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Interview: Gunther Schuller (Part 4)

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Gunther Schuller Gunther Schuller has composed more than 160 original classical and jazz-classical works. In 1994, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Of Reminiscences and Recollections, a memorial composition for his wife, Marjorie Black. Gunther also is the winner of many other awards, including Columbia University's William Schuman Award for lifetime achievement in American music composition. And then there are the two Grammy Awards--one for best classical liner notes (Footlifters, 1976) and best chamber music performance (Joplin: The Red Back Book, 1974). [Photo at top by Hiroyki Ito]

When you speak with Gunther, you immediately feel the heat of his curiosity, his passion for life and his inexhaustible excitement. What's especially fascinating are the similarities between Gunther's personality and the jazz-classical music he adores. There's a formal European charm about Gunther, but within that structure exists an improvisational mischief-maker. Gunther understands that excellence comes from discipline but that art comes from the surfacing of emotions and the willingness to take intellectual risks. [Photo: Gunther Schuller with Roy Haynes]

In Part 4 of my four-part interview series with Gunther, the composer-arranger and jazz-classical pioneer talks about Leonard Bernstein, Miles Davis, and the Third Stream:

JazzWax: I hear elements of Cool from West Side Story in your Brandeis Jazz Festival composition Transformations. Yours came first. Did Leonard Bernstein hear your work?
Gunther Schuller: He probably did. We were very good friends at various times and worked closely together. He was a great admirer of my music. Lenny never said, “Oh, Gunther, you don't know how much you influenced me." But the feeling was there.

JW: Do you think Bernstein came to a finer recognition of jazz as a result of your work in the mid-1950s?
GS: Lenny wasn't influenced only by me. He learned from a great many jazz-classical artists. He was a quick study when it came to jazz. But in terms of the musical language, Lenny would never go into jazz-classical styles beyond tonality. Rhythmically, he learned a lot from Count Basie and Stan Kenton. Basically, Lenny's jazz sensibility was from the 1920s. He was real cornball. When he used to play piano at parties, I had to close my ears because he was so corny. He thought he was as good as Art Tatum [laughs].

JW: You played French horn on Miles Davis' Porgy and Bess. How did your involvement come about?
GS: The idea for that 1958 session was actually producer George Avakian's, before he left Columbia. George was a great admirer of the recordings that Miles and Gil had done between 1948 and 1950 [later known as “Birth of the Cool"]. He couldn't understand why they weren't more popular. And they weren't until they were brought together on an LP in 1957 and the album was named Birth of the Cool. Even before Capitol decided to bring them together on an LP, George had decided to unite Gil and Miles for a broader interpretation of that concept on music that was widely known. That was his conception.

JW: What was your role?
GS: I say this with all modesty: George went to Miles and said, “Listen, I think there are only two people here who can turn Gershwin into modern jazz orchestral works--Gunther Schuller and Gil Evans." Miles went with Gil, and I played French horn.

JW: Would you have done something different with it?
GS: No, probably not. I was as enamored of Gil's style as I was of my own. I knew what Gil was doing with the orchestration and why. Since the music had to be, at its core, Gershwin, it couldn't be mine. If I had arranged it, the session would have come out something like that. I might have had some different orchestral ideas now and then. But I was thrilled to play horn on that recording.

JW: Is there anything that most people aren't aware of about that session?
GS: Probably how difficult it was to play. Porgy and Bess is not a perfect recording. There's a lot of sloppiness in there if you listen closely. We had to add three more sessions to capture what was needed in good enough shape to be issued. Cal Lampley, the album's producer, had to do an enormous amount of editing with the tape. We couldn't play any of those pieces perfectly all the way through.

JW: Was it that the music was hard or that the musicians on the date weren't well trained enough?
GS: Both. That was a pretty big orchestra, with 19 instrumentalists including Miles. Some of those musicians were unfamiliar with Gil's great music and the harmonies were a mystery to them. You have to remember, there was no other jazz like that at the time to refer to. No band was playing anything like that with the sounds that Gil produced--not Benny Goodman or Dizzy Gillespie. And Gil did that with horns and flutes and muting of other instruments. That was all unfamiliar. As a result, it's pretty ragged at times.

JW: As you listen to Miles Davis during the recording, what were you hearing?
GS: I know how he struggled. At one session, his lip started to bleed. The endurance, all that slow playing. It's very hard on a trumpet player. But he came through beautifully. Again, a lot of editing by Cal Lampley took place. He first had to take care of Miles, which in some cases meant choosing great trumpet takes even if the orchestra behind him was uneven. There are probably 800 splices in that thing.

JW: What was it like recording John Lewis' score in 1959 for the film Odds Against Tomorrow?
GS: Remarkable. John was stretching out on there. There's a lot of intense, almost harsh, nasty chords when some of the bad things happen in the film. It was years since we had first met, and by then he had learned so much. He was trying to get out of traditional tonality more and more.

JW: How did you come up with the term “Third Stream?" What was the thought process?
GS: It was very simple. Back in 1957, there were two main streams of music--jazz and classical music. Today, of course, you can argue that there are many more streams--rock and roll, hip-hop, ethnic music and so on. In 1957, I called one the First Stream and the other the Second Stream. The two streams got married and they begat a child, like in the Bible says [laughs], and a Third Stream was born. But a Third Stream meant that that the other streams would have to amalgamate or fuse in a thorough, deep way--not in some superficial construction by laying a few clichs on top of each other.

JW: So the two would have to give up something?
GS: No, why? You just combine the best of both musics.

JW: But if they're fusing, by definition they're becoming something else entirely, yes?
GS: Yes, that's the true definition of a fusion. But that didn't mean these music forms had to give up anything in Third Stream. Both retained their characteristics as they formed something new.

JW: What did the critics say?
GS: The critics said you can't mix oil and water. They pounced on me. I was crucified. But their reaction was as dumb as racial prejudice. Their notion that jazz and classical should not be polluted by each other's sensibilities was dumb. Both jazz and classical critics said basically the same thing.

JW: Was the Third Stream a successful adventure?
GS: Oh, yes, totally. The new music form spread to other great ethnic musics in the world. By 1975, Third Stream had influenced Turkish music and Greek music and Indian music. That's apparent now. The record companies don't call the result Third Stream. They call it fusion or crossover. You now can have three or four different forms of music together as long as it's done creatively. And honestly.

JazzWax tracks: Many of Gunther Schuller's major classical works have a large, dramatic, atonal feel. His Reminiscences and Reflections
recorded by Radio-Philharmonie Hannover des Norddeutscher Rundfunk can be sampled and downloaded here.

Another Gunther delight is Turn of the Century Cornet Favorites, recorded by the Columbia Chamber Ensemble, conducted by Gunther and Gerard Schwarz, music director of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. The album can be sampled and downloaded here.

A fascinating jazz-classical work by Gunther is Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee, (GM Recordings), in particular Little Blue Devil, named after one of Klee's paintings. It's available at iTunes along with a wealth of other recordings by Gunther.

For other classical and jazz recordings on Gunther's GM Recordings label, go here.

JazzWax pages: Two invaluable jazz books by Gunther Schuller are Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz 1930-1945. They can be found here and here, respectively.

JazzWax clip: Here's Gunther and other musicians talking about Charles Mingus' Epitaph, a 4,000-measure opus that was discovered after the bassist's death and conducted by Gunther Schuller in 1989, 10 years after Mingus' death...


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.
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