Jacques Coursil (1938–2020)

Jacques Coursil in the Studio, 2019. Photo: Raisa Galofre.

“YOU CANNOT BE AN ARTIST,” said the trumpeter, scholar, and world-traveler Jacques Coursil, “if you don’t have one foot on the ground and the other outside the planet.” Pursuing a career across three continents, he and his work embodied the principles of Black diasporic internationalism. Opposed to the notion of roots as guarantor of authenticity, he nonetheless traversed the routes of world history. “I don’t like identity things,” he insisted. “I don’t have to claim where I am from, it’s so evident.”

Coursil was born in Paris in 1938 to Martinican parents, his father a trade unionist and member of the French Communist Party, his mother a singer. Early musical influences included jazz, classical and liturgical music, and the clarinetist Alexandre Stellio, who brought the Martinican biguine to Paris. In 1958, he traveled to the African continent at the height of decolonization. While in Mauritania, he was imprisoned for insisting a referendum be balloted fairly. He was released through the intervention of Senegalese president and poet Léopold Senghor. As he later recalled: “Senghor brought me to Dakar, I stayed with him for a long time. On his behalf, I visited all the heads of state in West Africa. I was twenty-one! I had a suitcase, and a little briefcase, and I was carrying papers to Modibo Keita [the first president of Mali], to Hamani Diori [the first president of Niger], to [Ahmed] Sékou Touré [the first president of Guinea].”

Returning to France in 1961, Coursil worked as a schoolteacher and continued his literary and musical studies. In 1965, he departed for New York, attracted by the new free jazz he’d heard on American records, and supported himself by playing jazz (in Maynard Ferguson’s orchestra), rock ’n’ roll, and boogaloo. Coursil worked as a barman at the Dom—a jazz club on St. Mark’s Place soon to host Andy Warhol’s Electric Circus and a group called the Velvet Underground—and lived in the same building as musicians Sunny Murray, Frank Wright, and a blues guitarist whose playing made the whole building shake. Coursil’s first recordings exemplified the anarchic energy of the so-called New Music, full of the joy and terror of a collective voyage into the unknown. (He and Wright called their approach “breathing in unity.”) Coursil studied with pianist Jaki Byard and composer Noel Da Costa, cofounder of the Society of Black Composers, and rehearsed with Sun Ra. In 1968, he played with fellow trumpeter Bill Dixon’s University of the Streets Orchestra, then a virtual who’s-who of New York’s free jazz scene. In Coursil’s words, “It was a minimalist music avant la lettre, which sought to achieve the maximum of emotions with the minimum of means.” Inspired by Dixon, Coursil developed his own version of serial music, constructed of tone rows: No note could be repeated until all others from the row had been played. The use of serialism allowed Coursil to “conserve the same degree of atonality in the whole piece,” ensuring that both composed and improvised elements avoided the key centers and harmonic frameworks that had governed previous forms of jazz. Meanwhile, elements such as volume and timbre could be freely treated, maintaining the music’s expressive core.

During this time, Coursil wrote a Catholic mass for jazz ensemble, African percussion, and choir. “It might not please the Pope, that old racist,” Coursil remarked. (The Church had, on and off, banned jazz from the liturgy.) This unrecorded composition was nonetheless part of a period trend, from “Third World” liturgies such as the immensely popular Congolese “Missa Luba” (1958) to Mary Lou Williams’s 1964 “Black Christ of the Andes,” dedicated to the Peruvian St. Martin de Porres, the Church’s first Black saint. Coursil notes that his piece was based on “obsessive repetition,” suggesting a tantalizing anticipation of the Black minimalism of Julius Eastman, who would likewise take on religious themes in pieces such as “Prelude to the Holy Presence of Joan of Arc” (1981) and “One God” (1985–6). In 1969, Coursil made two albums as part of the legendary Parisian recording sessions for fledgling label BYG/Actuel. On Way Ahead, which contains tributes to Duke Ellington and Fidel Castro, the players come in and out as if wandering between rooms, yet the music maintains a constant pitch of intensity. Black Suite, Coursil’s first serial piece, prioritizes silence as much as sound, and is rendered especially unearthly through Anthony Braxton’s contrabass clarinet. These albums remain his best-known works.

Jacques Coursil performing as part of “That Around Which The Universe Revolves; On Rhythmanalysis of Memory, Times, Bodies in Space” at SAVVY Contemporary, Berlin, 2017. Photo: Raisa Galofre.

While teaching French at the United Nations International School, where one of his students was a young John Zorn, Coursil worked with Sam Rivers and the Harlem Opera Society on a series of improvised operas, an experience which likely influenced his later turn to spoken texts. In 1975, he departed New York and began a career as an academic in France, completing a Ph.D. in linguistics in 1977. Aside from occasional gigs with François Tusques, Coursil retired from public performance, teaching in Caen, Martinique, and Cornell as an expert in Saussurean linguistics and the post-Négritude literature of his friend Édouard Glissant.

Before he left New York, trumpeter Jimmy Owens had taught Coursil circular breathing, an experience that transformed his approach to the instrument. In 2005, he returned to recording with Minimal Brass: three long, overdubbed “fanfares,” muted and melancholic. On Clameurs (2007), made in Martinique, Coursil deploys keyboardist Jeff Baillard’s electronic backdrops alongside spoken texts in three languages by Glissant, Fanon, Martinican poet Monchoachi, and pre-Islamic poet Antar. The album, Coursil said, represented a “world-cry of these poets in their own tongues.” Trails of Tears (2011) treated the forced march of the Cherokee people in the 1830s to the Middle Passage as linked foundational traumas central to the growth of racial capitalism. Coursil conceived the piece in the 1970s when he spent time with the Sioux in South Dakota during the early years of the American Indian Movement. The album forces us to consider what it means to represent the unrepresentable, to render historical trauma in art. Using Baillard’s electronic arrangements and a free jazz ensemble, Coursil’s flutter-tonguing and circular breathing create slow streams of sound, described in Glissant’s liner notes as a “never-ending echo.” With Alan Silva, Coursil recorded the austere yet moving homage to Bill Dixon, Free Jazz Art (2014), and continued to lecture and perform worldwide. He received the Glissant Prize in 2017, and in 2019 participated in a conference commemorating the anniversary of the 1969 Pan-African Festival at Johns Hopkins University. A new record, Hostipitality Suite, meditates on the figure of the stranger via texts from Derrida, Levinas, and Glissant. It was pressed the day of his death. 

In Manthia Diawara’s film Edouard Glissant: One World in Relation, Coursil plays the trumpet among the concrete statues of Laurent Valère’s Cap 110 (1998), a memorial to those lost in the wreck of a slave ship off the coast of Martinique in 1830. It’s a perfect figure for Coursil’s music: world-cry as whisper, soft and intense; the weight of history as an echo, caught on the wind.

David Grundy is a poet and scholar based in London.