Farewell to a Musical Hero, Gunther Schuller
Gunther Schuller did virtually everything in the field of music that is possible to do.
When historians a couple of hundred years from now rummage around in the life of Gunther Schuller, they may conclude that he was actually several people.
They will find it implausible that one solitary individual could have played horn on Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” album; could have personally sparked the Scott Joplin ragtime revival; could have composed over 200 “serious” pieces of music, including a Pulitzer Prize winner; could have regularly conducted the world’s major orchestras, almost always bringing along some specimen of repertoire that nobody else was enterprising or courageous enough to learn let alone perform; could have invented both the term and the idea "Third Stream" to denote the blending of jazz and classical music traditions in a single composition; could have been the principal horn player of a significant American orchestra at age 17; could have served as president of a major music conservatory for over a decade; could have founded and overseen both a music publishing company and an independent record label; and, oh yes, could have authored a handful of the most authoritative, exhaustively researched books on music ever written.
To paraphrase a smart-alecky observation I made during one of his several visits to our city to conduct the Hartford Symphony Orchestra, GuntherSchuller did virtually everything in the field of music that is possible to do, short of singing on one of the Sinatra duet albums. (And it wouldn’t surprise me to think that those future historians might one day discover, deep in the Capitol Records vault, an unreleased outtake of Gunther and Frank doing a boozy chorus of “Sunny Side of the Street.”)
I’ve had some personal heroes in my life, but they have tended not to be musicians.
Gunther Schuller, who died last Sunday at 89, was an exception.
As dazzling as we all knew his resume was, Gunther Schuller was even more dazzling as a conversationalist.
If you believe that music is a worthwhile endeavor for human beings to devote their lives to, Gunther Schuller had to be your hero. No one in our time devoted his life to music with more intellectual and moral rigor, more zeal, and for that matter more sheer affection, than Gunther.
One of the unexpected hazards of journalism is that from time to time you find yourself interviewing people that you admire, and you suddenly come to realize that they are not nearly as admirable, or even as interesting, as you had imagined. During my years as a newspaper writer and critic, I had occasion to meet and converse with many celebrated figures in the music world. I confess that all too many of those encounters proved underwhelming.
With Gunther, with whom I had the chance to have several decent-length sit-down conversations, the situation turned out to be the opposite: as dazzling as we all knew his resume was, he was even more dazzling as a conversationalist. Funny, cantankerous, self-deprecating, and self-congratulatory in the same breath, pleasantly erudite, witheringly critical – interviewing the man was like talking to a living, breathing, kvetching oracle.
Many years ago, as I was reading something he wrote, I came across a piece of information that tickled me enough that I wrote him a quick note. (For the record, the piece of information was that William Grant Still, the distinguished African-American composer, had, as a young man and just to help pay the rent, knocked out a few arrangements for the Artie Saw band, including a charmingly square but very popular treatment of “Frenesi.”)
It was not a note that required, or particularly invited reply. Nevertheless, a couple of days later I got a substantial handwritten letter back -- composed, he noted, in an airport lounge, by way of apologizing for the crummy stationery -- thanking me for my note and expanding on the Still/ Shaw connection.
In honor of Gunther’s memory, I am going to re-read “Musings,” his 1986 collection of essays and lectures. I think I’ll skip around and read them out of order.
Maybe I’ll start with his learned, loving tribute to Sarah Vaughan. And then, I don’t know, jump ahead to his reflection on the future of opera. Maybe then I’ll go to his celebrated piece on conducting modern music, some of whose themes were later expanded upon in his (600 page) tome, “The Compleat Conductor,” which cheerfully and meticulously trashes nearly every famous orchestral conductor of the past 100 years.
Of course, in order to fully experience the mind of Gunther Schuller, you need to spend some serious time with his (900 page) epic, “The Swing Era,” the second of a projected, but never completed, three volumes on the history of jazz.
No one in our time devoted his life to music with more intellectual and moral rigor than Gunther.
The “Swing Era” musical illustrations alone would make an indispensible book. These are mostly in the form of transcriptions of passages from vintage 78-rpm recordings (he estimated that he listened to 30,000 of them for the project) that Gunther personally discerned and notated with just a pencil, some manuscript paper, and a pair of ears that could detect an eighth-note passing tone by the bass clarinet in the midst of a wailing big-band tone cluster. (Those ears, incidentally, were perhaps obliged to be extra sharp; Gunther lost his right eye in a childhood accident.)
Like all great people, Gunther drew inspiration from many but ultimately invited comparison with no one.
Now that he's gone, scholars will no doubt begin sifting in earnest through his writings and his compositions. And those scholars, as they set about to assess the breadth of Gunther's erudition, might want to keep in mind one additional thing: this man who was teaching at Yale before he was thirty, and who led the New England Conservatory for ten years, and who was among the first recipients of the MacArthur “genius” grants, was a high-school dropout who never earned a degree in anything from anywhere.
A hero indeed.
Steve Metcalf was The Hartford Courant's Fulltime classical music critic and reporter for over 20 years, beginning in 1982. He is currently the curator of the Richard P. Garmany Chamber Music Series at The Hartt School. He can be reached at email@example.com.