Gunther Schuller was born in New York in 1925. As befitting the son of a violinist with the New York Philharmonic, he studied theory, flute and French horn privately; his progress of the latter was so swift that he began playing professionally with the American Ballet Theatre in 1943, and eventually played principal horn with the Cincinnati Symphony (1943-5) and the Metropolitan Opera (1945-59).
Schuller is probably the greatest friend jazz has ever had from the classical world. A jazz devotee from the beginning, he has been the most outspoken advocate of a fusion between elements of classical music and jazz. He began to attract notice on the jazz side by playing French horn on the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” sessions in the ‘50s, and also appearing in Gil Evans’ orchestra on Miles’ “Porgy and Bess” and on Lalo Schifrin’s “Gillespiana” with Dizzy Gillespie’s Orchestra in 1961. As his enthusiasm for mergers of both of his worlds grew, Schuller founded the Jazz and Classical Music Society with John Lewis in 1955, which presented concerts of music written by both classical and jazz composers. One of the later outcroppings from this society was a Columbia recording, “Music for Brass,” which contained various compositions by Schuller, Lewis, Giuffre and J.J. Johnson, as performed by musicians from across the spectrum like Miles Davis, Schuller himself, and the New York Philharmonic conductor Dimitri Mitropoulos.
As MJQ Music publishers was being shaped in the very early ‘60s, Gunther Schuller and John Lewis became instrumental in bringing those two elements together, which became known as Third Stream Music, and attracted many jazz artist and composers, as well as classical composers who were enthusiastic about the opportunity to create extended works in this form. He and Lewis, by the way, also founded the Lenox School of Jazz Summer School and presented the first jazz concert ever held in Lenox’s hitherto solidly classical bastion, Tanglewood, in 1963. Schuller began to narrow down his multi activities to conducting, composing, teaching and writing. He became Professor of Composition at the School of Music at Yale, and in 1967, the president of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he promptly established a jazz department that became the first to offer a four-year B.A. degree in jazz. Schuller also started the New England Conservatory Jazz Repertory Orchestra and Ragtime Ensemble, and he soon became immersed in transcribing the works of Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton, and performed period arrangements of Scott Joplin rags. He helped touch off a popular fad in the 1970s with his spirited performances of Scott Joplin. A recording of this music on Angel, became a runaway hit in 1973, reawaking interest in the rags of Joplin and touching off its use in the popular movie “The Sting.” He also conducted and recorded Joplin’s opera “Treemonisha” (Deutsche Grammophon).
Schuller made extraordinary observations on conducting in his book, ”The Compleat Conductor” (Oxford University Press). He also found time to write two massive, erudite tomes on jazz, “Early Jazz and its Roots and Musical Development (1968) and the “Swing Era” (1989. He won the Pulitzer Prize for music in 1994; the Gold Medal for music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997); the BMI Lifetime Achievement Award (1994); a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award (1991); the William Schuman Award (1988), given by Columbia University for “lifetime achievement in American music composition”; and ten honorary degrees. Schuller has written more than 160 compositions in virtually every music genre, many of them commissioned by some of the major symphony orchestras in the US and Europe. Some of his compositions published by MJQ Music, “Abstraction”; “Conversations for Jazz Quartet and Strings” and “Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra,” which may be his most performed work, receiving close to 40 performances by orchestras throughout the world, were originally recorded on Atlantic and are now available on Collectable Records CD-6252 (Jazz Abstractions); CD-6184 (MJQ and Orchestra); and on Wounded Bird Records (Third Stream Music) CD-1345
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