Born on April 10, 1930, in Cannes, France.

Claude Bolling is highly respected in the jazz world for both his small ensemble and big band work, and for his ambitious renditions of Duke Ellington compositions. In addition, his classical crossover recordings have been widely acclaimed, as have his soundtracks and work for French television.

Bolling was born on April 10, 1930, in Cannes, France, but has spent his entire life in and around Paris. He began studying classical music as a youth, but when he was a teenager a friend introduced him to the music of Fats Waller, and he discovered that his true passion was jazz. He began listening to other jazz greats such as Earl Hines, Willie "The Lion" Smith and Duke Ellington, who would become his musical inspiration. In 1944, at the age of 15, Bolling entered and won the Best Piano Player prize at the Hot Club de France's annual musical competition. Following this victory, Bolling's father presented him to the Societé des Auteurs, Compositeurs et Editeurs de Musique, and the pianist was accepted as their youngest member. In 1945 he formed his first professional ensemble, a Dixieland band, and made his first recording two years later at the age of 18.

Looking to expand his abilities, Bolling began studying with a series of French jazz masters, including Germaine Mounier, Léo Chauliac, Maurice Duruflé, and André Hodeir. He served for a time in the French military, where he played trombone and percussion in military ensembles. When he returned from his service, he began playing in French jazz clubs. After the end of World War II many American jazz musicians traveled in Europe, and Bolling played and recorded with many of them, including cornetist Rex Stewart, saxophonists Don Byas and Coleman Hawkins, vibraphonist Lionel Hampton, vocalist Carmen McRae, clarinetist Albert Nicholas, and trumpeters Cat Anderson, Roy Eldridge and Thad Jones. He also formed his own ensemble, the Show Biz Band, during the post-war years.

Bolling recorded and performed throughout the 1950s and 1960s, making a name for himself in France. As his reputation grew, he was asked to arrange compositions for popular musicians, the first being Boris Vian's Possible and Impossible Songs. As a result of the album's success, Bolling began composing for a variety of pop artists, including Sacha Distel, Jacqueline Francois, Juliette Greco, Henri El Salvador, and Brigitte Bardot. Bolling was called upon to score films as well. Throughout his career he has written more than 100 soundtracks, the most popular of which include The Day and The Hour, Borsalino, The Splendid One, and The Awakening. His success in films led to work scoring television productions as well, and he has composed music for such shows as The Brigades of the Tiger, Garçonne, and The Clan.

Bolling became a major name in the United States after the 1975 release of Suite for Flute and Jazz Piano Trio, recorded with flutist Jean-Pierre Rampal, who would become a long-time collaborator. The album, which hit number one and remained on Billboard's classical charts for ten years, exemplified the fact that Bolling's work was not category-specific, since Suite incorporated elements of both classical and jazz music. Bolling told Crescendo International that he has always been adaptable: "If I'd been born twenty years later, I would surely have been playing some rock music and, in another era, baroque music!" The album's overwhelming popularity took him by surprise, however. "It was made seriously in one way, but really for fun," he recalled in an issue of Down Beat.

The following year Bolling formed the Claude Bolling Big Band, which celebrated its 20th anniversary in 1996 with a tour of the United States, Asia, Mexico, and South America. Bolling also continued to record various suites, often reuniting with Rampal but also working with violinist Pinchas Zuckerman, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, guitarist Alexandre Lagoya, trumpeter (and former teacher) André, and the English Chamber Orchestra. In 1991 Bolling met and recorded with another French jazz legend, violinist Stéphane Grapelli. The result of this meeting was the album First Class, released by Fremeaux and Associes and the winner of the European Jazz Foundation's Django d'Or.

In 1986 Bolling released a tribute to composer, pianist, and band leader Duke Ellington in the form of a two-part collection titled Bolling Plays Ellington, Volumes 1 and 2. "The first time I heard the music of Duke Ellington, it was as if some magic was actually happening," Bolling wrote on the jacket for the first volume of the recording. In the 1990s Bolling began delving into rarely attempted Duke Ellington compositions, beginning with Ellington's 1943 jazz suite Black, Brown & Beige. Ellington's son Mercer Ellington remarked in Crescendo and Jazz Music, "Little would one suspect that a gentleman from the land of the tricolor could distinguish himself with three shades of brown. ... You'll find the occasion rare where this work is performed in its entirety. ... Even Duke Ellington performed it completely only twice in the course of his life." Bolling recorded the suite for the Milan label in 1993. The younger Ellington expressed his extreme admiration for Bolling's undertaking in Crescendo and Jazz Music: "Thank goodness he helps to keep the genius of Duke Ellington alive. And further . . . it takes a genius to know a genius."

In 1994, at the Memorial de Caen, Bolling's big band gave the first in a series of concerts observing the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II. Bolling went on to perform Ellington's A Drum Is a Woman at the Palais de Cahillot in Paris on March 22, 1996. The work was captured on a live album released by Milan in 1996. He followed up with yet another Milan release, A Tribute to Duke Ellington, in 1999.

Bolling has remained ever ambitious into the new milennium, continuing to tour and record with his big band and releasing additional ensemble pieces as well. In 2003 alone, he released eight albums. Today Bolling is regarded as one of the French jazz masters. "Since Grapelli, [guitarist] Django [Reinhart] and the early Hot Club days, France has made many contributions to international jazz," wrote Raymond Horricks in Crescendo International. "Claude Bolling belongs with the best of them."

by Kristin Palm

Claude Bolling's Career

Recorded as soloist in small ensembles; recorded as soloist with Rex Stewart (1948-49), Roy Eldridge (1951-61), Don Byas (1951), Lionel Hampton (1953-56), Albert Nicholas (1955), Coleman Hawkins (1961), and Cat Anderson (1964); led the Show Biz Band, then the Claude Bolling Big Band, into the 1990s.

Claude Bolling's Awards

Django d'Or for First Class, 1991; Médaille d'Or Maurice Ravel.

Famous Works

Further Reading



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