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Gunther Schuller: Heralding Charles Mingus


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The idea that improvisation is the most important 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.
Gunther SchullerGunther Schuller, one of jazz's foremost scholars, arrangers, composers and conductors, takes the stage with the Mingus Orchestra at New York's Merkin Hall this month. All About Jazz spoke with the octogenarian musical icon about his longstanding association with [bassist/composer] Charles Mingus and his travels through the jazz and classical music genres.

All About Jazz: Could you tell me about the upcoming Merkin Hall concert?

Gunther Schuller: I am simply what we normally call a "guest conductor. The orchestra will be performing at least twelve pieces. I am only involved with two or three pieces. Sue Mingus would like me to arrange another piece, besides "Noon Night and "Half-Mast Inhibition, for this particular orchestra, taking into consideration the unique instrumentation.

AAJ: So you will just be conducting two tunes?

GS: At least two. I don't know if I will have enough time to arrange another chart so quickly, given the enormous work I am putting into some other projects, but I'm going to try. We haven't even decided which tune it might be. Mingus wrote something like fifty, sixty, seventy pieces, so there's a lot to choose from, but some things would not fit for this orchestra. This group is the smallest of Sue Mingus' orchestras, with a French horn, bass clarinet and instruments that are not normally used in jazz. There are only eight instruments in this group that play pitches, so if you have a piece that Mingus wrote where there are twenty-five notes being played simultaneously, how can you reduce that to eight? Certain of Mingus' pieces will never be possible for this orchestra to play.

I'm amazed that I was able to take a piece like "Half-Mast Inhibition, originally for at least twenty-eight instruments, including eight brass. How do you reduce those harmonies, which are just the background, not the melodic thematic material that's in the front ground; how do you reduce that to eight instruments, none which can play a double stop? Somehow I managed to do it. I've been doing these things all my life; so you learn how to kind of move things around. There are some pieces that are beyond the possibility, "Half-Mast Inhibition I was lucky with.

AAJ: Why, in particular, are the French horn, bass clarinet, and bassoon employed in your arrangements for "Noon Night and "Half-Mast Inhibition ? Is that your musical concept, Mingus' wish, or Sue Mingus' idea?

GS: That's Sue's idea. As well as I know her; I never really knew why she wanted that instrumentation for this group. I was a French horn player a long time ago, playing in the Metropolitan Opera and the New York Philharmonic. Numerous times I had mentioned to her that I felt that it was a shame that Mingus had never used a French horn, so I think that's where she got that idea. In Epitaph there is a bassoon that Mingus did write for. So now she has a bassoon, French horn, and a bass clarinet, which is unusual and gives it a very special color. Once she created this orchestra, it became a question of, "What charts are we going to play? Of course there was no existing repertoire for it, so Cy Johnson, who has been the main arranger in last ten-to-fifteen years, made most of the arrangements for this particular group and then Sue asked me to arrange some also.

AAJ: How did your longstanding association with Mingus and his music come about?

GS: Well that goes all the way back to 1955, which is a half a century ago. I first saw Mingus, I didn't even know his name or who he was, but I know in retrospect that I heard him play the bass with the [vibraphonist] Lionel Hampton band, and that goes back to 1947, I believe. I loved the bass and I always admired the fact that there where two orchestras that had not one jazz bass, but two. Ellington started using two basses in the 1930s, which was highly usual. Hampton finally used two basses right after World War Two, in the mid-1940s. It turned out that both of Hampton's bass players were very tall, huge guys, and I remember writing in my diary that they looked like two Tyrannosaurus Rexes, when these big guys were leaning over their basses.

Years later I found out that this amazing bassist was a composer named Charles Mingus. Even to this day, far too many people do not know that Mingus is one of the greatest jazz composers. Everybody knows that he was a terrific bassist, and that he was a terrific bandleader and that he also had a very volatile temper. There are lots of stories about him, of course his autobiography is full of interesting things too, but the important thing for me is that next to Ellington, Mingus is so far the greatest composer we've had in jazz. By composer, I mean someone who sits down and writes out the music. Improvisation is obviously also a form of composing, instantaneous composing. Mingus is that rarity amongst jazz musicians, who actually wrote a lot of music just like a symphony composer. Epitaph is one of the longest pieces in jazz history. It is two-and-one-half hours long and consists of nineteen movements.

I became aware of Mingus as a composer with the first piece that he recorded; it is called "Pithecanthropus Erectus (circa 1953). Then I met him through John Lewis, the pianist with the Modern Jazz Quintet. The three of us would sit for hours in the Carnegie Hall Tavern and talk about solving all the problems of the world. I eventually got to know more of his compositions and became an admirer his works. I commissioned Mingus to compose a work for a concert that Brandeis University asked me to organize. This was an historic concert, where three classical composers' (Milton Babbitt, Harold Shapiro and I) and three jazz composers' (Mingus, George Russell, and Jimmy Giuffre) works were featured.

After this collaboration, we became very close friends. I went to a lot of his gigs, because I admired his playing so much. We had another close relationship because probably his most admired saxophonist to work with was Eric Dolphy. Eric Dolphy and I were very close, so we all did a lot of hanging out together. I performed his music and published his music in my publishing company.

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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