally famous Gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt, helped shatter the image of jazz as an exclusively American art form in the 1930s, died Monday in Paris of complications after undergoing a hernia operation several days earlier. He was 89.
He performed his last concert in September, said his manager, Michel Chouanard.
Grappelli was the last surviving member of the Hot Club Quintet — the rage of European jazz fans in the 1930s when he teamed with Reinhardt.
Having begun his musical career at age 15, Grappelli tirelessly performed into the 1990s, recording more than 100 albums.
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.
Born Jan. 25, 1908, the son of a philosophy professor, Grappelli started his career as a pianist for silent films.
He 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 age 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 1929, Grappelli wandered the streets of Paris with his violin, playing for money and food. He met Reinhardt during the time, and they struggled together.
They 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.
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.
A slight stroke in 1993 forced Grappelli to cancel just one month of gigs. In 1994, he had surgery to replace an artery in his neck, and that kept him off the stage for two months.
But Grappelli was weak and confined to a wheelchair at his last public appearance Sept. 11 at French President Jacques Chirac’s Elysee Palace, where he was decorated with the Commander of the Legion of Honor, the country’s highest civilian honor.
Grappelli is survived by a daughter and a grandson.