Obituary: Paul Misraki

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The Independent Culture
THE BRITISH bandleader Jack Hylton and his jazz orchestra toured France in the late Twenties and early Thirties. Duke Ellington, who first appeared in Paris in 1935, was known only to a few fans, and the majority were charmed by the swinging rhythms of Hylton's "big band sound".

Simone de Beauvoir, in her Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter, recounts attending his concerts with Jean-Paul Sartre, and in her most recent book, autobiographical, Derriere l'epaule ("Over My Shoulder"), Francoise Sagan describes her visits to the Vieux Colombier to hear her favourite clarinettists Sidney Bechet and the young Frenchman Andre Reweliotty. It was Jack Hylton's band that also entranced a young Turkish songwriter from Constantinople, Paul Misraki.

He was born Paul Misrachi in 1908 to a large family of Sephardic Jews who emigrated to France, where Paul started piano at the age of three and composed his first valse hesitation, "La Jolie", at the age of seven. He also mastered Ravel and Debussy.

At the Lycee Janson-de-Sailly he became friends with a fellow student mad about jazz, Ray Ventura. They both enjoyed Hylton's concerts and listened to him on the radio. One day, Ventura said: "Why don't we try the same style, in French?" That was the birth of the group that was to attain world-wide renown under the name of "Ray Ventura et ses Collegiens". Misraki was to be associated with them as pianist, arranger and songwriter for many years.

They developed an insouciant, irreverent manner in performances where standard songs and jazz numbers were interspersed with comic sketches and patter songs full of ingenious word play. Their free-and-easy style became very popular. They used the traditional big band antics, with stand- up choreography for solos and ensembles by each section of the orchestra. Immaculate professionals, they soon outdistanced their one-time idol Jack Hylton.

At a time when France was suffering prolonged industrial unrest, and shadows of the Second World War began to approach, fantasy jazz groups that made a speciality of nonsense songs and comic ballads with ironic undertones were the favourites of all those who preferred not to face the dark future lying ahead.

Paul Misraki and Ray Ventura made their official debut at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on Friday 13 March 1931. They were able to rent the hall cheaply because no one wanted to perform on that inauspicious date. In the audience was Henri Varna, the fabled theatre and music-hall impresario who had discovered a host of stars from Josephine Baker, Mistinguett, Maurice Chevalier and Edith Piaf to Tino Rossi and Line Renaud.

Varna engaged the Collegiens on the spot for his revues starring the ex-Comedie-Francaise actress Cecile Sorel at the Casino de Paris, famous for its vertiginous grand staircase down which the star has to make a faultless descent to the stage. Cecile made her first appearance to the tune of Misraki's Celimene, the name of the coquette part in Moliere's Le Misanthrope, in which Sorel had had a great success. When she finally reached the safety of the boards she struck a roguish pose and asked the bewitched audience: "L'ai-je bien descendu?" ("Did I come down the stairs well?") The audience roared "Oui!" and this bit of business became her signature tune, copied by later stars like Line Renaud. Misraki and the Collegiens breathed new life into the old music-hall routines, and their season was a success.

Misraki and Ventura went on tour with the orchestra, and Misraki wrote some of his first big hits with their cheeky patter and sprightly rhythms, including the celebrated "Tout va tres bien Madame la Marquise" ("Everything's going well, Madame la Marquise") in which a succession of comical mishaps is deftly explained and smoothed away by the same idiotic refrain - a symbol of the middle-class French attitude to growing economic and political crises.

In the same heartlessly trivial tone, the rise of the left wing and the Popular Front and the workers' occupation of their factories were laughed away with Misraki's clever dialogue song "Allo, James, quelles nouvelles?" ("Hello, James, what's the news?"). In fact, such silly cynicism and blind optimism in such numbers were not all they appeared to be: they had a serious undercurrent of warning that audiences were too busy laughing and singing along to appreciate. In later years, the sadness of their painful clowning became painfully evident. They sound today tragically frivolous, like "Qu'est-ce qu'on attend pour etre heureux?" ("Let's get happy").

Misraki felt that his piano playing was now not up to the ever-higher professional standards of Ventura's inspired performances. So he left the band but continued to provide it with memorable songs. One of them, "Ca vaut mieux que d'attraper la scarlatine" ("That's better than catching scarlet fever") became the theme song of his first operetta, La Petite Datcha (1937). He also wrote the scores for all Ray Ventura's film and stage musicals.

When war finally broke out, during the drole de guerre Misraki "did his bit" for the sluggish French war effort by adapting that inane British song "We're going to hang out the washing on the Siegfried Line" as "On ira pendre notre linge sur la Ligne Siegfried" - a ditty that became a little more bearable in French. The influence of Charles Trenet was marked in "Tiens, tiens, tiens".

With the Occupation, Misraki knew that as a Jew he was in danger of being sent to a concentration camp. He was able to escape to the temporarily non-occupied southern zone where he wrote one of his most poignant ballads, "Insensiblement" ("Imperceptibly"), full of Oriental fatalism. Then he departed with the orchestra to South America, where he spent two years in Argentina and Brazil, playing in cabarets and dance halls with their new-found star Henri Salvador. They returned to post-war Paris with lots of tropical rhythms in their new orchestrations. Misraki composed a symphonic poem, Rapsodia Brasiliera, which was performed with great success in 1967 by the symphony orchestra of the Concerts Colonne. "Maria de Bahia" was a big 1940 hit by the Starlighters in the United States.

Misraki's most productive period, in films, now began. Danielle Darrieux had had a big hit in the film Battements de coeur in 1939, directed by Henri Decoin. In Hollywood, RKO took an option on the story, and Misraki was asked to the studio to supervise the musical score for the remake starring Ginger Rogers and Jean-Pierre Aumont (Heartbeat, 1946) and directed by Sam Wood.

Misraki could have stayed on in Hollywood, but his heart was in Paris, and he returned there to compose the scores for many films, among them Jacques Becker's Montparnasse 19 (1957) and Ali Baba, with Fernandel (1954), Bunuel's La Mort en ce jardin (1956) and La Fievre monte a El Pao (1959), and Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos (1962). In Rio de Janeiro, Misraki had met Orson Welles at the first screening of Citizen Kane, and Welles commissioned him to write the music for Mr Arkadin (1955) which prompted Jean-Luc Godard to hire him for the score of his science-fiction feature Alphaville (1965). Misraki, like many others, found the film mystifying: "I recorded the music for Alphaville without knowing how Godard was going to use it. There were scenes where he had overamplified the music to such an extent that parts of Lemmy Caution's dialogues became incomprehensible." He added, with disarming naivety: "It was deliberate."

All in all, Misraki, by his own count, wrote 183 songs and 145 film scores. A mystical element in his nature became ever stronger as he grew older, and he wrote several works on esoteric themes like extra-terrestrials and reincarnation. In 1960 he wrote an admirable book on the theologian Teilhard de Chardin, Pour comprendre Teilhard. His autobiography, La Maison de mon pere, was awarded the Grand Prix of the Academie Francaise, and he also wrote two novels.

The public taste for his music began to fade away, but the retro mood of the Seventies brought him back to popularity with the successors to the Collegiens, the "Splendid" troupe of comedians and singers. In December 1993, Sacha Distel, in his season at the Olympia, devoted most of his programme to the delightful creations of "uncle" Ventura and "uncle" Paul Misraki.

James Kirkup

Paul Misrachi (Paul Misraki), songwriter, writer: born Constantinople 28 January 1908; married 1950 Cecile Souzaret (two sons, one daughter); died Paris 30 October 1998.