Interview by Molly Murphy for the NEA
NEA: Was music an integral part of your early life?
Gunther Schuller: Yes and no. I wasn't interested in music at all until I was 11 years old, which is very late. Anybody gets into music, they usually start at eight or nine, they want to play an instrument. Mozart started at four. I wasn't interested in music but then somehow overnight, I got attacked by the music bug and the first thing I wanted to do was compose, not even play an instrument. It's very unusual and I found out during the next couple of years that I was full of music and that I knew already, inside of me without knowing that I knew it, hundreds of pieces, classical music mostly.
Then I discovered jazz when I was 12 or 13 so suddenly it was all music. I was very talented as a painter and I was going to be an artist. And suddenly it all swung around. So all I am saying is that probably the genetic predisposition did eventually click in but it's not guaranteed just because four of your predecessors are musicians nor is the opposite a guarantee, that when there are no musicians, there never will be. Suddenly, somewhere out of that genetic mix, and of course it also depends on the environment. One of the things that certainly contributed to becoming a musician, and a very good musician and professional at age 16, is the fact that I lived in New York and was born in New York. The opportunities that New York offered in so many ways -- I have written 800 pages about New York in my autobiography -- that wouldn't have existed in Des Moines, Iowa. Nothing against Iowa.
I turned out to have a beautiful soprano voice so I became a choir boy in the greatest English-style school in the United States, St. Thomas Choir School, 53rd Street and Third Avenue in New York. And then it turned out that I had a great talent for the French horn so I became a professional in two years. I can't even explain that but that is the truth. I picked up the horn when I was 14.
PLAYING THE FRENCH HORN
NEA: Why did you choose French horn?
Gunther Schuller: It chose me, I think. I had played flute a little bit and I got a little bored with the flute literature after a while. It's a little bit limited and my father went to his colleague who happened to be one of the major horn teachers in New York at that time. He said, "You know my son, Gunther, is getting kind of bored with the flute but he has no talent for the violin. He has no talent for the piano." He said, "Well, listen, have him try a horn." His name was Robert Schulze and he was 4th horn in the New York Philharmonic and was one of the two major teachers in New York. One day he came to our apartment and he brought a horn and a cigar box. In the cigar box were about 50 mouthpieces. You have to put a mouthpiece into the pipe of the horn and you play on that mouthpiece. He said, "Gunther, stand over there," and put me up against the wall about 20 feet away. He looked at me and was looking at my mouth, my embouchure as we call it. He said, "I've got it," and he went into that cigar box and picked out one of these mouthpieces and he stuck it in the horn. He said, "Blow on it." I said, "Aren't you going to show me how," and he said, "No, no, just blow on it. " And I put the darned thing up to my lips and out came the most beautiful note. Out came this beautiful F natural and he said to my father, "Wow, he's a natural talent." The rest is history. Then I played with the Metropolitan Opera, New York Philharmonic, and with Miles Davis, and all the other things.
INTRODUCTION TO JAZZ
NEA: Growing up in New York, not only did you have this fantastic assess to the classical world, but obviously to jazz. Can you tell a little bit about your first interaction with jazz?
Gunther Schuller: My first real epiphany, real revelation about jazz occurred when I was still in high school and had already studied a lot of classical music. I was playing the flute and I was already collecting classical records and studying scores and everything. Then one night I was doing my homework. At that time in New York at 11:15 on all three network stations, the bands came on: Count Basie, Bennie Goodman, Duke Ellington, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, whatever. I was listening and previously I had, of course, listened to jazz. There were a lot of jazz programs on the radio, but I wasn't listening consciously or intensely, but somehow that happened to be Duke Ellington who was playing at the Hurricane Club, 49th Street and Broadway. I had to stop my high school homework because I heard such sounds that I said, "My God, what is that? That is incredible!" I listened the next night because he played there the whole week. A few days later I concluded (and this is pretty radical) that jazz music in the hands of the greatest jazz composers/arrangers/players is just as good qualitatively as all the classical music in the hands of its greatest practitioners. We sometimes forget, sure there is Beethoven, Bach, Mozart, Stravinsky, Brahms, but there is also a lot of bad classical music that was written over the centuries and there is bad jazz music. Like Rossini said in 1890 -- everybody thinks Duke Ellington said it first -- there's only two kinds of music: bad or good.
A few days later, I said to my father -- who wasn't against jazz but he just didn't understand it, it was a total foreign language to him; he came from Germany with the best training over there -- "Dad, I got to tell you something. This jazz music, when it's that great, like Ellington and some of those other great jazz orchestras, that's as good as any classical music." He said, "Oh my God, my dear Gunther. Where is he going with all this jazz?" So anyway, I just kept on studying music and collecting jazz records just as much as classical records. By the time I was 14 or 15, I had a huge collection. Those days were 78 recordings and eventually with the horn, I decided the horn is not an instrument being used in jazz. We have to get the horn into jazz. So I was also one of the pioneers who started playing jazz on the horn.
NEA: How did that happen? How did you get yourself on a bandstand and what was that like?
Gunther Schuller: That took a while because at first I played only classical orchestra because I didn't know any jazz musicians. As a white kid, if I had ever thought of going up to Harlem to meet Dizzy Gillespie, my parents would say, "Hey no, you can't go up there." The way it really happened was I met John Lewis. I heard him in a couple of concerts when he was playing with Dizzy Gillespie and I became so enamored of his playing, which was slightly more classically oriented with a wonderful touch, really elegant, intelligent piano playing, not just a lot of show-off technique. I said to my wife or my girlfriend at that time, "I got to meet this man. There is something special about him."
It came to pass that I played a show, Annie Get Your Gun , to make money in the summer when the Metropolitan Opera wasn't playing. We had to find other work, so I played the Broadway show all summer and in that show there were all white people except for three blacks who were Pullman train porters. Blacks could be shoeshine boys, they could be Pullman train porters, one or two other clichés. One night, during intermission in Annie Get Your Gun , I went downstairs where we all hung out and this guy was sitting next to me and we started talking. Somehow the subject of jazz came up and he said, "Oh you listen to jazz? You like jazz?" He was surprised that a white kid listened to jazz playing a French horn. I said, "Yeah, of course, I listen all the time. I have a big collection." "Oh, well what do you like?" "Well I like the modern bebop jazz." "Oh you do? Well my brother-in-law is one of the great jazz musicians of this time." I said, "Who's that?" He said, "John Lewis" "Oh, John Lewis. I want to meet him." "You want to meet him? Of course, I can arrange that." So he called up John Lewis, and two months later, because John was on tour at the time with Lester Young, he got the message back: "When I come back I want to meet you." So I went out to his house and he is the one who then introduced me to the entire jazz community: Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk.
Not only that, [he was responsible for] when I played with Miles Davis, made recordings with Miles Davis, The Birth of the Cool . They wrote for French horn and the tuba, which was unusual, and when the horn player who had played the first two recording dates wasn't available, Miles happened to go to John and said, "Listen, you know a good horn player we can get?" "Get Gunther." So, I ended up on the recording date. From there it just spread and I became involved with all the great musicians, both as a composer writing pieces for them, for the Modern Jazz Quartet, for Dizzy Gillespie, for J.J. Johnson, and recording and conducting because, as jazz music expanded into longer pieces and bigger instrumentation, it began to need a conductor. You don't need a conductor for a five piece quintet, right? You stomp it off and you play, but with tempo changes and dynamics and all these things that can be in music, I was the only one who had any training as a conductor. I got involved on all fronts and became an innovator and then began this whole approach of bringing jazz and classical music together to which I then gave a name, Third Stream Music, because I felt these musics cannot stay segregated any longer. It's stupid that they don't talk to each other, don't know each other, don't recognize each other.
NEA: Can you just define in layperson's terms what Third Stream means?
Gunther Schuller: I had this very simple idea that, in my mind at that time, in the United States there were two main streams of music: one was classical and one was jazz. Listeners might not realize (I'm talking about 1949, 1950, somewhere in there) that at that time there was not yet any Nashville music. Just beginning on the radio, the Grand Ole Opry program which became legendary, but there wasn't any folk music, there wasn't any rock, there wasn't any pop. There was just jazz and classical music. So I call those the two main streams. I said they got married. I used the Biblical phrase, "And they begat a child," like Jeremiah or something. And out of that came the Third Stream. The two main streams got married and they produced a third stream. Very simple. Saying along with that, it's not just some kind of coming together but a real respectful unification, overlapping of the two musical concepts, including improvisation because there had been jazz pieces by Aaron Copland and some European composers; Ravel wrote a kind of jazzy piano concerto. But none of those pieces had any improvisation and I felt it's obvious that the heart and soul of jazz is improvisation. If we didn't include that in this amalgamation of the two music, then we weren't really doing enough and that's what I did with the Modern Jazz Quartet, for example, or Dizzy Gillespie, improvising in pieces that I would write or others would write.
NEA: It is easier coming from that direction, I would think, than through the classical world.
Gunther Schuller: You've got to change that verb to "was" because now "is" is no longer true. No, it certainly was true, exactly. That was part of the segregation. But it isn't that they couldn't improvise; they didn't want to or they said, "What are those people doing? It doesn't make any sense." There were prejudices on both sides but the Third Stream was possible because finally, and this started in the '40s, musicians on both sides began to listen to music of the other side. Jazz musicians, jazz arrangers, jazz composers, for example, went to Carnegie Hall to hear the music of Stravinsky. Charlie Parker went there many times. Many other musicians wanted to hear that music and learn from it. On the other side, the classical side, a lot of young players were starting to hear, "Wow, this jazz. This is exciting, the rhythmic drive, the energy, and this freedom in this music." So both sides came together, to some extent, with the result that when I came into the scene, there were already, especially in New York -- again this wouldn't have happened in Des Moines or Fargo -- there were already at least 20 or 30 musicians on bass, on piano, on saxophone, on trumpet, that could play both jazz and classical music. That is to say, they had to be able to read difficult, complex music, rhythmically, tempo changes, and all that sort of thing, really read difficult music and, at the same time, improvise and play with a real jazz feeling. Now in this country, there are thousands of such musicians who can do both.
NEA: What did your father think?
Gunther Schuller: Well, he was still doubtful for a long time but when he saw that I was becoming very famous and successful, even financially, he said, "Wow, maybe this stuff isn't so bad." And then, the ultimate came when Leonard Bernstein decided to play one of my pieces called "Journey into Jazz," which happens to have a narrator in it, and he programmed it for one of his Young People's Concerts. He knew that I already was a pretty good conductor so he said, "Listen Gunther, you conduct, I'm going to narrate." Of course, here's my father, the leader of the second violins, sitting there and little Gunther is doing this jazz piece with the New York Philharmonic. He figured out that this wasn't really such a bad idea at all. He never could play [jazz]. I tried to teach him how to swing and I showed him how the bowings are different for jazz than they are for classical. He could never do it.
THE SWING ERA
NEA: Can you please explain what swing is to those who don't know much about jazz?
Gunther Schuller: If they really want to know, in my book, The Swing Era , I wrote two definitions of swing. Because it's true, swing was very difficult to define for many years, and when you ask people like Louie Armstrong what is swing, he said, "Listen, if you have to ask that question, you'll never know. You just feel it." But there is a definition and it's kind of complicated but it's a certain momentum or pulse unique to jazz. (By the way, jazz doesn't swing anymore. The whole swing thing is pretty much gone. I'm sorry about that. That's a terrible loss.) It is a propulsion in the feeling of the rhythm of jazz that forces you to snap your fingers or tap your toes or move your body. You cannot sit still. When the Count Basie band swung, if you sit still during that, you're clinically dead. There's no question about that. That's the sort of anecdotal expression of what is swing, but it is a way of feeling how you get from one note to the next that has a feeling that is totally different from classical music.
The other way that I analyzed it in my book was by taking what are called spectrographs and actually analyzing swinging music acoustically and electronically and comparing that with when the same notes are played unswung and how the pictures in the spectrograph looked different. So that's absolute proof there's something totally different happening there.
Any kind of music in swing, it's a feeling ultimately. You can't calculate it and say, "Today I'm going to swing." And the thing is, it doesn't have to be some kind of syncopated rhythm. A lot of people used to think that swing can't be except through syncopation, which was the main change of jazz music when it first appeared. The syncopated rhythms are what drove everybody crazy in 1910 and ragtime and early jazz. So, it isn't even that. Louie Armstrong in a number of recordings played 24 quarter notes, pop, pop, pop, pop, dat, dat, dat in a row and it swung like mad. And the concert master of the New York Philharmonic would try it and it would be du, du, du, du. The reason it's so hard to define is because it is so largely feeling and it's not something scientific, although as I say, I did manage to analyze it acoustically, technically.
NEA: You said that bands now do not swing.
Gunther Schuller: Generally speaking, there is almost no swing left in jazz playing, yeah.
Gunther Schuller: I don't know. I don't know why it disappeared because it is one of the greatest achievements of jazz. Louie Armstrong was the one who created swing. Absolutely. He was the one and once he did it, everyone learned to do it. Then when modern jazz came in, the music became a little more intellectual, a little more complex and some people could not combine that with swinging. I think it went out also because a lot of Latin music came into jazz more and more and some very modern music, which didn't even want to swing.
A lot of musicians, I think younger musicians, don't even know what swing is anymore. They are too young to have heard that. They may have listened to a Count Basie record but they never heard them live and they think, "Wow, that's pretty nice," but it's not something they want to do. You see, a lot of those jazz arrangers that worked for Count Basie and Ellington, and the people who wrote for Benny Goodman and Woody Herman, they wrote music that would swing automatically. Now people write music that isn't intended to swing. Another thing that no one seems to know about or talk about is that modern jazz is in a minor key and almost depressing, almost sad and melancholy, even when it's fast tempo. Modern pieces are full of minor chords whereas the music of the great swing years is mostly music in major keys and it has an uplifting, positive, happy feeling even when it's a love song and about lost love, a ballad or something. "Body and Soul" is in D flat major. I hear hundreds of pieces that are in C minor and A minor and B flat minor and it makes a big difference.
I don't know. I can't figure out why all of these developments are happening. In general I would say that right now, there is not an awful lot of great jazz music being composed and not an awful lot of jazz music being played or improvised. There are some marvelous exceptions. I mean a guy like Jim McNealy who writes some incredible stuff as an arranger/composer. There are some others, of course, but a lot of it has become so formularized and so technically oriented where you just show off some fast playing, and a lot of it is also locked into what we call pentatonic or modal style. Miles Davis started that whole thing where you play on two chords for 12 minutes or nine minutes or whatever and you play only on those two chords so there is no progression. In other words, changes are gone. A lot of musicians can't or don't want to play on changes. It's too hard, they say. I think it's all going to come back. Somebody, a Charlie Parker, or somebody will come along pretty soon, but Joe Lovano is one of the most amazing musicians who is exploring more interesting compositions and, he writes himself, with changes and progressions and different instrumentations and all these things which we've lost a little bit in the last 30 or 40 years.
NEA: Can you talk to me a little bit about your method of composing, how you approach composing? Do you use a computer?
Gunther Schuller: Boy, I don't want to overstate this, but maybe I do. Anybody who composes through the computer is doomed to failure. A computer cannot compose. A computer is an instrument, like a piano, like a violin, and the operator has to do certain things. Those certain things, if you're talking about serious, and hopefully great composition, have to come from the human being and then the machine simply helps you to realize it. There are many things that Finale and Sibelius can do to make the work faster and quicker, but don't ever think that one can compose on the computer. You can transcribe your music into the computer.
Because if you don't hear it first in your ear, you can then try it out on the synthesizer or on the piano, right? I mean if there is a certain harmony, I first have to hear that (by the way, you get so experienced you don't have to worry about hearing). I just hear it and compose it, you know. I don't have to try it out. But when you begin, maybe you try things. The point is, you first have to hear it in what we call our inner ear and then write without the piano, write without any instrument. I write everything down because I hear it and I'm now so experienced that I can write gigantic pieces for an 80-piece orchestra and put down every note as I write it. People say, "You mean you don't try it out on the piano?" I say, "Yeah, well, once in a while I might try some but you know what? If I'm writing a piece where the range is the full eight octaves of a symphony orchestra from the highest piccolo to the lowest bass and maybe 56 notes, I've only got 10 fingers. How the hell can I play what I wrote?"
In the old days, someone like Robert Schumann, because the music was tonal and was simpler, was in C major, and was relatively limited to a number of notes, he could play his music on the piano. We happen to know that he wrote it at the piano and later orchestrated it. But we modern composers, we don't do that.
NEA: Do you remember any particular instances early on when you would have conceived something and then experienced the thrill of hearing it performed for the first time?
Gunther Schuller: Well, when you write very advanced and what people will call complex music, even in my early days, the best orchestras had trouble playing my music. They could play it but to play it perfectly in three rehearsals, no, they couldn't do that. By that time, they had learned how to play Beethoven and Ravel and other things but to play a brand new piece that was full of things they had never seen, you couldn't expect them to, especially when the atonal language (I'm talking about the '40s now) was still a relatively new musical language. Nowadays orchestras can read anything. But whether they understand the harmonies and feel the harmonies...you can't just play them, you have to feel them. That's still in short supply.
When you write for an 80-piece orchestra there are so many musicians involved, and every orchestra has uneven qualities. There are weak musicians and there are strong musicians. But five years ago I wrote a string quartet for the Juilliard Quartet. Well those are such fantastic musicians, and they rehearsed on their own, and when I came to the first rehearsal they invited me to, I had almost nothing to say. That was a thrill like you're getting at. But as I say, I have had performances...one of my popular pieces is called Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee , the great Swiss painter, where I took paintings and translated them into musical form. The recordings by the Boston Symphony and the Minneapolis Symphony -- both fine orchestras with great, famous conductors -- leave a lot to be desired.
Since we were talking about swing before, I wrote a jazz movement in that and I knew that no symphony orchestra in 1959 could swing. I couldn't use improvisation first of all and I had to figure out a way to write so it would try to swing. I wrote it in a certain rhythm that we call triplets. I wrote a walking bass line. In both orchestras at that time, the first bass, the solo bass (in a thing like that, you have one bass player playing, not all seven basses right?) in both orchestras happened to know nothing about jazz. So I'm expecting Ray Brown, Percy Heath, or any of these greats -- I expected that long sound that they got when you can feel the swing and the feeling. What I got from these fine classical players that can play the best bass concertos up and down -- it sounded like du, du, du, du. That was horrifying but I knew that that would happen and there was nothing I could do about it. In the section in Minneapolis, on the 4th stand, there was a young bass player who played jazz also but the first player would not give it to him.
So in many ways, that's what happens very often at first performances. There are some very wonderful pieces by great composers like Elliott Carter and Milton Babbitt that have never yet been played well because it just takes a certain amount of time to assimilate all these new sounds and to play them with feeling. I'm so old that I remember when the New York Philharmonic -- at that time arguably the best orchestra in the United States or certainly one of the three best orchestras -- still struggled with Beethoven's 9th Symphony. Not that they played wrong notes, but they didn't feel comfortable in it. Now, 50 years later, they have assimilated that. They now can play Beethoven's 9th Symphony in their sleep. Beethoven's 9th Symphony, for example, is one of hundreds of examples of extraordinary breakthrough pieces that took a hundred years to assimilate, both for conductors and for musicians. So in answer to your question (it's a long answer but it's an interesting topic), sometimes we composers go out of the concert thinking, "Oh my God. Jesus, that was a mess," and you can't say anything. Ten years later, you finally have a near-perfect performance.
NEA: What about with jazz compositions?
Gunther Schuller: Well, that was totally different. Let's see, this is complicated. It depends on what they were playing. Jazz musicians have to translate everything they do into a feeling. A trumpet player can't put his mouthpiece to his lips and play something in a mechanical way, especially since you're improvising. You're improvising means that you are creating instantaneously and, in order to be able to do that, you can't fake it, you can't think about it and say, "Oh, what am I going to do?" You just have to be able to do it. The way you learn how to do that is you practice so much that you develop your own language. The classical musicians don't develop their own language. They have to learn the language of Beethoven and he's been dead for 200 years, you see. So there is a big difference there. Generally speaking, in those days, things were just much quicker with jazz musicians because they have these antennas that reach out beyond the notes and translate everything into a feeling, or at least they try to.
When I started first working, for example, with Ornette Coleman, I wrote a 12-tone piece for him. When I met him, I said, "Listen Ornette, this based on a 12-tone row -- you know what that is?" He said, "Yeah, I've heard of it. I can relate to that," because he was already doing something like that. If I had given that to a great musician, let's say Ben Webster, he would have said to me, "Hey Gunther, what the hell is that? Twelve notes don't make no sense to me at all." The younger musicians, the ones that explored new territories, will be able to grapple with the newer music more quickly than somebody who has been playing in an older style for 30 or 40 years. They just can't make that change. I wrote some very, very difficult stuff for Clark Terry, Richard Davis, all these terrific musicians. By the time they got a little bit used to my style, we went into a record thing and they played it perfectly after a little bit of rehearsing, but 15 years earlier even they would have had a bit of a struggle.
THE BIRTH OF THE COOL
NEA: You mentioned The Birth of the Cool session earlier. Can you tell me about that?
Gunther Schuller: That is a case in point of this slightly more unfamiliar, difficult music that did feel uncomfortable that took quite a few years for more or less the same group of musicians to really feel comfortable with their music. I can say that because there is absolute proof on recordings that have come out in the last few years where they actually recorded us playing in Birdland. I'm on some of those recordings and one of my horn-player predecessors on some others and you can hear the out of tune playing. They just didn't understand Gil Evans's complex harmonies, or you hear the ragged rhythm and they're not really swinging and some things are unbalanced, somebody's playing too loud, someone else is playing too soft. By the time I played in the third session (there were three sessions over a period of three years), by the time I got there in 1950, they had played those pieces enough so that they now really felt comfortable in them. It's always the same story. It takes getting beyond the notes and feeling the music, so you can really express yourself easily and interpret it in a natural way. On the other hand, that music [was] so different from the jazz music of that period, and such an unusual combination of instruments, nine different instruments including the horn and the tuba that had never been in jazz before. These different sounds, it takes a while to get adjusted to that, you see. As they say, it depends on the innovativeness, the creativity, of the particular piece of music.
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