Sunday, May 20, 2018

Al Haig: [1924-1982]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

You really have to mine the Jazz literature to find anything about Al Haig, who was part of a group of the fine, pioneering Bebop pianists that included George Wallington, Joe Albany,and  Dodo Marmorosa.

Unfortunately, they drew little attention during their time in the music and even less so today.

In an effort to help correct this lack of awareness, the editorial staff at JazzProfiles thought it would be fun to share the references that we dug out about Al and string them together into  the following composite feature.

John Chilton, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz

“Haig was among the first jazz pianists to blend the postwar innovations of bop into a consistent, personal style. His exceptional technique, besides allowing him to relax even when improvising at very fast tempos, gave him a flexibility and quickness of response that made him a fine accompanist to soloists as stylistically diverse as Stan Getz and Fats Navarro, though his associations with Gillespie and Charlie Parker were musically the most significant of his career. His many brief solos on recordings led by other musicians during the 1940s show the ability he acquired for concise expression; while unflaggingly inventive, they are usually understated, with sensitive rhythmic and harmonic nuances. Haig's later work is richer in texture and of greater emotional depth.”

Ira Gitler: Jazz Masters of the 40’s.

“Al Haig, the pianist for Parker and Gillespie in their classic quintet of 1945, was superficially like Powell but quite different in his lighter-touch approach. His style was impeccable and quite pianistic, reflecting a very highly developed technique. He was a definite influence on Hank Jones and, through him, on other men, such as Tommy Flanagan. Besides his solo abilities, Haig was an excellent accompanist. One trademark was his "comping" two octaves below his right hand's single solo lines. "At their best Haig's accompaniments, like those of John Lewis, are enhancing commentaries rather than mere backgrounds," Max Harrison wrote in the June, 1960, issue of The Jazz Review.

Haig shone as both soloist and accompanist with Charlie Parker's quintet (1949-1950) and Stan Getz's quartet and quintet. After that he drifted in and out of obscurity, appearing briefly with Chet Baker in 1954 and Gillespie in 1956. By the sixties, he was back in the New York area on a permanent basis, but his musical alliances were with small pop groups that catered to the dancing needs of the society set, from East Side clubs to Southampton and Bermuda.

Haig and Wellington went through a lot of the personal turmoil peculiar to their idiom and era, but when they leveled out, each in his own way, both left jazz.
The same seemed true of Dodo Marmarosa, ….”

Dick Katz, Pianists of the 1940s and 1950s in Bill Kirchner, ed., The Oxford Companion to Jazz.

“Naturally, Powell had many followers. Among the earliest to master the style was Al Haig, a pianist with a refined technique, who brought a cool, controlled approach to the idiom. Whereas Powell was torrential, Haig played shorter lines with a light touch and cool aplomb. His ballads showed his classical training to good advantage; his pedaling was exemplary. His best work, in the opinion of many, was with Parker, and also on the early records of Stan Getz on the Roost label.”

Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler, The Biographical Encyclopedia of Jazz

“Along with Bud Powell, Haig was among the first and best of the bop pianists., who quickly adapted Parker and Gillespie's melodic and harmonic ingenuity to the pno. His technical expertise made him seem relaxed, even at whirlwind tempos, and his numerous late '405 recs. as sideman for an incredible array of musicians display the sensitivity and prowess that made him so much in demand.”

Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Acknowledged as a master of bebop piano, Haig has nevertheless suffered in comparison to many of his peers through his neglect as a recording artist in later years; he never made a single album for a major label. His work with Parker, Gillespie, Getz and others shows how fine an accompanist and group pianist he was, but his 'name' work is even finer and implies a rare mastery: he was effectively an understated, 'cool' stylist inside the hot medium of bebop. He enjoyed a revival of interest in the 1970s but died before he could reap any great rewards from it….”

Al Haig was deplorably served by records in the earlier part of his career, and as a result he is almost the forgotten man of bebop piano. Yet he was as great a figure as any of the bebop masters. If he denied himself the high passion of Bud Powell's music, he was still a force of eloquence and intensity, and his refined touch lent him a striking individuality within his milieu. The first trio album The Al Haig Trio Esoteric! [Fresh Sound FSR-CD 38 Haig; Bill Crow (b); Lee Abrams (d). 3/54.] originally released on the Esoteric label, is a masterpiece that can stand with any of the work of Powell or Monk. Haig's elegance of touch and line, his virtually perfect delivery, links him with a pianist such as Teddy Wilson rather than with any of his immediate contemporaries, and certainly his delivery … has a kinship with the language of Wilson's generation. Yet his complexity of tone and the occasionally cryptic delivery are unequivocally modern, absolutely of the bop lineage. Voicings and touch have a symmetry and refinement that other boppers, from Powell and Duke Jordan to Joe Albany and Dodo Marmarosa, seldom approached.

Haig went through a burst of recording late in his life and he remained a marvelous musician to the end.

C. Gerald Frazer, New York Times, November 17, 1982 [Obituary]

Al Haig, an early be-bop pianist, died of a heart attack yesterday in his Manhattan home. He was 58 years old. Mr. Haig was a member of the Charlie Parker Quintet, which performed at the Three Deuces on West 52d Street and which is credited with helping to introduce be-bop. The group was made up of Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Max Roach, Tommy Potter and Mr. Haig. He also played the piano on the classic Guild recordings made in 1945 with Mr. Parker, Mr. Gillespie, Curley Russell and Sid Catlett.

In an interview several years ago, Mr. Haig said that he and Tiny Grimes, the guitarist, had been playing at the Spotlight on 52d Street, noted for its numerous jazz clubs, when he first heard Charlie (Bird) Parker's alto saxophone:

''One night, Dizzy and Bird came in with their instruments, unpacked them and swooped up on the stand and started playing 'Shaw Nuff' or some damned thing. I'd been following Dizzy on records, but it was the first time I'd ever heard Bird. I knew they were auditioning me because they were so businesslike. They unpacked their horns like they were machine guns.'' Lean and Delicate Style

Mr. Haig's piano style, lean and delicate, was influenced by Nat (King) Cole, Teddy Wilson and then Bud Powell, one of the creators of bop. The be-bop style originated in the early 40's. Its specific creation, however, has not been authenticated.

''The big mystery is that nobody knows who did what,'' Mr. Haig once said. ''I often thought that it might have been Bud Powell out in the woods with the trumpet player Cootie Williams. Powell was really the creator of the whole thing because his playing was so completely perfect and so highly stylized in that idiom. He outbirded Bird and he outdizzied Dizzy. And here he was playing on a percussive instrument, not a front-line instrument, and at times outdoing any of them.''

During World War II, Mr. Haig, played with Coast Guard bands; later, he worked with Jerry Wald, briefly; Charlie Barnet, Jimmy Dorsey, Stan Getz and Chet Baker. Over the years, he made numerous appearances at cocktail lounges and jazz festivals."

The following video tribute features Al playing "The Way You Look Tonight w with Lee Konitz (as), Richie Kamuca (ts), Conte Candoli (tp), Frank Rosolino (tb), Don Bagley (b), Stan Levey (ds) Album:"Al Haig / Cleff Session 1953" .
Recorded: Hollywood, CA, Jan. 11, 1953

Saturday, May 19, 2018

Basie Plays Hefti (Bonus Track Version)

Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved

“A thorough view of the ill-fated and sorely neglected Mobley .... [Ansell's] analysis of the tenorist's recordings, virtually all Blue Note classics, is finely articulated and makes this a recommended read.”
-Will Smith, Jazz Times.

“Through an analysis of his recordings, Ansell argues convincingly for Mobley's importance as a hard bop innovator, as a creative and inventive soloist and as a composer and arranger. Studies like this possibly represent the most fruitful way forward in jazz literature.”
- Chris Yates, Jazz Rag.

“A useful guide to a saxophonist described by Horace Silver as ‘one of the most underrated musicians in jazz.’”
- Peter Vacher, Jazz UK

“[Ansell] succeeds in making the reader go to the music, which as much as anything else is surely the purpose of the book.”
- Nic Jones,

In JazzProfiles’ continuing efforts to shed more light on the career of tenor saxophonist and composer, Hank Mobley [1930-1986], we now come to the only book on him that I’ve been able to find and the fact that there is a book length treatment on him at all seems to be a minor miracle in and of itself.

A major reason for our efforts to help rescue Hank from obscurity can be summed up in the following quotation from Derek Ansell, the author of the biography which is entitled Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley :

“He was one of a relatively short list of great tenor saxophonists; innovative, creative jazz musicians who not only had a distinctive sound but contributed immensely to the development and evolution of the music.”

In order to rectify Mobley’s underrated, overlooked, underappreciated position, Derek extensively examines and details all of Hank’s recordings as both a sideman and as a leader.

One could argue that given the limited primary material on Hank - he sat for one extensive interview with John Litweiler which was published in Downbeat in 1973 - that Derek’s reliance on Hank’s recordings and their liner notes offers a limited perspective on his life and artistry.

But the main benefit of this approach is that it gets the reader back to listening to Hank’s music and, in a sense, back to where Mobley’s true importance lays. To paraphrase the late, Richard Sudhalter: Jazz musicians are their music; the two are one and the same; inseparable.

Derek offers some compelling reasons and possible explanations for Mobley’s diminished position in Jazz circles, as well as, a number of convincing arguments for establishing him as a significant figure in modern Jazz from 1955-1975 in the following Introduction and opening pages to his first chapter.


Hank Mobley was unique. He was much admired by other musicians, many of whom rated him as one of the very greatest modern stylists, and a tenor saxophonist who sold more records than almost anybody else on the Blue Note label. Yet he still managed to attract a lot of flack, at best, from critics and jazz commentators who undervalued his solo strengths and contributions to modern jazz and, at worst, from those who regarded him as obscure and unimportant.

A jazz musician who recorded twenty-five LPs as a leader for one independent record label and more for other companies can hardly be called obscure. Add in numerous sideman appearances in the 1950s and 1960s - far more than most musicians in his sphere, and a face that was well-known from liner photographs and even made the cover shot of The Blue Note Years: The Jazz Photography of Francis Wolff and you have a significant musician. And yet Hank Mobley was consistently underrated, unfavourably compared with some of his more flamboyant contemporaries of the day and never really given his due as a consistently inventive and often innovative tenor sax soloist and a composer of considerable skill and imagination.

Should you wish to know more about the major jazz musicians who made their names in the 1950s and 1960s, you will find plenty of books about John Coltrane, Sonny Rollins and other key figures of the bop and hard bop movements of that time, but until now there has not been one about Hank Mobley. Why? The general consensus seems to be that Coltrane, Rollins
and even lesser talents such as Johnny Griffin, possessing hard, edgy tones in the fashion of the day, all tended to overshadow Mobley's quieter approach.

The hard bop sound was certainly used and developed by those musicians and you could hardly ignore the spectacular playing of Rollins and Trane, but it really wasn't that simple, as I attempt to show over the following pages. Partly, of course, it was a question of influences: Rollins from Coleman Hawkins; Trane from IHawk and Lester Young; Stan Getz from Lester Young. Getz is a good example: tremendously popular, he developed a modern, Parker-influenced variation of Young's approach to tenor playing but, because the earlier styles and sound were so well known to jazz aficionados, he was quickly accepted and soon winning polls and filling venues. Hank Mobley, on the other hand, had a light, lyrical sound that was all his own, not like that of anybody who had gone before, even though his style descended directly from Charlie Parker.

Jazz, for all the innovation, excitement and boundary pushing by key musicians over the years has, curiously, always managed to breed ultra-conservative followers. Jazz fans tend to stick to what they know and like and take slowly, if at all, to new ideas and styles. It took a long time for most fans to adjust to the modern jazz of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, and even longer for them to accept Thelonious Monk, that iconoclastic genius of modern piano. It took years for the innovations of Ornette Coleman, Cecil Taylor and Eric Dolphy to become absorbed into the mainstream and many jazz enthusiasts have still not made the final transition. Most jazz critics and writers cannot agree about anything much and fans tend to stick with a particular style and era to the exclusion of all else.

It is true to say that all jazz enthusiasts have a particular favourite jazz era, the one in which they first started to listen to the music. This overrides almost every other consideration for most people. I have yet to meet anyone who is exempt from this rule, myself included. Older people often have a lifelong love of New Orleans jazz that seldom extends beyond the swing era of the 1930s and early 1940s. The big band era is everything to some batches of enthusiasts and they have little time for other jazz periods.

Others, including many prominent critics, embraced the bop revolution of the 1940s, happily congratulating themselves on their powers of understanding, but could never quite come to terms with the minor revolution of the 1960s avant-garde movement. Yet more are totally overwhelmed by the cool music of the West Coast school in California and have little or no time for any other style.

Show me someone who embraces the best of jazz and the greatest musicians from New Orleans to California by way of Chicago and New York City, who can and does enjoy a wide range of jazz by Armstrong, Beiderbecke, Young, Hawkins, Parker, Gillespie, Monk, Coltrane, Rollins, Mobley, Coleman, Dolphy, Taylor (Cecil, that is) and many others, and you will be showing me a real jazz enthusiast, someone who understands the true, ever-changing, ever-developing, constantly evolving nature of this music. But there are precious few of them around.

Hank Mobley was just one of many who missed out on the accolades and the big time and the fame and fortune. Partly, his ultimate, overall failure to make it was his own fault; it happened for many other reasons too. This is his story.”

Chapter 1

Early Messages 1954-55

“Hank Mobley seemed to arrive on the jazz scene in New York City from out of nowhere, with a sound and style all his own. Where others had taken years of preparation, rehearsal and work in various rhythm and blues bands, there was Hank, with little playing experience behind him, fully formed and raring to go. He was one of a relatively short list of great tenor saxophonists; innovative, creative jazz musicians who not only had a distinctive sound but contributed immensely to the development and evolution of the music.

Consider the most important musicians on the tenor saxophone. Coleman I lawkins came along first and made his mark as a distinctive soloist. For many years Hawkins was the major influence and source of inspiration to all jazz musicians who played tenor sax and the most important of them took their lead and general stylistic approach from him. Then, some years later, Lester Young showed that a radically different approach was possible. Many years after that, Sonny Rollins came along with an updated approach to the Hawkins concept and a little while later John Coltrane appeared with a sound and style that were utterly unique. Although his style had roots in what Hawkins and Young had done before, it was completely and utterly new and original. So new and original, in fact, that it took many commentators and people who thought they knew a thing or two about jazz at least ten years to appreciate the man's importance. In the 1960s, briefly, Albert Ayler offered yet another unique voice with a sound and style that were both radical and, in their reliance on old folk strains, fairly conservative.

The odd man out was Hank Mobley. He started to play with big name bands in 1951 when Max Roach hired him but, from then until his premature death in May 1986, he was creative, original, often brilliant, but consistently underrated by observers and critics of the music.

Those are the bare facts. To examine the reasons why he was so important we need to study his music. Fortunately he recorded prolifically: twenty-five alburns as a leader for Blue Note between 1954 and 1970 but, after including other labels such as Prestige, Savoy and Roulette, the total is more like thirty-four. Alfred Lion, the founder of Blue Note Records, recognised the innovative skills and competence of Mobley, who soon became a leader on records. But most of the rest of his career was spent as a sideman in other people's bands and that gives us our first clue to the personality and character of Hank Mobley, the man and the musician.

Mobley was never a forceful or assertive character. We know from other musicians with whom he worked, and from observers of the jazz scene in the 1950$ and 19605, that he was always something of a recluse, going out to work in various combos and orchestras, playing his part and then returning home.

During the intervals at clubs he would disappear out to the car park or street and sit smoking in his car until it was time to play again. Writing his obituary in the September 1986 edition of Jazz Journal, Dave Gelly told of the time he visited the USA in 1963 and heard Hank play at the Five Spot Cafe in a combo with pianist Barry Harris. In conversation with Gelly, the pianist said: 'Don't bother trying to talk to Hank. He doesn't even talk to me. He's sitting out there in his car and he won't come until it's time for the next set.' Harris pointed out of the window and Gelly saw a shadowy figure sitting in an old, beaten-up Buick parked at the kerbside. Like some professional actors who hide behind a part and can bellow out the lines of King Lear or Henry V on-stage and then come off and be almost inarticulate off-stage, Hank could play with the very best jazz musicians on equal terms but once off the bandstand he became quiet, reticent and very introverted.

Gelly’s Jazz Journal obituary also pointed out that Mobley's sound, live, was something to marvel at, especially for those who were sitting close to the bandstand and hearing it direct. Although the recordings for Blue Note engineered by Rudy Van Gelder were very good and he probably produced the closest thing to a natural jazz sound on records, he did have his own idiosyncratic methods, adding a little echo and, as Gelly put it, he 'boosted Mobley's volume in relation to the rest of the band ... In person the sound shrank to a conversational level. It was laconic and somehow beady-eyed, a cool tone for a cool head.'

Van Gelder always jealously guarded the secrets of his methods of recording and the details of the equipment he used, even from fellow-professional recording engineers, so we are unlikely ever to know exactly what was added or subtracted from the natural sound of musicians such as Mobley. We can be sure, however, that the engaging, light blue gauzy sound that we hear on the best recordings was enhanced by the natural balance obtained in good clubs with light amplification; a situation that seems lost beyond recall in these days of massive over-amplified PA sound systems.

If booked to play in a band Mobley would always give his very best but if, as sometimes happened, he was distracted by another soloist, or found on arrival at the gig that another musician that he hadn't known about had been booked alongside him, he would retreat into his shell and play as little as possible, doing just enough to fulfil his obligation to the bandleader but shunning the chance to solo often, if at all.

He was, certainly, reticent and quiet most of the time, living for his music but unwilling, it seems, to take on the responsibilities of leadership. This must account, in part, for some of his early failure to attract attention or to show just how good a soloist he was, for his appearances could be limited by his own reservations and attitude. Early on in life, however, Mobley had decided that he wanted to be a musician.”

Workout: The Music of Hank Mobley by Derek Ansell is available through Parkwest Publications which has been a US distributor of UK publishers since 1983 and which you can visit via this link.  Once there, click on "Northway" for more music titles. You can also purchase through online booksellers.

Friday, May 18, 2018

Curtis Counce Quintet - Landslide

Miles Davis - Walkin'

Barney Wilen: Jazz, French Culture and Bleak Chic

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

At one point in my professional career, Paris was a frequent destination of my business travels. The work involved a large insurance company that was headquartered in La Défense a major business district in the Paris Metropolitan Area.

The company I worked for had an international staff and its Paris-based broker would pick me up from my morning arrival at the airport and take me to the insurance carrier’s office in La Défense.

On one such occasion, he was waiting for me at the curb as I exited the airport. When I got in the car, its CD player had on music that was vaguely familiar to me.

“How was your flight?,” he asked. “Long,” I replied. “Did you get much sleep?,” he asked. My usual reply to this question was “very little” but this time I suddenly recognized the music playing on his car CD and instead said: “That’s Barney Wilen.”

He turned to look at me and said in a tone of amazement: “You know Barney Wilen!?” “Yes,” I said, “and that track is Duke Jordan’s Jordu which is from an old RCA LP that I have. “Right,” he said, “it is one the sixteen tracks on a double CD set that was recorded at the Club St. Germain in Paris in 1959.”

Now it was my turn to be stunned: “Sixteen? The original LP only had four tracks!” “Looks like you have a lot of catching up to do. Let’s talk about it more tonight at dinner.”

We spent the remainder of the drive into town from the airport discussing the business proposal that was the reason for the meeting at the La Défense-based insurance company.

At dinner that evening, my Paris associate brought me as a gift my own copy of the double CD of Barney Wilen at The Club St. Germain [RCA 74321454092 and 74321544222] which along with Barney Wilen on tenor saxophone features Kenny Dorham on trumpet, Duke Jordan on piano, Paul Rovère on bass and Daniel Humair on drums.

My friend asked me what about Barney’s playing had so impressed me when I first heard him many years before the 1997 release of the double CD Club St. Germain set.

I answered that it was the joyousness of Barney’s sound that was so startling to me. When my friend asked why Barney’s “joyous sound” made such an impression on me, I replied with words-to-the-effect that I never expected to hear upbeat music from a French Jazz instrumentalist.

My broker-associate was very perplexed at my answer so I attempted to explain it further by sharing with him that my view of French culture when I first heard Barney was shaped by the existential writings of Jean-Paul Sartre, the darkness and despair of film noir movies created by a variety of renown French directors and the general state of bleakness and ennui that seemed to permeate so much of French culture at the time. Barney just seemed to me to be a breath of fresh air by comparison to the foreboding heaviness that shrouded all things French.

I said: “I’ve never been able to reconcile this contradiction.”

My French friend looked at me after summoning the waiter to bring the cheese trolley over to our table and exclaimed: “Oh, I can easily explain it to you. Barney was from Nice!”

Recently, I was reminded of this conversation when I came across my copy of Barney Wilen at The Club St. Germain and replayed it while reading the following essay which appeared in the 2013 holiday issue of The Economist magazine.

Entitled Bleak Chic, the essay makes it quite apparent that not much about the view of French culture that I had has changed since I first heard Barney Wilen play Jazz over a half century ago.

What with the Bleak Chic description of la culture française, I would have thought that Barney’s approach to Jazz would have been less joyous and more involved with The Blues.

I guess the fact that Barney was from Nice accounts for this disparity.

The essay is populated with images of Barney’s recordings and you’ll find a video tribute to Barney at its conclusion.


“ONE of the most perplexing questions of the early 21st century is this: how can the French, who invented joie de vivre, the three-tier cheese trolley and Dior’s jaunty New Look, be so resolutely miserable? To outsiders, the world’s favourite tourist destination embodies the triumph of pleasure over desk-slavery, slow food over fast, the life of the flâneur over that of the frenetic. Yet polls suggest that the French are more depressed than Ugandans or Uzbekistanis, and more pessimistic about their country’s future than Albanians or Iraqis. A global barometer of hope and happiness puts the French second to bottom of a 54-country world ranking, behind austerity-battered Italians, Greeks and Spaniards, and ahead only of Portugal.
Happiness is of course a slippery concept. Asked if they are happy, people everywhere are more than likely to say yes; far fewer say that they laugh much. Gallup, a pollster, has devised a global “positive experience index”, based on whether respondents report that they laughed and smiled a lot or did something enjoyable the previous day. By such measures, France does better than the world average. But take out war-torn or poor countries, and measure the French against fellow rich nations, and they still turn out to be unhappier than their peers. The French report fewer “happy experiences” than those in America, Britain, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, Canada, Norway, the Netherlands, Austria and Belgium. The land of the bon vivant is an unhappy outlier.
Claudia Senik, a French economist at the Paris School of Economics, calls this the “French unhappiness puzzle”. In a 2013 study, she found that the French were not only unhappier than their level of wealth and unemployment would suggest, but also more discontented than French-speaking people in Belgium and Canada (so language is not the reason), and more miserable when they emigrated compared with non-French expatriates in the same place (so they take their gloom with them). “Unhappiness seems to be more than about life in France,” Ms Senik concluded. “It is something about being French.”
Naturally, Ms Senik’s findings caused a stir in France, prompting Maureen Dowd, a New York Times writer who was visiting Paris at the time, to report that “joie de vivre has given way to gaze de navel”. Le Monde ran three pages under the title “Liberté, Égalité, Morosité”, in a bid to decode its fellow countrymen’s “persistent melancholy”. France, it turns out, has the highest suicide rate in western Europe after Belgium and Switzerland. An American psychiatric study showed that, among ten rich countries, the French were the most likely to have a “major depressive episode” at some point in their life. Even the French language seems to be particularly well stocked—morosité, tristesse, malheur, chagrin, malaise,ennui, mélancolie, anomie, désespoir—with negativity. Can there really be something about being French that makes for so much gloom?

Fifty shades of noir
Two periods in France’s recent history have contributed most to the rich seam of misery in its culture—one after the revolution, the other after the second world war. In the quarter-century from the fall of the ancien régime in 1789 to 1814, France overthrew a monarchy, endured the Terror, and lost an empire. After this period the Romantic movement, from Baudelaire to Chopin, expressed a melancholy infused with nostalgia and ambivalence towards a society dominated by rationalist thought and bourgeois values.
In “René”, a novel published in 1802, Chateaubriand introduced to the world the tortured French youth, whose “wretched, barren, and disenchanted” existence embodied what the writer called the mal du siècle. In his memoirs, Chateaubriand recognised that he had set more of a trend than he had bargained for:
If René did not exist, I would not write it again…all we hear nowadays are pitiful and disjointed phrases; the only subject is gales and storms, and unknown ills moaned out to the clouds and to the night. There’s not a fop who has just left college who hasn’t dreamt he was the most unfortunate of men; there’s not a milksop who hasn’t exhausted all life has to offer by the age of sixteen; who hasn’t believed himself tormented by his own genius; who, in the abyss of his thoughts, hasn’t given himself over to the “wave of passions”; who hasn’t struck his pale and dishevelled brow and astonished mankind with a sorrow whose name neither he, nor it, knows.
Romantic miserabilism was experienced as a form of pleasure. “Melancholy”, wrote Victor Hugo, “is the happiness of being sad.” It was treated as a noble state, a higher aesthetic condition. “I do not pretend that joy cannot be allied with beauty,” wrote Baudelaire in his diary. “But I do say that joy is one of its most vulgar ornaments; whereas melancholy is, as it were, its illustrious companion.” Much of this tradition is firmly fixed in today’s French mind. Hugo’s poem “Melancholia” is required reading for French lycée students, as is Alfred de Musset’s “La Nuit de Mai”, whose narrator laments that “Nothing makes us so great as great sorrow.”
The strange beauty of melancholy finds some echo in mid-20th-century France, which produced a second wave of miserabilism. Françoise Sagan’s “Bonjour Tristesse”, published in 1954, for instance, opens with the 17-year-old Cécile’s lament:
A strange melancholy pervades me to which I hesitate to give the grave and beautiful name of sorrow. The idea of sorrow has always appealed to me, but now I am almost ashamed of its complete egoism. I have known boredom, regret, and occasionally remorse, but never sorrow. Today it envelops me like a silken web, enervating and soft, and sets me apart from everybody else.
Yet the ennui that marked this second period had less to do with nostalgia than nausea. In “L’Etranger”, Albert Camus’s protagonist, Mersault, is perhaps the world’s best-known embodiment of anguish in the face of the unknowable meaning of existence, or the absurd. Post-war French theatre developed the absurd, through the plays of Camus, Jean Anouilh and the Franco-Romanian Eugène Ionescu. Samuel Beckett, an Irishman, wrote “Waiting for Godot” in French. On a chilly winter’s evening in 1953 on Paris’s left bank, two years before the play went on to unsettle English-speaking audiences, it was first staged at the 75-seat Théâtre de Babylone, and struck a chord with post-war Paris.
Neither Camus nor his contemporary, Jean-Paul Sartre, was ultimately a pessimist. But it is the torment of existentialism, rather than its conclusions, that captured the imagination. Indeed, the left-bank literary clique led by Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, which gravitated to the cafés of Saint-Germain-des-Près, adopted ennui as a way of life as well as a philosophy. When Sartre handed the original manuscript of “Nausea” to Gallimard, his publisher, he entitled his novel “Melancholia”.
Perhaps the best exemplar of miserabilism among contemporary French fiction writers is Michel Houellebecq, the controversial Goncourt-prize-winning novelist, in such nihilist works as “Whatever” or “Atomised”. His characters invariably lead empty, often sordid, always disillusioned lives. “In the end,” writes Mr Houellebecq in “The Elementary Particles”, “there’s just the cold, the silence and the loneliness. In the end, there’s only death.”
There have, of course, been periods during which the gloom lifted. It was after the double shock of the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-71 and the bloody Paris Commune, after all, that the Impressionists took their tubes of paint and brushes outdoors, delighting in light and colour. Despite a measure of fin-de-siècle anxiety, the belle époque was a moment of breezy certainty. Gustave Eiffel unveiled his wrought-iron tower in 1889. By 1900 the City of Lights drew 51m visitors to its universal exhibition, under the theme of “Paris, capital of the civilised world”, and Matisse, Derain and other fauves had started to capture exuberant colour and warmth on canvas. Yet miserabilism seems to have a greater hold on the French mind today.

I doubt, therefore I am
One reason could be the French appetite for brutal self-criticism. From Descartes onwards, doubt is the first philosophical reflex. “The rationalist tradition makes us sceptical; we exist through criticism,” argues Monique Canto-Sperber, a philosopher and director of Paris Sciences et Lettres, an elite university. “We treat those too full of hope as naive.” In “Candide, or The Optimist”, published in 1759, Voltaire mocks the folly of looking on the bright side in the face of unimaginable horrors. “Optimism”, says a disabused Candide in the novel, “is the madness of insisting that all is well when we are miserable.” When a French magazine recently tried to decode today’s national pessimism, it concluded: “It’s Voltaire’s fault”. “We find it more chic and more spiritual to doubt everything.”
Up to a point, this is an affectation of the elite. “It is in a certain Parisian milieu that there are intellectuals who are grumpy by trade,” argues Jack Lang, the Socialist former culture minister: “There is a gap with the rest of French society.” Yet France cherishes public intellectuals, so their influence spreads wide. It is a talking, thinking culture. Its films value dialogue over plot; its talk-shows are interminable. The French, wrote a helpful official guide for British servicemen heading to France for the 1944 liberation offensive, “enjoy an intellectual argument more than we do. You will often think that two Frenchmen are having a violent quarrel when they are simply arguing some abstract point.”
The country treats its philosophers like national treasures, even celebrities, splashing photographs of them across the pages of glossy magazines. And it ensures that the canon of French thought is fed to the whole country. All pupils taking the school-leavingbaccalauréat exam must study philosophy, and teenagers are examined on such cheery essay questions as “Is man condemned to self-delusion?” or “Do we have an obligation to seek truth?”. So if French intellectuals are predominantly critical pessimists, miserabilism may in part be the consequence of holding them in such esteem. Were Americans to pay more attention to the writings of Noam Chomsky and Jared Diamond, perhaps they would be gloomy too.
This critical reflex reaches right into the classroom, generating a further source of negativity. In French schools, for example, the tradition is for teachers to grade harshly, and praise with excessive moderation. Under a nationwide system that awards marks out of 20, a pupil doing a dictée has points (or even half-points) deducted for every error; so a child swiftly ends up with zero. The idea is that all children can always do better. The result is a lack of what the French, borrowing English syntax, call “la positive attitude”.
Fully 75% of French pupils worry that they will get bad grades in maths tests, according to an OECD study, nudging stressed-out South Korean levels (78%). A recent government-commissioned report on a small pilot experiment in some French secondary schools, where Cartesian grading had been shelved in favour of a more encouraging system, noted with some surprise that weaker pupils were absent from school less often, more confident in the classroom, and “less stressed when faced with failure”.
If the French are life’s critics, they are at the same time idealists, and these two make unhappy bedfellows. Thanks to the philosophers of the Enlightenment and the 1789 revolution, the concept of progress towards an ideal society has, despite periodic turmoil and bloodshed, been a powerful narrative in the French mind. The best embodiment of this is the French declaration of human rights. Unlike the American declaration of independence in 1776, which guaranteed the rights of all Americans, the French version 13 years later guaranteed the rights of all mankind.
To this day, the ambition to inspire the world with a secular republican ideal, backed by the spread of French culture and language, stirs political leaders. “France is only itself when in pursuit of an ideal,” wrote Dominique de Villepin, a former prime minister, in a deliberate echo of Charles de Gaulle’s reference to the country’s “exceptional destiny”. It is great stuff for myth-making, as De Gaulle demonstrated so masterfully after liberation from Nazi occupation. But when reality does not quite match up to ideals, self-criticism kicks in and misery results.
Left-wing French intellectuals never quite got over the failed revolutionary promise of the May ’68 student uprising, nor their disillusion at the declining influence of French thought from the 1980s onwards. Others struggled to reconcile French values with the country’s darker moments, notably under occupation. Today, “belief in a better tomorrow has come to an end,” says Christophe Prochasson, a French historian. “There is a crisis of progress.”
Put simply, the French know that they have enjoyed a fabulous way of life, and are depressed by the thought that neither the French model, nor Europe, seems able to provide the prosperity or the national grandeur it once did. The upshot is that “we are collectively animated by a sense of doom and decline,” says Dominique Moïsi, of the French Institute of International Relations. “We have in mind this great nation of ours: the major power in Europe under Louis XIV and Napoleon I, the biggest allied standing army in the first world war. Now there’s a sense of ‘What happened to us?’.”

The pleasure of pouting
France is not alone in contemplating its diminished status. Britain had a grand past too. But the post-colonial, post-industrial British do not share the French sense of national depression, partly because they never considered their empire to be part of an effort to export a culture or a model society. And, having accidentally given the world the English language, Britain feels relaxed about its global cultural influence. The contrasting decline of French, once the language of European diplomacy, high culture and polite conversation, is felt as a national wound.
Idealistic France’s painful reckoning with decline is therefore quite different to the British approach of resigned muddling-through, argues Jean-Philippe Mathy, of the University of Illinois, in “Melancholy Politics”. It is almost, says Mr Prochasson, the historian, a form of bereavement. “There is a very profound pessimism today due to the realisation that France is becoming a country like any other, and this is difficult.”
Does it matter? Certainly, France’s high suicide rate is a serious cause for concern. Dissatisfaction also makes the French a particularly fractious people to govern, ready as they are to contest, and protest, at the slightest excuse. Confidence too is elusive in a country given to pessimism, making it harder still for politicians to persuade the French to try new ways of doing things.
Yet pessimism has not stopped France from enjoying itself. French hedonism has survived miserabilism—or perhaps provided a refuge from it. Even in the immediate aftermath of the 1789 revolution, the country exhibited a “thirst for pleasure”, as one contemporary newspaper report put it: “The stream of fashion, a succession of dinners, the luxury of their splendid furniture and their mistresses, are the objects that chiefly employ the thoughts of the young men of Paris.” With firework displays, extravagant fashion, circuses and carousels, Paris at the time, for the rich at least, was all about enjoyment. During les années folles, upper-class American tourists took the steamer to Normandy and then the railway to Paris, drawn to France, writes Harvey Levenstein, a historian, as “a land that was free from American puritanism, where the pursuit of pleasure reigned supreme”.
Nor has miserabilism discouraged the French preoccupation with beauty and taste. France does not wear its gloom like a dreary accessory. On the contrary, its culture delights in elegance, sensuality, quality and form: the exquisite hand-stitching on the haute-couture dress; the immaculately glazed tartes aux framboises lined up in the pâtisserie window. The aesthetics of daily life, the art de vivre, remains a source of both grand gestures and small stolen pleasures. It is no coincidence that the two biggest luxury-goods groups in the world are French.
Modern French culture may not have supplied great writers to rival Hugo or Molière, and Paris may lack the buzz of New York or London. But it is hard to argue that negativity has stifled French creativity. Would France have brought the world existentialism had Sartre been a cheerful fellow?
The critical impulse has promoted cultural innovation. Both cinema’s New Wave and French literary theory were born of critical reconstruction of what came before. Some of France’s most creative periods have followed bleak times: the flowering of painting, literature and science after its defeat in the Franco-Prussian war, or of the avant-garde in art and fashion after the horrors of the first world war. Christian Lacroix, a French designer, points out that war and revolution in France have been times of “creative reinventions, the moment new forms of luxury come into play”.
Perhaps the French need dissatisfaction and thrive on doubt. “There is a certain pleasure taken in being unhappy: it’s part of an intellectualism of French culture,” says Ms Senik. “Malaise and ennui are to France what can-do is to America: a badge of honour,” wrote Roger Cohen in the New York Times recently. Pessimism does not preclude pleasure. All that sitting around at pavement cafés, looking fashionably discontented, can be fun. Optimism is for fools; sophisticates know better. Bleak is chic—especially when opening another bottle of Saint-Emilion and reaching for the three-tier cheese trolley.”