I was deeply saddened to hear of the untimely death on 18 February, 2018 of one of the greatest jazz violin legends, Didier Lockwood, aged just sixty-two, following a heart attack. He had played a concert at Bal Blomet in Paris just a day before.
Music lovers will remember his electrifying performance, hosted by Alliance Française at the Kala Academy open air auditorium some decades ago (late 1980s or early 1990s). Those were heady times, with concerts at that venue that will stay with me for life. The Didier Lockwood concert is certainly up there with the best of them. I know one has a tendency to romanticize the past (and I am particularly guilty of this sin) but I remember it as truly magical, with a starry night sky as a canopy and a bright moon adding even more atmosphere in the amphitheater to Lockwood’s virtuosity.
It was my first exposure to live electric jazz violin, and I was fortunate to hear it played so superbly. For the better part of my growing-up years, I had listened to many of the violin greats of the western classical world, but the audio cassette, the explosion in accessibility to music via labels like Magnasound and Times Music, and of course concerts like these, opened new vistas.
Around this time, (as I had described in an earlier column) I had also discovered “Conversations”, the mind-blowing collaborative album between L. Subramaniam and Stéphane Grappelli, which also was an entry point not only to Indian classical violin, but also to other jazz violin greats, particularly Jean-Luc Ponty, who I now learn was the inspiration for Lockwood.
Didier Lockwood was born in Calais in 1956 into a family steeped in music and the arts; his father (of British descent) was a violin teacher, his mother an amateur painter and his elder brother Francis was a jazz pianist.
His father was not only his first violin teacher, but seems to have been a charismatic champion of music in the local community. “Thanks to music, he saved lots of kids who might have ended up in jail,” Didier Lockwood would later recall. Perhaps it was this debt and recognition of the life-changing significance of music education that would inspire the formation of ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ in 2001.
Didier Lockwood entered the Calais Conservatoire aged just six. Lockwood’s phenomenal technique and prowess on his instrument can be traced back to his rigorous schooling in the Carl Flesch method while studying here, which he put to good use in his jazz career.
He joined the Orchestre Lyrique de Théâtre Municipal de Calais when he was thirteen. At sixteen, he won First Prize for violin at the Conservatoire National de Calais, as well as First National Prize for composition of contemporary music for “prepared violin” (“violon préparé”) at La Sacem (Société des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique).
He was poised to move on to the Paris conservatoire for further study, when he discovered the liberating, exhilarating joy of improvisation from his brother. Jean-Luc Ponty was a strong influence here. It was on listening to Ponty’s playing on album ‘King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa’ that Lockwood first took up electric violin. He joined the French progressive rock group Magma at the age of seventeen.
Then the gravitational pull of jazz grew even stronger. Several of Lockwood’s obituaries describe him as the “spiritual son” of Stéphane Grappelli (1908-1997), a nickname given by Grappelli himself. Lockwood was playing at a jazz festival in 1976 when Grappelli first heard him. Obviously impressed, he invited the young Lockwood to accompany him on a tour of Europe.
In a 2008 interview to Radio France, Lockwood acknowledged, “That was the start of my career, the launchpad that got me into the world of popular jazz.” Grappelli would become Lockwood’s teacher and mentor. In 2000, Lockwood would dedicate a much-acclaimed tribute album to Grappelli. It is well worth a listen. While the doffing of the cap to Grappelli is unmistakable, Lockwood’s distinctive sound is nevertheless still clearly evident.
There is a touching story of an instrument being emblematic of the goodwill and bonhomie between so many jazz violin legends and becoming a thread that connects them. The great but tragically short-lived French classical and jazz violinist Michel Maurice Armand Warlop (1911-1947) was also orchestra leader of some of Grappelli’s first recordings. In 1937, he gifted one of his violins (known today as ‘the Warlop violin’) to Grappelli, who in turn gave it to Jean-Luc Ponty, who would then present it in 1979 to Lockwood.
Lockwood’s international career spanned around 4500 concerts and over 35 record albums. He also wrote two operas, a concerto for piano and orchestra, two concertos for violin, lyrical works and music for films and cartoons.
He drew inspiration from sources beyond his instrument, such as jazz saxophone (John Coltrane) and guitar (John McLaughlin).
Lockwood was never too far away from classical music. He married twice, both times to sopranos, first to Caroline Casadesus and then Patricia Petitbon.
Tributes have poured In from French President Emmanuel Macron, and from the music fraternity all over the world. President Macron described him in a tweet as “friend and partner of the greatest, as much keen to bind cultures as to transmit to the greatest number. His radiance, open-mindedness and immense musical talent will be missed.”
French classical violinist Renaud Capuçon said “France has lost an exceptional musician, a man of rare qualities” in the passing of “incomparable” Didier Lockwood.
Lockwood’s enduring legacy that will live on after him is his creation, ‘Le Centre des Musiques Didier Lockwood’ (CMDL). His website explains how he felt the particular need to do this after his childhood experience of pedagogy at the conservatoire, which while technically sound, was “too theoretical and rigid.” Such an education only taught him “to reproduce a virtuoso technique to the detriment of all personal creativity.” While “not denying the need to acquire the solid technique of classical teaching”, he asserted that the modern musician “must know how to approach all musical style.”
Lockwood would say to his students, “Jazz is the body, it is an internal dance.” He danced it to the very end.
(An edited version of this article was published on 4 March 2018 in my weekend column ‘On the Upbeat’ in the Panorama section of the Navhind Times Goa India)