Gunther Schuller Turns 75!
GS: You're right. After the war, once the bop revolution had taken hold, there were all kinds of young musicians, talented young musicians, who were ready for this fusion of classical and jazz. Prior to that, jazz musicians generally couldn't read anything complex beyond a lead sheet. But to sight-read a complex, rhythmically difficult and more extended work, you know, that was not possible and same on the other side: classical musicians had no idea how to play jazz. If you played it accurately from a purely mechanical point of view, it still wouldn't swing, for example. Nor could classical musicians improvise. So, that when John and J.J. and Dizzy and I and all these people, Miles as well, were doing these things, it was slim pickings to find the musicians who could play the music. My favorite bassist at the time was Richard Davis, well, if Richard Davis wasn't available, that was it! There was nobody else! Then of course when Ornette and Eric Dolphy came along it opened it up even more. So now, thirty years, forty years later, I mean, I could find a whole orchestra of a thousand to put these things together in New York City alone. In those days, if I could scrape up twenty musicians to do this it was something extraordinary.
AAJ: It almost seems strange to think of the progenitors of free jazz improvisation working within in the realm of classical composition.
GS: We all learned from each other and I, as a classical musician, welcomed John and J.J. and whoever with open arms, so I could introduce improvisation into my music. I couldn't do it with classical musicians, right? And on the other side, the jazz musicians welcomed some of us who were fluent in classical music to bring that extended form, complex forms, twelve-tone music, whatever, techniques that jazz musicians hadn't ever even dreamt of, let alone worked on. So it was exactly as Third Stream implies: coming together in very profound, important deep ways, trying to make a new music out of this amalgam.
In the meantime, Mingus got completely ignored as a composer. Mingus, who to me is the greatest composer since Ellington, was known for knocking people's teeth out and for being a great bassist and band leader and all that. But even to this day he is not recognized for his enormous contributions, particularly in the realm of composition, I mean real composition. This is a sitting-down, writing-out composer. So all of this was a battleground for twenty, thirty, even possibly forty years before we get to where we are now, where there's not even a discussion: everybody can do everything...you know? Even Dizzy Gillespie, when I recorded "Perceptions" with him, which is a J.J. composition, I mean Dizzy on the record sounds okay, but you can tell that he's not comfortable at all, he struggled with that, you know? Which is not to criticize Dizzy, but just to point out how new and difficult all of that was. And that very often it was the performances that were not totally convincing because it just was too early. But you have to begin somewhere, right? And so we were pioneers in something, which has now become totally universal in music
AAJ: To kind of balance out this conversation, let's talk about some modern stuff, what you've been doing recently. How do you choose what to produce and release on your label, GM Recordings?
GS: Charlie Parker learned a lot from the Basie band and from Buster Smith, but then he finally invented his own language-that's what great artists are supposed to do. He didn't just pop out of nowhere with some crazy notion of music. No, that was based on his development of what it is that he grew up with in Kansas City. So this anchoring in some way, in some important way in the past without repeating the past, but on the basis of the past building something new: that is what is important.
AAJ: How did you start the label?
GS: The way it came about is that a composer named Alec Wilder, a dear friend of mine who had written 300 pieces got to be in his sixties and seventies and he had all this music stashed in some friend's basement. I said: "Listen, Alec, let me start a publishing company. I'll publish your music, I'll print it, I'll distribute it and sell it" and so on. And he was very grateful, he died a few years after that. And around that nucleus of these compositions, classical music, jazz-influenced classical music, I built the rest of the company by giving young composers that I felt were of talent and serious, giving young composers their first publications. The record company started as an adjunct to that, to give young composers their first recorded performances; to give young musicians their first debut on a recording. These are all things that big record companies would never touch because there is no money in it! It is inherent that what I do would lose money here. So it was a totally altruistic, idealistic enterprise- it still is. You know, I'm not gonna take my money with me to heaven or hell, wherever I'm going. So I want to do something good with it even though my means are very limited. I'm no millionaire!