As a pianist, composer and bandleader, who also composed more than 100 film scores, the leading figure of French jazz
Since the early 1950s, Claude Bolling, the pianist, composer and bandleader who died at the age of 90, has been a leading figure in French jazz, collaborating with many foreign stars and celebrating the rich and dynamic past of jazz with his own special brand of virtuoso enthusiasm. As a youth, Bolling’s piano abilities won him broad praise, and he established a jazz piano style audibly inspired by his lifelong idol, Duke Ellington, as well as Earl Hines, Teddy Wilson, and Art Tatum. He also became an exponent of the piano technique, the energetic, dance-like proto-jazz style of ragtime, which had originally inspired the “stride” approach of many of his piano idols. As a sophisticated musician, Bolling adapted easily to other musical settings. He successfully assembled a group of Left Bank writer and musician Boris Vian’s surreally defiant songs (who nicknamed him ‘Bollington’) and in the 1960s he made his way into the French pop scene, including as an arranger for Sacha Distel, Brigitte Bardot, and Juliette Gréco, and as an MD for Les Parisiennes, a kitschy but influential trad-jazz-meets-pop vocal quartet.
Bolling, however, never lost sight of his first love: he recorded with leading Ellington soloists in France, including saxophonist Paul Gonsalves and trumpeter Cat Anderson, and collaborated with singer Carmen McRae. While he enjoyed the subtleties and textures of Ellington, Bolling’s own big bands featured a more straightforward and riff-driven Count Basie-like aspect, and with his Show Bizz Band and Claude Bolling Big Band he was in constant demand. Bolling wrote more than 100 film scores, perhaps his best known for the gangster film Borsalino Deray by Jacques Deray (1970). He also explored hybrid jazz and classical composition styles, collaborating on Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano with classical flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal in 1975, which became a big success in America, earning both platinum and gold records.
With guitarist Alexandre Lagoya, violinists Pinchas Zukerman and Patrice Fontanarosa, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, and harpist Marielle Nordmann, Bolling also explored the boundaries between jazz and classical music. Bolling, the son of Geneviève (née Brannens) and Henri Bolling, was born in Cannes in southern France, where his father served as a hotel manager, but spent much of his time living in Paris.
He was a prodigious talent even as a young boy, winning a competition organized by Jazz Hot magazine and the Hot Club de France at the age of 14. He led a small band within a year, inspired by both early New Orleans jazz and the music of Ellington. He sought guidance from teachers such as classical pianist Germaine Mounier and jazz pianist Léo Chauliac and, with Maurice Duruflé and composer and Jazz Hot editor André Hodeir, studied harmony and orchestration. Bolling quickly established both his own identity and the sensitivity and alertness to work with unknown players in famous Parisian jazz clubs like Club St Germain and Caveau de la Huchette. The young pianist accompanied the American blues singer Chippie Hill in 1948 and had collaborated with American swing trumpet luminaries such as Rex Stewart, Roy Eldridge, and Buck Clayton by the time he was 21, as well as the imposing saxophonist Don Byas. Bolling also collaborated with swing vibraphone star Lionel Hampton in the mid-1950s (to whom he subsequently devoted a tribute project) and led his own orchestra in 1955. Over the decades, numerous editions of this band became the primary vehicle for Bolling’s work, and he took them on tour regularly. The first full recording of Ellington’s masterpiece Black, Brown and Beige was made by Bolling in 1989, which the composer had originally only released in an abridged edition in 1958.
In 1994, at the 50th anniversary D-Day concerts at the Mémorial de Caen in Normandy, the Bolling party played a prominent role (Bolling was a regular choice for high-profile public events in France).
In 1996, with tours of the United States, Asia and South America, his orchestra celebrated its 20th anniversary and performed the Ellington suite A Drum Is a Woman at the Palais de Chaillot in Paris, with Cameroonian saxophonist Manu Dibango as narrator. In 2003, with a jubilant celebration of the work of 12 piano jazz giants, from Scott Joplin’s ragtime to Oscar Peterson’s furiously deft swing, on the album Tribute to the P, Bolling reiterated his devotion to the piano