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Jacques Coursil: The Weight of History

The peripatetic trumpeter’s melancholy horn explains human tragedy on Trails of Tears

“History is a trail,” says Jacques Coursil. “The present time is not a spot. It’s a space and in that space there is a heavy past and some dreamed future. The past and the future only exist in the present time. So talking about something ancient, it’s necessarily actual.”

Coursil has been especially focused on the circular path of history of late, as his new album, Trails of Tears (Sunnyside), is a suite of music inspired by the forced expulsions of several cultures over the course of human civilization. The title directly refers to the 19th-century relocation of Native Americans, but Coursil also makes explicit reference to the Middle Passage of slaves transported from Africa to America. “The genocide of the [American] Indians is the history of the world,” he says, “not just the history of the Indian or the black. The Middle Passage is not the story of black people; it’s the story of the world because they were not by themselves on the boats. Every time someone is suffering, there is someone there who is making them suffer. It’s a common story, as much your story [or] my story.”

If Coursil’s individual story is a trail, it’s a winding one that leads in several unpredictable directions. Born in Paris to Martinican parents, the trumpeter arrived on New York’s free-jazz scene in 1965. “From my early youth, I was interested in contemporary music, atonal music,” he says. “Webern, Schoenberg—these were my heroes. The same thing goes with my discovery of modern painting and modern poetry. I didn’t want to be disturbed by entertainment.”

Coursil lived in the same building as Sunny Murray on Avenue B, and played often with the drummer as well as other loft-scene luminaries like Perry Robinson and Frank Wright, with whom he recorded for ESP-Disk’. After releasing two albums of his own for BYG in 1969, Coursil virtually disappeared from the music scene for more than 35 years, returning in 2005 with Minimal Brass on John Zorn’s Tzadik label. But while he went largely unheard during those decades, he never stopped playing his horn. “The music was still there,” he says. “I never left the instrument. It was part of my well-being, my breathing. If I don’t have a trumpet I might just have a stroke. So I kept on playing. It’s like a subterranean river that suddenly reaches the surface.”

In the meantime, Coursil lived life as something of an intellectual nomad, constantly relocating his interests as well as his address. Reached in Aachen, Germany, where he’s spent the past two years, the 72-year-old laughed—a bemused chuckle that comes easy and often in his conversation—when asked if he considered the city home. “I’m a natural traveler. I’m a retired professor, so I can do what I want.”

After leaving New York, Coursil earned his Ph.D. and taught linguistics and literature, first in Normandy, then Martinique and finally at Cornell University before his retirement. Asked if he sees any commonalities between these studies and his music, he replies, “Frankly, no. When people ask me for the relationship between my music and my interest in linguistic theory, I say the relation is me. I can enjoy the fact that I have many, many pleasures, many interests. But they are very disconnected.”

Though it took some time to come to fruition, Trails of Tears was conceived in the early 1970s when Coursil spent time among the Sioux in South Dakota and was told the story of the Trail of Tears. “I was there during the birth of the American Indian movement,” he recalls, “and I was deeply impressed by the seriousness of those people, who don’t talk much. But when they say something, it’s heavy. There are a lot of books about this, but that is nothing compared to people telling me things bit by bit. The musician always translates into music what they see and hear and smell and experience, so instead of making a theory out of it, I made music.”

His reaction to those stories is chiefly reflected through the idiosyncratic sound of his trumpet, a fluttering, breathy tone that respires in empathy with the labor and strain of the long march. The bulk of the disc was recorded with a quartet featuring keyboardist Jeff Baillard, who provides airy landscapes for Coursil’s lamentations.

On “The Removal Act I,” however, Coursil is reunited with several of his ’60s compatriots: Sunny Murray, Perry Robinson, Mark Whitecage, Bobby Few and Alan Silva. The sextet combines for a more visceral reaction to the theme, picking up where they left off 40 years earlier.

For all the time he spent away from recording, Coursil has been prolific since his reemergence, and is already conceiving his next project. He’s looking toward a duet with an as-yet-unnamed bassist, a setting in which he wants to explore playing in a faster, more articulated style; yet another new territory to explore.

“It’s not a challenge, it’s a pleasure,” he insists. “When I do that I’m home. I’m visiting places in my home that I don’t know yet.”

Originally Published

Shaun Brady

Shaun Brady is a Philadelphia-based journalist who covers jazz along with an eclectic array of arts, culture, and travel. Brady contributes regularly to the Philadelphia Inquirer and JazzTimes and Jazziz magazines, with subjects ranging from legendary artists to underground experimentalists. His byline has appeared in DownBeat, Metro, NPR Music, and The A.V. Club, among other outlets. He studied filmmaking at Columbia College Chicago and continues to spend too much time in the dark.