Sound, Breathing, Calm

Adam Shatz remembers Jacques Coursil

Jacques Coursil and Adam Shatz at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, in November 2019.

‘You don’t make music by listening to music,’ the French-Martinican trumpeter Jacques Coursil said. ‘You must listen to the world.’ Coursil died in Belgium in late June at the age of 82. Coursil, whom I knew in his last decade, was an elegant, urbane musician, at home with both jazz and classical composition. He had a second, equally distinguished career as a professor of linguistics, publishing work on structuralism, the poetry of Négritude and la Créolité. A nomad and a bricoleur, he spent much of his life on the move, borrowing whatever ideas and sounds appealed to him. He embodied what his friend, the Martinican poet and philosopher Edouard Glissant, theorised as the restless, creolised aesthetics of the ‘tout-monde’. The trilogy of albums he made in his last 15 years contain powerful examinations of the Middle Passage (Clameurs, 2007), the forced removal of first nation Cherokee (Trails of Tears, 2011) and the refugee experience (The Hostipitality Suite, 2020).

Born in Paris in 1938, Coursil grew up in Montmartre, the child of immigrants from Fort-de-France. His mother was a singer. His father, a former sailor, was a trade unionist and – until 1956 – a communist, who introduced him both to Marx and to the poetry of Aimé Césaire, a founder of the Négritude movement, Martinique’s deputy to the French National Assembly and a member of the PCF. Coursil had hoped to follow in the footsteps of the great Martinican clarinetist Alexandre Stellio, but the director of the conservatory he went to at 15 had no more clarinets, and handed him a trumpet instead. When he heard American jazzmen such as Sidney Bechet and Don Byas, he ‘forgot about Stellio’.

In 1958, on the eve of decolonisation, Coursil did his military service in West Africa. Furious at the army’s efforts to hinder independence in Africa, he deserted his post on Mauritania’s frontier with Algeria, and wound up in a French prison. He was freed after an intervention by Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president (and the key exponent, along with Césaire, of Négritude). For the next three years he travelled throughout West Africa at Senghor’s behest, meeting other African heads of state, including Sékou Touré of Guinea. Coursil’s life would be full of such providential encounters.

On his return to France, Coursil taught literature and mathematics at a lycée in the south, continued his musical studies at a conservatory in Montélimar and read voraciously, discovering Barthes, Foucault and Lacan. But he was fascinated by the revolution in Black America, both on the streets and with the emergence of free jazz. When he heard about Malcolm X’s assassination on 21 February 1965, he sold his library and moved to New York. He found an apartment on the Lower East Side and studied with the pianist Jaki Byard and the Nigerian-Jamaican classical composer Noel Da Costa, working as a bartender at an East Village club called the Dom, where his customers included the pianist McCoy Tyner and the drummer Elvin Jones of the John Coltrane Quartet. They called him ‘Frenchy’.

Coursil became a sideman on free jazz sessions for ESP records led by the drummer Sunny Murray and the saxophonist Frank Wright. He played alongside the reedman Sam Rivers in the Afro-American Singing Theater in a jazz opera called The Black Cowboys. He also made an album of his own – alas, still in ESP’s vaults – called Some Ladies, featuring the alto saxophonist Marion Brown. For a spell he held the lead trumpet chair in Sun Ra’s Arkestra, but he left when Ra interrupted a rehearsal to launch into an hour-long lecture about the cosmos. ‘In New York I met a lot of very talented but also incurably illiterate people who had all manner of “big ideas” about the world,’ Coursil told me. ‘When I needed air, I made a dash to the New York Public Library.’

Shortly after quitting the Arkestra, Coursil met the avant-garde trumpeter, composer and theorist Bill Dixon, one of the most formidable minds on the Lower East Side. ‘Jacques, where are you going?’ Dixon asked him. Wherever you are, Coursil thought. He joined Dixon’s University of the Streets Orchestra, and the group he co-led with the dancer and choreographer Judith Dunn. ‘I learned a lot of things with him,’ Coursil recalled. ‘Sound, breathing, calm.’ A Dixon composition, ‘Paper’, takes up the entire B side of Coursil’s album Way Ahead, recorded on a visit to Paris in 1969 with the bassist Beb Guérin, the drummer Claude Delcloo and the alto saxophonist Arthur Jones. (The other two tracks were tributes to Duke Ellington and Fidel Castro.) Way Ahead was saturated with Dixon’s influence: slow, sombre and atonal, yet leavened with what Coursil called ‘a certain swing’: he didn’t want the music to sound as if it had ‘escaped from John Cage’s zoo’.

On Black Suite, their second album, recorded in Paris in 1969, Coursil’s band – now a sextet with the addition of Anthony Braxton, a brilliant multi-reedman from Chicago, and Burton Greene, a pianist from New York – took atonal expressionism a step further, in two long tracks, entitled ‘Part One’ and ‘Part Two’. Like Braxton, the trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith and the violinist Leroy Jenkins, all of whom had moved to Paris that year, Coursil was fascinated by the relations between sound and silence, density and sparseness – and by the possibility of creating complex new forms that blurred the line between notation and improvisation.

For the next 35 years, Coursil did not record another note. He returned to New York and took a job teaching French at the United Nations high school. Back in France in 1975, he completed a thesis in linguistics, followed by another in the philosophy of science. He published books on semiotics and Saussure; he taught at universities in Normandy, Martinique and Guyana, and later at Cornell and the University of California-Irvine. He also developed a close friendship with Glissant, becoming one of the leading interpreters of Glissant’s elusive ‘poetics of relation’.

Of his long silence, Coursil said: ‘I practised trumpet like a painter trying to find his colours.’ And then in 2004, John Zorn, who had been a pupil of his at the UN high school, invited him to make a record for his label, Tzadik. A week later, Coursil suggested an electro-acoustic album investigating the harmonics of the trumpet. Minimal Brass, released in 2005, is a sequence of three fanfares, in which a choir of 11 trumpets responds to a 12th, the principal: a ‘dialogue of the impossible’, since each of the trumpets is played by Coursil himself. Coursil had returned from artistic solitude to transform himself into a small orchestra.

Clameurs appeared two years later with liner notes by Glissant, one of four writers whose texts are recited in a sequence of oratorios for trumpet and voices, recorded in Fort-de-France. The other three were the Creole poet Monchoachi, the legendary pre-Islamic Arab poet Antar (Antaran Ibn Shaddad) and Frantz Fanon. The album’s title alludes to the revolt and the stifled shouts of the enslaved, and their descendants’ continuing struggle for freedom and dignity. In his setting of Glissant’s ‘L’Archipel des grands chaos’, Coursil captures the savagery of the white man’s arrival in Africa. The recitation is backed by the lament of a three-woman chorus, describing a desperate mother whose dead child is still at her breast.

The third track rearranges passages from Fanon’s 1952 study of racism, Black Skin, White Masks. Fanon can’t be accused of underestimating the lacerating force of racism in the modern West, but Coursil plays to his insistence on freedom and self-invention, and his repudiation not just of racism but of the category of race itself. ‘The "Negro" is not. No more than the white man,’ Coursil recites. ‘I am a man … The Peloponnesian War is as much mine as the invention of the compass … I am not a prisoner of history. There is no black mission; there is no white burden.’ ‘Everyone claims Fanon, which is good,’ Coursil once wrote to me, ‘but it makes me uncomfortable when they go on to support the exact opposite of what Fanon writes. What Fanon broke with was “raciology”. He said the black doesn’t exist. But try to say this in the United States!’

What Coursil did for Fanon, he also did for Derrida, on his final album, recorded two years ago in Germany, where he lived with his wife, Irene Mittelberg. It was released this year, just after his death. The Hostipitality Suite emerged out of his collaboration with the SAVVY Contemporary, a gallery in Berlin founded in 2009 by the Cameroonian curator Bonaventure Soh Bejeng Ndikung. Its austerity invites us to reflect on its subject matter: the condition of the foreigner in a new land by turns welcoming and hostile. Coursil plays contemplative trumpet lines, mostly in the middle range, over an ominous synth arrangement by Jeff Baillard, the producer of Clameurs, pausing occasionally to recite from Derrida’s essay On Hospitality and borrowings from Glissant and Emmanuel Levinas. Coursil’s samplings are performed in a rich baritone, cracked at the edges.

Germany had recently accepted more than a million refugees, mostly from Syria, and the generous welcome they received – unlike anything else in Europe – was already tarnished by xenophobic hostility. Provisional hospitality, Coursil warns, leaves the applicant at the mercy of ‘the country that welcomes or excludes him’. A utopian vision of ‘absolute hospitality’, on the other hand, can only be imagined ‘from another place, a margin, a periphery’. Coursil dedicated his life to cultivating that margin.