Jazz And Classical Musician Gunther Schuller Dies At 89

Gunther Schuller, a horn player, educator and Pulitzer Prize-winning composer who was the leading proponent of the Third Stream movement fusing jazz and classical music, died Sunday at age 89.

Photo: AP Photo / file
This June 28, 1967, file photo shows Gunther Schuller, who wrote and directed the opera "Visitation," at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in New York City.

His son, Ed Schuller, said his father died Sunday morning at a hospital in Boston. He said his father had several medical conditions.

“He was a great musician. I loved him and we will miss him,” Schuller, a bassist, said. “He had a great life, he lived his dream.”

As a composer, Schuller wrote more than 200 compositions, including solo and orchestral works, chamber music, opera and jazz. His orchestral work, “Of Reminiscences and Reflections,” dedicated to his wife Marjorie Black, won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Music.

Schuller, who was born on Nov. 22, 1925, in New York, came from a family of classical musicians. His grandfather was a conductor in Germany and his father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic.

Schuller developed into a virtuoso on French horn. As a teenager, he began playing with the American Ballet Theater and Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra in the ’40s, and then joined the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he remained until 1959.

Schuller discovered a whole new musical world when he heard Duke Ellington on the radio one night while doing his high school homework.

“I said to my father, ‘You know, Pop, I heard some music — Duke Ellington — last night and that music is as great as Beethoven’s and Mozart’s,'” Schuller said in a 2009 NPR interview. “And he almost had a heart attack because that was a heretical thing to say.”

Schuller’s newfound passion led him to frequent New York jazz clubs, where he became involved in the burgeoning bebop scene in the late 1940s. Although French horn was rarely used in jazz ensembles, Schuller began his jazz career as part of trumpeter Miles Davis’ group that recorded the seminal 1949-50 “Birth of the Cool” sessions, which fused jazz and classical techniques. He would go on to perform and record with such jazz greats as J.J. Johnson, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus.

In the mid-1950s, he teamed up with the classically trained jazz pianist John Lewis, musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet, to form the Modern Jazz Society in an effort to bring jazz and classical music together. Schuller felt musicians from both genres could learn from each other.

During a 1957 lecture at Brandeis University, Schuller coined the term “Third Stream” to describe his vision of what would result if the two main streams of music in the U.S. got married and begat a child. Schuller and Lewis introduced their Third Stream compositions on two Columbia albums, “Music for Brass” and “Modern Jazz Concert” in 1957-58.

“When I started the whole thing in 1957 with the Third Stream … it was extremely controversial,” Schuller said in a 2010 interview with jazz writer Mark Myers. “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.”

Schuller and Lewis also founded the Lenox School of Jazz in western Massachusetts, which brought over Coleman from the West Coast for its summer program in 1959 shortly before the free jazz pioneer made his history-making New York debut.

By the 1960s, Schuller had largely given up performing to focus on composing, teaching and writing. He served as president of the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1967-77, where he established the first degree-granting jazz program at a major classical conservatory and instituted the Third Stream department with pianist Ran Blake as its chair. He also founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, which earned a Grammy Award for best chamber music performance in 1973 for the album “Joplin: The Red Back Book” and helped spur a ragtime revival. Schuller won two more Grammys for writing liner notes.

In 1990, Schuller and David Baker founded and conducted the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra in Washington, D.C., dedicated to performing and preserving American jazz masterpieces. He also helped put together an all-star orchestra and conducted a 1989 performance of the late jazz bassist Charles Mingus’ epic work “Epitaph,” which was also released on record. He regularly appeared as a guest conductor with orchestras.

As writer, Schuller authored both educational works and jazz histories, including “Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development” (1968) and “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945.” In 2011, he published the first volume of his autobiography, “Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty.”

Schuller’s major orchestral works include “Symphony” (1965), “Seven Studies of Paul Klee” (1959) and “An Arc Ascending” (1996). He composed two operas: “The Visitation” (1966), based on a Franz Kafka story; and the children’s opera “The Fisherman and his Wife” with text by John Updike, derived from the Grimm fairy tale.

His noted Third Stream-style compositions include “Transformation for Jazz Ensemble” (1957, “Concerto for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959) and “Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960).

In 2008, Schuller was named a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, the nation’s highest jazz honor. Earlier this year, the MacDowell Colony, a prestigious artists’ residence program, awarded him its lifetime achievement award “for setting an example of discovery and experimentation” as a composer and teacher.