Gunther Schuller Turns 75!


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All About Jazz: I was curious about what kind of influence your father being a professional musician had on your choice to follow a musical path.

Gunther Schuller: Enormous, except not formal. I heard great music in my mother's womb and my father was in the New York Philharmonic so I was taken to concerts and of course I heard him practice. Also, New York City was full of excellent radio programs, classical music particularly in those days-that's all gone now. If you put that together: my family, my house, my home, it was a considerable influence. For example, my parents told me I could sing the entire Wagner Tannhäuser overture with imitating all the instruments, clarinets, trombones, violins, whatever, while I was playing with my rubber ducks in the bath tub when I was five years old. But somehow, I felt no inclination to be interested in it in any amateur way, let alone professional, until suddenly I became interested. And the first thing I did was to compose: not play an instrument, but to compose.

AAJ: Your bio mentions that when you joined the Cincinnati Symphony in 1943, you encountered two diverse musical elements there which were to impact significantly upon your music.

GS: What happened in Cincinnati, is I actually met Duke Ellington and many of the great musicians of that time simply by my going to all these nightclubs. I must never have slept because half the time I was out listening to Basie or Lunceford or Ellington or Earl Hines. And in those days, most jobs lasted until 4 AM and then of course nobody went to bed either because then you went to the breakfast clubs. So, I think I never slept because during the day I was rehearsing with the Cincinnati Symphony and at night I was listening to jazz. That's the role Cincinnati played and when I came back to New York, I met some of the younger folks, like John Lewis and Dizzy Gillespie and so on. But Cincinnati was where I became really friends with Duke Ellington, for example.

AAJ: So was it a similar situation when you moved back to New York? It seems really apropos that you moved back right between '45 and '50 when bebop was really happening.

GS: That was more or less coincidental in the sense that my parents wanted me to come back to New York because that's the center of musical activity still to this day, more or less, and so I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. As rich as Cincinnati was in live music, New York was even more. After I played the "Marriage of Figaro" or a Wagner opera or Strauss or Puccini, my wife and I started walking up Broadway. There was, I don't know, twelve to fifteen clubs just on Broadway and Seventh Avenue and those streets including, of course, Birdland, the Royal Roost and a wonderful place called the Aquarium where Ellington and Charlie Barnett and Basie and everybody played. And man, over a few blocks over was Bop City and Basin Street and if that wasn't enough there was the whole 52nd Street which had another ten clubs and so you can imagine what that was like, to feast on all that great music.

I was too shy to be stage-door Johnny and to go up to all these people, but one day I met John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, that was before the Modern Jazz Quartet, and he sort of introduced me around to everybody and I was that rare thing: a horn player who, at least, was interested in jazz and to some extent could play jazz. And that's how I got to meet Dizzy, Coltrane, Miles and J.J. Johnson.

AAJ: Is John Lewis the connection between you and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions?

GS: Actually, yes, because when the original horn player of those sessions was unavailable for the last session that was done, Miles asked John "Jeez, who can we get?" and he said "Well, you know Gunther..." because I knew Miles already very well. He just didn't happen to think of me in that kind of [context.] So John said; "Look, I gotta get Gunther, he is the best there is."

AAJ: Is the coining of the phrase "Third Stream" as simple as the combination of two things to make an alternative third thing?

GS: Yes. Two mainstreams, the classical and jazz, get married and they produce a third stream. I coined the term Third Stream because there was no name for this music where classical music and jazz were coming together. By the way, that all started already in the 1910s and 1920s with composers like Stravinsky and Debussy, and Gershwin, of course, so there was this long history of this combination of classical and jazz but there was no word for it. I used it more or less almost as a verb or as an adjective but not as a slogan or a title, I was very modest about it. But one day in some concerts that John Lewis and I were giving with J.J. and some others—I think Stan Getz was involved—John Wilson of the New York Times used the term Third Stream in a headline in the Times and the die was cast.

AAJ: 1959, early in the Third Stream movement and when you wrote Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, seems like such an important year for recordings that were melding those elements together, whether it's the Shape of Jazz to Come, those really great Mingus albums and Miles Davis's Kind of Blue. It seems like maybe there was something going on, something either social or musical that led to that.

GS: You're right. After the war, once the bop revolution had taken hold, there were all kinds of young musicians, talented young musicians, who were ready for this fusion of classical and jazz. Prior to that, jazz musicians generally couldn't read anything complex beyond a lead sheet. But to sight-read a complex, rhythmically difficult and more extended work, you know, that was not possible and same on the other side: classical musicians had no idea how to play jazz. If you played it accurately from a purely mechanical point of view, it still wouldn't swing, for example. Nor could classical musicians improvise. So, that when John and J.J. and Dizzy and I and all these people, Miles as well, were doing these things, it was slim pickings to find the musicians who could play the music. My favorite bassist at the time was Richard Davis, well, if Richard Davis wasn't available, that was it! There was nobody else! Then of course when Ornette and Eric Dolphy came along it opened it up even more. So now, thirty years, forty years later, I mean, I could find a whole orchestra of a thousand to put these things together in New York City alone. In those days, if I could scrape up twenty musicians to do this it was something extraordinary.

AAJ: It almost seems strange to think of the progenitors of free jazz improvisation working within in the realm of classical composition.

GS: We all learned from each other and I, as a classical musician, welcomed John and J.J. and whoever with open arms, so I could introduce improvisation into my music. I couldn't do it with classical musicians, right? And on the other side, the jazz musicians welcomed some of us who were fluent in classical music to bring that extended form, complex forms, twelve-tone music, whatever, techniques that jazz musicians hadn't ever even dreamt of, let alone worked on. So it was exactly as Third Stream implies: coming together in very profound, important deep ways, trying to make a new music out of this amalgam.

In the meantime, Mingus got completely ignored as a composer. Mingus, who to me is the greatest composer since Ellington, was known for knocking people's teeth out and for being a great bassist and band leader and all that. But even to this day he is not recognized for his enormous contributions, particularly in the realm of composition, I mean real composition. This is a sitting-down, writing-out composer. So all of this was a battleground for twenty, thirty, even possibly forty years before we get to where we are now, where there's not even a discussion: everybody can do everything...you know? Even Dizzy Gillespie, when I recorded "Perceptions" with him, which is a J.J. composition, I mean Dizzy on the record sounds okay, but you can tell that he's not comfortable at all, he struggled with that, you know? Which is not to criticize Dizzy, but just to point out how new and difficult all of that was. And that very often it was the performances that were not totally convincing because it just was too early. But you have to begin somewhere, right? And so we were pioneers in something, which has now become totally universal in music

AAJ: To kind of balance out this conversation, let's talk about some modern stuff, what you've been doing recently. How do you choose what to produce and release on your label, GM Recordings?

GS: Charlie Parker learned a lot from the Basie band and from Buster Smith, but then he finally invented his own language-that's what great artists are supposed to do. He didn't just pop out of nowhere with some crazy notion of music. No, that was based on his development of what it is that he grew up with in Kansas City. So this anchoring in some way, in some important way in the past without repeating the past, but on the basis of the past building something new: that is what is important.

AAJ: How did you start the label?

GS: The way it came about is that a composer named Alec Wilder, a dear friend of mine who had written 300 pieces got to be in his sixties and seventies and he had all this music stashed in some friend's basement. I said: "Listen, Alec, let me start a publishing company. I'll publish your music, I'll print it, I'll distribute it and sell it" and so on. And he was very grateful, he died a few years after that. And around that nucleus of these compositions, classical music, jazz-influenced classical music, I built the rest of the company by giving young composers that I felt were of talent and serious, giving young composers their first publications. The record company started as an adjunct to that, to give young composers their first recorded performances; to give young musicians their first debut on a recording. These are all things that big record companies would never touch because there is no money in it! It is inherent that what I do would lose money here. So it was a totally altruistic, idealistic enterprise- it still is. You know, I'm not gonna take my money with me to heaven or hell, wherever I'm going. So I want to do something good with it even though my means are very limited. I'm no millionaire!

AAJ: Do you feel a responsibility? Do you feel you can be a champion of under-appreciated 20th century music?

GS: Well, both of those. But, you know, some people of course will ask is Gunther heroic or is he a stupid ass? You know, spending all of his money. Why doesn't he take his money and sit on a beach and retire in Florida? That's what most people do when they hit the retirement. No, I feel very proud of what I've done. And it is this sense that some of us have to contribute to the culture, to the society in ways that may hurt financially, so what? We do it because we are born to do it, we feel we have no other choice and so be it.

AAJ: Will there ever be any sort of re-issues or any kind of releases from musicians that haven't been able to record for a while or is it always going to be newer musicians trying to push the music forward?

GS: I am glad you asked that. You know, nowadays the big companies only record the youngest people they can find. If a big company can find an eleven-year-old Wynton Marsalis, they'll record him the next day. In the meantime, they're ignoring all the older ones. I got John LaPorta who is now 77, Joe Wilder who is, I think, 76 and Britt Woodman who is also in his seventies and I recorded them, because they were not getting any recordings. So I am on that front, too. No, I am not just working with young people. I hate it when the big companies look for some sensation. If someone is fifteen-years old and can play a couple of Charlie Parker tunes they think 'Wow ! Let's record him!' In the meantime all the great musicians are dying on the vine, except when little companies spend some money to record them. But the big one's won't touch them, there is no money in it.

AAJ: With a laundry list of accolades: honorary doctorates, a genius award, lifetime achievement awards and a Pulitzer, what's still motivating you? What do you feel that you have left to accomplish that keeps you from going on that beach to retire?

GS: Well, because music is my life and music is not work for me. People complain "Oh, I've got so much work, I hate work." I don't hate work, composing is not work for me, it's my pleasure; it's my life. So why should I stop? If something is pleasurable and exciting and rewarding, why should one stop? So I don't intend to retire in that sense, the Florida sense. As long as I'm healthy and can keep going that's what I'll do. I would like to read some books: I don't have time; I would like to continue working on my autobiography. Because I have sixty years of being a professional composer, conductor, musician, whatever, and you develop a lot of friendships and you get involved with a lot of sort of long-term commitments and obligations. And of course my three companies keep me incredibly busy.

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