Gunther Schuller: An appreciation

2 minute read
Schuller with his French horn, c. 1940s.
Schuller with his French horn, c. 1940s.

Gunther Schuller — the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor, educator, French horn player, author, and longtime advocate of the co-existence of jazz and classical music — has died at the age of 89. His legacy was extraordinary and serves as a model of what could be in terms of musical acceptance, unification, cooperation, and, in the best sense of the word, fusion.

This was a 16-year-old French horn player who dropped out of college in 1936, performed Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony under Toscanini in that work’s first radio broadcast, and, 14 years later, played French horn on jazz great Miles Davis’s ground-breaking “Birth of the Cool” sessions.

Though he was appointed as principal French horn player with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and later served with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra until 1959, his heart, or a good portion of it, was in jazz.

In 1955, he teamed up with John Lewis, the pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, to form the Modern Jazz Society, which was devoted to promoting the validity of the still-controversial Third Stream, the combination of classical music and jazz. There were those who believed in it, including Bill Evans, Ornette Coleman, and Leonard Bernstein. Others, though, like Gene Krupa, felt fusion could not work unless “the long-hairs learned how to blow hot music.”

Still, Schuller’s Third Stream compositions — like 1957’s “Transformation” for jazz ensemble, 1950’s “Concertino” for jazz quartet and orchestra, and 1960’s “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk” — make a good case for the validity of the Third Stream.

A musician and a scholar

Though he was president of the New England Conservatory in the 1960s and 1970s and a prolific composer of classical works — “partial to the 12-tone methods of the Second Viennese School,” said New York Times classical music writer Allan Kozinn — he somehow found time to write two important contributions to literature about jazz. In Early Jazz, Schuller was the first to accurately appraise the contributions of everyone from the Original Dixieland Jazz Band to Louis Armstrong. In The Swing Era, he gave long overdue credit to Fletcher Henderson, Basie, Ellington, Don Redman, and Woody Herman — and even made good cases for Krupa, Charlie Barnet, Glenn Miller, and Larry Clinton. Sadly, the promised follow-up will never appear.

Schuller believed that every genre could be combined with jazz or classical music, including the music of Frank Zappa and beyond. As he told The Guardian in 2010, “The thing that may make me unique is that I have simultaneously had seven full-time careers in music over the last 50 or 60 years. That's more than Leonard Bernstein.”

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