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GUNTHER SCHULLER : MASTER OF ALL HE SURVEYED

I hate the overuse of the word “genius,” but in GUNTHER SCHULLER‘s case it was a natural fit.  We lost him in 2015.  Herewith some highlights of our time together.

The dailies, television, radio, all got it right.  The music communities, classicists, jazz, conductor, french horn, composer, mentor, sire of two musicians, drummer George and bassist Edward are all here to testify as to his greatness, that other overused encomium.

Schuller and John Lewis coined the phrase “Third Stream” to define the combining of jazz and classical music.  No matter what they called it, it didn’t work.  It was neither fish nor foul.

Schuller’s name appeared as part of the personnel on the Miles Davis “Birth of the Cool” lp and Gil Evans used that french horn sound for the rest of his arranging days.

Schuller, along with Sy Johnson supported Charles Mingus in the latter’s endeavors to expand his writing and arranging.  He acted as coordinator and conductor for the Mingus’ masterful epochal “Epitaph.”  In recent years he was adviser to Manhattan School of Music’s Mingus Summit in February 2009.  There were panels and performances as well as judging of talent.  As an addendum an excerpt from the Keynote Address delivered by Schuller concludes this appreciation.  (It is excerpted from a CD of the MSM event used by permission. *)

Both Schuller and Johnson were at a birthday party at Cooper Union during Mingus’ last days.  He was in the throes of Lew Gehrig’s Disease (ALS).  Schuller was seated next to Mingus as I sneaked in behind.  A photographer I coerced nailed the shot.  It’s on my Wall of Fallen Heroes, but I was asked not to reveal it in print.

Schuller eventually gave up playing to conduct, compose –Pulitzers included– and teach at the the New England Conservatory.  He often traveled between Boston, New York and elsewhere to do so into his 80′s.  Between gigs he took time to record various ensembles from the Conservatory including legendary –another one of those words?– excerpts from Scott Joplin’s Red Back Book conducting the NECM Brass Ensemble.  It was almost as though Schuller was showing off that his jazz chops were not neglected. The arrangements were as classical examples of Joplin’s work.  I use them in class every semesters.

[* Schuller’s eloquence was in constant display none more momentous than in his Keynote Address to MSM’s “Charles Mingus Summit” in 2009.  He described his longtime friend Mingus as a “composing bass player or a bass playing composer” casting him in the light of Bach at the keyboards or violinists at their art. “Much in the case of Stravinsky and Varese.

“He played bass like a classical player, upright not bent over like a jazz player.” 

Schuller recalled Mingus’ astounding performance at the 1949 Massey Hall Concert in Toronto for the Mingus-Roach Debut label.  Mingus eventually overdubbed his soli because he was not satisfied with the original released version.  The rest of the Massey Hall band were Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Roach.  It was to be their last time together.

The remainder of the MSM panel were Andy McKee, bass, Vincent Herring, alto, Sue Mingus, co-organizer, and Conrad Herwig, trombone.  Schuller’s reminisces and analyses outshone them all.

Schuller concluded by calling Mingus “Unique.  A pioneer.  Inimitable.”] 

© July 2015 by arnold jay smith


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