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Tom Reney’s writings delve into the history and mystery of jazz, blues, and beyond. The Jazz à la Mode Blog has plenty to stimulate your interest and curiosity in American music.

Gunther Schuller, R.I.P., 1925-2015

Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller

[Ed. note: This post was originally published on June 24, 2015]

Gunther Schuller died on Sunday, June 21, in Boston. He was 89. Schuller was a Renaissance man of the Space Age. He began playing French horn with the New York Philharmonic when he was 16, became principal horn of the Cincinnati Symphony at 17, and for the better part of the next 75 years excelled at more endeavors than virtually anyone else in modern music. He was highly regarded as a composer, conductor, educator, musicologist, memoirist, and the pioneering figure in a synthesis of jazz and classical music that he dubbed Third Stream. In 1972, he founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, the group whose Grammy-winning recording The Red Back Book spurred new interest in the works of Scott Joplin. Among numerous honors, he was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for composition; a MacArthur “genius” grant; the NEA Jazz Masters Award; and the 2015 MacDowell Medal.

Twenty years ago, Schuller described Joe Lovano as “omnivorous,” and while that’s an accurate description of the saxophonist’s musical appetites, it’s even truer of the man. For no one devoured the music world with more energy and enthusiasm than Gunther, and few have stayed as productive and engaged for as long as this New York native who called Boston home for fifty years. Among recent examples of his ongoing output were two works commissioned by the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Where the Word Ends and Dreamscape.

Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood 2012
Hilary Scott
New York Times
Gunther Schuller at Tanglewood, 2012

I was a distant admirer of Schuller’s for many years, but didn’t speak with him until November 2010. The occasion was his 85th birthday. I’d devoted a night of Jazz à la Mode to that milestone, and was delighted to answer the phone a few days later and hear his voice saying, “Bravo!” He added a phrase I’ll never forget, “This call is long overdue,” and said he’d been listening to the show for years while driving from Newton to his second home in the Berkshires. As it happened, I was hurriedly trying to get out the door that evening to attend a wake but Gunther’s breathless eloquence made it nearly impossible to end the call. In particular, I recall him mentioning what a delight it was to hear Hot Lips Page, Pete Johnson, Erroll Garner, Jack Teagarden and other legends as staples of the show. He lamented the lack of attention to pre-bop jazz styles in university jazz studies programs, and certain omissions from the Ken Burns jazz documentary.

Despite my limited personal contact with him, what made the call so gratifying was that he’d long felt like an avuncular figure in my life, one whom I revered as a guiding force of high standards and humane principles. Around 1970, the Boston Phoenix ran a cover story on Schuller, who was then President of the New England Conservatory of Music. Duke Ellington’s name was mentioned in a pull quote, and that drew me in to reading of this man with a substantial background in classical music who was also a champion of jazz. Schuller had recently published his first volume of jazz history, Early Jazz, in which he argued that figures like Ellington and Louis Armstrong were the equivalents of the European heavyweights, and the news that occasioned the Phoenix article was the inauguration of a jazz curriculum at NEC. That alone made Gunther a stand-up guy, for while jazz has steadily progressed toward a comparable status with classical music at conservatories, colleges, and institutions like Lincoln Center, it was a rarity 45 years ago.

A decade before his NEC appointment, Schuller had co-founded the Jazz and Classical Music Society with John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, and in collaboration with Lewis, Jimmy Giuffre and others, he began forging a new idiom. Schuller coined the term Third Stream to describe his musical vision, and he was a guiding force behind a formal presentation of the new music in a concert held at Brandeis University in 1957. Among the works premiered at Brandeis were Charles Mingus’s “Revelations” and George Russell’s “All About Rosie,’ the latter highlighted by one of Bill Evans’s earliest attention-getting performances. Two years later, the pianist appeared with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Jim Hall on Schuller’s Variants on a Theme by Thelonious Monk (Criss Cross).

Ornette Coleman - Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss-Cross)

Miles Davis was a featured soloist at the Brandeis concert on new works by John Lewis and J.J. Johnson, and that furthered a connection between Miles and Gunther that had begun in 1950 when Schuller played French horn on the last of the trumpeter’s Birth of the Cool sessions. In 2006, Gunther composed and orchestrated The Birth of the Cool Suite, an extended work that interweaves three pieces from the Davis classic, “Moon Dreams,” “Move,” and “Boplicity.” Joe Lovano recorded it for the Blue Note release, Streams of Expression. Lovano and Schuller also collaborated in 1995 on Rush Hour, which featured Gunther’s orchestrations of music by Ellington, Mingus, Thelonious Monk, and three of his own compositions. Lovano’s orchestra was anchored by Gunther’s renowned musical sons, George on drums and Ed on bass.

Gunther Schuller's Birth of the Cool Suite - from Joe Lovano's Streams of Expression

Gunther’s association with Mingus carried on through the years. He conducted “Half-Mast Inhibition” on Mingus’s 1960 recording, Pre-Bird Charlie Mingus, and the first ever complete performance of Mingus’s “Epitaph,” a long neglected work that the bassist had introduced at his Town Hall concert in 1962. Schuller presented it at Lincoln Center in 1989 and later at Tanglewood. He hailed “Epitaph” as one of “the most important, prophetic, creative statements in the history of jazz.”

Schuller’s legacy as a jazz artist is more profuse in print than on record. In addition to Early Jazz, he authored landmark essays for the Jazz Review on Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins, the latter celebrating Rollins’s genius for “thematic improvisation” to such an extent that the saxophonist said it inhibited him and made him reluctant to read even complimentary reviews. Schuller’s magnum opus as a historian is The Swing Era, an impressively comprehensive and lucid analysis of jazz between 1930-1945. Several years before the book was published in 1989, journalist Daniel Okrent told me that when he interviewed Schuller, he asked him what he listened to in his spare time. Gunther answered that he had no time for recreational listening, that everything was related to his work, and that he was intent on hearing virtually every recording of the period under study. The Swing Era is not only a definitive overview; its profiles and assessments are essential guides to a fuller understanding of the renowned and lesser known figures of the time.

Gunther Schuller - The Swing Era

It remains to be seen how far Schuller had got with a third volume on modern jazz. He’d been at work on it for many years, but when we spoke in 2010 he said he’d put it aside so he could concentrate on his personal memoirs. Its first volume, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music & Beauty, was published by the University of Rochester Press in 2011. Like his earlier histories, the highly readable autobiography includes richly detailed, candid stories of personal encounters with Charlie Parker, Bill Evans, Miles, Mingus, and many more. It’s also one of the most impassioned narratives of arts and culture in New York during the forties and fifties, a period and place that Schuller hailed as “the cultural paradise of the world.”

In 1964, Leonard Bernstein’s series of Young People’s Concerts presented Schuller’s Journey Into Jazz. Bernstein recited the narrative by Nat Hentoff, and a quintet of jazz players, Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, Benny Golson, Richard Davis, and Joe Cocuzzo, joined the New York Philharmonic to play the score under Gunther’s baton. As anticipated, Bernstein introduces Gunther’s father, Arthur Schuller, a violinist with the Philharmonic for 42 years, before he brings on the son.

I was planning to attend the MacDowell Medal ceremony in Peterborough, NH in August to join the colony in applauding Gunther one more time. Alas, the ceremony will now have the feel of a memorial to this titan of music. And so it will stand that the last time I saw him was on Labor Day weekend in 2011 when he conducted the Mingus Orchestra at Tanglewood in a program that included the Mingus standards “Jelly Roll,” “Ecclusiastics,” and “Haitian Fight Song,” and his through-composed works “Half Mast Inhibition,” “Taurus in the Arena of Life,” “Noon Night,” and “Chill of Death.” I had the honor of introducing Schuller to the audience that Sunday afternoon at Ozawa Hall, and speaking with him about Mingus after the concert. “Mingus lived a full and complicated life,” he reflected, “And he put it all in his music.”

I took it as a good omen that my first blog entry for New England Public Radio’s website was devoted to this review of the performance. Compared with Mingus’s life, Schuller’s was relatively uncomplicated, but it was surely full and he poured it out in music, education, scholarship, and a fierce advocacy for the arts. Bravo, Gunther!

Tom was honored by the Jazz Journalists Association with the Willis Conover-Marian McPartland Award for Career Excellence in Broadcasting in 2019. In addition to hosting Jazz à la Mode since 1984, Tom writes the jazz blog and produces the Jazz Beat podcast at NEPM. He began working in jazz radio in 1977 at WCUW, a community-licensed radio station in Worcester, Massachusetts. Tom holds a BA from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where he majored in English and African American Studies.
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