Composer As Conduit

By Fernando Gonzalez

Composer As Conduit

By Fernando Gonzalez
Asked how he did it all, he once explained it simply as the result of having “this voracious appetite for anything and everything musical.”


Not many musicians can boast of playing under the baton of masters such as Arturo Toscanini,  Frederic “Fritz” Reiner, and Pierre Monteux; recording with Miles Davis; writing magisterial books on conducting (The Compleat Conductor) and jazz history (Early Jazz: Its Roots and Development, and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-45). And, at the same time, develop transcendent careers as a teacher, record producer, publisher, and arts administrator – all while also composing symphonic works, chamber music and a fusion of European classical music and jazz of his own making that he once defined as Third Stream.

Then again, there is only one Gunther Schuller.

Asked how he did it all, he once explained it simply as the result of having “this voracious appetite for anything and everything musical.”  It was a hunger that often ignored established notions of musical style and accepted cultural value..

In his upcoming autobiography, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty (University of Rochester Press), Schuller describes at length the Eureka moment of discovering the music of Duke Ellington on a radio broadcast from the Cotton Club. Told the next day of this extraordinary find, Schuller’s father, a classical violinist with the New York Philharmonic, “nearly had a heart attack.”

"That ‘Ellington moment’ was just one of those moments,” says Schuller, 85. “Then I began to have some additional experiences, like discovering what we call vernacular music, or ethnic music, or folk music. I heard music from Africa, Norwegian fiddle music, Japanese Gagaku music, and it was very good music. It just wasn’t written by Beethoven. So OK, it was not 55 minutes long like the “Eroica” Symphony. It was short, and in some cases it was improvised but, as with the music in those incredible Ellington broadcasts, in every respect by which you analyze a piece of music—the rhythm, the melody, the form, the clarity, the continuity, the orchestration, it all came out great—except some are miniature forms.”

“I was living in New York City then and I started going to these places where you could buy North African music, Tunisian music, or bouzouki music from Greece,” recalls Schuller, who began collecting jazz records at 14. “For me, all these musics were equal because of the criteria by which I evaluate a piece of music: It has to have some meaning, it has to have some expression, and it has to be well put together and 300,000 ethnic musics on the face of this globe in fact do that.”

Third Stream, a term he coined in the 1950s, was not just an intellectual construct but also a natural expression of daily practice – only applied to a particular situation. In the lecture at Brandeis University in which he first used the term, “I was talking about the fact that jazz and classical music had come together earlier in the 1920s, for a very short time. And nobody seemed to remember that,” he says. “That’s why I’m doing this Milhaud piece [La creation du Monde, October 2 at Festival Miami]: because it’s a jazz-influenced work. So [back then] I was talking about all that and trying to say ‘Look, this is not something entirely new, but now let’s bring these musics together again and this time let’s include improvisation.’”

But in the United States, the disconnect between classical music and jazz was not just a musical problem.

“The idea of Third Stream was more about an American problem, because jazz and classical music were completely segregated,” Schuller says. “ And I use that word rather than separated. That was inadmissible to me. So for me [the issue] was to bring these musics together.  But I always had the idea that it wouldn’t be just jazz and classical. It could be Greek bouzouki music and classical; or Turkish dance music and classical and jazz and all that has happened, eventually, gradually, over the last 60 years.”