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Interview: Gunther Schuller (Part 3)

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Gunther Schuller Between 1955 and 1957, Gunther Schuller participated in three fascinating jazz recordings: the Modern Jazz Society (Verve) with John Lewis, Gigi Gryce's Nica's Tempo (Signal) and Birth of the Third Stream (Columbia), which featured music recorded at the 1957 Brandeis Jazz Festival. Each explored jazz-classical concepts, though Nica's Tempo owed more to the linear sound of Gil Evans and Tadd Dameron than pure classical motifs.

In Part 3 of my four-part interview series with Gunther, the composer, arranger, French hornist and agent provocateur for Third Stream music, talks about all three albums:

JazzWax: What made pianist John Lewis special?
Gunther Schuller: He was the gentlest soul. Kind, quiet, intelligent and an intellectual who was well versed in all of the arts. And just a beautiful person. He could be stern and tough in rehearsals when producing his music. But he was very good at getting the music right. And he could make anybody get it right. But deep down he was a sweetheart. All of the jazz musicians I knew were--and are. They are all beautiful people.

JW: Was Lewis instrumental in helping to merge classical and jazz?
GS: Oh yes, early on. Then the influence spread to people like Ralph Burns, Bob Brookmeyer and many other great musicians who came into the jazz-classical field. That was how exciting the post-war period was.

JW: What was the Modern Jazz Society?
GS: John and I founded the ensemble in 1955 because we felt we had to put teeth into what we were saying about jazz-classical fusion. We soon renamed it the Jazz and Classical Music Society.

JW: Looking back, do you view the group as a success?
GS: Yes, absolutely. That doesn't mean the group and our attempts were all perfection. But the group was a success in terms of helping the new music break through. All the things that happened after we put those jazz-classical ideas together happened because of what John and I did. I won't say we were the only ones. Pete Rugolo and Stan Kenton [pictured] and others had been doing things with jazz and classical. But they were doing it in a slightly different way.

JW: Was your timing right?
GS: I think so. The concept was in the air at the time. John and I advanced the cause in New York and for the first time used the word “classical" in what we were doing. Stan Kenton didn't do that with his Innovations Orchestra in 1950, much of which is uneven and awful. Pianist Lennie Tristano did not use the word classical, either. Many musicians felt they would wind up in trouble with the critics if they did. And they were right. John and I did use it, and that of course made it controversial.

JW: Classical gradually became more accepted by jazz musicians and listeners.
GS: Yes, eventually the jazz-classical language changed to the extent of breaking into atonality. That happened later, though, with Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, Charles Mingus and so many others. Everything went forward tremendously through the 1960s and then settled down into a sort of standardization. There was little experimentation after that.

JW: In 1955, you were in another exciting jazz ensemble led by Gigi Gryce. What made Gryce so special?
GS: His personality. He's such an underrated player. Sadly, he's nearly forgotten today. These guys were such talents and maybe geniuses. Whatever they put their hands on would emerge with their special personality attached. That's the greatness of jazz--the individualism, the distinctiveness of each of these great players. Unfortunately, we don't have that today. Instead, we have 10,000 John Coltrane clones.

JW: What are we hearing with Gryce that sounds so fascinating?
GS: His sound was different. He arranged the reeds for a thinner feel, and he had in his ear a different conception. The result was a very light, flowing sound. And that's also how his harmonizations worked. He was another one of these quiet guys who had studied classical music of all kinds. On a personal level, he was very witty. It's amazing how interesting they all were and yet how different.

JW: In 1957, you and George Russell arranged and conducted the Brandeis Jazz Festival concerts in New York. That was pretty incredible music.
GS: I don't know what you mean by incredible. It was damn hard [laughs].

JW: Why?
GS: Milton Babbitt's All Set? Can you imagine? That piece was 150 years ahead of its time. I can't even begin to describe what I had to go through to get that recording made. No one had ever played anything like it. All Set is just on the periphery of jazz. We couldn't really play it as jazz, so the initial recording was pretty stiff.

JW: Tough stuff?
GS: We never were able to play All Set live. This was especially true during the first Brandeis Jazz Festival concert in June 1957. The next morning, at the second concert, we repeated the program from the night before. We had lost our jitters by then and played it much better. But we still didn't perform the piece like it was supposed to be played. I wound up spending about 35 hours editing that piece together on tape for the record. Wow, that was some piece. I mean, come on. That could have been written by Arnold Schoenberg or Anton Webern.

JW: This was a very different form of classical music, wasn't it?
GS: Absolutely. When we talk about jazz musicians studying classical music, we're mostly talking about musicians exploring Ravel, Debussy, maybe Brahms, and English classical music. Most didn't study Schoenberg or any of the 12-tone composers. My god, All Set was a hard-core 12-tone piece.

JW: Did you ever perform the piece to your satisfaction?
GS: I have performed it at least a dozen times over the years since 1957. I will say, though, that there was only one time in Cleveland [pictured] that I felt we had finally performed that piece correctly. And it happened by sheer luck. It was a coincidence that I had all the right players in place. And this is only several years ago. Between 1957 and then I had the best musicians on sessions, but it was still like walking on the moon. Forty years later, we had just the right musicians for whom that atonal material had finally become familiar.

JW: Has the Cleveland rendition been released?
GS: No. We recorded it, of course, but we haven't released it. Every style, no matter how difficult or unfamiliar at first, eventually becomes assimilated. Even atonal pieces. Now I can put together a performance of All Set and know that it would be damn good. All of those Brandeis pieces were hard initially because the feel and approach was completely new to the musicians.

JW: How about your Brandeis composition, Transformation?
GS: It, too, was hard, for the same reasons. Transformation is an atonal piece, and the language was new. Jazz musicians who had classical training were familiar with the language of Ravel [pictured], Debussy, 11th chords, 9th chords, flatted fifths and all that stuff. Atonality was completely different. But I put enough swinging stuff in there so at least the musicians could feel it rhythmically [laughs].

JW: What about Bill Evans' solo on All About Rosie?
GS:
Bill was unbelievable. That was an epiphanal experience. Bill was the one guy... [pause]. He had studied so much classical music that he was able to sight read all of this stuff. He could even sight read Milton Babbitt's All Set perfectly. I didn't have to coach him on that.

JW: What was so remarkable about his playing during that concert series?
GS: We were astonished that all of the material was so easy for him. He not only could deal with it straightaway, he also could improvise on it. Then Bill played one of the greatest piano solos of all time on All Abut Rosie. I become speechless when I think back on Bill and that solo. We were all staggered. We were all looking at each other while his solo was taking place.

JW: How was that possible?
GS: We weren't playing. We were playing stop-time chords. We'd play one chord at the beginning of each chorus and stop. As Bill improvised, we all looked at each other in amazement at what we were hearing.

JW: What was so exciting about it?
GS: I just didn't know that someone could create such an incredible full-speed jazz-classical solo and have it turn out to be so perfect.

JW: When All About Rosie was finished, what happened?
GS: I don't recall exactly but I think it was like at the end of World Series game, when the winning players all leap on the guy who made the last out. I'm sure we all jumped on Bill.

Tomorrow, Gunther talks about Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess, John Lewis' score for the film Odds Against Tomorrow, and how he came up with the term “Third Stream."

JazzWax tracks: John Lewis and Gunther Schuller's Modern Jazz Society was recorded for Verve in 1955. The musicians on the date were Gunther Schuller (French horn and arranger), J.J. Johnson (trombone), Jim Politis (flute), Manny Ziegler (bassoon), Tony Scott (clarinet), Stan Getz (tenor sax), John Lewis (piano and arranger), Janet Putnam (harp), Billy Bauer (guitar), Percy Heath (bass) and Connie Kay (drums). The album is part of a John Lewis set that has to be among iTunes' greatest hidden deals: All four albums in the set are available for $7.99.

In 1955, Gunther played French horn on four tracks that were featured on one of Gigi Gryce's finest albums, Nica's Tempo (Signal). The tracks are Smoke Signal, In a Meditating Mood, Speculation and Kerry Dance. The band on those tracks featured Art Farmer (trumpet), Jimmy Cleveland (trombone), Gunther Schuller (French horn), Bill Barber (tuba), Gigi Gryce (alto sax), Danny Bank (baritone sax), Horace Silver (piano), Oscar Pettiford (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums). Gryce's nonet leveraged the “Birth of the Cool" sound, adding a bit more elan and assertiveness. Nica's Tempo is available as a download at iTunes and Amazon here.

For its 1957 Festival of the Arts, Brandeis University commissioned jazz pieces along with classical compositions. This was a first for the festival. Jazz artists who were asked to create works were Charles Mingus (Revelations), Gunther Schuller (Transformation), George Russell (All About Rosie), Milton Babbitt (All Set), Jimmy Giuffre (Suspensions) and Harold Shapiro (On Green Mountain). The pieces were recorded at the Brandeis Jazz Festival in New York on June 10th, 18th and 20th. All of the recordings are available here.

JazzWax clip: Here's Jimmy Giuffre's Suspensions from the Brandeis Jazz Festival in 1957...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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