Stéphane Grappelli was born on January 26, 1908, in Paris. Grappelli’s mother died when he was five, leaving his father to raise him. Grappelli began playing the violin at the age of 12 on a three-quarter-sized instrument, which his father purchased by pawning a suit. Although Stéphane received violin lessons, he preferred to learn the instrument on his own.
At the age of 15, Grappelli began busking full-time to support himself. He was eventually hired to accompany silent films. In 1928, Grappelli was a member of the orchestra at the Ambassador Hotel while bandleader Paul Whiteman and jazz violinist Joe Venuti were performing there. Grappelli was struck by Venuti’s bowing when he played “Dinah,” which influenced his technique.
For a time, Grappelli stopped playing the violin, switching to piano which offered more lucrative work. In 1929, Grappelli was pianist with Grégor’s orchestra and the leader learned that he used to play the violin. Delighted by Grappelli’s fiddle improvisations on “Dinah,” Grégor urged him to take it up again.
Grappelli met gypsy jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt in 1931. Seeking a violinist interested in jazz, Django invited Grappelli to play with him in his caravan. Their styles fit together well, but they didn’t form a musical partnership until 1934. Pierre Nourry, the secretary of the Hot Club de France, invited Reinhardt and Grappelli to form the Quintette du Hot Club de France, with Louis Vola on bass and Joseph Reinhardt and Roger Chaput on guitar.
The Quintette du Hot Club de France disbanded in 1939 upon the outbreak of World War II; Grappelli was in London at the time, and stayed there for the duration of the war. He occasionally toured and recorded with Reinhardt thereafter.
While bebop became the dominant jazz idiom in the postwar years, Grappelli remained a swing player. He lapsed into obscurity until his rediscovery in the 1970s, when a new generation of fans discovered the Hot Club sound. Concert tours and many new recordings followed, to much acclaim.
Grappelli continued touring with great success up to the last year of his life. Stéphane Grappelli died in Paris on December 1, 1997.