“I wanted to ‘destroy’ the beat and harmony,” declared the French musician and teacher, who was one of the few Europeans to make an impact on New York's 1960s free jazz scene. By Pierre Crépon
Trumpeter, composer and scholar Jacques Coursil died on 26 June 2020 in Plombières, Belgium. He was 82. One of the few Europeans to have travelled to New York to take part in its avant garde movement of the 1960s, his trumpet added an original voice to a decisive moment in jazz history.
Coursil was born in the Montmartre area of Paris on 31 March, 1938 and grew up in the city’s suburbs. His parents were from Fort-de-France, Martinique, in the French West Indies. Creole songs, biguine, clarinettist Alexandre Stellio’s music and the Gregorian chants of churches made up the family’s musical environment. Coursil’s mother sung, and literature held an important place in the household. His father, a former sailor, was a syndicalist and French Communist Party member.
After a tentative start on the violin at age nine, Coursil took up the cornet as a teenager. Early jazz interests included New Orleans players Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas. A live performance by saxophonist Don Byas left a strong mark. Contemporary classical music – Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern – and Pierre Schaeffer’s experimentations were other strong early interests.
In 1958, during decolonisation, Coursil left for Africa. He travelled for three years to Mauritania and Senegal, joining the entourage of Léopold Sédar Senghor, negritude writer and first president of independent Senegal. Back in France, Coursil studied literature and mathematics. He worked as a schoolteacher in Dieulefit, southern France, while attending the nearby Montélimar conservatory.
Selling his extensive library, Coursil moved to New York in 1965, without contacts but with knowledge of the jazz avant garde. He found work bartending at East Village jazz club The Dom.
“Coming to the free jazz scene, I firmly intended to deconstruct the whole apparatus of rhythm,” Coursil told writer Jason Weiss in Always In Trouble: An Oral History Of ESP-Disk’, The Most Outrageous Record Label In America. “I wanted to ‘destroy’ the beat and harmony too… I wanted to play atonal without any rhythmic framework. I also wanted to stop playing scales, to get away from melody. I was clear on that.”
Coursil joined drummer Sunny Murray’s band, leading to his first recording session for Murray’s self-titled ESP-Disk’ in January 1966. “Everybody plays legato now. I hate it. This is why I play in a very articulate manner,” wrote Coursil in Actuel magazine in 1968. “A melodic line, a sonic sentence, needs to be organised rhythmically. It needs spirit, swing, but that swing doesn’t have to be framed in a regular metre. An atonal and arhythmic phrase has to contain a certain amount of swing for it not to seem escaped directly from John Cage’s zoo.”
Leaving Murray’s band, Coursil joined tenor saxophonist Frank Wright’s first quintet, with drummer Muhammad Ali and bassist Henry Grimes. Alto saxophonist Arthur Jones was also a member and his partnership with Coursil would last for several years. The unit recorded Your Prayer for ESP in May 1967.
Coursil studied with pianist Jaki Byard and composer Noel DaCosta. Now focussing more on composition, he recorded his own leader date for ESP, with saxophonist Marion Brown. It remains unreleased. He wrote the 40 minute serialist Black Suite and an extended mass for choir and orchestra. “It might not please the Pope, this old racist who banned jazz, the music of black people, from churches, as if the gifts of Balthazar were in some way degrading,” he wrote of the work in Actuel.
In addition to music, Coursil led what he termed a double life, teaching French by day at the prestigious United Nations International School and writing for Actuel. New York associates of the 1960s also included Rashied Ali, Alan Silva, Bill Dixon, Perry Robinson, Clarence ‘C’ Sharpe, Mark Whitecage, Burton Greene and Paul Bley. Coursil rehearsed briefly with The Sun Ra Arkestra.
During the summer of 1969, he visited France with Arthur Jones, taking part in sessions for the BYG label, then taping the first records in its Actuel series. Coursil made two LPs under his name – Way Ahead and a realisation of his Black Suite – and played on Burton Greene’s Aquariana. The sessions’ core personnel included Jones, bassist Beb Guérin and drummer Claude Delcloo. Coursil’s band shared the stage of the American Center and the Lucernaire Theatre with pianist François Tusques and the recently arrived Art Ensemble Of Chicago and Anthony Braxton, who plays on Black Suite.
New York activity dwindled down, ceding ground for Coursil’s academic pursuits. Shortly before leaving the city permanently in 1975, the trumpeter added a new technique to his repertory. “I was walking on Park Avenue [and] met my good friend Jimmy Owens… I said to him, Would you tell me how to do circular breathing? And as he was walking towards his home, he picked up straws from the cafeteria and he showed me the trick. And then I… started stopping all the cliches that I heard and learned… Then dropping all the cliches I have invented myself… And from then until now, it’s just been one note,” Coursil told All About Jazz New York in 2005.
Retreating from public performance, Coursil obtained two doctorates from the Université de Caen in Northwestern France, where he taught for two decades. A 1977 linguistics dissertation was entitled Recherches linguistiques sur la parole (Linguistic Researches On Speech). A 1992 applied science dissertation was entitled Grammaire analytique du français contemporain: Essai d’intelligence artificielle et de linguistique générale (Analytical Grammar Of Contemporary French: Essay In Artificial Intelligence And General Linguistics).
Coursil taught literature and theoretical linguistics. After Caen, he worked at the Université des Antilles et de la Guyane in Martinique, Cornell University in Ithaca, NY, and at the University of California, Irvine. In addition to numerous papers, he published in 2000 La fonction muette du langage: Essai de linguistique générale contemporaine (The Silent Function Of Language: Essay In General Contemporary Linguistics), and in 2015 Valeurs pures: Le paradigme sémiotique de Ferdinand de Saussure (Pure Values: The Semiotic Paradigm Of Ferdinand De Saussure).
After more than three decades without records – but not entirely without performances, notably with François Tusques in 1981 – Coursil issued Minimal Brass in 2005. Initiated for his Tzadik label by saxophonist John Zorn, a former student of Coursil, the project was a solo album of fanfares made up of multiple overdubbed parts using circular breathing.
Clameurs and Trail Of Tears followed in 2007 and 2010 (both Universal Music France). Recorded in Martinique, the former featured pieces for trumpet and spoken word – drawing on the work of writers such as Frantz Fanon and Édouard Glissant – against a percussion and synthesizer pads background. The latter was an extended work dealing with the deadly forced relocation of Native Americans by the US government in the 1830s. The album included a reunion with his former colleagues from the free jazz scene. Coursil’s final album was FreeJazzArt: Sessions For Bill Dixon, a duet with Alan Silva issued by RogueArt in 2014.“This is my last free jazz record,” he said, “I won't make others.”
Jacques Coursil is survived by his wife Irène Mittelberg and his children Florent and Marie.