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Gunther Schuller Dies at 89

A dedicated musical progressive grounded in the conservatory

Gunther Schuller

Gunther Schuller, a Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, conductor, musician, writer and educator best known as the architect of the Third Stream, a term he created to describe the fusing of jazz and classical music, died June 21 in Boston. He was 89 and the cause was leukemia.

Born in New York City on Nov. 22, 1925, Gunther Alexander Schuller was sent at age 6 to a boarding school in Germany, his parents’ native country, where he remained for four years during the rise of Adolf Hitler. Upon his return to the United States, Schuller trained in classical music-his father served as a violinist in the New York Philharmonic for more than four decades-and became proficient on French horn. He performed, at age 15, with the American Ballet Theatre, followed by positions with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra and New York’s Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, and worked in Broadway pit orchestras during the Met’s off-season. During this period Schuller began composing music-his First Horn Concerto premiered in 1945, with Schuller serving as a soloist.

A passion for jazz, inspired by Duke Ellington’s music, led Schuller to a two-year stay with Miles Davis in 1949-50 (he appeared on the landmark Birth of the Cool LP) and, in 1955, he and pianist John Lewis, musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet (for which Schuller wrote some arrangements), formed the Modern Jazz Society, which they soon renamed the Jazz and Classical Music Society. Schuller and Lewis co-founded the Lenox School of Jazz in western Massachusetts, where Ornette Coleman performed in 1959.

Schuller also played with Charles Mingus, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy and Dizzy Gillespie, however, by the late ’50s his career began shifting away from performing toward composing and teaching, first at the Manhattan School of Music and the Lenox School of Jazz in the 1950s and, in 1963-64, at Yale University. In 1962, Schuller published his first book, Horn Technique.

In 1963 Schuller both began directing a new-music series, “20th Century Innovations,” at Carnegie Recital Hall and teaching at the Berkshire Music Center (later called Tanglewood) in Massachusetts; he assumed leadership of the department in 1965 and from 1969 to 1984 directed the center. He later served as music director of the Spokane Symphony for its 1984-85 season, and collaborated with several other orchestras. In 1989, at Lincoln Center, Schuller edited and subsequently premiered Charles Mingus’ final work, Epitaph. Schuller and David Baker founded and conducted Washington, D.C.’s Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in 1990.

It was during his tenure as president of the New England Conservatory, a position he held from 1967 to 1977-and where he established the first degree-granting jazz program at a major classical conservatory-that Schuller began expanding upon his concept of Third Stream, a term he’d introduced publicly in 1957 at Brandeis University. Although fusions of jazz and classical music had predated Schuller’s theories by several decades, Schuller formalized theories governing the hybrid in his written works and became its leading proponent through his own compositions, which stressed improvisation within orchestral settings and often utilized unorthodox instrumentation. Schuller was self-taught as a composer.

Schuller also operated two music-publishing companies, Gun-Mar Music and Margun Music, and ran a record label, GM Recordings, which released music by Jim Hall, Joe Lovano, the Kronos Quartet and others.

Among Schuller’s most important written works are 1968’s Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945 (1989). His memoir, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, was published in 2011.

In addition to his Pulitzer, which he was awarded in 1994 for his work Of Reflections and Reminiscences, Schuller was awarded a MacArthur Foundation grant in 1991 and, in 2008, was named an NEA Jazz Master.

For more on Third Stream and Schuller’s collaborations with Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy, see this 2001 JazzTimes piece.

Originally Published