Jacques Coursil

Jacques Coursil was born in Paris in 1938 – his parents were from Fort de France, Martinique – and received his musical and other schooling in the French capital. Between 1958 and 1961 he travelled in West Africa during its decolonization, and enjoyed a long stay in Dakar where he was given a welcome by the entourage of Léopold Sédar Senghor. On his return to France he taught literature and continued his musical training.

In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated; Coursil went to The United States, where he would remain for ten years. He landed in New York among all the agitation surrounding Civil Rights and the advent of free jazz (new thing), art happenings, protests and Hippies… For the next decade he had the opportunity to work alongside the greatest musicians in America, both on the jazz scene and in contemporary music. He became a pupil of pianist Jaki Byard, and especially trumpeter Bill Dixon, with whom he went on tour playing duets. Coursil also studied harmony and composition under composer Noel Da Costa and performed in numerous contemporary-music concerts with the latter. By this time he possessed a solid instrumental technique, and he let his imagination run wild, becoming one of the best trumpeters of his generation. He often played with Alan Silva, Sunny Murray, Marion Brown, Frank Wright and Arthur Jones, and in 1969 he recorded tracks with them that have gone down as classics in the genre, notably “Black Suite” and “Way Ahead”. It is widely recognized today that musicians who were active during that “glorious Sixties” period were part of the greatest creative upsurge in jazz music since the bop revolution.

His years in New York were dominated by music and literature, the arts and militant politics, and yet Jacques Coursil discovered other things which to his mind were just as fascinating: notably linguistics and mathematical logic. Slowly he moved away from the music scene and began teaching again. He also returned to university, and on his return to France he decided on an academic career, writing two theses in the fields of Literature (1977) and Science (1992). He alternately taught letters and linguistic theory, first in France, then later in Martinique before finally teaching in The United States at Cornell University and the University of California in Irvine. His career-path made him a voice to be listened to on the corpus of Ferdinand de Saussure and also in the general theories of modern linguistics, as shown by the reputation of his own publications, among them his book La Fonction Muette du Langage, published in France by Ibis Rouge in the year 2000.

Throughout this entire period given over to literary and scientific pursuits, music seemed to Jacques Coursil to be like a subterranean river (or alchemist’s laboratory). In secret he worked without respite on circular breathing, his articulation and tonguing until the trumpet he loved began to sing and dance, even talk: his obsessions were with clarity and the emotion inside the timbre. Probably there’s something of Clark Terry, Jimmy Owens or Hugh Masekela in this approach; what’s certain is that when it came to jazz trumpeters, Jacques Coursil loved and admired them all.

2005 marked Jacques Coursil’s return to music with an opus entitled Minimal Brass (released on John Zorn’s New York label, Tzadik). The project was hailed by critics as having not only audacity and singularity, but also great musicality.

• Sunny Murray – Sunny Murray Quintet (ESP, 1966)
• Frank Wright – Your Prayer (ESP, 1967)
• Burton Greene – Aquariana (BYG-Actuel, 1969)
• Jacques Coursil – Black Suite (BYG-Actuel, 1969)
• Jacques Coursil – Way Ahead (BYG-Actuel, 1969)
• Jacques Coursil – Minimal Brass (Tzadik, 2005)
• Jacques Coursil – Clameurs (Universal Jazz, 2007)


Trails of Tears

Label: Universal Jazz
Distribution in France: Universal
Release date: March 01, 2010

August-December 1838: 15,949 Cherokee Indians (and slaves) were forced to leave Georgia for Oklahoma, west of the Mississippi, to occupy land that had been “reserved” for them. For those who chose to take the northern road (over 900 miles), it took 153 days to complete this Way of the Cross; a Cherokee Iliad, to which they ultimately gave the name Trail Of Tears. 4000 of them never made it to the reservation.
Like Clameurs (released in 2007), this new Jacques Coursil project has its roots in a profound quest for meaning. Using the terrifying tale of the Cherokee nation’s long and arduous battle as its argument , the music of Jacques Coursil calls on the fundaments of Afro-American history, one of whose most important expressions is represented by jazz. Coursil, musician and academic, specifically questions colonialism and the moment in history when two worlds – the Old and the New – multiplied trails of suffering: those Trails Of Tears echoed by both Glissant’s poems and his tout-monde “all-world” concept.
With this in mind, Jacques Coursil invited two ensembles to join him:
CADENCES LIBRES (Jeff Baillard, Alex Bernard and José Zébina) provide a suite of compositions recorded in Martinique.
FREE JAZZ ART (Sunny Murray, Bobby Few, Alan Silva, Mark Whitecage, Perry Robinson) propose the oratorio part recorded in Paris and New York.
Strictness of form and raw emotion. The project had to be accessible away from of all elitism; it had to address, with humility, everyone for whom artistic stakes rejoin those of the world.

Jacques Coursil - Trails of Tears