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Gunther Schuller: 'Moon Dreams'

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Gunther Schuller In all, there were three studio recording dates for what would eventually become known as the Birth of the Cool. The Miles David Nonet recorded on January 21, 1949, April 22, 1949 and March 9, 1950. On the last date, Gunther Schuller was hired in place of Sandy Siegelstein—Claude Thornhill's French hornist—who could not make the session. Nor could Junior Collins, the hornist on the first date.

Though the nonet was scheduled to record some of their moodiest pieces on March 9, 1950—Deception, Rocker, Darn That Dream and Moon Dreams—there was plenty of edge and tension to go around.

In his new memoir, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty (University of Rochester Press), Gunther Schuller reflects on the session and how it nearly came undone:

“A few weeks prior to the scheduled [nonet] sessions, Miles actually came to the Met to meet with me, to personally check me out, since he had never heard me play, and to go over the horn parts with me. (I have to think that Miles may have been the first jazz or black musicians to ever set foot in the musicians' locker room in the then lily-white, 67-year-old Metropolitan Opera House).

“The Nonet's pre-session rehearsals went quite well, especially on Rocker, Deception and Darn That Dream, although much less so for Moon Dreams. The problem there was that Gil Evans' recomposition of [Chummy] MacGregor's ballad included a Coda, where two things happen: 1) the weight of the heavy atonal chords in the six 'horns' completely overpower the simple quarter-note time on the cymbal (in the drum part), thus, in effect, quashing any sense of a jazz or swing beat, so central to jazz playing, and 2) to complicate matters further, the 'horns' split into six separate polyphonic lines, with some of the most intricate, vertically uncoordinated rhythmic anticpations and suspensions ever heard in jazz up to that time.

“We kept falling apart in that section, except one time, when I asked Max Roach—for rehearsal purposes only—to play his quarter-note beats really loudly, with sticks rather than brushes. That, however, was not what Gil [pictured] had intended. I'm sure Gil did not realize how difficult those last twenty or so bars of Moon Dreams are. By the way, strangely, Gil was never at any of our rehearsals.

“I got to the record date a half hour early. I was really anxious, not only because it was my most important involvement with jazz to date—a virtual nobody, suddenly working with some of the finest jazz talents in the world—but also because, as a very experienced musician in classical preparation procedures (rarely exercised in jazz in those days), I worried about how we would be able to record so much new and difficult music in a three-hour record session. And so were J.J. [Johnson] and Bill Barber. We were especially worried about how we were going to get through the Coda in Moon Dreams.

“A few minutes after I got to the studio, I went to Miles and said, 'Please, Miles, you know how difficult that Moon Dreams is, and you also know how tiring that piece is for our chops, especially for me and J.J., and probably for you, too.' He nodded a yes. 'So, please, don't do Moon Dreams last, that'll be dangerous. You don't have to do it first, but maybe second—just to get the most difficult piece out of the way early in the session, when our minds and chops are still fresh. Please, please don't leave it for last.'

“A bit later, I saw Miles go into the control room to talk to Lee Gillette [pictured], who was A&Ring the recording. Of course, I couldn't hear what he was saying, but I assumed it was something like: the guys in the band would like to do Moon Dreams fairly early on, not at the end of the session; it's the most difficult piece for us. OK?

“Well, for whatever reason, my request, my suggestion was ignored.

“We recorded Gerry Mulligan's Rocker first, and it went very well. When Gillette announced from the control room that we should do Deception next, I looked at Miles questioningly. He merely shrugged his shoulders, as if to say, 'I'm sorry, it's not my call. Lee wants us to do Deception now. There was no time to argue, and I didn't feel I could intervene. I was only a sideman, not the leader. I was lucky to be on the date.

“Gerry's Deception also went well, although for some reason we did three takes, even when some of us thought the second one was really quite good. (Maybe something went wrong in the control room.) My heart sank when I heard that Darn That Dream with Kenny Hagood as vocalist, was scheduled next. It took a while to get the microphone levels and balances set between Kenny and the band, and again we were asked to do more takes than we thought necessary. [Pictured: Gunther Schuller]

Darn That Dream is a good song, in fact one of Jimmy Van Heusen's best, and it was the easiest piece to record. But in the context of an essentially instrumental ensemble session, it seemed to me that this one vocal piece was odd man out, so to speak, maybe even expendable, and it certainly didn't warrant making more than two takes.

“We had only three hours for the entire session, but one has to subtract at least 20 minutes for intermission breaks. And here we were spending precious extra time on that song, rather than saving our energies and chops for the most tiring piece on the docket. (Slow-tempo pieces with lots of long notes are always more tiring for brass instruments.) And now we had only 35 minutes left in the session, and the most difficult piece by far yet to do.

“During a five-minute break, J.J. [pictured] turned to me and said, 'I hope I can get through this thing. My chops are beat.' 'Yeah, mine too.' Things were also made more difficult by the fact that the studio where we were recording was quite small, almost claustrophobically so—and everything sounded very dry. There was little reverberation in the room, no acoustic aura to the sound. I felt that the notes I played dropped immediately to the floor, with hardly any projection.

“The atmosphere in the studio was now getting really tense. (Miles mentions this also in his autobiography.) What I had worried about if Moon Dreams was left to the end of the session was coming true. I really felt we weren't going to make it, especially when Gillette announced over the studio intercom, 'Gentlemen, there's not overtime; don't even think about it! Capitol Records is not going to give us any!'

“It was not 10 minutes before the end of the session. During the final five-minute break, I decided, in desperation, that in order for us to get through the Coda, somebody would have to conduct, to keep us together rhythmically. And that someone was going to have to be me.

“I told Miles that's what we should do, to which, thank God, he readily agreed. I moved my chair and stand forward a foot or two, and told everyone to also move a little so that they could see me. (So far the six 'horns' had all sat in a straight row, with virtually no eye contact between us.)

Very few readers will know that playing the horn and conducting at the same time is a rather awkward and precarious business, for the simple reason that we hornists play with one right hand in the bell of the horn. If you take your hand out of the bell, your playing will automatically go a little sharp in intonation. To partially avoid that, I pulled out the main slide on my horn, and hoped that with some additoinal lipping down I would be able to conduct with my right hand and still play in tune.

“That's exactly what happened, and that is how we got through the piece in the last five minutes of the session without breaking down, and with at least an acceptable rendering of Gil's complex rhythms, although the intonation could still have been better."

JazzWax pages: You'll find Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty at Amazon here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Moon Dreams from the March 9, 1950 recording session by the Miles Davis Nonet, featuring Gunther Schuller on French horn...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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