Gunther Schuller

This week brought the momentous news that Gunther Schuller died of leukemia at age 89. He was most certainly one of the giants of twentieth-century American music and just as surely one of the most versatile and wide-ranging of musicians. His work from the late 1940s on as a composer of contemporary classical music alone guarantees his eminence, he’s in all the history texts on the subject and won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1994 orchestral work “Of Reminiscences and Recollections”.

But of course there was much more to him than that. He was a French hornist whose career on the instrument took him from the Cincinnati Symphony to the pit of the Met Orchestra and many recordings, indeed I first became aware of this aspect of Schuller from his participation in one of the three studio sessions of the Miles Davis Nonet which had such impact as “The Birth of the Cool”.

He was also a first-rate conductor, an academic and educator (as President of the New England Conservatory in Boston), a programmer of music (as the long-time Artistic Director of The Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood) and an author/jazz historian. He wasn’t a jazz musician per se, but had a lifelong fascination with jazz and of course is best known for his pioneering work as a composer in fusing classical and jazz techniques/concepts beginning in the mid ’50s, coining the term “Third Stream” for this rapprochement. In this process of synthesis, he found a kindred spirit in pianist and composer John Lewis, often collaborating with him and the group he directed, The Modern Jazz Quartet. Two of their most interesting recording projects were separate from the MJQ however – The Modern Jazz Society Presents A Concert of Contemporary Music, from 1955 – and Jazz Abstractions, from 1961.

Despite its cumbersome and misleading title – it wasn’t a concert but a studio session – the 1955 Verve record is one of the almost-forgotten masterworks of 1950s jazz. It presents five superior John Lewis compositions – three of them commissioned by Norman Granz – played by a jazz/chamber ensemble consisting of J.J. Johnson on trombone, Schuller on French horn, a flute, bassoon, harp, a tenor saxophone (either Lucky Thompson or Stan Getz featured as soloists), clarinet (Aaron Sachs or Tony Scott, who also solo), with the rhythm-team of the MJQ, Percy Heath and Connie Kay. Schuller is centrally involved not only as a player, but as the arranger of two of the pieces, “Django” and “Sun Dance”. His treatment of “Django” is particularly superb, I once witnessed its sombre, almost cortege-like coda silence a room during a dinner party. The record was available very briefly as a CD reissue, seemingly released in great haste, as Schuller’s informative liner notes are badly chopped up by omissions and misprints. A brilliant and fascinating record which foreshadowed the coming promise of the Third Stream movement.

Jazz Abstractions is a collaboration between Schuller, Lewis and guitarist Jim Hall and as its title suggests, has experimental, avant-garde jazz elements tied with more classical, compositional ones. It features a string quartet fused with various ensembles of cutting edge jazz players – Hall, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Bill Evans, Eddie Costa and Scott LaFaro, among others. The music is not for everybody, yet shows a rigorous intellectual curiosity about different instrumental groupings or textures and a willingness to take risks which characterized much of Schuller’s work. Indeed, along with Lewis, Schuller was one of the first and most prominent musical figures to champion Coleman’s ground-breaking music. Schuller was like that, an established figure but a serious-minded, if gentle, iconoclast all the same.

Today, a healthy mutual respect, cross-training and a willingness to collaborate exists between the once-separate worlds of jazz and classical music. This has benefitted musicians from each field and it was Schuller as much as anyone who started this breaking of barriers against considerable resistance. Almost sixty years later, contemporary music – jazz and otherwise – is marked by countless hybrid amalgamations, by this genre-smashing spirit of cross-pollination which Schuller did so much to pioneer. The seminal importance of his influence in this regard is unassailable, he did a lot to raise the musical bar in America.

Somewhere amid all this activity he found the time to write two serious and important books on jazz history – Early Jazz (published in 1968 and an indispensable look at the music’s roots) and the much more ambitious and massive The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-45. It took him some twenty years to write, he listened to many thousands of recordings and made countless musical transcriptions while doing so, this rigorous methodology and its sheer weight and scope are well beyond impressive. As was bound to happen with such a comprehensive work, there were quibbles that he got a few small details wrong and not everyone (myself included) agrees with all of his analysis or critical pronouncements, but this is mere hair-splitting. There’s no denying the monumental scholarship, intelligence, dedication and his sheer love for and recognition of jazz as an important music, all of which come through in this tome’s many pages.

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Quite a while ago and very unexpectedly, I chanced to meet Gunther Schuller and to know him a little. It was during my first European tour with the Oscar Peterson Trio, which would have been in October of 1987. The German leg of the tour consisted of concerts in Berlin, Cologne and Munich and as we arrived at our Berlin hotel, there was Schuller, of all people, in the lobby. I wouldn’t have recognized him, he was much older than any of the photographs I’d seen of him, more portly and with white hair and a goatee, but Oscar knew him immediately. They went way back together and embraced fondly, then Oscar introduced him to me and our drummer, Bobby Durham. Gunther said he was going to our concert that evening and we all arranged to meet in the restaurant for dinner beforehand. This was a big deal for me, because as a long-standing fan of Lewis and the MJQ, I’d also come to admire Schuller mostly through that association.

During dinner, Gunther and Oscar got caught up with various reminiscences and stories from the past, it was a warm and entertaining reunion. Each of them talked about what a fastidious and stern musical taskmaster John Lewis could be, Oscar recalling that during a JATP tour Lewis practically had Percy Heath reduced to tears a couple of times with his browbeating during the MJQ’s frequent rehearsals. Coming under those circumstances from Oscar, I remember thinking to myself….. look who’s talking. Oscar also recalled Milt Jackson’s complaints to Herb Ellis that Lewis was “rehearsin’ the soul out of the band.” Gunther got a big kick out of this and said that even though Lewis came from a jazz background, many of New York’s best orchestral string players were slightly intimidated by him. Schuller is often seen or portrayed as a serious type, pedantic or even priggish, but in person I found him to be anything but. He was affable, gracious, informal and outgoing, with a lively sense of humour. It was a nice instance of meeting someone you admire and they’re as you hoped they would be, except maybe even nicer in this case.

As I recall, the concert was one of our best on that tour, greatly aided by the typically superb German concert hall and a great Bosendorfer piano. Oscar was very happy afterward and Gunther certainly enjoyed it, I was relieved he’d heard the newly-formed trio on such a good night. The next day I bumped into him near the elevators and he suggested we go to lunch; I was delighted to accept, it would give us more of a chance to talk. And talk we did, it was a very easy two-way conversation. And it wasn’t all about him, though that would have suited me fine. He wanted to know how I came to play with Oscar and what it was like working with him, also about my background in Toronto and who I’d played with over the years. I told him how much I’d admired Early Jazz (I hadn’t read The Swing Era yet) and he was delighted, though a little surprised I’d even heard of it. I also told him what a big fan of Lewis and the MJQ I was, and we had a long chat about the amazingly versatile and musical drumming of Connie Kay, Gunther also pointing out how much Percy Heath’s rich and deep sound impacted the band. I was pleasantly surprised that this legit composer’s interest extended to the subtleties of jazz rhythm section players. His speech was a little more European/Germanic in inflection than I’d expected; I’d always thought of him as American – and so did he, but he was originally from Germany and seemed equally at home there.

I was quite taken aback by the contrast between my image of Schuller – his imposing and formal accomplishments – and the unpretentious, down-to-earth man I was enjoying talking with. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, it wasn’t modesty or humility exactly – he knew his worth – it was something else, maybe a restless curiosity, a liveliness. I’ve puzzled over it but I think I’ve figured it out what it was. I hadn’t realized this until reading several of the obituaries, but Gunther Schuller was entirely self-taught as a composer and in almost everything else, describing himself as a “high school dropout without a single earned degree”. Think about that, all that he accomplished came mostly from his own native intelligence, ability, hard work and discipline; he was fiercely proud of this and rightly so, I find it quite staggering. What I sensed about him over lunch that day tied in with this – an engaged openness, an independence of mind and a determination to get on with things, that came across as a courtly and cheerful informality.

My chance encounter with Gunther Schuller had a very odd coda. About a year later I was home asleep one Sunday morning, I remember it was during a very hot spell of the summer and I’d been out late at some kind of party the night before. At about six in the morning the phone rang and woke me, soaked in sweat and with the beginnings of a pretty good hangover. I muttered a foggy hello and unbelievably, it was Schuller on the line, wondering if I had Oscar Peterson’s number. I don’t know where he was calling from, but he clearly had no idea what hour it was in Toronto. I was too stunned to berate him about it though, excusing myself as I stumbled around half-awake in my underwear trying to find my personal phone book. I was a bit reluctant, because Oscar had a private phone number which he carefully guarded for obvious reasons, but I figured with them being such old friends it would be okay to give it out in this case. So I went back on the line, gave Gunther the number and yawningly cautioned him to maybe wait a few hours before using it, which brought a chuckling apology from him for calling so early and we said our goodbyes. To this day, I have no idea how Gunther Schuller got my phone number, why he was so fired-up to get hold of Oscar all of a sudden or whether he ever did. It remains one of those bizarre, coincidental mysteries that dot the career of a jazz musician and I look back on it almost in disbelief.

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I’d like to conclude with a funny story concerning Gunther Schuller that I first read in Bill Crow’s wonderful book Jazz Anecdotes. I’ll have to recount it from memory as I discovered that my copy has been packed away in a box due to storage issues, but I’m sure I have the gist of it right, if not all the details. Some may find the story to be in poor taste or disrespectful under the circumstances, but I beg to differ. With so many musicians dying recently – Schuller, Ornette Coleman, Toronto veterans Archie Alleyne and Lenny Boyd, I think it’s important that we keep our spirits up and remember to laugh, or at least smile. I’m quite sure Gunther found the story amusing and wouldn’t mind me telling it here. Besides, I owe him for that jarring phone call. At any rate, here goes:

One time in the early ’60s, Schuller, Jimmy Buffington and Ray Alonge formed the French horn section of a large orchestra, either on a record date or a concert, I forget which. During a break, Buffington and Alonge were standing next to each other, using the urinals in the men’s room. In walked Schuller, taking his place alongside them and, as he unzipped, Alonge said, “Hey Jimmy, here comes the third stream”.

Rest in peace Gunther, thanks for all the music and the changes you brought.

© 2015, Steve Wallace. All rights reserved.

8 thoughts on “Gunther Schuller

  1. This is the best remembrance of Schuller that I’ve read.

    Not that I would have expected less, Steve: your warm and personal recollections lift these ‘obits’ far beyond the formal and stilted items that flood our media these days.

    Thanks again, and I hope you don’t have to do another one for a l-o-o-o-n-g while.

  2. A home run Steve…enjoyed it immensely. Have often heard of Schuller but hadn’t known who he was. An immense talent. Thanks again…Jack

  3. Like Ted O I bet this is the best insight on that extraordinary person Gunther S which will ever appear. It produces a picture of a Jazz Giant of our time who few people know. The extent of your personal experience would alone make you a top Jazz Historian.
    I brushed across Schullers’ path nearly 40 years ago with a little personal story for next time we meet. Terry

  4. Wonderful piece, as always. “The Swing Era” is one of the best, if not the best, things written about the music. Too bad he didn’t get to the post 1945 period as he planned. Haven’t done Early Jazz but I will now.

  5. Steve, your post about Gunther Schuller was easily the most memorable thing I’ve read about him since his recent passing. Thanks for sharing it.

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