Follow by Email

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Gunther Schuller at 85

And you think you're busy!

From the Wall Street Journal:

Man of Many Music Careers

Newton, Mass.

Most people slow down as they age. Not Gunther Schuller, who turned 85 this year and continues to work in many realms at a pace that would leave many 30-year-olds breathless. The musical Renaissance man has had, by his own accounting, seven often-simultaneous careers: As a French hornist, he got his first job with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra at age 17 and performed on Miles Davis's seminal "Birth of the Cool" recordings. As a conductor, he has served as musical director of the Berkshire Music Festival (now called Tanglewood) and has led orchestras throughout the world. He taught composition at Yale and as the dynamic president of the New England Conservatory of Music he doubled that school's size. For some years, he operated Margun Music and published a wide variety of classical and jazz music. As head of GM Records, he continues to work as a record producer.

He is perhaps best known as a composer—he has written seven substantial chamber- music works in the past year alone, including a horn quintet and his second piano trio—and as the author of two landmark studies of jazz, "Early Jazz" and "The Swing Era," as well as a controversial survey of orchestral conducting, "The Compleat Conductor." A musical thinker with a compelling story and much to say, he recently completed the first volume of his memoirs, which takes his story to 1960, when he gave up playing the French horn and began conducting (it is in production at the University of Rochester Press).

Although he doesn't count it as one of his careers, he's also been an eloquent champion of various streams of music, ranging from the marches of John Philip Sousa, the rags of Scott Joplin and the innovative jazz of Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus, to works by a host of classical composers from Bach to Ives to Weill.

His achievements have been recognized with a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation "genius" award, and the National Endowment for the Arts named him a Jazz Master for his advocacy.

"A lot of people assume that if you do more than one thing," Mr. Schuller said at his home here in this Boston suburb, "you cannot possibly be good in any of the other things other than the supposed, alleged primary thing that you do. This pigeonholing, typecasting—that's a vicious thing that the society puts on many people," he said. "The ordinary person assumes that you can't possibly do that and be any good in all of them. And yet, it is occasionally possible. I mean Lenny Bernstein, he wasn't quite in seven careers, but he was in four—and all of them at a very, very high level. We only need to mention Leonardo Da Vinci. My God. Or Jefferson.

"I have been very severely criticized for a long time in many circles for just doing too much. Even in two closely related things, you're not supposed to be able to be both a good conductor and a good composer. You've got to be one or the other in the business of music; you certainly better be just one thing. I learned that lesson pretty hard."

Mr. Schuller says he got interested in jazz at the age of 11 or 12 and started reading about it, but that "a lot of the books were anecdotal and sort of almost gossipy at times. So I decided, no, this music is such a great, important music. We have to treat it like serious music and analyze it, write about it historically. And when we say Ellington is the greatest composer—why? I decided to approach this whole project in a completely comprehensive way, meaning—and this had never been done—if I talked about someone, I was going to listen to every recording that person had ever made, or that band or whatever it was. I remember I listened to, for example, something like 565 recordings of Tommy Dorsey. By doing that, in many cases I discovered pieces that no one had ever written about, even mentioned, including some absolute masterpieces."

Mr. Schuller looked at not only the performances and improvised solos, but, as a composer, also the compositions themselves. "This comprehensive approach," he said, "was unique." He described his approach as "thorough—maybe it's also sort of my German background." (Born in New York City, he went to school in Germany until he was 10 years old.)

Long fascinated by the interplay of improvisation and composition, in 1957 he coined the term "third stream" to connote music—such as some works by John Lewis and Mr. Schuller himself—that blended classical music with jazz. In his writings on jazz he has held both improvisation and composition to close scrutiny. He examined the form of the pieces, including Ellington's innovations, explained how jazz's harmonic language advanced, and threw new light on the importance of arrangers and arrangements, most of all in big-band music. "To this day," he asserts, "even a lot of musicians, but certainly audiences, have no idea  of the role that arrangers have played." Almost every band—Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, Count Basie—had arrangers who shaped the band's sound more so than the leader or soloists. "It's the arrangers, and they were always in the backrooms doing the arranging and copying out the parts." They didn't get much public attention, but they do in Mr. Schuller's writings.

As principal hornist with the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, he lived in New York City from 1945 to 1959. "This is one of the great periods of jazz. So I would finish with 'Tristan und Isolde,' let's say, at 11:30 or something like that. My wife would meet me at the door and we'd walk up Broadway. Well, there were seven great jazz clubs on Broadway, and there would be this feast of jazz and you had trouble deciding where to go. Anyway, there's this incredible richness—and, I swear to you, Margie and I never slept. I'd finish the opera, and clubs in those days stopped at 4 a.m. And you know, by 9 a.m. or 10 a.m. I had a rehearsal already at the Met. Can you imagine what a fantastic life? Here I'm playing 'Tristan,' and Mozart's operas and Verdi's operas and Puccini and then I'm hearing Ellington and Basie and Dizzy Gillespie. I mean I get goose pimples just recalling this."

In surveying the American jazz scene today, by contrast, Mr. Schuller finds the number of night clubs "incredibly diminished, which means there are few places for jazz musicians to work." He notes there are few jazz radio stations left, and no jazz—or Beethoven—heard on commercial network television. He laments, "That's how diminished we are culturally."

Gunther Schuller has led—and continues to lead—one extraordinary life indeed. Considering his seven careers, eight-plus decades, countless accomplishments and memorable experiences, one can see why his memoirs will fill not one, but two, volumes.

Mr. Hasse is curator of American music at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and co- author/co-producer of the forthcoming "Jazz: The Smithsonian Anthology."

Copyright 2010 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

No comments: