Gunther Schuller Turns 75!
All About Jazz: I was curious about what kind of influence your father being a professional musician had on your choice to follow a musical path.
Gunther Schuller: Enormous, except not formal. I heard great music in my mother's womb and my father was in the New York Philharmonic so I was taken to concerts and of course I heard him practice. Also, New York City was full of excellent radio programs, classical music particularly in those days-that's all gone now. If you put that together: my family, my house, my home, it was a considerable influence. For example, my parents told me I could sing the entire Wagner Tannhäuser overture with imitating all the instruments, clarinets, trombones, violins, whatever, while I was playing with my rubber ducks in the bath tub when I was five years old. But somehow, I felt no inclination to be interested in it in any amateur way, let alone professional, until suddenly I became interested. And the first thing I did was to compose: not play an instrument, but to compose.
AAJ: Your bio mentions that when you joined the Cincinnati Symphony in 1943, you encountered two diverse musical elements there which were to impact significantly upon your music.
GS: What happened in Cincinnati, is I actually met Duke Ellington and many of the great musicians of that time simply by my going to all these nightclubs. I must never have slept because half the time I was out listening to Basie or Lunceford or Ellington or Earl Hines. And in those days, most jobs lasted until 4 AM and then of course nobody went to bed either because then you went to the breakfast clubs. So, I think I never slept because during the day I was rehearsing with the Cincinnati Symphony and at night I was listening to jazz. That's the role Cincinnati played and when I came back to New York, I met some of the younger folks, like John Lewis and Dizzy Gillespie and so on. But Cincinnati was where I became really friends with Duke Ellington, for example.
AAJ: So was it a similar situation when you moved back to New York? It seems really apropos that you moved back right between '45 and '50 when bebop was really happening.
GS: That was more or less coincidental in the sense that my parents wanted me to come back to New York because that's the center of musical activity still to this day, more or less, and so I auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera. As rich as Cincinnati was in live music, New York was even more. After I played the "Marriage of Figaro" or a Wagner opera or Strauss or Puccini, my wife and I started walking up Broadway. There was, I don't know, twelve to fifteen clubs just on Broadway and Seventh Avenue and those streets including, of course, Birdland, the Royal Roost and a wonderful place called the Aquarium where Ellington and Charlie Barnett and Basie and everybody played. And man, over a few blocks over was Bop City and Basin Street and if that wasn't enough there was the whole 52nd Street which had another ten clubs and so you can imagine what that was like, to feast on all that great music.
I was too shy to be stage-door Johnny and to go up to all these people, but one day I met John Lewis of the Modern Jazz Quartet, that was before the Modern Jazz Quartet, and he sort of introduced me around to everybody and I was that rare thing: a horn player who, at least, was interested in jazz and to some extent could play jazz. And that's how I got to meet Dizzy, Coltrane, Miles and J.J. Johnson.
AAJ: Is John Lewis the connection between you and the "Birth of the Cool" sessions?
GS: Actually, yes, because when the original horn player of those sessions was unavailable for the last session that was done, Miles asked John "Jeez, who can we get?" and he said "Well, you know Gunther..." because I knew Miles already very well. He just didn't happen to think of me in that kind of [context.] So John said; "Look, I gotta get Gunther, he is the best there is."
AAJ: Is the coining of the phrase "Third Stream" as simple as the combination of two things to make an alternative third thing?
GS: Yes. Two mainstreams, the classical and jazz, get married and they produce a third stream. I coined the term Third Stream because there was no name for this music where classical music and jazz were coming together. By the way, that all started already in the 1910s and 1920s with composers like Stravinsky and Debussy, and Gershwin, of course, so there was this long history of this combination of classical and jazz but there was no word for it. I used it more or less almost as a verb or as an adjective but not as a slogan or a title, I was very modest about it. But one day in some concerts that John Lewis and I were giving with J.J. and some othersI think Stan Getz was involvedJohn Wilson of the New York Times used the term Third Stream in a headline in the Times and the die was cast.