Jazz knows him as the musicologist who authored two standard reference works, Early Jazz and The Swing Era; as a composer who invented the name “Third Stream” for collection of records including Music for Brass, Modern Jazz Concert, the Modern Jazz Quartet’s Third Stream Music, and Jazz Abstractions, and as a conductor who has delivered posthumous premieres of Scott Joplin (Treemonisha) and Charles Mingus (Epitaph).
However, my committed exploration of Gunther Schuller is relatively recent. The spark that got me interested was his “Symphony for Brass and Percussion” from his very first record, Music for Brass. Somehow, I had never heard any Schuller’s classical music before.
Thanks to Peggy Sutton and Jazz on 3 for commissioning this interview.
Ethan Iverson: You’re always pained at the expression “Third Stream jazz.”
Gunther Schuller: It’s just a redundancy and it’s a misnomer that implies Third Stream has to be mostly jazz. It should be the best possible equalized amalgamation of these two traditions, not leaning one way or the other, and the more it’s really deeply fused the better it is Third Stream. Because I’m against all kind of superficial cross-fertilizing, where you have a little bit of this and a little bit of that. My whole ideal premise of the Third Stream, that it would be the most deeply understood and felt bringing-together of these two traditions—which are enormously wide and broad anyway, you know, there’s a lot of leeway there—but that would be done with full respect of both traditions and full knowledge of how they work and what are the best things that they have achieved.
EI: I believe the first record that you made was Music for Brass.
EI: Which I think it’s not quite Third Stream yet, it’s starting to get in that direction but your “Symphony for Brass and Percussion” is pure classical music.
EI: It was written in the 1940s?
GS: Well, yes, it was written in 1949, most of it.
EI: And you were how old?
GS: 23, 24.
EI: It’s a remarkable piece for a 23-year-old composer, and I think that’s a great performance on that record, too.
GS: Yes—well, I had access to the best New York players. All my colleagues from the Philharmonic Metropolitan Opera, but also jazz players, and then I had asked Mitropoulos to actually conduct the performance.
EI: How did you like his conducting of that piece?
GS: Oh, wonderful.
EI: Well, it seems like quite a hard piece, and it’s done so well. And also that good engineering from Columbia Studios in 1955…
GS: Oh yes: 30 Street, 3rd Studio.
EI: Audiophiles still collect those records. The whole of Music for Brass is amazing, especially a John Lewis mini-concerto for Miles Davis called “Three Little Feelings,” which is an underrated piece of music. I think it’s one of the best things John Lewis ever did, really. And there’s also pieces by Jimmy Giuffre and J.J. Johnson. How did you meet these musicians, like J.J. Johnson and John Lewis?
GS: Oh, well, look, I met everybody. You cannot name anybody of that period that I didn’t meet … one would have to say through John Lewis, and John Lewis was my contact. I had admired Dizzy and Charlie Parker and Oscar Pettiford and whoever they all are, at a distance, but I was much too shy when I went to clubs or something to ever go up to anybody. But eventually through various circumstances I met John Lewis and then he introduced me, and he really brought me into the inner circle of the great musicians which was an incredible—what shall I say?—flattering experience, you know. Here’s this white guy who plays French horn, you know, and he’s sort of a jazz player, you know, but he’s playing first horn at the Metropolitan Opera and now he’s there with Miles Davis and Dizzy Gillespie and J.J.
EI: Is John Lewis the reason you’re on the Birth of the Cool sessions?
GS: Well, actually yes, because Junior Collins suddenly wasn’t available. He quit, he ended up in California,. Collins and Vince Jacob were the two horn players that were playing in jazz orchestras that I admired the most, because they had such a beautiful tone. Some of the other horn players sounded more like a trombone or something. But anyway—and I heard them play a lot with the Claude Thornhill Orchestra. And of course the Miles Davis nonet—Birth of the Cool, called later on—is a reduction of the Claude Thornhill Orchestra to eight instruments, it’s that same dark lower-register instrumentation.
EI: And of course Gil Evans is the link there.
GS: Of course. And so when Junior wasn’t available, John had been the pianist all along, and, you know, by that time Miles and I had met long already for three or four years, and we knew each other very well, we hung out a lot together. And then it just, John said, “We’ll get Gunther,” and Miles said, “Oh yeah, yeah, yeah.” That was it. [both laugh] Because they knew I could do that. And in fact, I mean, I’m very proud of the fact that I saved the most wonderful of all the Birth of the Cool pieces, the greatest masterpiece, in my mind anyway, which is “Moon Dreams.” And I happened to save that to be recorded.
EI: What do you mean?
GS: Well…. “Moon Dreams,” especially the coda, the coda goes into absolutely atonality, and a six- or seven-layered contrapuntal coda, which starts at a humungous climax in triple-f and just gradually simmers down and ends in a lovely B-minor. Even the parts before that are pretty difficult, pretty sophisticated, typical Gil Evans, always jumping between single time and double time, and all kinds of balance problems between the instruments. And, you know, Gil wrote some quintuplets; most of the musicians had never seen a quintuplet. They had played quintuplets, without knowing that they had. So it was the most difficult of all the pieces and the least straight-ahead. And that coda, we rehearsed it and rehearsed it and… one rehearsal, when we—we always fell apart, because it’s just so, it’s like African drum music, where if you were to put barlines in there, none of them coordinate, so… And everything was off the beat, so there was no beat. And Max was supposed to play very soft, just [whispers] “ching, ching, ching.” One rehearsal I said, “Max, please play LOUD: Ching! ching!” And we managed to keep together. But you notice when you listen to that coda that you don’t hear any drums.
So, anyway, here’s the real story: We got to that recording session, and having rehearsed “Moon Dreams” and never gotten through it, I said to Miles at the beginning of the session, I said, “Listen, Miles: please, please, don’t let the booth have us record that piece last.” First of all, it’s very tiring; every time we’d play it at J.J.’s my chops were beat. It’s strange for such a relatively short piece—but it has such sustained and soft lines, and soft music is often more tiring than loud on a brass instrument. Most people don’t know that. So anyway, I went to Miles and said, “Talk to the producer, and we’ve got to do this, maybe not as the first number because we’ve got to warm up a little bit; let’s do it as the second number.” “Oh yeah, great idea, I know what you mean, we’ve got to get this one down, you know.” So he went [and] spoke to them, I wasn’t in the booth for that conversation, and lo and behold—everything he had suggested was rejected. And so we did Mulligan’s pieces, and we did in that one vocal that Kenny Hagood sang (what is the name of that?) anyway, we did three takes on that.
EI: The vocal number you just spent all that time on, huh. Of course.
GS: Yeah! And we’re getting more and more tired. And now, there’s only, I think it was something like 25 minutes left, 30 minutes left, and we’re still supposed to have another five-minute break, and now we’re finally gonna do “Moon Dreams” last, exactly what I wanted to avoid. Well, I’ll try to make this a little shorter… we did a take, we fell apart. We did another one that got a little better but it sure wasn’t clean and all lined up. And balances were way off and so on. And then Miles called a five-minute break, and I ran to him: “Listen, Miles, I think we can make it if you let me conduct this piece while I’m playing.” Because I was the only one who conducted and knew how to do that. And so we rearranged the seating because we had been sitting sort of in a line. I said, “Let’s make a semicircle so that everybody can see me, and I’ll sit in the middle here.” And I said to myself, “Now Gunther, when you take your hand out of the bell you know what happens? it goes a quarter tone sharp”—because we use the hand for intonation. So I had to, in playing, lip everything down in the conducted part, which was only the ending. We got through the first part. So by doing that, in the last five minutes of that session, we got through it good enough—it’s still sometimes out of tune and I’m not really proud of it because that music is so incredibly inventive and it should have been done perfectly, but at least it was passable. And that was just by my conducting…. [laughs] So I saved that one, I’m pretty proud of that.
EI: You’re not just on Birth of the Cool, but you’re on other records with Gil Evans and Miles from the ’50s, right?
GS: Porgy and Bess, that was the only one I could do. Because, see, I was still busy at the Metropolitan Opera.
EI: You were doing things like The Rake’s Progress under Stravinsky himself.
GS: Oh yeah, oh yes.
EI: And you’re on that recording with Stravinsky conducting, right?
GS: Yeah, yeah.
EI: And you’re on some commercial dates, like Frank Sinatra dates and stuff. You might be the only musician that recorded with Stravinsky, Miles Davis and Frank Sinatra in the 1950s!
GS: [chuckle] I think so!
EI: I know that you quit playing French horn in the early sixties. Is there any record that features you as a French horn soloist?
GS: No, because—the horn was just not recorded at that time as a solo instrument. The only one who had been recorded to some extent was Dennis Brain, and that was in England; that did not carry over in the United States. And it wasn’t until I quit playing—maybe it was ’62 actually, late ’62, mid ’62 when I quit playing — that the recording, through the influence of Dennis’s amazing recordings, like of the Britten “Serenade” which is a major solo horn piece, it’s only then that recording of horn solo pieces (concertos, whatever, even chamber music) got to be done. Even the chamber music—the octet of Schubert was hardly recorded, or Mozart’s quintet things like that. And the main player who then did that was this Johnny Barrows, who was a great, magnificent horn player who was also a damn good jazz player.
And by the way, he and I and Jim Buffington, we were sort of the three jazz-interested players, and Julius Watkins, who was actually the only one of us who really could improvise excitingly on it… And that’s because he didn’t even know the horn was difficult! He had started on trumpet, and one day tried out a horn and he sort of liked it, it was the same damn thing, just looked a little different. He was an amazing player. But he always had trouble with his teeth, and so on. But anyway, so there is a wonderful recording of four pieces by Alec Wilder for four French horns and a harpsichord and bass and drums, and we’re on that, and Johnny—if you want to hear some gorgeous horn-playing, both lyrical and also very swinging, boy on those pieces… Those are real fine jazz pieces of Alec’s, maybe one of the best things he’s ever done.
EI: Oh, I don’t know those, I’ll have to look for those. You played French horn on several John Lewis projects as well.
GS: Also arranged some of his pieces or contributed some pieces of my own.
EI: I think even before the phrase “Third Stream” was coined you and John had formed the Society for Jazz and Classical Music?
GS: Yeah, actually, I may have mentioned Third Stream before, but the first time that I remember it had any kind of a resonance was at a lecture at Brandeis University, which was by the way in connection with the Brandeis recording, which has the pieces by Mingus and Giuffre, and Milton Babbitt’s “All Set” and all those things.
EI: That was released as Modern Jazz Concert, that’s the second record. Music for Brass was the first record and then there’s Modern Jazz Concert.
GS: And by the way, this was all due to George Avakian. Those recordings wouldn’t have happened without him . But anyway, John, we had met in ’48, he went to the Manhattan School of Music to get a master’s degree; I was playing at the Met and I was teaching at Manhattan School of Music, and we bonded so deeply and we exchanged our lives, our musical lives; he learned a lot from me about classical music, and I learned a lot from him about jazz, and we listened together to all kinds of music. And always came up the subject of this segregation of classical music and jazz. And I from a philosophical, from a social, from a democratic point of view, I mean I just couldn’t tolerate that idea that had been going on for so long. So we kept talking about how to make these musics come together: they have so much to learn from each other, and there’s so much to contribute that one of those musics has and the other one doesn’t, and vice versa. So by 1955, all of that began to bubble and develop. After we had recorded already some of John’s pieces and some of mine, and one day we decided, well, let’s form a society, so we’re a real presence. And that was the Jazz and Classical Music Society. And that was in ’56.
EI: On your arrangements of Lewis music on A Concert of Contemporary Music by the Modern Jazz Society, instead of rhythm guitar you have rhythm harp! There is a harpist playing quarter notes in the rhythm section.
GS: Yeah, that was the first time that was ever done.
EI: That’s clearly a classical musician who’s thinking about orchestration: “How do we vary this?”
GS: Well, I love Freddie Green, Freddy Guy, and all those other great…. I miss the rhythm guitar so much nowadays.
EI: Oh really?
GS: Oh yeah… I mean, it’s like first love, you can’t ever do without that, but anyway… [laugh]
EI: [laughs] Well, it’s long gone at this point, I’m afraid, Gunther!
GS: Oh, no no… And I so decided, just use it in harp, because I knew Janet Putnam the harpist, I showed her how to do that—you know, just damp each note…
EI: How did Percy Heath and Connie Kay feel about that, though? Did they like playing with the harpist?
GS: Oh yeah, they loved it. Because frankly it’s a slightly more voluptuous sound than the classical guitar. And yeah, and as long as she kept good time, you know.
EI: Well, that’s the big caveat, I guess! [laughs]
GS: And I needed that harmonic filling-in in those arrangements, because the groups weren’t that large, you know.
EI: And there wasn’t piano, actually.
GS: That’s right, yeah.
EI: John Lewis’s music seems essentially conservative. I think the most atonal piece I heard him write was — it’s not even that atonal — on the record Third Stream Music and a piece called “Exposure,” which has you on a fairly exposed French horn part.
GS: But also parts of his film music, Odds Against Tomorrow; there’s some pretty wild stuff. John always kept trying. He loved so much modern music, including Schoenberg and Stravinsky and Bartók and all of that, which many jazz musicians really didn’t understand yet. He was into all of that, but for him to write it himself, he felt limited. But he kept trying, and there are some, in some of the more dramatic moments in that film, where terrible things are happening, boy, he let the brass loose with some horrendous dissonances, that shatter you, you know. And even in a conservative piece, he’d find some kind of a little introduction or a bridge where he’d do some really weird little minor-second things that are sort of piquant and funny. And so he kept experimenting.
And just on that point, therefore for me as a composer writing pieces with and for the Modern Jazz Quartet, like “Conversations,” which is a piece for string quartet and jazz quartet, namely the Modern Jazz Quartet, vibraphone, piano, bass and drums—in those pieces, knowing that the entire Modern Jazz Quartet was conservative basically, and so here I’m writing twelve-tone music, already… Now, I felt the only way that I could avoid the piece coming out in a sort of dichotomous way, that there’s jazz and then there’s classical music, and the two groups never really get together—was to surround their improvisations with so much atonal twelve-tone background that what you hear in the surface of the music is still my music. It doesn’t suddenly fall into some, you know, Mendelssohnian jazz.
EI: For people that love the Modern Jazz Quartet or musicians who interested to study what kinds of musicians the MJQ were, it’s really worthwhile looking at the score of the “Concertino for Quartet and Orchestra.”
EI: Because actually you write a lot for the vibraphone, the bass and the piano. Of course, that’s not really a surprise. At the same time, it’s kind of amazing to look at the bass, Percy Heath, and see that everything’s written out for him for so much of it, stuff in 5/4 and many unusual basslines. For the vibraphonist there’s bars at a time in that piece that are really hard to play, hard to read.
GS: But you see, that they could do. So what I was speaking about just a minute ago, was when they started improvising. But I knew that I could write for them, because they wanted to do that, they wanted to learn my language.
EI: Even Milt Jackson wanted to do that?
GS: Oh my god, and did he learn it well! He was one of the quickest learners. John had to work much harder. Percy was severely bothered by the 5/4, and the accelerando; you know, to do an accelerando at that time was still unheard-of. You did a beautiful piece last night with all the tempos…?
EI: I think we played the standard “Have You Met Miss Jones?”
GS: Oh, that’s what it was. Yeah. Of all things! [laughs] So anyway, so when it came to the written parts, I knew that they would deliver that. They worked very hard at it; they knew it was part of the bargain, you know.
EI: Well, I’ve heard that Milt Jackson had a photographic memory.
GS: Yeah, it was something awesome, I don’t know exactly. I mean, amongst other things, he was a good reader, and atonality or complex tonal things didn’t bother him at all, because he heard how they fitted into the tonal structuring, you know. And he had this awesome technique. I never heard Milt Jackson play one wrong note, and I must have heard him play hundreds, if not thousands of times.
EI: Well, is that why there seems to be vibes, vibraphone in all of Third Stream music for a while; was it the Milt Jackson influence?
GS: Absolutely. But also Teddy Charles, and he could read anything, too. Teddy Charles is on “All Set,” for example.
EI: After the first record, all the Third Stream records of the era seem to have vibraphone.
GS: Well, I think part of it is simply because Milt revolutionized vibraphone playing. Because before that there had been Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton, and they had a much different sound. And Milt just invented this sound by making, oh what do you call them, sticks, mallets—I mean they’re like huge balls. I mean, if you picked up one of his mallets your arm almost went down by the law of gravity, so heavy. He must have had wrists of enormous strength to play with those and to play so fluently and so fast. And that created this wonderful rich sound, and he turned the vibraphone down to the slowest possible vibrato, this “wowwowwowwow”… it’s just a gorgeous sound; and it just took over. Because Hampton’s sound was sort of glassy and pingy, and Red Norvo of course, he played mostly xylophone, marimba, anyway, so…. And then there were a few—you know, with Woody Herman, Marjorie Hyams, she played vibraphone—but Milt was really the one who made that breakthrough. And it’s still with us.
EI: Well I’d like, speaking of Teddy Charles and that second record, Modern Jazz Concert, I’d love to get some stories about Milton Babbitt’s “All Set,” the most canonical twelve-tone work for jazz ensemble with saxophones, trombone, trumpet, vibraphone, piano, bass and drums, and should be played with some jazz feeling. However it’s absolutely serialized, just like most of Milton’s work. It’s the only real twelve-tone piece for this instrumentation that I know about.
GS: Oh, hardcore, yes!
EI: It’s really serious serialized music, and a lot of jazz musicians have played it over the years, sometimes forced into it against their will in college programs; other times, maybe they just got the call for the gig. It’s amazing who’s played this piece on the first recording: Art Farmer, Jimmy Knepper, Bill Evans, John LaPorta, Hal McKusick, Joe Benjamin, Teddy Sommer and Teddy Charles.
GS: Maybe I should start by how this piece came about. I was invited by Brandeis University to bring jazz into their festival for the first time. And they said to me, “What would you like to do as a presentation of modern jazz and what’s happening in the jazz scene?” And I remember I started with one thing: “Well, I’d like to do some recreations of Duke Ellington music and other great jazz orchestras.” And I was the first to for example do “Reminiscing in Tempo,” which I transcribed from the records because there was no music available. And so that was sort of the beginning, but then I thought, my god, how about if I take advantage of this to have them commission a whole bunch of works for a single concert. And then I had the idea of having three jazz composers and three classical composers.
I was so enamored of Mingus’s early work, particularly “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” which is a masterpiece from ’53 or ’56, somewhere, I already knew that very well, and Jimmy Giuffre was very big in those days and years, with his trios, all different kinds of trios, mostly without a piano and without a rhythm section. So, and then George Russell, with whom I also already had a long relationship, again through John Lewis. And so those were the three “jazz guys.” And then I picked Harold Shapero, was a composer there for years and years at Brandeis—he’s still there, still teaching, well I guess he’d be retired but he’s still around. And Milton, because I knew how he loved jazz, and how much he was observant of the whole jazz scene and what was going on. And we were very close at that time. And then, it just came about that I guess I included myself! [both laugh]
EI: With good reason!
GS: Because I had already written quite a few Third Stream jazz-oriented pieces and so on… Well, so anyway, came Milton’s piece; I mean, they got the commissions; I had no idea what Milton was going to do. Frankly, I was amazed that he did write such actually an absolutely noncompromising twelve-tone piece, and that he did not include improvisation. I am in retrospect glad that he did not, because I know that those musicians, had they been asked to improvise, it would have gone out of the style of the piece, and it wouldn’t have worked as a piece. So anyway, then we get this piece and I see, “Oh my god,” at this up tempo that it’s in, and it goes on for, what is it, 11 minutes or something?
EI: It’s not a short piece.
GS: No. I said, “Oh boy…” Well, so I planned something like three months of rehearsals—off and on, I mean we were all terribly busy; I was busier than a one-armed paperhanger, I mean I don’t know how I found the time to rehearse this piece, but we managed to get it; sometimes we just did section rehearsals, just the two saxophones, or just the rhythm section. And so eventually it really came together, and if I go sort of down the list of those players, the one person that absolutely amazed me how quickly he learned that part was Bill Evans. I mean, he virtually sightread that piece, almost the first time we went through. Now he had prepared himself, so it wasn’t absolute sightreading, but the fact that he could handle that without any problem, and with swing… that’s just—to make that translation from those nonswinging notes, when you look at them—
EI: Yeah, for sure!
GS: —to turn then with that touch of his and the way he moved from one note to another, that was amazing; I get goose-pimples in excitement just thinking back to that. And the other one who also was very quick in learning it was Teddy Charles. Ted Sommer also, he had that kind of quick mind; he hadn’t done anything like this, but he was so challenged by it. I wanted to get Shelly Manne originally, and he wanted to play it, because he was also into all kinds of new music, but he wasn’t available, so Ted Sommer did very well. John LaPorta was no problem, not at all. I don’t know whether many people know that John LaPorta actually started his career as a classical musician. He played in Stokowski’s youth orchestra: Shostakovich symphonies, Glière symphonies, you know, whatever Stoky was doing. And then of course he ended up with Woody Herman shortly after that. So he was already an all-around player. Hal McKusick had been classically trained, so… Jimmy Knepper also, he was such an advanced player; he could play almost anything at any time. But they found the music pretty hard, because of all those extremely leaping parts and there was never any tonal root or basis and until you get a little more familiar with it and then you can begin to hear some of that. And then in the total ensemble when you listen to it vertically, then the harmonies begin to come along. But until then you’re looking at your own part and you say “What kind of jazz is this?” you know?
EI: Well, how did Joe Benjamin do with the bass playing?
GS: Joe and Art Farmer had the most trouble. Those two labored hard. And I can’t say how much I admire the work they put into this, because this was really hard for Art. But he had such sticktoitiveness and such pride, such a determination to conquer this amazing problem. The same with Joe, who had been with Duke Ellington. And I have to say that even at the end, in the recording sessions there is a bass solo, where although we took three takes of it he could not get it right. He had all of the components of that solo played correctly, but not in the right sequence. Or the notes in the two note thing were reversed. And of course, since he was alone, I could edit it—I did the editing of it for Columbia, and so I was able to salvage that. Had I not been able to do that technically and had Milton not been so clever as to write a bass solo all alone, we wouldn’t have been able to issue the darn thing! But Art got it together and put enough jazz feeling into it, so for a first performance I think it’s quite miraculous. And thinking how long ago that was—nowadays that kind of music is, even amongst jazz musicians, it’s sort of not fully assimilated, but it’s just not so unfamiliar anymore.
EI: Well, it’s interesting because you can get two recordings of “All Set” commercially; one is that one, and the more common one is by Speculum Musicae. The Speculum Musicae performance is probably more accurate, but the jazz players bring something else on that first recording that is undeniable.
GS: That’s right, that’s right. Yeah, the Speculum, they couldn’t quite feel that. And that, by the way, getting back to the whole concept of Third Stream, in the beginning that was the big problem. Yes, you could get a string quartet or string players who loved jazz and wanted to play, not necessarily improvise but play jazz music. But they could not get into the way jazz musicians actually feel something, whether it’s a run of eighth notes or sixteenths, or even the kind of sound of the vibrato or lack of vibrato. It remained intellectual, and therefore a little bit stiff. And of course the criticisms came in, that on the classical sides those musicians sounded stiff and rigid and really not jazz. And on the jazz side, some of them felt very uncomfortable playing classical ideas. You know, when J.J. wrote this piece for Dizzy Gillespie, for solo—it’s a whole recording of Dizzy playing a kind of concerto piece that J.J. wrote for him, and Dizzy of course, is an incredible player. But one can hear on that recording, as much as he and I worked on it, that he sounds very uncomfortable at times. And you know, when he played his own music, he never sounded anywhere close to uncomfortable! [laughs]
That’s why there was so much criticism of Third Stream: “You see, it won’t work, you can’t put oil and water together. Those two sides will always be separate because they can’t make each other’s music.” Ten years later, it all got solved, and everybody could do everything. But even in New York in the early days—after all, the cultural center of music in the world practically and certainly in jazz—I could find some players, but I tell you, if, for example, in some of the things I did, if Richard Davis wasn’t available, I would have a harder time finding someone who could play my music or other music like that. Until Scott LaFaro came along—then he was the next… So from player to player, from almost half generation to half generation, it began to just assimilate itself. But at first it was very hard, because these string players, yeah, they could play a Schoenberg quintet or a Bartók quartet, but to play the passage that some of us would write out for them that had to be swung, now—of course I had to write it out, otherwise they wouldn’t have known what to play but, so now they read it and they read it as if it were Bartók—well, and they couldn’t… I know this from my father; my father was an amazing violinist, for 42 years in the New York Philharmonic. After he got over the shock that I got involved with jazz when I was very young, and declared that jazz was just as great music as classical music, he finally sort of came around and got interested in it. There were some times when I actually tried to teach him how to play jazz on the violin, just—not teach him fingering or anything, but the feeling of it. He could not get it, this amazing musician who had the most fantastic ears. He came from Germany, from the old country, and this was just such a foreign territory.
And this is what we ran into, so that when we had strings involved, there were only two or three players—Harry Lookofsky was one of the major ones, we would always have him as a concert master—who really could play jazz violin. And this is also ironic, because at the same time there were already some terrific jazz violinists in these orchestras, like Ray Nance, an incredible violinist, and Stuff Smith. They proved that you could play jazz on the violin, but you still had to feel it. I mean, everything in music ultimately is meaningless unless it’s translated into a feeling. Counting, playing correctly, you know—all of that doesn’t ultimately mean anything. It’s kind of nice, but you have to translate every rhythm, every musical idea into a total feeling. Then it can make music.
EI: Talking about violin, there’s a story I’ve heard about you I’ve always wondered was true.
GS: This confession time?
EI: Well, I don’t know; maybe, maybe not… You mentioned transcribing “Reminiscing in Tempo.” Of course, this is very hard to do, to transcribe a Duke Ellington big band chart, especially one that was recorded in not the best fidelity and has all of the mysterious sounds that can be on an old 78. But I heard a story that you had to transcribe the Alban Berg Violin Concerto…!
GS: Well, not all of it. But I took off the recording, the first recording of the piece, by the Cleveland Orchestra, with Louis Krasner, who commissioned the work and first performed it, and Artur Rodzinski. And the last eight minutes, which was the last two sides of that recording, there usually were about four minutes on a 12-inch 78 in those days. I was 17 years old when I did that, or maybe 18, in Cincinnati, I was playing first horn there. I had started by transcribing Ellington’s music. I was first to transcribe entire orchestrations. DownBeat magazine had transcribed trumpet solos, Coleman Hawkins solos, all that, but to take down every note—every note that one could hear on a recording—and put that into a score form, I know I was the first to do that. So by that time, when the Berg came out, I had done already seven or eight transcriptions of Ellington’s music—“Cottontail,” “Dusk,” of course “Mood Indigo,” and a lot of pieces.
So then the Berg came out, and it changed my life. “The Rite of Spring” and the Berg “Concerto” is what basically made me become a composer. And I immediately, I got the recording and I went to a store, and I said, “I’m going to buy the score”—I’ve gotta have a look at this, you know! Well, there were no scores available in the entire United States, except in a few libraries, and I didn’t know which ones they were. The piece had only been published, printed, just shortly before all the war broke out, and not everybody had bought it right away. I always had this feeling, as I did with Ellington’s music — I have very good ears, I could hear everything, but because I am primarily a composer (a sitting-down, writing-down, writing-out composer!) I always want to see what something looks like. And I wanted to compare it to other music—you know, when you see this and you look at it, and there’s the Berg and here’s the Beethoven, you know, the pictures that each page makes, it’s just so incredibly interesting and varied. So anyway, I had this strong desire, I must see what this looks like; I hear it, and I can learn from that. And so for two months, between playing seven services every week with the Cincinnati Symphony, I transcribed those eight minutes.
EI: How accurate was it?
GS: As to that, I eventually was able to get a score, but not untill 1947. And I should tell why the score was also not available. Because, when Hitler moved into Austria in 1938, and he had already called all Jewish music degenerate and Entartete Musik and so on, Universal Edition, which published all of Schoenberg’s, Webern’s and Berg’s music, and other modern composers, Bartók—they knew that the Nazis would come into their shop and take all the copper plates on which the music was engraved and destroy them: they did that, they did it with Kurt Weill music, they did it with all kinds of things. And so Universal Edition very quickly decided to take those plates, and what they did, they buried them in caves and in mountains around Vienna. And that’s where they were for the entire war. And that’s how we have after the war, we had all this music had come in. So, then, when I finally saw, and compared with what I had written, I have to say—and I say it in all modesty—almost every note was correct. But I didn’t have the instrumentation correct, because I didn’t even know what they were…I mean, I didn’t know there were only two trombones! I didn’t know how many clarinets there were until at the end of the piece there’s a whole section for four clarinets. So I didn’t know how many instruments there were. I didn’t even know there was a saxophone in it.
EI: The thing I would feel like I couldn’t do transcribing Berg is just notate the rhythm, like how you know where the “one” is or whatever.
GS: Oh, well, in his music you could feel that.
EI: You had the barring correct in the transcription?
GS: Yes. It’s just to get all those rather dense harmonies. Because where I started the transcribing is in the middle of the second movement, where there’s this most humungous climax of the entire piece, a triple fortissimo, where the music has sort of climbed up this Mount Everest and now it descends down gradually, and then with the Bach chorales coming in, and ends in a beautiful B-flat 6th chord. And so I started, and at that most dense movement I couldn’t hear everything, anyway, because there was so much counterpoint, so much multilayering. But as it descended the music, it became clearer and clearer, and there were more and more solo instruments involved, and so my transcription got more and more correct as to the instrumentation. But I think I got all the notes.
EI: Well, that’s a real feat, I have to say! [laughs] That’s a great story. But it’s hard enough to transcribe Duke.
GS: Oh yeah, because it’s very hard to hear; the balancing, the blending, in that orchestra was sometimes so phenomenally, beautifully close that you couldn’t always tell. The one person who helped always in regard to figuring out who’s playing what was Harry Carney, because his sound was so distinctive, with that vibrato and that sort of ballsy sound that he had. Ellington switched voicings all the time, he would put Harry Carney in the second tenor slot, and the tenor below, and he constantly did this switching of voices—well, when you see it in the score, you see it, but to hear that… So, to sort that out I relied, I always found what Carney was doing, and he wasn’t always doing the bottom notes. And also the trumpets, when they used—like in ensembles, they use three different mutes…
EI: Yeah, of course.
GS: Stuff like that, my God.
EI: Was anyone else in the circle—John Lewis or Gil Evans, George Russell, Giuffre, I guess even Miles … did any one of these people do transcribing as well?
GS: No, not like that.
EI: But I have a feeling John Lewis learned some solos.
GS: Oh yes—well, that everybody did; I mean that’s what you have to do. But full instrumentations, no, but still they picked up a lot by ear, so they could use it just from that. But seeing it is still another kind of way of analyzing it, you know, so…
EI: For sure. Well, to get back to the initial burst of Third Stream, on that second record has “All About Rosie,” which just is George Russell’s masterpiece and features a famous Bill Evans piano improvisation.
GS: Oh my, yes.
EI: Was that a single take?
GS: Oh yeah, oh yeah. I mean that last movement… here again I’m getting goose-pimples just recalling this. What’s interesting is that Evans had played up to that time in the rehearsals (I think by George’s request) a kind of chordal solo. And he did that so beautifully and so richly, in a quite modern style, and in George’s Lydian Concept language. But we were all stunned when in that particular take he launched into this single-note driving eighth-note solo. And as you know it’s sort of a stoptime chorus thing, where we play every 16 bars, or I mean… I was just sitting on the sidelines, because there was nothing to conduct there, you know. And out came this enormous solo, and it just in one fell swoop and—we just were looking at each other and we almost forget to come in a couple of times. I think that can arguably be thought about as being one of the greatest piano solos of all time.
And then there’s Charles Mingus’s “Revelations.” That’s an amazing piece. He wrote some music already in 1938 and ’39, some short pieces, but then when once he had this contract with Atlantic Records and he wrote “Pithecanthropus Erectus,” he started to write much more such pieces. But this is still one of the early ones and I was amazed when I got it to see how the piece starts as a kind of classical piece, it’s mostly in unison. And then there are some solo cadenzas, which sound like I don’t know, almost Schoenberg or something. And then it evolves into a gospel music, or church music, and then it starts swinging, and then it does some… this sort of playing on two chords, back and forth, which he was one of the early ones to do that; now everybody’s doing only that! And so he goes through a whole range of different musics within one piece, and what’s kind of amazing is how well that holds together, as still a single holistic piece, you know. And he had—there are some very rhapsodic, almost Delius-like romantic music in there, where there’s a harp and a French horn, and then he wrote a solo arco bass part, which he eventually did not play himself, because he told me, “Man, my arco chops aren’t up to it right now,” so he had his teacher, Fred Zimmerman, who was an amazing bass player in the New York Philharmonic, had him play that bass solo—very high range, always up at the top of the fingerboard.
So anyway, so Mingus put everything in there that his huge imaginative mind could envision. You know, it’s really a multicultural piece.
EI: You’re one of the great advocates of Mingus as one of the great jazz composers. Of course Epitaph is something more recent you had a great deal to do with getting it together.
GS: Oh, absolutely, yes.
EI: Going back, the third record I believe was the Modern Jazz Quartet record that’s actually called Third Stream Music, which has compositions by you and John Lewis and Giuffre. And as I said before, that piece by John Lewis on there, “Exposure,” has something where you can see that John Lewis is embracing a modernist aesthetic in his way. Although most of his larger compositions are often about England or have some sort of fanfare quality.
GS: Well, it’s a tremendous Bach and Mozart influence, you know. I mean, he went to the Manhattan School of Music to study primarily Bach’s music; he specialized in that, and that’s why he had so many fugues.
EI: Yeah, right. Lots of fugues! [both laugh] And then I think the next proper record is the one my peers know best, and indeed was the only one I’d really checked out until recently, Jazz Abstractions. I suspect a lot of questions about this blend of modern composition and jazz performance practice were answered when Ornette Coleman came to New York.
GS: That was a breakthrough, with Ornette and Eric Dolphy also. One can say that Ornette plays in something akin to atonality; it’s more complicated than that and I don’t want to go into it—a lot of it has to do with the way he intonates notes, and of course the flurry of notes sometimes really are nontonal. But Eric Dolphy really was into that, not a Schoenbergian atonality but sort of out of his own universe. And so when these people came along and Scott LaFaro also, and when I found this drummer Sticks Evans, who could read anything, no matter how complicated I wrote the rhythm parts, and Barry Galbraith on the guitar, who was almost the only one I could find at that time to play these atonal chordal thing[s]—the guitar’s hard to write for anyway, it has its limitations—not enough fingers and not long enough. [Both laugh] So when I was able to find all these people and then put a string quartet with that, to give it another texture and atonal background music, then I could really write fully and I didn’t have to worry about this possible dichotomy stylistically in the two groups.
EI: We actually have two versions of “Abstractions,” one with Ornette Coleman as the soloist, and one with Eric Dolphy as the soloist. I believe the saxophone part is completely improvised.
GS: Yeah. That is a twelve-tone piece, and when I had conceived this and I started working on it, I met with Ornette one day and I played this twelve-tone row for him, and I wanted to hear his reaction, and I said “Can you improvise on that?” He says, “Yeah, I can relate to that.” That was all he said! And so then I went ahead. Ornette Coleman at that time was a very poor reader. I don’t know exactly how he was able to assimilate all the arrangements and compositions that we produced in that year in all of our concerts at the Lenox School of Jazz. It can only be that his ear was so fast that he could—because he couldn’t really read it and he sometimes had to have somebody play it or have him play it on the piano. And then once he heard the notes he just kind of instantly memorized it. But anyway I didn’t want to burden him with a lot of reading in this piece; I just figured I would write a little thing, that I’d give him the twelve-tone row in the beginning and at the tail end [laughs]—
EI: Mm-hm, perfect!
GS: —and have him go off! And of course we must have had 3 or 4 takes, and they’re all completely different. And in some he related more to the twelve-tone row, as using some of the combinations of pitches, than he did in others.
EI: Oh, it’d be nice to hear the alternate takes, I don’t think those have come out yet.
GS: Yeah, I know, they should issue those, because those would be really interesting. And the hard part was to get him out of the improvisation, because he plays with his eyes closed. And I know he was not sure as to when that—releasing him from his solo, the last twelve-tone row at the end of the piece, when that came. And this was true of many other performances I’ve done in Europe and America, where I always have to cue the player, but when their eyes are closed they miss it. [Both laugh] And they keep on playing!
It’s a palindromic piece. The end is exactly a retrograde of the beginning, I mean really exactly. And there’s this middle improvisation.
EI: It’s very distinctive, because the drum plays “da-da-da-dah” to stop before the unaccompanied solo, and then you hear that again to usher back in the back side of the palindrome.
GS: Yeah, that’s the signal, I had to give some signal there, but drummers do that all the time at the end of solos anyway! [both laugh]
EI: Well, I know that Joe Lovano played it not too long ago as well, I’d liked to have heard that. I suspect that that piece gets a bit easier over the years for people to deal with.
GS: Oh sure. Yeah. Ornette, as I say, could not quite deliver what I had ideally in mind, was that the improvisation would relate significantly also to this twelve-tone row or to that little melodic fragment.
EI: Does Dolphy do more of that on his recording? I don’t really think so.
GS: Yes, he does.
EI: You think he does?
GS: Yeah. But he took more time to actually study it and familiarize himself with it.
EI: I see.
I’ve heard your hour-long interview that you did with Ornette Coleman and a little bit of Don Cherry in 1960.
GS: Really? I did that? [laughs]
EI: Yeah, you did that! In fact, the Atlantic records haven’t come out yet, you’re listening to the second Contemporary record, it’s that early.
EI: Mm-hm. He was playing at the Five Spot during the week.
GS: OK, sure. Yeah. Wow. I have to hear that.
EI: It’s interesting because Ornette’s accent is so thick at this point—he’s just arrived from Texas via some time in LA. His accent’s thinned out a bit over the years. But he says that he’s not a very good reader in that interview.
GS: Well, you probably don’t know the story about my trying to, at his request, to teach him how to read and write music.
EI: What happened there?
GS: You know, it’s not just that he can’t read music, but he also can’t write it, and almost all of his music, particularly that Philadelphia piece, that big orchestral piece, all of his music had to finally be notated by other people, because he had a problem related to dyslexia. He read all the notes in the saxophone instruction books—the alto saxophone is written in E flat, so it’s a sixth off from the note that’s actually being heard. And he got those upside down. And then he also formed some ideas like, an F# whatever that might be, the written F# or the notated F#, who knows, an F# is always an upbeat. Or a B-flat, well it may not be B-flat, I don’t remember, it may not be, but some pitch is something else and that’s the only way you use it, it’s almost like talas or something. And it wasn’t very consistent, but he had these notions. So between all of that he could not write. I know the people who wrote his music, one of them was my secretary for five years, she wrote out half of his pieces. They did that by listening to him play what he wanted.
So, anyway… so Ornette finally, let’s see, when was this?, maybe ’61, I don’t know, I have to look it up, somewhere in the early 1960s, after we’d worked together many times, one day, and he’s always so quiet and softspoken, he let me know that he was very frustrated with his inability to read and write music swiftly. And I said, “Well, listen, maybe I can help you.” I would never have suggested it myself but when it came from him…. So now he came to my house. He did very little traveling in those days, partly because he overpriced himself as we all know so that the other things that he would have wanted he never got to do. Anyway, so that meant that he was in New York all the time, and he came to New York to my house on 60 90th St, Western Avenue, every Wednesday afternoon for almost a year. And I’m a pretty good teacher and I’m also fairly persuasive and I’m good in the sense that if there’s a real problem I find ways of getting around that problem, you know. Well, [laughs] in his case I was not successful. And I tried all kinds of things, but this mental block in his mind where the notes were always upside down from what they really were, just was such a severe block I could not break through that. And I got more and more frustrated and I wanted so much to help him with that, and one day he came, and he was religious about this—you know, that in itself is something amazing, coming every Wednesday for nine months or something like that—and that time it all blew up. I don’t remember what it is I said, but I evidently said something that was like a tremendous breakthrough in his brain about this whole question. I wish I knew what I said. But he suddenly… if a black man can turn white, he turned white, and he started to throw up, and he went to the bathroom and luckily it was only about 20 feet away, and he went in there and he just emptied himself out. He had some kind of paroxysm experience. He came out of there totally destroyed, he couldn’t talk and Margie my wife was hysterical, she thought that, “What’s happening, we have to take him to a hospital or something.” And he just stayed in the living room and sat there for 20 minutes not saying a word and eventually left, and then I didn’t see him ever again about that. It was the most horrifying experience, and also one of the most frustrating.
EI: Wow… interesting.
GS: .But it doesn’t matter because when he plays, he plays what he hears, and so he doesn’t have to write music.
EI: That’s right.
GS: And as for those early recordings that he made on Contemporary Records, well, he played his part, he played Don Cherry’s part if there was a part to be written, and Don could probably read anyway but who knows whether it’d be correct, so it was all by ear. That by the way was the first group that I saw ever saw do this: when they started a piece down there at the Five Spot or the Bohemia, there was no stomping off like “One, Two,” anything like that… they all stood there like statues, and suddenly, BANG!—off they went. And that was amazing to me.
EI: Tell me a bit about Dolphy. I have a feeling that of all these musicians, he was the one that really got something from Third Stream.
GS: Oh yeah….
EI: Because what some people think of as his most famous record or his greatest record, Out to Lunch, has vibraphone on it! No piano but vibraphone, it’s already got that Third Stream sound, and one of the pieces is even called “Gazzelloni,” who’s the great classical flautist. There’s ostentatious 9/4, there’s mixed meter of different types. To me this record sounds like a continuation of what you were doing with Third Stream.
GS: Oh yeah. Well, maybe you don’t know that he actually did, at the end of his life, try to write twelve-tone music. I have them; they remained in sketches or in manuscript at his death. You see, we had worked so much together and we hung out so much together—I once lived for a whole week in his house and he lived for a whole week in my house, and we’d listen to all kinds of music together, sometimes for hours and hours. So for him atonality was not a problem of any kind—he heard that way, and one can hear in his playing, I mean it isn’t twelve-tone because it isn’t organized into a tone row, but is certainly atonal in the use of the intervals and the continuity. He could go back and forth, though. One of the greatest recordings of all time is “Stormy Weather” with Mingus, where they play most of the performance in a duet (you hardly hear the drums and Curson plays only a few notes here and there). Well I mean, that is the whole range of jazz expression, from the most anguished expressions of slavery and black people suffering, to the most joyous kind of music, and on top of that intellectually those two guys did some counterpoint that Bach couldn’t have done any better, just by improvising! So that’s how close they got. And so all of this was bubbling up in him all the time, this extraordinary range, much more than Coltrane or Ornette or any of those people.
EI: Another piece that’s one of his greatest tracks — on a record that’s maybe not his greatest record — but there’s a piece by Hale Smith…
GS: Oh yes, that’s right…
EI: It’s called “Feathers,” and it’s on the record Out There. And I don’t know that much about Hale Smith but I know he’s a classical composer.
GS: Yeah, but very much into jazz.
EI: Very much into jazz. I think this Hale Smith piece with this incredible melody is one of the great Third Stream pieces.
GS: Yeah, but of course Eric sort of took it over, too…
EI: I don’t know what the score looked like, but it’s got cello, pizzicato cello, a strange sound, with Ron Carter playing, and bass and drums, and it’s really a great recording.
GS: I organized a tour with a chamber group, a string quartet and a few other instruments, and Eric Dolphy. I kind of coached him on playing Edgar Varèse’s “Density 21.5,” which was written for Georges Barrère, who had the first platinum flute and density 21.5 is the measurement of platinum. I arranged Don Giovanni of Mozart, where the three orchestras play on the stage in the last act. I had enough people to do that, and one of them was a wind group, and Eric would play clarinet in that. I did some Ives music, some of his proto-jazz ragtime music from his “Sets” — there’s one, what is it called, from “Set no. 2,” something in the village, and it’s full of jazz licks and some of it even sounds like Gershwin, but it was written in 1904 or 5. So I had him play the “jazz” parts on the clarinet.
EI: Oh really? Eric Dolphy performs Charles Ives, huh? That must have been something.
GS: Yeah. And other things. And then of course he would play some of his own music on those programs. So I saw how extremely broad and versatile and how immediately he heard all these things and translated them into feelings. I wrote a piece for a quartet of clarinet, harp, vibraphone and bass.
EI: Is that “Night Music” or “Densities”?
GS: That’s “Densities,” that’s right. And played that a number of times on the road, or in Carnegie Hall and that sort of thing. So he was just all-around and never lost his own identity in any of these; even when he played some classical music you could tell it was the energy of Eric Dolphy.
EI: Such a tragedy, his young death.
GS: And the beauty of his singing tone… I mean, he was one of the greatest lyric players and not given credit much… in fact I think he’s much too neglected now. Everybody talks about “Coltrane, Coltrane, Miles Davis, Coltrane,” as if this were the only two musicians that ever lived. Not to take anything away from them, they were both my dear friends and I worked with them and everything, but if someone on a jazz program, of which there are very few, only on public radio nowadays, speaks about anything in jazz, it’s all “in Miles Davis and Coltrane.” And I think it’s so unfair to so many great musicians—the Scott LaFaros, all of those people… because Eric was sort of deeper and more explorative. We think of Coltrane as being the endless explorer, but that was explorer in a much narrower direction, a particular thing he was after. Whereas Eric was just the most open-minded, and that’s why eventually he got around to trying to write even some actual twelve-tone jazz, for himself as a soloist.
EI: One of your associates in those days was Martin Williams, and he’s wrote quite a bit about how he feels that Coltrane is overpraised and Dolphy is not considered enough.
GS: That’s right, that’s absolutely true.
EI: I’m curious about some of the other music that was obviously influenced by the first era of Third Stream, but I’m not sure is recognized in the jazz histories as such. You were talking about “Stormy Weather,” that Mingus quartet with Dolphy and Ted Curson and Dannie Richmond. There’s a piece on there called “Folk Forms No. 1.” And already, even that title, that’s not a “jazz” title, right?
GS: No! [both laugh]
EI: Of course, as we know, Mingus had a lot of interests his whole life, but the way the bass and drums play on that record, they stop and start at different times. There are times when they play together, times when just one of them is playing, times when they stop entirely. It reminds me of some of the experiments of the Third Stream records where the composers are looking at the bass and drums as players in a chessgame: it’s not “automatic.” seems to me might be a Third Stream influence.
GS: Of course.
EI: And Ornette: he may have stopped studying with you but he did start playing violin.
GS: Oh yeah. And trumpet.
EI: And trumpet. In his trio with David Izenzon and Charles Moffatt, and then later with the quartet with Dewey Redman and Charlie Haden and Ed Blackwell, he would play these noise pieces. He’d play the normal Ornette Coleman pieces, and then there’ll be a short piece, maybe three minutes long, of really atonal violin. When he’s doing that maybe he’s relating to whatever he heard on Abstractions or some of the stuff that you exposed him to, the sound of classical music and the violin and harcore atonality.
GS: Could be. Yeah. But the music that he played before he became the famous Coleman — namely in Texas when he was playing with all these rather raucous rough primitive Texas blues bands — there the intonation and the rhythms… I won’t say that the rhythms are off but they’re rather complex, they’re not so citified, urbanized. They are just right from the earth. And it goes along with the weird intonation. And so I heard in his violin playing and in this trumpet playing, god knows how he did all that specifically technically, but it again, just the ear controlling it, I mean he didn’t know what he was doing really, he just… [laughs] And but some of that going out that loose, that far, comes from that Texas background too.
EI: That makes sense.
GS: It’s always there.
EI: That was some transcribing you did as well, you took down some like 15 Ornette Coleman themes.
GS: Yes, yes, I wanted to, again like I said about the Berg I wanted to see what it looks like in print and so I decided with the company that John Lewis and I founded, MJQ Music, to transcribe some of his music.
EI: You put “Una Muy Bonita” in 15/8. I think you might want to relisten to that one. It’s just in four.
GS: OK! [laughs]
EI: Of course, that’s a long time ago, I know.
Well, we need to state here for the BBC the story of the Third Stream opera The Visitation, which seems to be like the concluding chapter for you in that world for a while.
GS: Yeah. Yeah… Well, this was a commission from the Hamburg Opera, whose artistic director at the time was Rolf Liebermann, who was Swiss, composer, and who had a very deep keen interest in jazz, particularly Stan Kenton’s music, but a lot of modern jazz of the postwar period. And then became world-famous with “Concerto for Jazz Band and Symphony Orchestra,” recorded by Fritz Reiner and the Chicago Symphony and the Sauter-Finegan Orchestra. One piece is just the symphony orchestra and the next is just the jazz orchestra, and only at the end in the mambo—the final movement is a mambo, it became a worldwide hit—there they both played together, and that isn’t even jazz, but sort of a Stan Kenton mambo thing like he used to do.
But it’s atonal, mostly, because he just was into that right after the war, he was one of the leading composers. He was tremendously informed about what I was doing in this Third Stream and in jazz and classical music, and I was conducting already in Europe and having my works performed there at the modern festivals in Darmstadt and Donaueschingen. He always talked about a jazz opera, and he I guess one day decided [snaps fingers] “Gunther’s the guy, we’ll get a jazz opera from him.” I argued with him about that, I said, “I don’t know that I can write a jazz opera; I don’t even know what you mean by that, but for me a jazz opera would be also including jazz singers, who could improvise.” And I knew no jazz singers who could do that in the context of a twelve-tone opera. Nor did I know any classical singers who could. So I said, “Let’s not necessarily call it a jazz opera,” but anyway, I decided to do the best I could to—I brought a jazz septet into the pit along with the symphony orchestra, and it is at times a really true, totally balanced combining of the two instrumentations, and stylistically and linguistically, and while the orchestra sometimes plays by itself, it plays jazz things, which was kind of hard to get out of the Hamburg Orchestra, or plays nonjazz things. I mean, I kept it completely open, so it isn’t a total bringing together for the entire duration of the opera, but each of these musics makes their appearances separately and then also together.
EI: From the vocal score, it looks like an interesting piece, I know there’s a source recording used, of Bessie Smith I believe.
GS: In the beginning of the introduction, yes.
EI: There’s other moments where the band plays in an earlier jazz style.
GS: Oh yes, I did all those things. Yeah, in the beginning, the introduction of the opera is sort of setting a scene and bringing jazz in right away, namely by Bessie Smith’s recording. And I found in Hamburg a gospel choir, and they were so good; I couldn’t believe they weren’t from Harlem. And so I wrote a preacher preaching to his congregation, and they’re answering, they’re hollering, and then they start singing together and it gets more and more vocal; at first it’s just singing-speech so to speak, and I wanted to bring in the history of jazz as a kind of introduction to this opera. And there was a third example of that, I can’t remember now… But then at the end of the opera I have the funeral, when the protagonist has been killed. I brought in the whole funeral scene and based it on a New Orleans theme in which then there is a traditional New Orleans marching band going to the cemetery or coming back. And then an electronic music which circulated all around the house, the theater, which had the word “shame” in 28 languages, all into an electronic music collage.
EI: Sounds like an interesting piece, but there’s no commercial recording of it.
GS: No, alas! There were so many performances. It was a huge hit, there was a 25-minute ovation in Hamburg at the premiere, and it ran for two seasons. Then other opera houses took it up in Germany and in France, and then it came to America—we did a marvelous performance with San Francisco Opera. But in none of those places, either because of union restrictions not allowing a recording to be made, even a private recording, and including in San Francisco. So the only thing I have is of a performance we did at University of Illinois with a student orchestra. And it’s quite a good performance but it isn’t quite the level that these high professional groups could do. The best that we ever did on that opera was an incredible, wonderful BBC television production of it.
EI: When was this?
GS: This was 1970, I think, and Cedric Messina the producer got the most wonderful cast together, with a terrific septet and the BBC Symphony. They had lots of rehearsal time, and the staging of it was simply incredible. One can be quite critical of staging sometimes, but this was just perfect. It was shown once or twice on the BBC, and then, for reasons no one knows, it was either destroyed by accident or on purpose. There was a lot of negative reaction to the piece too, because it was just too twelve-tone, too atonal and all of that stuff, and it dealt with a horrible subject.
I wanted to do Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. He said, “Oh I’d love for you to do it,” and agreed to it, but his agent finally nixed the deal, and so I had to give up on that. Then Liebermann, being Swiss, got in touch with Durrenmatt, this great Swiss playwright, and I was going to do one of his plays. Well, that again, through agents, fell through. And by this time it was a year before the opera was supposed to be performed and I didn’t have a libretto. And being a great reader of Kafka, all even, in my young years, I took what’s called The Trial, in English—Der Prozess—and I simply took that whole story, which is a story of how a single individual is hunted down by police, by bureaucracies, by all kinds of inimical entities, and finally murdered. This was one of Kafka’s main themes, and it was a prediction of the whole Hitler, Holocaust and Nazi development.
So anyway, I took this and translated it over to the United States. There had just been the killings in 1964 in Mississippi, and people before that and even after that, unfortunately, were saying, “Well, lynchings, they don’t go on anymore, you know, there isn’t really that much of a problem down there in the South.” I didn’t know even what to say. So I based my opera on that killing, except it now was in fact my hero in the opera gets killed in almost the same way. And I took Kafka’s words, not all of them of course, and I speak fluent German, and his German is sort of a Czech German anyway, I translated that literally into English, and that was my libretto. And I didn’t have to get clearance for that because that was already out of copyright and so on. Or I think maybe Universal Edition helped, because they were going to publish it, and Schirmer, maybe they got permission, I can’t remember—but anyway that’s what I based it on. And every scene in my opera is a parallel and a—what’s the word—a takeoff on a scene in the Kafka story. And it translated perfectly in all the little details of the stories.
EI: It’s interesting to know that it was so successful at the time. Since we are talking to the BBC today: if anyone out there has somehow watched it in 1970 and videotaped it then…
GS: There must be somebody who did that!
EI: If you have a copy of the BBC’s production of The Visitation by Gunther Schuller, let us know!
GS: It’s now 2009; I’ve been searching for such a person or something on that for 39 years now and I’ve come up blank.
EI: Well, since then I believe that your personal involvement with Third Stream has been a little less, but Third Stream has sort of gone around the world also as well. How do you feel about Third Stream today?
GS: Oh, I feel very good about it, except it’s not called Third Stream any more. The philosophical basis was bringing jazz and classical music together. They could not be segregated anymore, that was the main thing.
But all along I had the idea that it wouldn’t be just jazz and classical music, it would be all the world’s musics, all the ethnic vernacular, folk musics, whatever all their proper names are. Because there are 300,000 musics on the face of this globe, and some of them are of ancient vintage, 5000 years old, Chinese and Indian; and I mean there’s five different kinds of music styles in Borneo, or you know even the most obscure places. And at first we didn’t know anything about that, but in the middle of the 20th century there began to be all these field recordings made, you know, in Africa, in Asia. And now it is so that there is not any square inch on the face of this earth where music is being made that doesn’t exist on a recording. Azerbaijan, Bhutan, I don’t care what—you can go into a store and you actually can find those things more readily nowadays, even in this existence where so many record stores have closed, you know, certainly online—you can find these things easier than classical music. So all of that, all that which I’m talking about here was totally, totally unavailable to Beethoven; he could not know what kind of music was being made in Tunisia, or in Japan or whatever. And in our time this all became available.
So since the beginnings of Third Stream, I knew it would start very soon; we began to see three musics coming together, three music traditions; let’s say, an authentic Turkish music or a Greek bouzouki music coming together—it goes this way: let’s say in Brooklyn there’s a kid born into a Greek family. And his father’s a bouzouki player, and he plays in clubs in downtown Manhattan. And he picks up the instrument and he plays it and he learns the whole bouzouki tradition, which is a venerable old one and of great variety because it depends on from which islands it came from; there’s a northern style, a southern style, there’s an island style. So anyway, he becomes an expert bouzouki player, with all of the rules and regulations with which that is improvised. And then he goes to school, and he learns classical music, and he’s musically very talented and he picks that up. And then when he’s 16 or 17 he suddenly discovers jazz, and he again does it thoroughly. And now he has in him these three music traditions, and it is inevitable that no matter what he did that they would now show up in his playing.
So that’s the template for this kind of thing. You can substitute for “Greek,” substitute Turkish, Chinese, Indian, Eskimo, Peruvian, it doesn’t matter. And that’s what has now happened. And the record companies have picked up on it but I must say mostly—I mean the big commercial companies—mostly in a kind of superficial way and in a kind of commercial way, just as a kind of novelty selling thing. And I know of many groups in various parts of the world who do this who have never been recorded and who do it very authentically, which means that each of the three streams (or the twelve streams they for all I know might be working with) are really seriously studied and loved and respected, so that something really truly new and original comes out and not some pastiche. And that is the fulfillment of my dream, and that has a tremendous philosophical, social, political basis, because what I was dreaming about and still am is the creation of this sort of brotherhood of musics, sisterhood of musics if you will, and that just all come together and all learn from each other. I mean, it’s a beautiful concept, and this Third Stream with jazz and classical was just the beginning of that: that was the first little stream. [both laugh]
And the record companies call it “world music,” they call it “fusion,” they call it “crossover,” half the time they don’t even know why they’re calling it, but it’s a good label, you know, and it sort of sells. And what’s interesting is that in the public, in the audience, there are now millions of people who are into this very varied listening. They’ve all got ethnic musical collections—I mean not all but you know, a tremendous amount, so this fusioning is just not an issue any more: “yeah, of course we’ll do it!” You’ve got to be pretty talented to do it well and all of that, but the idea, the concept, what’s to be argued…? I say that against the background of 50 years ago, when the Third Stream idea even in this narrow sense was just considered so inimical, so heretical, and I was crucified on both sides; you know, I got it from all sides. And now, some of those people who crucified me in DownBeat or in some magazines… When Third Stream began to be sort of revived starting in the mid-’90s, some of those same critics who had condemned me were praising this music, having forgotten that they hadn’t liked it very much, you know… I won’t mention their names.
EI: I’ve spent the past year really investigating your groundbreaking Third Stream work, and I can honestly say it’s still relevant. You brought up certain issues and proposed certain solutions that are still intriguing for young musicians today to think about.
GS: Yeah. I’ve written over 200 pieces by now, and only maybe 35 of them would be called Third Stream pieces or jazz pieces—some people think that’s the only thing that I do, you know, but I have kept the two things separate.
EI: Well, you’re a marvelous composer, and I’ve been getting to know that work as well. I think we should maybe take a little break for a second and then we can maybe look at “Contours.”