Jacques Coursil

Martinican musician/linguist Jacques Coursil’s Trail of Tears, features his signature trumpet sound—reminiscent of speech. Jason Weiss talks record labels with him, the heydays of jazz, identity, academia, and more.

Photo By Ramez Elias Body

Jacques Coursil. Photo by Ramez Elias.

A native of Paris, from a Martinican family, trumpeter Jacques Coursil came to New York in the mid-1960s and plunged into the free jazz scene. He recorded on dates led by drummer Sunny Murray as well as saxophonist Frank Wright, both for ESP, and even made a record of his own for the label in 1967, which went unreleased. Visiting Paris in 1969, he made two records as a leader (one with Anthony Braxton) and appeared on a Burton Greene date, all for the BYG label. Among other projects in New York, where he remained for the next several years, in 1969–70 he played alongside Sam Rivers in the city-funded Afro-American Singing Theatre, featuring operatically-trained singers in such works as “The Black Cowboys” (music by Rivers), performed all over the city. Then, for the next three decades, he left his music career to the side and became a university professor, teaching literature and linguistics. In 2004, he made a solo record, Minimal Brass , for John Zorn’s Tzadik label, followed by Clameurs (2007), recorded in Martinique for Universal France. On his new album, Trails of Tears (Universal, 2010)—an oratorio that commemorates the forced deportation in 1838 of the Cherokee nation from their native Georgia to reservations in Oklahoma—he employs two ensembles, one recorded in Martinique and the other in New York and Paris which reunites him with some old free jazz associates, including Sunny Murray, Alan Silva, and Perry Robinson. Since retiring from teaching, he has been living in Aachen, Germany.

Jason Weiss When did you first arrive in the United States?

Jacques Coursil In 1965. I came to New York to play music—I was involved with the free scene at the time. But like many musicians on that scene, I had mentors. Jaki Byard was one of them. In composition, I was studying with Noel DaCosta, who was one of the founders of the Society of Black Composers. At the same time, I was also performing.

JW How did you learn about the ESP label, and how did you meet Sunny Murray?

JC We were all living in the same building on Avenue B at the corner of 9th Street, by Tompkins Square Park [substantial legacy within one short block: a few doors up, Charlie Parker had lived at 151 Avenue B for four years in the early ‘50s; at 143 Avenue B, George Gershwin had given his first public concert]. On every floor there were musicians: Sunny Murray was living there, and many others. Byard Lancaster was around, Perry Robinson was around. So, we were playing improvised music day and night. Things like that happen only once in a lifetime! Next door to me was a blues guy from the South; he played blues guitar, with steel strings and fingerpicks. He made such a sound that the whole building would be shaking, more than from any drummer. Day and night we would visit each other and play.

JW Didn’t that building have other connections as well for you?

JC It’s a funny story. I was playing in a club on St. Mark’s Place, the Dom, and I had to leave because I wasn’t a member of the union. The owner of the Dom also owned that building, so he was paying me at night and taking the money back at the same time for my rent. He managed to find many other things for me to do there, so that his rent would be paid. At that time, the Dom was a jazz club, next door was a discotheque, and on top was the famous Polski Dom [soon to be the Electric Circus], which had happenings—Andy Warhol was there. St. Mark’s Place was great: across the street was the Five Spot Café, with Mingus sometimes, and Monk, and we would catch a set while we were working at the Dom.

JW Weren’t you even washing dishes there?

JC Yes! Stanley [Tolkin] was the owner of the Dom, and since I couldn’t play legally, he made me a bartender. My English was not very good, and to make a Tom Collins and two Pink Ladies, it wasn’t easy. But everybody liked the way I was mixing drinks, because I put in more alcohol than usual. They would say, “I want Frenchy to serve me. Let Frenchy mix it.” And then I was a waiter, a dishwasher, and even a cook. And I was playing around, making a little money here and there. At the same time, I was going to school. I mean, I was in the kitchen washing dishes and all the musicians were coming in. Philly Joe Jones would say, “Hey, Frenchy, give me that.” Elvin Jones was there, McCoy Tyner was there. Tony Scott was playing there, and he was inviting everybody to play. Roy Haynes was there, a lot of drummers, and Jaki Byard was playing with him, Paul Chambers too, but he was already very ill. Hugh Masakela came often as well. So, I realized that I was pretty lucky to have played in such a place.

JW When you arrived in New York, you entered pretty quickly into the free music scene. Had you been thinking in that direction in Paris before that?

JC I was studying music in Paris—first classical, then jazz (bebop), and then atonal contemporary music. But since I didn’t want to play contemporary music nor bebop, it was very evident that the only direction I should take was free jazz, so-called at that time.

JW In New York, you also found your way to Frank Wright. You recorded with him as well for ESP, on his second album Your Prayer, 1967]. How did you meet?

JC Frank Wright was also in the building, at least I always saw him there. I would play with him practically every day. He’d be blowing by himself in a room for about an hour, and we would ask him, “What’re you doing, Frank?” He’d say, “I’m tuning up.” For him, tuning up was just playing by himself. And he was doing that every day.

We tried to get together as many times as possible, because we wanted to breathe together. That was our concept of unity, breathing.

JW What about the unreleased date you did for ESP in 1967, which would have been your first record as a leader? Marion Brown was on it, and Eddie Marshall played drums.

JC Eddie Marshall! Thank you for reminding me. He was the sweetest guy in the world. I don’t know what this record is worth, but I remember that the compositions were sophisticated (laughter). I wrote a series of pieces, close to the first Ornette Coleman records, I think. Those were straight. For the [later] BYG records I wrote something very loose (with the help of Bill Dixon), in order to bring musicians together with a non-rhythmical structure. But the pieces on my ESP record were straight tempo.

JW After that, you played for a time with Sun Ra and especially Bill Dixon [throughout 1968, he was a member of Dixon’s University of the Streets orchestra and the Judith Dunn/Bill Dixon Company]. How important were these experiences for you?

JC I never did any gigs with Sun Ra, though I did a lot of rehearsals with his orchestra. The saxophone section was so great, the best since Duke Ellington. But I don’t like families, tribes, mysticism. So, one day I split. Downstairs in the street, I met Bill Dixon who said to me, “Jacques, where are you going?” I joined his group, and I learned a lot of things with him—sound, breathing, calm. Bill Dixon is a great musician. With Sun Ra, I was just bewildered by the excellence of the individual musicians.

Trail Of Tears Cover A300  Body

Trail of Tears (Universal Jazz, 2010) and Black Suite, (BYG-Actuel, 1969).

JW A number of the musicians you knew in New York, like Sunny Murray and Frank Wright, went off to Paris in 1969 and stayed a while. Didn’t you go there around the same time?

JC I didn’t want to stay in Paris. I came for a series of concerts, a tour, with Arthur Jones. Sometimes Burton Greene was there, the Art Ensemble of Chicago was there too—this is the reason why on the second record, Black Suite, I invited Anthony Braxton. BYG signed me for two albums, and then I went back to New York.

JWAs a teenager in Paris you had an early interest in New Orleans musicians like Sidney Bechet and Albert Nicholas. In the ‘60s when you were playing free jazz, did you feel any connection to that earlier interest musically, did you feel any continuity?

JC It’s difficult to say. I was born into a Martinican family, and in such a family you listen to Martinican music. And when your parents sing, they sing Creole songs. I was also going to church, and was interested in Gregorian chant. And I was going to music school, studying the classical repertoire. The New Orleans musicians, Albert Nicholas particularly, were the first black guys I had ever seen who were not from Martinique. But the musician who impressed me most was Don Byas. I was fourteen at that time, and there I was in a Parisian club, Don Byas dropped in from I don’t know where with a white suit, white shoes, a shiny saxophone, playing so sweetly. I said, Well, we are all miserable compared to that guy! Paris then was full of jazz, full of painting and poetry, it was really the cultural place to be, if you were interested in that. Writers, painters, actors, they were all very nice to young people who were interested. You just had to know three lines of two poets and you were sure to be in. I was extremely fortunate, Paris was really very kind to me in that respect.

JW Didn’t you find, at least, that the Martinican music you heard at home had a direct relationship to New Orleans styles?

JC Yes, yes. All that is Creole music, as far as I’m concerned.

JW How did that musical background affect your subsequent interest in free jazz?

JC Coming to the free jazz scene, I firmly intended to deconstruct the whole apparatus of rhythm, I wanted to “destroy” the beat and harmony too. So, 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, I didn’t want to play with my background. At that time, I was a strong revolutionary, I wanted to break everything down (laughter).

JW Decades later, that rejection of scales and rhythm led to your record Minimal Brass (2005).

JC You’re right. Minimal Brass was kind of a statement where the music goes into circles, in some way. I wanted to find some point where my hearing finally ended, and it came out like that. John Zorn was really surprised.

JW For many years the two records you did for BYG were really all you were known by as a musician. What did that mean for you?

JC Well, it was behind me somehow. I was happy to have done those dates. But I was looking forward to what was new and open.

JW After your visit back to Paris in 1969, you ended up teaching at the United Nations International School (UNIS) for a couple of years, where John Zorn was your student. How did that happen?

JC That was a nice time, because I entered the United States with a tourist visa, okay, and I stayed ten years. But in the middle of that, I was caught at Kennedy Airport by a customs officer and they decided to deport me back to France. Well, at that time, because of my university degrees, I got a job at the UN school, and they gave me an official visa. So, I had to work. I played my double life, working as a musician and working at the UN school with my tie on. In this school I was teaching French and sometimes mathematics too. John Zorn was a student there, he was sixteen or seventeen, and he was interested in Schoenberg, Berg, Webern. I gave him some clues on serial writing and things like that—I was a teacher, I was supposed to know. So I told him about Darius Milhaud, Luigi Nono, Stockhausen, he wanted to know them all. Particularly John Cage, whom I met.

JW Did you remain in contact with him?

JC No. When he became a big star, I didn’t even connect the man with the brilliant kid that I knew before. But he remembered me.

JW At what point did he find you again?

JC I was teaching at Cornell University, philosophy and literature. I received an e-mail from him, which he sent to the chair of the department. He said to me, “Well, let’s have dinner.” So, as we finished dinner together, he said, “Let’s do a record.” First I tried some things that didn’t work too well, so I decided to do the date solo—because I’d been working on sounds and developing new trumpet techniques, circular breathing and so on.

Clameurs Brass Body

Minimal Brass (Tzadik Music, 2005) and Clameurs (Universal Music France, 2007).

JW After returning to France in 1975, you earned a PhD in 1977 and taught literature, linguistics, and philosophy of language at the University of Caen (Normandy). Then in 1995, you earned a second PhD in science and started teaching in Martinique. What took you so long to get around to spending time there?

JC I don’t like identity things. I don’t have to claim where I am from, it’s so evident. As a young man, I decided to go to Africa. I ended up in Mauritania, and Senegal, and West Africa. That was really my first step outside of Paris and the whole Rive Gauche. And I lived in the house of [Léopold Sédar] Senghor! Since I ran into some trouble in Mauritania, 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 21! I had a suitcase, and a little briefcase, and I was carrying papers to Modibo Keita [first president of Mali], to Hamani Diory [first president of Niger], to [Ahmed] Sekou Touré [first president of Guinea]. After that, I went back to France and continued my studies—literature, and sciences, and music. In 1965, Malcolm X was assassinated and I decided to go to the United States. A young black man like me in Paris had two things to discover: Africa and America. That was clear in my head. So I went to the United States, and ten years later I came back to France, I did a PhD. I taught at the University of Caen in Normandy and was involved in the psychoanalytic scene in Paris. Then at last I got a chair in Martinique. During all this time, I practiced trumpet like a painter trying to find his colors. At the end of 2002, I went to Cornell University as a visiting professor, and stayed three years.

JW How comfortable were you in Martinique? Did you feel like it was not entirely your own?

JC No, it was totally my own. I never felt foreign there. But I never felt foreign in Africa, nor in the United States.

JW Did you learn about Senghor and Aimé Césaire, and the Négritude writers, as a natural part of growing up in Paris when you did?

JC Yeah, from a young age. First of all, in my family we recited poems, and we were supposed to know those poets by heart. And then, I was fascinated by their writing. Thus I learned the essential things in literature in my family, before the age of fourteen. Literature, in my family, was the most important thing in the world. To be illiterate was the worst insult you could get.

JW You went back to Martinique to make your record, Clameurs (2007). With texts by Frantz Fanon, Édouard Glissant, and others, it seems to have been like a great cahier d’un retour au pays natal (notebook of a return to one’s native land), to use Césaire’s phrase.

JC It’s funny, I’m always saying that I’m not attached to identity, and suddenly I cut a record totally involved with Martinique. But precisely this is the difference between identity which is an image and being what you are.

JW Looking at where you’ve been, and considering Clameurs, it’s almost as if it took the better part of a lifetime to arrive at doing that record. Or was it a simpler process that you went through?

JC Well, since I didn’t want to be what I am (laughter), I was just trying to do something. Anyway, you cannot be an artist if you don’t have one foot on the ground and the other outside the planet.

JW A couple of years ago in an interview you said, “on ne fait pas de la musique en écoutant de la musique, il faut écouter le monde” (you don’t make music by listening to music, you must listen to the world). Where along the line did you come to that understanding?

JC I strongly like the noise of the world: cars, planes, people, stones falling down. I’m more interested in sound and timbres than in melody proper. If you listen to Clameurs, you see that the melody comes out of the sound: I don’t play any phrases there nor melodic motifs, I just play the sound and the sound makes the melody.

Listen to a track from Coursil’s new album, Trail of Tears, here.

This interview will be part of Jason Weiss’s forthcoming book, Always in Trouble: An Oral History of ESP-Disk’, the Most Outrageous Record Label in America, published by Wesleyan University Press in the fall of 2011.


Jason Weiss is the author of The Lights of Home: A Century of Latin American Writers in Paris (2003) as well as a forthcoming novel, among other books. He was also the editor of Steve Lacy: Conversations (2006) and Back in No Time: The Brion Gysin Reader (2001).