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Gunther Schuller: Heralding Charles Mingus

By Published: November 16, 2006

AAJ: Could you give, in laymen's terms, a brief definition of the phrase you coined: Third Stream?

GS: It is a fusion of modern classical music or modern techniques with modern jazz techniques. In other words, what it is not is having a mismatch of modern jazz and old-fashioned classical music. It has to do with the language of music. My first idea was to bring jazz into a more modern harmonic language. At the time that I was creating this concept, jazz was still using the harmonic language that was established at the turn of the Twentieth Century. Classical music had already been using the modern harmonic language of the serial composers: Schoenberg, Webern, Berg, Milton Babbitt and Boulez. So there was a major discrepancy between the most major modern "classical language and the most advanced "jazz language.

One the ideas was to bring these two musical styles together by using the same advanced harmonic language, which could be anything from what we call bi-tonality or atonality. Third Stream also came about because around the 1920s many classical music composers around the world discovered jazz. Stravinsky, Honnegar, Milhaud, and even Gershwin all wrote pieces that were influenced by jazz, but none of their compositions contained sections for improvisation. If one were to argue or suggest that the heart and soul of jazz is really improvisation, then these compositions hadn't really crossed the divide.

When I came along in the 1940s, composition was sort of secondary in jazz. I proposed that in bringing jazz and classical music together we must bring improvisation into the fusion. That was of course a very radical idea and also very problematic since classical musician at that time didn't really improvise. Now sixty years later there are a few who improvise. On the other side this has changed a lot. Jazz musicians, most of them, could read music, or some of them could read just a basic "jazz chart, written in traditional jazz language. To read something like I would write, like atonal music with meter changes or strange harmonies, was very difficult for them to read. The problem in the beginning of Third Stream was to find musicians who could execute this fusion idea.

Also, at the same time in the classical music world, "aleatoric music or "chance music, which has some elements of the improvisatory nature, was being developed. These worlds of jazz and classical were coming together, but they hadn't really met yet. I was the one, as the apostle of "Third Stream, who brought the idea and pushed it. Eventually, even [composer/conductor] Lenny Bernstein put together one of his young people's programs together to explain the concept.

Eventually players like [saxophonists] Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy came along and improvised in the atonal style, with many following in their footsteps. In the meantime, the jazz musicians all realized that they really had to learn to read and the classical musicians all started to want to "swing and to play jazz, eventually learning how to do it.

AAJ: Do you find that the term Third Stream has come to be misused?

GS: It has certainly been misused, and completely misunderstood. It also is now not used very much anymore and that doesn't bother me at all. What has happened over the past fifty or sixty years is that Third Stream has lost its controversial quality. People started writing Third Stream pieces and began to stop talking about it after the first ten years. Eventually ethnic or world music came into the picture and caught the attention of improvisers. The world music was doing pretty much the same thing as Third Stream, but record labels didn't want to use the Third Stream label.

AAJ: Do you feel that Mingus' music has grown in popularity since his death?

GS: Yes his music has grown in popularity, but very little. Epitaph had something to do with that, and of course Sue Mingus has made fantastic efforts with her three bands to keep Mingus' music alive. After Mingus' death, if Sue Mingus hadn't put together the Mingus Dynasty band, produced recordings and had the band play live at Fez for ten years Mingus' music would have surely been forgotten. But on the other hand, I would still point to what I stated earlier in this interview, that there are still far too many people who either don't know about Mingus as a composer or don't want to know about it, or even worse some jazz musicians have argued that Mingus never wrote any of that stuff, it was written by others, some of his arrangers. That is absolutely a lie, absolutely outrageous to suggest that he didn't write his own music. The obvious proof comes from Epitaph, in the score; it's all there in his own handwriting.

Gunther Schuller There is something still in the air about jazz. That composition is not the main thing in jazz. That is still a lingering philosophy amongst many people. I fought my whole life to bring composition and improvisation together on an equal level. That's what Third Stream is about and in many cases that has happened. But in the larger musical landscape, the idea that improvisation is the most important thing or the only thing worth considering in jazz is still very much alive with far too many people. That is changing, but there is still not a sense of equivalence between the composition and improvisation.

If there ever was a Third Steam composer, his name was Charlie Mingus.

Selected Discography

New England Conservatory Jazz Repertory Orchestra, Happy Feet: A Tribute to Paul Whiteman (GM, 2003)

Joe Lovano, Rush Hour (Blue Note, 1994)
Gunther Schuller, Jumpin' In the Future (GM, 1988)

Eric Dolphy, Vintage Dolphy (GM, 1962)

John Lewis, Presents Jazz Abstractions (Atlantic, 1960)

Modern Jazz Quartet, Third Stream Music (Atlantic, 1957)

Photo Credits
Top Photo: Bachrach
Bottom Photo: Courtesy of All Music Guide

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