Schuller was raised in a household where classical music and jazz were held in high esteem. His father is even credited with coining the term "third stream," referring to the combination of techniques from both those styles. In addition to writing classical works and operas, Gunther Schuller was also a collaborator with Miles Davis ( Birth of the Cool) and was friends with the likes of Charles Mingus, Dizzy Gillespie and so many others. He was an influence on his sons. But George Schuller also counts among his influences "Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Wayne Shorter. Paul Motian. Monk. I'm leaving out 30 or 40 others."
On drums, the list is also lengthy, he notes, with players both past and present. "But mainly I drew my sound from some of the greats like Elvin Jones, Max Roach, Philly Joe Jones. And earlier drummers like Sonny Greer, Shelly Manne, and even some of the present cats like Jack DeJohnette, Victor Lewis, Paul Motian, Jeff 'Tain' Watts."
Schuller was born in New York City, but moved to the Boston area with his family at a young age. Clarinet was the first instrument he tinkered with and he had some training on piano. "Somehow I picked up on the drums around age eleven. I saw a drummer play at a party in this little jazz group. I told my parents I wanted to do that right away. They got me a little set. I started lessons with a professional at Tanglewood [Massachusetts, where his father was co-Artistic Director of the Tanglewood Music Center, along with Seji Ozawa]. I was not a student at Tanglewood, but at that time, I was considered a 'Tanglewood Brat,' and eventually started working there as an assistant recording engineer for the Berkshire Music Center (aka. Tanglewood Music Center). That's how I got going."
The sounds of the day were predominantly not jazz, as rock and roll was in a boon period in the 1960s, but jazz from his father's record collection caught his ears, and apparently his heart. Lessons continued off and on, but he says the training on drums wasn't very formal. It picked up in earnest when he attended the New England Conservatory, where he graduated in 1982 with a degree in jazz performance.
"I did listen to the Beatles early on. I remember listening to an LP of Yellow Submarine (Capitol, 1969)," he says. "I guess I had seen the movie and then had the LP and I was very taken by the Beatles, not knowing why. My brother had the White Album (Capitol, 1968) and others. I always liked the Beatles. There was never a period when I didn't. But I was kind of a jazz snob, so I did gravitate to my father's collection early on. He had quite a great collection of Bird [Charlie Parker]. Jimmy Smith, the organist, was something I identified with early on. Something about those albums. They had examples of what I wanted to do as a drummer. And Grady Tate (Smith's drummer) was one of my early influences, the way he played with those guys.
He also got to explore more jazz when he became a disc jockey during high school at the all-volunteer radio station operated at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "That was really a great training ground for me to hear the whole spectrum of jazz. I did that for about eight years." Record collection parties and auctions were also things Schuller frequented, gathering up all the jazz gems he could.
After graduating from the New England Conservatory of Music, Schuller remained in the Boston area, gigging around and leading bands, most notable Orange Then Blue, for about a dozen years.
"As soon as I got out of the Conservatory, you're just trying to play with everybody, in various jam sessions, and doing every session that comes along. I got some great experience," he says. Among them was a gig with alto great Frank Strozier, who was in town for a concert. "The great drummer Jeff Williams offered me that gig. He could have done that gig himself. I still, to this day, thank him for allowing methis really green drummer just out of the Conservatory, with rough edges. Here he is throwing me into the fire with this great alto player, Frank Strozier. There have been examples of that throughout my career."
He says the Boston of the mid-80s through the early 90s was a time when the arts were strong. "There were a lot of clubs. There was this feeling that we could do anything, we could try anything. A couple of my friends from the Conservatory and I formed a band, a primarily a workshop band, Orange Then Blue, just to try out arrangements and this and that. That lasted for about thirteen years. Starting off in Boston, then half the cats moved from Boston to New York, so it was Boston and New York in the middle period. Then when I moved to New York in 1994, it was all New York. Then it was just too unwieldy. But we did about five albums. That was also a great training ground to try out arrangements and do all sorts of experimental approaches to composition and improvisation.