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 Bill Dixon, Clark Terry or Jimmy Owens 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.