Peter Batten writes about a great love …
My promise to provide an article for every issue of The Whistler has led me to make several embarrassing confessions. Here comes another. I fell in love with the great jazz violinist, Stephane Grappelli (pictured).
I can remember exactly when it happened. It was a warm July evening in 1957. The place was the Circus Hall at Schevenigen in Holland. Earlier, I had played trumpet with the Cambridge University Jazz Band. We were top of the bill for the first half of the evening, which featured Traditional Jazz. After an interval the second half of the evening would feature Stephane, accompanied by the pianist Raymond Fol and two excellent Dutch musicians.
I was interested to hear “Steff”, as some of his fans called him, in person. Several of his recordings with the great gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt were known to me; in fact, I had not really enjoyed their music, which seemed dominated by heavy guitar rhythms. I managed to find a seat close to the stage. What came next held me enthralled. From the first note, Stephane played with great attack, powerful swing and wonderful imagination. I loved the tunes that he selected. Among them the beautiful ballad ‘Willow Weep for Me’ was a tune which I had been practising; while the old favourite ‘Shine’ was one we might have chosen to play earlier in the evening.
Stephane was a handsome man, with great personal charm. I am sure over the years many men fell in love with him. What I fell in love with was the beautiful jazz which he played and, especially, the tunes which he loved to play. He made me realise that, for the rest of my career, those were the tunes that I wanted to play. Later, as I listened to his recordings, it was obvious that I much preferred to hear him accompanied by a sympathetic pianist: Oscar Peterson, for example, or our own Alan Clare.
Let me say something about the tunes. I mean the great songs of Richard Rogers, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin and so many others. To name a few of my favourites: ‘Night and Day’, ‘Our Love is Here to Stay’, ‘I Thought about You’, ‘Limehouse Blues’, ‘Pennies from Heaven’, ‘What is This Thing Called Love’, ‘Mean to Me’ . . . I was delighted when the Bossa Nova era added to the list wonderful songs like ‘The Girl from Ipanema’ and ‘Meditation’.
Finally, a coincidence. My role in the University Jazz Band required me to play like the great American cornetist, Wild Bill Davison. He was famous for his hot, aggressive playing and his ability to lead a Dixieland jazz band with a subtle, but effective, feeling for time. I spent a year learning from his recordings with Eddie Condon’s band. Later in my life I heard him in person many times, and even got to play a duet with him. Therefore, I was surprised and delighted to discover that he, too, loved the sort of tunes that Stephane played so beautifully. Whenever he got the chance he would play them with great feeling and subtlety. He even recorded some of his favourites with orchestral strings.
How fortunate I have been to have such beautiful music in my life and to meet such great musicians.