Marie Therese Metoyer: Coin Coin [Part 1]

Marie Therese Metoyer: the woman behind works by two of contemporary jazz’s masters – Part 1

In 2010 the Imani Winds released Terra Incognita, which features “Cane,” a four-movement piece composed by pianist Jason Moran, who drew his inspiration from his family history and heritage near the Cane river in Natchitoches, Louisiana, specifically one ancestor, Marie Therese Metoyer, a.k.a. Coincoin. Similarly, though she is not a blood relative of Coincoin[1], saxophonist Matana Roberts is currently working on what is to become a twelve-chapter work on Coincoin, the first chapter of which – COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres [trans: Free People of Color] – was released in 2011. The second chapter has been performed live and can be streamed from NPR’s excellent jazz blog, A Blog Supreme.

Though Moran normally plays jazz, incorporating avant-garde and bebop elements into his music, “Cane” sounds more like Stravinsky than Monk. However, “Cane” does still stay true to its subject matter, particularly in regards to rhythm. The first movement is called “Togo to Natchitoches,” which implies the Middle Passage, and by mentioning the West African nation of Togo, gives the source of the rhythmic syncopation that Moran will employ throughout the piece. The first two movements (“Togo to Natchitoches” and “Coin Coin’s Narrative”) are structured around short, almost sputtering phrases, creating a sense of nervous energy and uncertainty, which is heightened with Moran’s masterful manipulation of accented weak beats. The third movement, named “Gens de Couleur Libres,” presents a more languid melody over beautifully dissonant chords. And the final movement takes the narrative up the Mississippi and east to New York (“Natchitoches to New York”), changing the pace by adding some jazzy and bluesy melodic and rhythmic elements.

Outside of subject matter, Roberts’ work has very little in common in Moran’s “Cane.” While Moran took some jazz influence and composed in the chamber music idiom, Roberts created soulful jazz, unifying modern free jazz techniques with the music being made in New Orleans over a hundred years ago; it is a long cry from the concert halls that Imani Winds occupy. While both pieces are powerful Roberts is guttural (both her singing and playing) where Moran is melodious. Roberts represents unbridled emotion, while Moran expresses a meticulously composed message. Roberts and her fifteen-piece band, which includes prepared guitar, musical saw, and doudouk as well as strings and traditional jazz instruments and voices, feature unaccompanied free jazz solos, moments of collective improvisation, some fully composed sections of harmonic music with traditional jazz elements, and spoken word/poetry performances (telling Coincoin’s story through poetry composed by Roberts), often mercurially switching between these types of music. The result is an album with a strong nonlinear narrative, which Roberts has described using the metaphor of a patchwork quilt, made up of separate squares coming together.

COIN COIN Chapter One: Gens de Couleur Libres

With these two works having been released in such close proximity, based on the life of the same woman, it’s hard not to wonder how one person could inspire such radically different works. Coincoin is a bit of a legendary figure in Louisiana Creole folklore. In short, she was born a slave in Natchitoches, baptized in 1735. She became mistress to her owner’s brother, Claude Thomas Pierre Métoyer, who after fathering 10 children with her married a white widow, set Coincoin free, and gave her 68 acres for a plantation of her own. She represented the gens de couleur libres (having founded the first church specifically for this group), who were a community made up of free Creoles of color. Race relations in Louisiana in this time period were very complicated. Dictionary.com offers five definitions of Creole, three specifying groups of people and two referring to dialects. The first three definitions are: (1) a person born in the West Indies or Spanish America but of European, usually Spanish, ancestry; (2) a person born in Louisiana but of usually French ancestry; and (3) a person of mixed black and European, especially French or Spanish, ancestry who speaks a creolized form of French or Spanish.

These definitions all cover completely different groups of people, but one commonality is that people who called themselves Creole did not consider themselves black. Creoles of color, like Coincoin and many early jazz musicians,[2] specified that there were a group distinct from Europeans and Africans, but with ancestors from both. And it’s this muddled cultural definition that is perhaps one key to why these two works on the same subject can be so different. Their biggest musical similarity is the combination of European and African influence (as is key to all jazz music). Moran combines European classical techniques with African rhythms; Roberts recalls early jazz, which came out of the union of European conceptions of harmony (the marching band tradition) and blues and syncopation (both of which have roots in African traditions).[3]

While this in no way answers the questions raised by these two works, this blog entry is just the beginning of a longer analysis of this music, of Coincoin’s story, and of Louisiana 18th Century race relations that I will be continuing.[4]


[1] Having ancestry that can be traced back to Natchitoches, Roberts is connected to Coincoin’s family through marriage.  “Down there near Melrose there’s nothing but Metoyers. They pronounce it met-TWYRE now. Some of them are Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents are descendants. And a few are Metoyer-Metoyer-Metoyers: Both parents were Metoyers and then they marry a Metoyer. The family trees are as tangled as a briar patch and they’ve shaped a very distinctive culture. But it all started with Coincoin and what she did with what she had. There ought to be a monument to her,” said assistant director of the Creole Heritage Center at Northwestern State University in Natchitoches, as quoted by Ken Ringle in the Washington Post. His full article offers a clear, concise look at Coincoin’s life and legacy.

[2] Jelly Roll Morton and Sidney Bechet, among others,

[3] To clarify, I am fully aware the blues did not originate in African, but is a wholly African-American development. However, the bending of notes (i.e. blue notes), call-and-response, and simple riff-based melodies that characterize the blues can be traced back to West African traditions.

[4] And posting in sections, rather than as one tremendously long blog entry.

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