Jack Say

Born: August 12th, 1922, Ixelles-Elsene, Brussels (Belgium)
Died: July 4th, 2017, Uccle-Ukkel, Brussels (Belgium)
Nationality: Belgian

Eurovision record
Jack Say (real name: Jacques Ysaye) participated in the Eurovision Song Contest for his native country Belgium several times – amongst which twice as a conductor. In 1956, he co-composed ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’, which, sung by Fud Leclerc, was one of two Belgian entries to the first ever Eurovision Song Contest, held in Lugano. In 1958, together with Willy Albimoor, he wrote the orchestration of ‘Ma petite chatte’, also performed by Leclerc. Again two years later, in 1960, Jack Say re-entered the competition as a composer with ‘Mon amour pour toi’; this song was performed by Fud Leclerc as well and came sixth. Although Jack Say had arranged his 1956 and 1960 pieces, these entries were conducted by Léo Souris and Henri Segers respectively. It was not until much later that Jack Say conducted a Eurovision orchestra himself: in 1970, he was the musical director of the Belgian Eurovision heats and conducted the winner of that competition, ‘Viens l’oublier’ by Jean Vallée, in the international final in Amsterdam. Finally, he orchestrated and conducted the Belgian effort in 1982, ‘Si tu aimes ma musique’, which, performed by Stella Maessen, landed a respectable fourth place.

Jack Say (front row, middle) with his jazz orchestra, mid-1960s. To his right, guitarist Freddy Sunder, who conducted three Belgian Eurovision entries in the 1980s

Jacques Ysaye was born in Brussels, being the grandson of Belgium’s greatest violinist ever, Eugène Ysaye (1858-1931). Almost obligatorily, as a child, Jacques studied the violin, but, not being very much attracted to it, he gave it up for the mouth organ. He wanted to pursue studies at the Royal Military School to become an engineer, but, upon the outbreak of World War II (in 1939), he was explicitly forbidden by his father to go forward with these plans. Instead, he decided to devote himself to music studies again. After some preliminary courses, he entered the Royal Conservatory of Brussels, intending to go to university upon war’s end. At the conservatory, he studied the clarinet, solfège, and harmony under the aegis of teachers as Pierre Delhaye and Jean Strauwen.

Meanwhile, he learnt to play the guitar and developed a profound interest in jazz music. From 1941 onwards, he worked as a guitarist in a piano bar in Brussels; with the money he earned, he supported his parents who, at that time, were in serious financial difficulties. As the conservatory explicitly forbade its students to work as professional musicians, Ysaye decided to leave music school in 1942, although he continued his harmony studies with Strauwen for some time. Still in 1942, he wrote his first jazz composition, ‘Hésitation’, which he took to orchestra leader Stan Brenders. Brenders, impressed with the quality of the piece, wanted to play it with his ensemble and suggested Ysaye to publish it using an Americanisation of his name, ‘Jack Say’ – which was to remain Jacques Ysaye’s pseudonym throughout his entire career in music. He composed several more pieces for Brenders’ radio jazz orchestra and, subsequently, started writing arrangements to American jazz pieces for him as well. Among the other artists to play compositions by Jack Say during the war years were Hubert Rostaing and Django Reinhardt.

In the meantime, Jack Say and a good friend, Pierre Hermange, had formed a small orchestra, Les Cinq de l’Harmonica, consisting of three mouth organists, a guitarist, and a double-bass player. With this ensemble, they toured the country and performed for German-controlled Belgian radio; it was not until long after the war that it transpired that the Germans had intended to send the broadcasts with Les Cinq de l’Harmonica to England as part of a propaganda campaign, eager as they were to convince the British that they were not that hostile towards Anglo-Saxon culture after all and that it was feasible to seek a separate peace with the Reich. During the last year of the war, Say played the guitar, the clarinet, and the saxophone in various orchestras, amongst which those of Rudy Bruder (in Lille, France), René Gil, and Charlie Calmeyn, both of whom were conductors based in Brussels. Meanwhile, he wrote arrangements for the Eddie De Latte orchestra, which performed in both Brussels and Scheveningen (Netherlands). Just after the liberation, Say joined De Latte’s ensemble as a clarinettist-saxophonist. He performed with Les Cinq de l’Harmonica until the orchestra was disbanded in 1951.

Jack Say in one of his first performances as a conductor, at the Grand Gala de Bienfaisance in the Ancienne Belgique, Brussels (April 1952)

While continuing to perform as an instrumentalist in various orchestras for some time after the war, gradually, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Jack Say specialized in writing orchestrations for all popular post-war variety ensembles which performed on national radio, most importantly the orchestra of Edgar Donneux; Say wrote arrangements to all kinds of music, ranging from chanson to full-scale operettas. His star as an arranger for Belgian radio (and somewhat later also television) rose fast, scoring music on a regular basis for the jazz ensembles of Francis Bay and Henri Segers as well. In 1951, for the first time in his career, Say conducted a grand orchestra – an ensemble consisting of sixty musicians – during a radio broadcast from Paris devoted to the Marshall Plan which was transmitted to all of Western Europe.

As a composer, Jack Say not only participated in the Eurovision Song Contests of 1956 and 1960, but also took part in the Knokke Festival of 1953 with ‘Jour de fête’, performed by his close friend Jean Miret, who beat, amongst others, Jacques Brel. One year later, Miret also won the Brussels Festival with a song written by Say. During the Antwerp Film Music Festival of 1959, Say won first prize for the score he had written to Tokende, a documentary about Roman Catholic mission activities in Belgian Congo which had premiered at the 1958 World Expo in Brussels. Moreover, he won the gold medal of the Concours de la Louve d’Or in La Louvière (1961) and his ‘Caprice Jazz’ for violin and orchestra was awarded with the Golden Gondola in the prestigious Venice Music Festival (1962). Say also wrote a song which participated in the Concours de Deauville, France.

With the Grand Prix des Variétés Orchestra, Radio Luxembourg (+/- 1960)

In the 1950s and early 1960s, by virtue of his acclaimed work as an arranger for national radio and television, Jack Say was commissioned by various important record companies (Philips, Polydor, and Decca, amongst others) to arrange and conduct studio recordings with many popular artists from both sides of the language border, including Jean Walter, Louis Neefs, Jo Leemans, Rina Pia, and Fud Leclerc. For Marc Aryan, he penned the arrangements to four songs, amongst which the bestseller ‘Tu es no. 1 au hit-parade de mon coeur’. In the meantime, he also wrote and recorded music which was used in advertisements for radio broadcasts and cinema. Between 1958 and 1963, Jack Say conducted the orchestra in the weekly Radio Luxembourg show Le Grand Prix des Variétés, a highly-popular song contest which lasted several months and which was broadcast from various locations all over Belgium. In the course of the 1950s, due to his extensive activities as an arranger, he had almost completely given up working as an instrumentalist himself; later however, in the 1960s, he formed a small jazz orchestra, which included Freddy Sunder as a guitarist/singer. With it, he toured Belgium and Northern France. With some changes in the personnel, this ensemble was occasionally turned into a veritable rock band.

Jack Say's rock orchestra (mid-1960s), with Alex Scorrier (tenor sax) dominating the picture. Behind him, from left to right: Jack Say (guitar), Franckie Theunen (drums), Albert Caels (bass), Roland Thyssen (guitar), and Nick Kletchkovsky (vocals)

In 1968, Jack Say was contracted by francophone public broadcaster RTBF as its television conductor. He hand-picked the musicians for his TV orchestra, which came to consist mainly of the members of the former jazz orchestra of Henri Segers which had been disbanded in 1966; Say added a string section to this formation to transform it into a veritable variety orchestra, able to accompany pop artists. With it, Jack Say performed in several show programmes, including the song contests Camera d’Argent and Chanson du Siècle. He was the conductor for Belgium in a cross-border Francophone show programme called Chantons Français, broadcast from Geneva, Switzerland. At the RTBF’s request, he wrote an arrangement for chamber orchestra to his grandfather’s 8th Concerto for Violin, which was played in an homage programme dedicated to the school of great Belgian classical violinists, but which was later also recorded on album. His TV orchestra was disbanded in 1978.

Jacques Ysaye (to the right) at the prize giving ceremony of the 2009 Queen Elisabeth Music Competition for Violin, with his brother Michel (middle) and second prize winner Lorenzo Gatto (left). Until 1951, this classical music contest was named after Jacques' grandfather Eugène Ysaye

In the 1970s, Jack Say regularly worked as a conductor for Flemish broadcaster BRT as well, substituting Francis Bay during his illness. Amongst other things, he did a show with Connie Neefs and Louis Neefs, ‘Zus en zo’. For the BRT, he conducted the Belgian entries to the Nordring Festivals of 1977 (in Copenhagen) and 1978 (in Oslo, with vibraphonist Fats Sadi and trombonist Marc Mercini); in ’77, he had been called upon only four days before the delegation left for Denmark, because the arranger of all music to the Belgian programme, Koen De Bruyne, had died. It was not until Say was on the plane to Copenhagen and took a look at the scores that he found out that the arrangements contained lots of mistakes and urgently needed correction. He rewrote the score in a way that still reflected De Bruyne’s intentions, but without the errors of the original.

In 1969, one year after the commencement of his work at RTBF, Jack Say founded Studio D.E.S. (Diffusion Électronique Sonore), a recording studio near Place de Brouckère in the heart of Brussels. Initially, the studio was mainly frequented by singers who wanted to record a demo with which they hoped to earn a record deal. Amongst these hopefuls was a group of young musicians from Brussels who later became known as the Wallace Collection; with their recording made in Studio D.E.S., they managed to convince the producers of His Master’s Voice (HMV) in London. ‘Daydream’, one of the pieces they had originally sung in Say’s studio and of which a new version was recorded in Britain, became an instant international hit. Thanks to this success, HMV and other record companies started sending young vocalists to Studio D.E.S. to make a proper recording which could subsequently be judged by them. Meanwhile, Jack Say added a bar and a restaurant to his studio and, more importantly, invested in new recording equipment which made the studio one of the most modern in all of Europe.

The result of his efforts was that producers from various record companies and artists from both Belgium and abroad became very keen to record their material in Brussels. The major Flemish hit ‘De laatste dans’, sung by Anja and arranged by Martin De Haeck, was recorded in Studio D.E.S.. Other Belgian producers who worked there include Milo De Coster (with singer Liliane Saint-Pierre), Marcel De Keukeleire, Léo Caerts, Roland Verlooven (with Le Grand Jojo), and Rocco Granata. Belgian rock band Machiavel taped their first album in Say’s studio. Jack Say himself arranged songs recorded in Studio D.E.S. by Robert Cogoi and Frank Michael. Claude Barzotti, a popular francophone artist in the 1980s, recorded ‘Madame’ and several of his other successes with Jack Say in Brussels as well.

The studio became popular with French producers and artists who, because of the frequent musicians’ strikes in Paris, were often forced to work outside of France. As a result of this, on several occasions, famous arrangers such as Jean-Claude Petit and Pierre Porte (the latter with Eurovision star Jean-Claude Pascal) came to Brussels to record their material. Some major hits were recorded in Studio D.E.S., including ‘La danse des canards’ by J.J. Lionel and Patrick Hernandez’ 1979 disco classic ‘Born to be alive’. Even from far-away Canada, Nova Scotia based producer David Neima travelled to Brussels to make some recordings.

Between 1968 and 1973, Jack Say regularly worked for the Dutch branches of record companies Polydor and Phonogram and producers from the Netherlands, such as Hans van Baaren. He wrote arrangements for Corry Brokken, Herman van Veen, Euson, and Los Paraguayos, and made recordings with them in his Brussels studio as well as in the Netherlands. He managed to interest the production team of RTBF in Herman van Veen, who must probably have been one of the very few artists to have performed Dutch-language repertoire in a RTBF show. In a show in West Germany for SR (Baden-Württemberg broadcaster), Say led the orchestra for Los Paraguayos in what was the first-ever colour programme on the continent. In 1972, when Euson represented the Netherlands in the Athens Music Festival organized in the huge Olympic Stadium of 1896, Jack Say was his conductor. When the Greek audience found out Euson had only finished second, it protested so violently that the jury results were changed, meaning that the Netherlands were now declared joint-winner with Canada.

Picture taken at the 1972 Athens Music Festival, held in the Panathenaic Stadium

Between 1953 and his retirement from the music business in 1985, Say served the Belgian Association of Authors, Composers, and Publishers (SABAM) as a member and later president of two commissions and, from 1975 onwards, as an administrator. He sold Studio D.E.S. in 1982 and moved to Spain three years later; there, he played the clarinet in a combo which played jazz standards and accompanied operetta performances in the Fuengirola theatre. He returned to Belgium upon the passing away of his wife in 2005; since 2006, he has lived in Sint-Genesius-Rode (Rhode-Saint-Genèse, near Brussels).

Jack Say in the Eurovision Song Contest
Jack Say co-composed one of the two Belgian entries to the first-ever Eurovision Song Contest, which was held in 1956 in Lugano and in which each of the seven competing countries competed with two entries. Say wrote ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’ in collaboration with Jean Miret (real name: Jean Libotte, 1926-) and lyricist Robert Montal (Robert Frickx, 1927-1998). Say remembers well what happened in 1956: “The broadcaster asked me to submit a song for a Belgian pre-selection. Being a composer, of course I dreamt of writing a hit song – and this new contest seemed to offer opportunities, so I decided to give it a shot. Writing the song turned out to be a case of genuine teamwork. Miret and Montal came to my place and Miret and I sat at the piano creating the music while, simultaneously, Montal wrote the lyrics which Miret, in his turn, tried to fit to the pattern of the music. Jean Miret was an amateur singer and composer who, in daily life, worked for Volkswagen; he was a friend of mine and I had previously helped him out by writing down his compositions, as he was not able to read music. Over the years, we wrote some songs together, most notably ‘Chaque fois’ by Tohama. Robert Montal was Jean’s nephew; he taught Latin and French at a grammar school in Brussels. Writing poetry was his hobby. The sombre lyrics of ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’ totally reflected his melancholic character. He was the kind of guy that always looked fifteen years older than he really was. The song was performed by Fud Leclerc and we won the Belgian selection with it. Subsequently, I did not accompany Fud to Lugano; true, I had written the orchestration to the song, but it was Léo Souris who was asked to conduct the orchestra. Léo was a jazz pianist who, at that time, had an orchestra with which he performed in The Palace Hotel at Place Rogier in Brussels. I saw the contest watching TV at home. I remember the winning song from Switzerland quite well, ‘Refrain’. In fact, it is one of the few Eurovision songs that have always stuck in my head. Tonally, it is a difficult piece of music which starts with a very complicated interval. But then again, at that time songs were judged by a jury consisting of professionals, who were able to recognize and appreciate such intricate details. Fud Leclerc did a good job, but after the contest, we, the composers, were reproached by SABAM because the lyrics of ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’ somewhat resembled those of a song by Philippe Clay called ‘Le noyé assassiné’.”

Jack Say conducting the Grand Orchestre Symphonique during the Grand Gala de Bienfaisance, Brussels, 1952. In the corner, playing the piano: Léo Souris

Apart from his compositions that reached the Eurovision finals, Jack Say was also responsible for some songs that competed in the Belgian Eurovision heats, but were not chosen. The first one of these was ‘Voor jou, chérie’ (lyrics by Nelly Bijl), which was sung by Wim Van de Velde in the 1957 selection, entirely consisting of Dutch-language songs. Other Belgian national final entries composed by Jack Say include ‘Twee harten, één gedachte’ and ‘In d’eenzaamheid’, both from the 1959 pre-selection and performed by Eric Franssen and Al Verlane, as well as ‘Toi, mon copain’ and ‘N’oublie jamais’ from 1962, pieces sung by Robert-Charles Lanson and Ferry Devos respectively.

In 1958, Say co-wrote the orchestration to that year’s Belgian entry ‘Ma petite chatte’, again performed by Fud Leclerc. He also was one of the Belgian jurors: “That was one of two or three occasions when I was in the jury in Brussels which awarded the Belgian points. In ’58, a couple of hours before the broadcast, we were telephoned by our commentator who was at the contest in Hilversum. She told us to specifically look out for the Italian entry, which was her personal favourite and, on top of that, that of most of the journalists there as well. That song of course was ‘Volare’ by Domenico Modugno. In our jury, there were three or four journalists and four or five musicians. I can tell you that all musicians were blown away by Modugno’s song; it really stood out from the rest and we were convinced it would win. I am quite sure that all four points which Belgium gave to Italy that night were marks by me and my fellow musicians. Such a pity it did not win…”

Portrait, taken from the official 1960 Eurovision Song Contest programme booklet

In 1960, Jack Say again participated as a composer and arranger, winning the Belgian pre-selection with ‘Mon amour pour toi’, sung by the inevitable Fud Leclerc. The lyrics were again by Robert Montal. At the Eurovision Song Contest held in London, this Belgian entry landed a sixth position. Jack Say: “This time, Robert Montal had already written the lyrics and given these to Jean Miret to write music to. Jean however did not succeed in coming up with something viable. Upon this, Miret brought Montal’s poem to me. From the first instance, I adored those lyrics. ‘Mon amour pour toi, c’est comme la mer quand personne n’a marché sur le sable’ (My love for you is like the sea when nobody has trodden on the sand) – that really is a marvellous idea. In hindsight, the music I wrote to it, harmonically, was somewhat too complicated. Fud Leclerc had much trouble learning the piece by heart because of the frequent tone changes. This time, contrary to four years before, I travelled to the international contest to witness the dress rehearsal as well as the broadcast itself. During the rehearsal, Fud gave an excellent performance. However, fate struck during the live show. Our conductor Henri Segers made a mistake, indicating a tempo to the orchestra which was too slow. Because of that, Fud was stuck, making attempts to adapt his singing to the tempo. Meanwhile, Segers tried to speed the orchestra up, but in vain; Henri had always been more of a pianist than a conductor and he lacked the technique to set things right. Afterwards, he readily admitted that he had indicated the first bar in a wrong tempo. No, we were not angry at him; the atmosphere was very cordial. Luckily, the final results were not that bad for us.”

In 1970, when Jack Say worked as a musical director for RTBF, he conducted the orchestra for the Belgian heats, which consisted of no fewer than nine televised shows. Among the participants were Serge & Christine Ghisoland, Ann Christy, and Nicole Josy. All of them, however, were beaten by Jean Vallée and his self-penned ‘Viens l’oublier’. Say travelled to the international contest in Amsterdam to conduct this Belgian entry. Jean Vallée gave an impeccable performance of his chanson and came 8th. Jack Say’s most vivid memories are about what happened after the show: “It is a mere anecdote… After the broadcast, the Belgian delegation wanted to have a drink at the bar of the hotel where we were all staying. Much to our chagrin, however, the bar was closed… and I was the only one with a mini bar in my room. There we were, the entire troupe – consisting of six or seven people –, packed together in this tiny room, toasting to friendship with our beverages in plastic mugs. Our TV commentator was there as well, seated on one of the beds. Just for a laugh, without her noticing, I switched on the vibrating system of the bed. The fact was that she was quite a heavy woman, to say the least, and I had of course selected the most powerful option available in the system. The effect was obviously comical and we were all sent into a paroxysm of laughter. The worst thing was, however, that she was unable to get up… and I did not succeed in switching the system off! All of this happened far after midnight… In the end, a hotel servant came in to complain about the unacceptable level of noise in our room; it was him who liberated the poor soul from her awkward position.”

Jack Say (on the left) playing alto sax in his jazz ensemble, mid-1960s

“For me, leading the orchestra in the Eurovision Song Contest was certainly very interesting. Although, as a conductor, your face was on screen for two seconds only, your name was mentioned. It certainly gave you a certain status within the music business. Moreover, it was a very pleasant job to do. The real hard work had to be done during rehearsals. In the live broadcast, the orchestra really did not need a conductor anymore. You could actually say that conducting in a live TV broadcast – be it Eurovision or another programme – amounts to putting on a show for the audience. Speaking for myself, I must admit that my gestures were slightly more flamboyant than when I stood in front of an orchestra in the recording studio.”

In 1972, Jack Say again conducted all entries in the Belgian pre-selection, amongst which ‘Vivre sans toi’, which he had penned himself with lyrics by Jean Miret. All songs, including the winner ‘A la folie ou pas du tout’, were performed by Serge & Christine Ghisoland. When, however, the duo performed at the Eurovision final in Edinburgh, it was not Say, but Henri Segers to lead the orchestra for them. Why was that? Jack Say comments: “I could not go because, at that time, I had to be in Brussels for a live broadcast of the Caméra d’Argent music show, which I accompanied with my orchestra. Moreover, I was not really keen on accompanying the Ghisolands, since my working relationship with them was not very good. Quite the opposite, I found them extremely unpleasant. Henri still worked for RTBF in ’72 and he was chosen to replace me.”

Picture taken in +/- 1980

Jack Say’s second and last participation as a conductor for Belgium in the Eurovision Song Contest was in 1982. The Belgian heats, in which no orchestral accompaniment had been present, were won by Dutch-Indonesian Stella Maessen and her song ‘Si tu aimes ma musique’ (by Bob Baelemans, Jo May, Fred Bekky, and Rony Brack). In the Eurovision Song Contest proper, held in Harrogate (England), it earned a fourth spot. Jack Say comments: “After the Belgian final, the RTBF commissioned me to write an orchestration to Stella’s song. I penned a string arrangement with some brass elements added to it. The rhythm part of the music was play backed on stage by Stella’s backing group. The organisation of the contest was simply perfect – just like it had been in London in ’60. Especially the BBC Orchestra was magnificent. In Harrogate, some criticized the Belgian delegation for our promotional methods. Stella’s producer had hired a pub in the vicinity of the concert hall and had turned it into a typical café belge. We were sponsored by Belgian beer brand Stella, which, for obvious reasons, wanted to be associated with our singer. I have always thought this campaign ushered in the international popularity of Belgian beer, which until then was hardly known abroad. The English journalists absolutely loved their free drinks, of course. Moreover, they were also treated to Belgian cuisine, like carbonade flamande with fries and waterzooi, amongst other things – everything prepared by a Belgian cook! Of course the experience was made all the more enjoyable because we scored so many points. For once, Belgium came up with something that was bouncy, modern and up-to-date.”

Other artists on Jack Say
Jean Miret (in real life: Jean Libotte) worked for Volkswagen for almost all his professional life, but meanwhile was a singer and composer as well; he co-composed ‘Messieurs les noyés de la Seine’ with Jack Say: “From my childhood onwards, I dedicated much time to singing and writing music, participating in various contests and performing in bars and theatres in Brussels and the rest of Belgium. It was in the late 1940s that I met Jacques Ysaye, who quickly became an important musical advisor for me; he helped me writing the finishing touch to many of my compositions and it was him who convinced me to not only perform hit songs by other artists, but also try my hand at singing my own compositions. Together, we wrote quite many songs for others, such as ‘Vivre sans toi’, ‘Chaque fois’, and ‘Tu es bien foutue’, later recorded in German by Annie Cordy, ‘Du hast ja n’en Piep’; moreover, we devised the highly successful publicity campaign ‘Avec Volkswagen pas de problème’. As a result of this, we were sponsored by Volkswagen to realize ‘Le Grand Prix des Variétés’ – which was my dream come true. I was what would be referred to nowadays as the executive producer of this weekly Radio Luxembourg show and Jacques was the conductor. The finals were great events, with a thirty-five-piece orchestra. So Jacques and I worked together on multiple occasions, spread over many years. Ever since we got to know each other, Jacques has been a friend of mine. He is a great character, congenial, loyal, and, above all, authentic: no matter if he was working as a conductor, as a co-composer with me, or simply amongst his family and friends, Jacques is always the same man – almost too modest.” (2010)

Herman van Veen, Dutch singer and theatre personality, worked with Jack Say in the late 1960s: “I recorded my second and third LP with Jack Say. I remember him very well: an extremely friendly chap with a good sense of humour. He owned a tiny recording studio in the red-light district of Brussels. He was every inch a musician, with a practicality which was unrivalled; on one occasion, when the session musicians failed to turn up, Jack simply played all instruments himself. As an arranger, he was incredibly fast.” (2010)

Close-up, 2010

Links & sources
  • In order to compile this biography, Bas Tukker did an interview with Jacques Ysaye (Jack Say), February 2010. All pictures courtesy of Jacques Ysaye.
  • Many thanks to Jean Libotte (Jean Miret) and Herman van Veen for sharing his memories with us. More information about Herman van Veen can be found at his website, www.hermanvanveen.com.
  • Many thanks to André Vermeulen for adding valuable data about the various Belgian pre-selections.
  • Unfortunately, no website on Jack Say exists.


Songs conducted
1970: Viens l'oublier
1982: Si tu aimes ma musique