Lest We Forget

Gunther Schuller
By Ken Waxman

During his long professional career Gunther Schuller, who died this past June and was born November 22, 1925, was a French horn player, composer, conductor, author, university professor, record company and orchestra founder, festival administrator and conservatory president, whose associates included Aaron Copeland, John Lewis and Charles Mingus. But for certain segments of the music world he’s best-known for a phrase he coined during a 1957 lecture at Brandeis University: Third Stream. While his idea of uniting the streams of jazz and classical music into a tributary that melded influences from both was initially greeted with derision, nearly a half-century later cross over between the two is increasingly common.

Schuller himself was an early example of this. Although he was playing French horn in his teens with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (until 1959) – he described himself as “a high school dropout without a single earned degree”. An interest in jazz, sparked by exposure to Duke Ellington’s orchestra, led eventually to participation in Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool nonet sessions of 1949-50. Although thoroughly embedded in the notated side of the divide – “Of Reminiscences and Reflections”, one of his many compositions, won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1994 – his association in the ‘50s and ‘60s with pianist John Lewis, music director of The Modern Jazz Quartet, helped put Third Stream ideas into practice. When the MJQ recorded with expanded ensembles, Schuller usually conducted, and during a memorable New York concert in 1960 Bill Evans, Eric Dolphy, Jim Hall, Ornette Coleman and others improvised on Schuller’s Third Stream compositions such as “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk”. “The Third Stream movement inspires composers, improvisers and players to work together toward the goal of a marriage of musics… fusing them in a profound way,” he once said. Along with Lewis and Harold Faberman, Schuller also put these ideas into practice on a larger scale with Orchestra U.S.A. from 1962-1965.

Coleman had been introduced to the east coast after he attended the Lenox School of Jazz in Massachusetts, which Lewis and Schuller initiated and oversaw from 1957 to 1960. By that point Schuller had already taught at the Manhattan School of Music and at Yale from 1964-67. Copeland recruited him for Tanglewood’s Berkshire Music Center and the hornist become its artistic director from 1969-1984. Schuller’s ideas about jazz education came to fruition at the New England Conservatory when he became its president from 1967-1977. Not only did the venerable institution become the first major classical conservatory to grant jazz degrees, but he hired experienced jazz theorists like Jaki Byard and George Russell. With Ran Blake as its first chair, in 1972 Schuller also established NEC’s Third Stream department, now called the Contemporary Improvisation program.

Along with his other activities Schuller founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble whose LP Joplin: The Red Back Book won a Grammy award for Best Chamber Music Performance in 1974. In 1989 he conducted an all-star orchestral version of Mingus’ Epitaph, later released on record; and in 1990, after he and fellow jazz educator David Baker organized Washington, DC’s Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, he programmed, conducted and recorded many infrequently performed jazz classics. In 1980 he founded the GM record label which over the years has released discs featuring among others, his sons Ed, a bassist and George a drummer. If that wasn’t enough Schuller wrote prose as well as music. His Horn Technique, is a standard reference for musicians, while Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 are considered essential works. Pretty impressive for someone most famous for a single phrase.

Selected Listening

• Miles Davis – Birth Of The Cool (Capital 1950)

• Gunther Schuller/John Lewis/Jimmy Giuffre/J.J. Johnson/Dimitri Mitropoulos –Music for Brass (Columbia 1957)

• John Lewis – Presents Contemporary Music: Jazz Abstractions - Compositions By Gunther Schuller And Jim Hall (Atlantic 1961)

• Orchestra U.S.A:— The Debut Recording (Colpix Records 1963)

• The New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble – Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book (Angel 1973)

• Charles Mingus – Epitaph (Columbia 1989)

—For The New York City Jazz Record December 2015