Gunther Schuller – ‘Third Stream’ pioneer who made jazz and classical compatible dies aged 89

Although Gunther Schuller had a formidable reputation in the classical world, where he was celebrated as a composer, conductor and educator, he also — and perhaps uniquely — had a deep interest and association with the world of jazz. While he will be rightly remembered for his huge contribution to classical music in the United States, his contribution to jazz was both enduring and memorable.

Born on 22 November 1925 into an intensely musical household, his father played in the New York Philharmonic for 42 years and his grandfather was a conductor and teacher in Germany, he took up French Horn at the suggestion of his father, since “There were more violinists than there were horn players.” He was sufficiently accomplished to drop out of school to tour with the American Ballet Theater at the age of 18. The same year he became principal hornist with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra where he developed an interest in jazz. In 1945, he moved back to New York to become principal hornist of the Metropolitan Opera.

It was at this point he began an enduring friendship with Miles Davis, appearing on the four numbers recorded on 9 March 1950 by Davis’ ‘Birth of the Cool’ nonet. He also formed a lifelong friendship with pianist John Lewis, an association that resulted in working towards a synthesis of jazz and classical music, a movement Schuller dubbed ‘Third Stream’, now remembered through three key albums from the mid-1950s, The Modern Jazz Society Presents a Concert of Contemporary Music (Norgran) from 1955, Music for Brass (Columbia) from 1956 and Modern Jazz Concert (Columbia) from 1957 on which Schuller composed for, conducted and also played French Horn. It is often overlooked that he performed on French Horn on Miles Davis’ classic recording of Porgy and Bess (Columbia) from 1958, where, because of the configuration of instruments, Gil Evans’ conducting could not be seen by his section mates, necessitating Schuller to unofficially to keep time for those who could not see Evans.

With the arrival of Ornette Coleman in New York in 1959 the free jazz controversy erupted, with Schuller emerging as a staunch supporter of Coleman. As president of the New England Conservatory (1967-77) Schuller was responsible for the conservatory becoming the first eminent classical institution in America to establish a degree-granting jazz programme, which he founded in 1969. As conductor at Berkshire Music Centre, he encountered a 17 year-old Wynton Marsalis who performed Haydn’s Trumpet Concerto under his baton. In more recent times, he composed, arranged and conducted all the music for Joe Lovano’s Rush Hour (Blue Note) in 1994, which still remains the saxophonist’s finest album. Among the many books Schuller wrote — not least Horn Technique (1962) which is still judged as a the standard reference work — Early Jazz and The Swing Era (both Oxford University Press)are now regarded as seminal works of jazz scholarship. A third volume was widely anticipated, but never begun. Schuller died on Sunday, 21 June 2015 from complications arising from leukemia, he was 89.

– Stuart Nicholson

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