Composer, performer, conductor, scholar, teacher, administrator, auto-didact, genre-coiner, nifty hairdo-wearer, and fiend for fat ties Gunther Schuller died today at the age of 89.
Throughout all of his life roles, Schuller’s principle project was bringing together music from the western classical tradition and the African-American jazz tradition. He played French Horn on Miles Davis’s seminal record Birth of the Cool. He wrote a pair of groundbreaking (though flawed–transcribing is hard!) books on early jazz and swing music that attempted to look at this music through the lens of classical music theory. He wrote music for mixed ensembles of jazz and classical players, juxtaposing serial techniques with swing and improvisation—a style he named “Third Stream.” And he founded not one but two departments devoted to jazz and improvisation at New England Conservatory, some of the first of their kind in the United States. As my friend/fellow composer Joe Sferra wrote on Facebook, “Any one of his projects would be a life’s work of great historical import to music, and he had SEVERAL of them.”
I was lucky enough to hear Gunther Schuller speak before a concert at NEC a couple of years ago. He was clear-eyed, passionate, and sincere about the music he wrote and enjoyed, and had a number of colorful stories about the many great musicians he worked with over the course of his long career.
But tellingly, Schuller wasn’t absorbed in the past, and instead was visibly excited about the new music that was to be performed that night—music that used many forms of improvisation to draw from diverse musical traditions. Even though he was decorated in all of his musical pursuits (Pulitzer, MacArthur, you name it) you could tell that he was most proud of opening doors for others through his teaching and administration.
Thank you, Mr. Schuller, for opening doors for people like me. I’m still trying to figure out this whole jazz-classical hybrid thing too, but I know I have a really good path to follow.