Pierre Courbois is born on April 23, 1940, in Nijmegen, the son of a watchmaker and a jeweller. Before World War II they both play in a cinema orchestra. He receives his professional training at the Hogeschool der Kunsten (Art College) in Arnhem, where he graduates as a goldsmith. This practical, technical profession explains Courbois’ later craftsman like adaptations and innovations for his drum kit, such as the retunable floor toms, the double bass drum and gong pedals. Together with his brother Jacques he launches a craze in the early Seventies by building a complete drum set of transparent Perspex, an instrument he continues to play to this day.
During his high school years, Pierre does some (evening) courses on electronics on different schools for polytechnics. Here the seed is own for his later inventions on drum synthesizers.
Courbois takes his first steps in the field of music in 1953, when he invents a melody (which, by the way, does not appear on CD until 2007: RÉVOCATION, February 1953). The first instruments young Pierre touches are not the drums, but the piano, the guitar and the banjo. He gains one of his first professional experiences with fellow Nijmegen citizen Boy Raaijmakers, with whom he plays in Dixieland and Dance bands, even across the German border.
Directly after graduating from the art academy, in 1963, he leaves for Paris, where he works as a sideman at the renowned jazz club The Blue Note, with several jazz greats: pianists Kenny Drew and George Arvanitas, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, saxophonists Stan Getz and Johnny Griffin, and guitarist René Thomas.
Another urgent reason for being in Paris is the presence of drumming bebop pioneer Kenny Clarke, who teaches Courbois the fine points of jazz drumming. Clarke’s brushes technique can still be heard in Courbois’ playing.
He is – probably – the only Dutch musician who has ever played in The Blue Note club, for about a year in total.
As one of the first people in Europe, Courbois experiments with free improvisation music, or free jazz. In 1961, he becomes the leader and drummer of the Original Dutch Free Jazz Quartet. Not long after its founding the group can be heard in a live broadcast by Michiel de Ruyter and Aad Bos, possibly the very first manifestation of free improvisation in the Netherlands. Unfortunately, the recordings have been lost. Through Courbois, trumpeter Boy Raaijmakers meets reed player Willem Breuker.
With Carl Schulze, Louis van Dijk and Arend Neijenhuis, he plays in a group that is influenced by the Modern Jazz Quartet. This group plays during the first experimental broadcasts of Dutch colour television by Philips [PH.E.T]. Also during this time, Courbois acts as a substitute drummer in Theo Loevendie Consort.
Around 1965 the Free Music Quartet is formed, which also performs as a quintet, with vibraphonist Erwin Somer added. An LP of this five-man line up is released in 1968 on the famous American label ESP Disk’. More records appear during this period, usually free jazz-like, experimental music released on obscure, small labels consigned to oblivion, and with musicians who have since been forgotten. The best-known records from this time contain collaborations with Willem Breuker, Gunter Hampel and Ramses Shaffy. He was also a member of the first Peter Brötzmann Trio with Peter Kowald on double bass.
Although Pierre Courbois operates as a bandleader from the early Sixties onwards, he is also influential as an accompanist. Even before Eric Ineke steps forward as Rein de Graaff’s regular drummer, Courbois adds a contemporary sound to his groups.
The spirit of the times in the Sixties, however, does not yet allow anyone to make ‘innovative’ experimental music, as well as amplified jazz rock and ‘conservative’, bop-based jazz. This typically Dutch phenomenon is the reason why Courbois’ work with Mal Waldron, JR Monterose, Inge Brandenburg, the Rein de Graaff/Dick Vennik Quartet and the European Jazz Quintet still does not get the recognition it deserves. For that matter, at a certain point Courbois actually does distance himself from Dutch improvised music. According to him, under the influence of his actress sister Kitty: he found the theatrical aspect of the Amsterdam improvisers’ scene amateurish and below par.
Repeatedly Courbois pushes back his musical boundaries, for instance as the founder of one of the very first European rock jazz or fusion bands, Association PC, in 1969. This Dutch-German ensemble tours all over the world, and wins, among other awards, the famous American Down Beat Poll. After the departure of keyboard player Jasper van ‘t Hoff the group’s line up becomes even more international. In 1974 Courbois is the only remaining Dutch member, the others are Joachim Kühn, Toto Blanke, Sigi Busch, Jeremy Steig, Karl-Heiz Wiberny, Sigi Kessler and Harald Konietzko.
Courbois becomes increasingly fascinated by electronic additions to his drum kit. He plays “electronically” solo concerts, which synthesizer-like effects (analogue) equipment he designs and build himself.
Between 1976 and 1982, Courbois does almost five hundred daytime shows for the educational Stichting Schoolconcert in the Netherlands. There, he enters the stage as ‘raconteur’ about jazz and percussion on practically every Dutch high school, sometimes as much as three times a day [!].
Also, with Polo de Haas, Courbois experiments for several years with a new genre, Improvised Minimal Music. All contemporary media have neglected this unique initiative, and regrettably, no quality recordings exist.
In 1977 Courbois gets ‘carte blanche’ from VARA Radio Centraal. He invites bassist Gary Peacock for a memorable, one-off project, the recordings of which are in the vaults of Dutch public broadcasting.
After the legendary Association PC dissolves in the mid-Seventies, the name returns in the Eighties in the form of New Association. This acoustic group exists until 1992. The unusual line up of violin, vibraphone, double bass and drums obscures the fact that Courbois returns to acoustic jazz as early as the beginning of the Eighties. The drum kit with electronically devices is also permanently discarded.
Around this time, Courbois plays in groups like Brevis and Compass. He is a member of the Frans Vermeerssen Trans Atlantic Sextet and a quartet by Frank Grasso with Willem Kühne and the, at that time, very young bass player Hein van der Geijn.
Also, he presents a weekly live jazz radio broadcast, nationwide for VPRO Radio: Met Pierre Op Locatie’. [‘On Location with Pierre, later to be called ‘Down Beat’].
Not all these musical developments go unnoticed. In 1984 Courbois is declared jazz musician of the year by De Volkskrant. One of the voters of this public award motivates his choice by emphasizing that Courbois, with Miles Davis, is one of those artists who keep developing after their fortieth year.
Since 1992 Courbois performs with a quintet bearing his own name that, for the first time in his career, plays his own compositions exclusively. At the moment, the count is four CD’s of original music, and according to Courbois there is enough new material on the shelf for two or three albums.
The unique secret of the Pierre Courbois Quintet lies in the singular construction of the compositions and the many odd time signatures, characteristic of Courbois since the early Sixties, just like his style with brushes. The soloists, usually young, feel naturally called upon in this context to make fitting contributions. Lions who have since become famous, such as Eric Vloeimans, Ilja Reijngoud, Maarten Ornstein and Jasper Blom were introduced, in an early stage of their career, to the melodically, harmonically and rhythmically interesting music of Pierre Courbois.
Monthly Jazz Nu declares the CD ‘Réouverture’ best Dutch jazz album of 1994.
At the 1994 North Sea Jazz Festival Courbois receives the Bird Award, named after jazz great Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker, from a unanimous jury.
Indonesian composer Prasadiyanto writes a piece for drum kit and gamelan orchestra – WASANA – that has been played numerous times by the Ensemble Widosari with Pierre as featured soloist.
Tribute to Cees Cee is a project by the all-drummers group B-C-D-E (Bennink, Courbois, Duijnhoven, Engels) which played around the millennium change in Holland. This quartet briefly re-united in 2008 during the VPRO/Boy Edgar Awards concert. This can be seen on Youtube.
In 1999 a ‘double quintet’ is founded, the regular Pierre Courbois Quintet complemented by reed players Leo van Oostrom, Paul van Kemenade, Maarten Ornstein, Jasper Blom and Jan Menu. They perform rich adaptations of Courbois compositions, by arrangers such as Jan Wessels, Loek Dikker, Paul Stocker, Niko Langenhuijsen, Egon Kracht, Willem Breuker and Martin Fondse.
In 2000 Courbois is appointed Knight in the Order of Orange Nassau, and he concludes his tour with the Double Quintet at the North Sea Jazz Festival, celebrating its anniversary, also having played there during the first edition 25 years before.
At the end of 2003, from the remains of the Pierre Courbois Quintet and the Double Quintet, the most recent important group around the individualistic drummer is formed. The ‘Five-Four-Sextet’ plays only Courbois music in that time signature, from blues to calypso. Once again, the musicians are inspired by the odd musical ideas to make their improvisations fit in. Typically, the listening audiences often are not even aware of the five-four time, unusual in jazz.
A highlight in the career of the now 72-year-old drummer is a three-day event focusing on Courbois’ music, organized at the end of 2007 in Leiden. Courbois finds himself reunited with the pianists Polo de Haas and Loek Dikker, returns to improvised jazz rock for a short while with his son Barend on bass guitar and his old buddy Jasper van ‘t Hoff on keys. And of course the Five-Four-Sextet also plays.
With this group, Pierre Courbois will once again take the Dutch jazz venues by storm, with Holland’s best kept trumpet secret Toon de Gouw, top trombonist Ilja Reijngoud, unique tenor sax player Jasper Blom, musical anchor on double bass Niko Langenhuijsen and Courbois’ prop and stay for many years, pianist Willem Kühne.
Pierre is also politically active. On behalf of the Socialist Party (SP) he was with the “Commissie Cultuur Gemeente Arnhem”. He composed en played the election tune Big Party, live and on CD.
Furthermore, he wrote articles on percussion, an astonishing twelve years for Music Maker.
Reviews on gramophone records and cd’s have appeared in many music magazines.
Courbois has participated in countless music college juries, and still regularly acts as a judge in jazz concourses.
This biography was written by Remco Takken for the program of the VPRO / Boy Edgar Award Ceremony - on May 19, 2008.