Interview: Gunther Schuller (Part 2)


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The more Gunther Schuller explored the New York arts scene in the late 1940s, the more he gravitated toward jazz. As a young, advanced French hornist with the city's Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, Gunther related completely to the creative enthusiasm, explosive excitement and brilliance of the bebop musicians he heard in the clubs and in concert. When Gunther toured with the orchestra during this period, he spent much of his spare time listening to jazz musicians at nearby clubs.

In December 1948, Gunther's encounter with pianist John Lewis in New York quickly blossomed into a friendship. Lewis was studying classical music at the Manhattan School of Music, and the two musicians found they had much in common. In early 1950, Lewis called Gunther and invited him to play French horn on a jazz recording date. Gunther agreed, and the result was part of what would become known as the vital “Birth of the Cool" session. Gunther's direct involvement with the orchestral jazz of Lewis, Gil Evans, Miles Davis, Gerry Mulligan and John Carisi started him thinking about the possibilities of a new music form that might emerge with the fusion of classical and jazz.

In Part 2 of my four-part interview series, Gunther talks about meeting John Lewis, recording on the “Birth of the Cool" session, the hardest arrangement the nonet recorded that day, and why Mulligan's Rocker still sounds so fresh:

JazzWax: When were you first exposed to jazz?
Gunther Schuller: I started collecting jazz records when I was 12 years old. I quickly became a jazz fan and read all the books on jazz that existed at that time. Jazz was definitely a part of my life in the mid-1940s, but not yet as a performer. I was an admirer of Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, J.J. Johnson and all the other bebop musicians who were breaking new ground. Then one day I decided to make it a point to meet John Lewis.

JW: When did you meet him?
GS: We met in December 1948. I'd go to all these clubs and concerts, but I was too shy to go up to any of these people to talk to them at length. But with John, I was so taken with his playing that I made it a point to meet him. He was so warm and friendly. We hit it off immediately, and John became my entre to the jazz world. In those days, if a musician in jazz's inner circle introduced you or said, “This guy is one of us," you were in.

JW: How did you become “one of us?"
GS: By then, I was at a high level of creativity, playing, writing and composing in my area of music. You see, in the classical world, you audition. You have to prove yourself to win a place in an orchestra. In the jazz world, if Duke Ellington lost a player, word would go out and three or four of his musician buddies would say, “Listen, there's an incredible bass player in Lincoln, Nebraska. Get him." This was absolute, and it never failed. None of these people ever recommended anyone who wasn't good. With me, it was unusual because I was a French horn player. The horn was not a jazz instrument at the time, but it was creeping in. So when Miles needed a French horn, he asked John Lewis for a recommendation, and John said, “Get Gunther."

JW: Classical was beginning to seep into jazz during this period--not as an aspiration but as a resource to draw from.
GS: That's correct. Classical in the late 1940s was increasingly viewed by jazz musicians as a form from which to adapt. None of these musicians, of course, was striving to become a classical player. But they were intrigued by the music, its harmonies, its tonality and its complexity.

JW: Which only stimulated your thinking about merging classical and jazz.
GS: Yes. One of my obvious rationales for combining jazz and classic was that both musics had a lot to learn from each other. They may not have known that at first, but they discovered it soon enough. Especially the form. The forms of jazz back then were primitive, despite the enormous dexterity and skill of the musicians. In a very short period of time, jazz steadily became much more intricate and developed.

JW: The musicians in the late 1940s also were much more sophisticated than most people realized at the time.
GS: Absolutely. Look, Dizzy Gillespie back then was known as a great trumpet player but also as a kind of a clown. He danced around on stage and did all this scat singing. But I'm telling you, that guy when you were alone with him was the most serious person, the most socially conscious, the most politically aware, the most intellectual and the most spiritual. It was just incredible. Being with him was like attending a university seminar course. All of those guys were voracious readers and enormously curious.

JW: Jazz and classical coming together continued through the 1950s.
GS: When I started the whole thing in 1957 with the Third Stream, which was bringing the two forms of music together--but really bringing them together in compositions, styles and performance--it was extremely controversial. I was vilified on both sides. Classical musicians, composers and critics all thought that classical would be contaminated by this lowly jazz music, this black music. And jazz musicians and critics said, “My god, classical music is going to stultify our great, spontaneous music." It was all nonsense and ignorance, of course. Eventually the two came together anyway.

JW: Exposure to classical and classical training certainly made jazz musicians better readers and studio musicians.
GS: Yes, to some extent. Classical training was certainly important in this regard. But the greatest jazz musicians would have been great jazz musicians anyway. As for other jazz musicians, classical training, either in school or through lessons, became essential for the reason you mention. Jazz orchestral arrangements were becoming more complex starting in the early 1950s, especially with the rise of the LP and longer recorded pieces. Reading a music part once and perfectly was essential and that required training.

JW: Speaking of orchestral jazz, how did you come to replace Junior Collins and Sandy Siegelstein on French horn on the last “Birth of the Cool" recording session in March 1950?
GS: Both Sandy and Junior had played on the previous two dates. I believe that both went to California afterward and the horn position was open. Miles told John Lewis, his pianist, “I just lost Junior." Miles and I had already known each other casually. I had met him earlier, in Detroit, when I was on tour with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. I'd see Dizzy, Duke, Miles--anyone and everyone--on the road. After, they performed, we'd hang out. Of course. I didn't sleep much in those days [laughs].

JW: On the Miles Davis nonet session, did you just come in, sit down and record what was on the stands?
GS: My goodness, no. This was not such easy music that you could walk into the recording session and say, “Take it from the top, here we go." Miles held something like four or five rehearsals, which wasn't easy given all of the musicians involved and each one's schedule. Lee Konitz [pictured], Al McKibbon, Max Roach and all the rest were busy people. At only one rehearsal did we have all nine players there at once.

JW: What was your schedule like at the time?
GS: I was at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, with eight or nine performances each week. So my schedule was tight.

JW: At the “Birth of the Cool" session, you recorded Deception, Rocker, Moon Dreams and Darn That Dream. Which one was hardest?
GS: Without a doubt, Gil Evans' [pictured] arrangement of Moon Dreams. That's the ultimate masterpiece of the session.

JW: Really? The most difficult?
GS: Absolutely. The coda at the end goes into atonality and counterpoint. There are five different layers of contrapuntal lines. No one had ever written anything like that before in jazz.

JW: How did the rehearsals work out?
GS: In all honesty, we couldn't really play Moon Dreams very well, and it shows on the studio recording. I mean we played it well enough that it could be issued by Capitol. The piece works because of the greatness of those musicians and how much feeling was squeezed into that very difficult music. I have performed Moon Dreams many times over the years in what I call repertory jazz concerts, and it's still hard to play in an ensemble.

JW: I'm surprised it was so difficult. Moon Dreams sounds so relaxed.
GS: All you have to do is listen to The Complete Birth of the Cool CD that includes the live recordings from the Royal Roost. You can hear that the performances of it are falling apart. The musicians were out of tune, the executions were ragged, Junior Collins on French horn was two measures ahead of everyone else and so on.

JW: Was Deception truly arranged by Davis? It sounds a lot like Mulligan.
GS: Look, Miles immediately learned from Gil and Gerry. In those days, very often, some other person's name was put on a title for one reason or another. Miles had hired Gil and Gerry for the date because Miles loved what they had been doing with the Claude Thornhill orchestra.

JW: There certainly is a lot of Thornhill in terms of Impressionism.
GS: In all of those arrangements. They purposefully reduced the Thornhill band concept from 16 musicians down to 9. They did that because Capitol didn't want to hire a big band for the material. That was Pete Rugolo [pictured], who was a great arranger for Stan Kenton and the label's East Coast music director at the time.

JW: How did the musicians on the date interact?
GS: We all loved what we were doing. We kind of knew we were doing something exciting that hadn't been done before. But that Moon Dreams scared everyone to death. It was strange that Gil Evans and Pete Rugolo weren't at that session.

JW: Rocker still has a modern sound
GS: Gerry [pictured] was one of the leading creative improvisers of the period. The freshness of what you hear comes from the clarity Mulligan had in his writing. Gil's music is quite dense and rich and full on the inside. With Gerry, there was always this wonderful linearity and clear harmonies. Though they are modern, he keeps them simple. Gerry also had a certain bounce in his rhythms. John Carisi's Israel is a whole different kind of writing. And John Lewis' arrangement of Denzil Best's Move is different again. That's like Mozart.

Tomorrow, Gunther talks about John Lewis, the Modern Jazz Society, Gigi Gryce's exciting arranging style, and the famed Brandeis Concert of 1957, which featured a groundbreaking piano solo by Bill Evans.

JazzWax tracks: Miles Davis formed a nonet in late 1948 while he was still performing and recording with Charlie Parker. The nonet's purpose was to leverage or “jazz up" the cooler, more linear arranging style emerging at the time in Claude Thornhill's band, which tilted toward “easy listening." The idea for the nonet came following Davis' exposure to the modern arranging styles of Gill Evans, Gerry Mulligan and John Lewis.

The nonet's Capitol studio recordings were made over the next year and a half. The results were issued as 78-rpm singles. When the 10-inch LP was introduced in the early 1950s, tracks were gathered as part of Capitol's Classics in Jazz album series. Not until 1957, when the material was united on 12-inch LP, did the words Birth of the Cool wind up on the cover. Pete Rugolo is credited with the title.

The Complete Birth of the Cool is available as a download and here on CD.

JazzWax clip: Here's Joe Lovano speaking about his Birth of the Cool Suite with Gunther Schuller conducting and speaking on camera...

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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
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