Legendary jazz guitarist Django Reinhardt’s name is a familiar one even now, six decades after his death. But less is said about the other half of the equation that led to world-wide fame — his frequent collaborator, violinist Stéphane Grappelli — who continued to pursue his muse for more than forty years after his friend’s death, and was still vibrantly performing right up until his own demise at age 89.
Born in Paris to upper class French/Italian parents, Grappelli was mostly self-taught on both piano and violin, although he did study for a while at the Paris Conservatoire. As a teenager in the early 1920s he often performed as a street musician while also making occasional appearances in theaters and local bands.
In the early 1930s he grew acquainted with Jean ‘Django’ Reinhardt, who’d grown up in Gypsy encampments in the Paris area and was by then beginning to make a name for himself as a jazz guitarist. He might have seemed an odd match for he aristocratic Grappelli, but the twosome soon became musical collaborators and good friends, and after forming the Quintet of the Hot Club of France, they spent the rest of the decade becoming the toast of Europe. Along the way they made an amazing number of memorable records, most of them still available.
The beginning of World War II also marked the end of the quintet, as Grappelli chose to live in London and Reinhardt stayed in Paris. Although the two would occasionally work together in later years, Grappelli began the second phase of his long career, one that would include numerous solo performances along with collaborations with a dizzying list of stars. Among them were George Shearing (who actually got his start with Grappelli), Duke Ellington, Oscar Peterson, and in later years Andre Previn and Yo Yo Ma. He was still entertaining fans when he died in 1997.