NEA Arts Magazine

Gunther Schuller

A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy


A.B. Spellman (right) with Gunther Schuller.

A.B. Spellman (right) with the 2008 recipient of the A.B. Spellman NEA Jazz Masters Award for Jazz Advocacy, Gunther Schuller.

Recognized as a renaissance man of music, Gunther Schuller is a leader in both the classical and jazz traditions, contributing significant musical compositions and writings to expand jazz's horizons.

Schuller was born in 1925 in New York City. At age 17, he joined the Cincinnati Symphony as principal horn. Two years later, he joined the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera while also becoming actively involved in the New York bebop scene, performing and recording with such jazz greats as Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie, John Lewis, and Charles Mingus.

When he was 25, Schuller took a teaching position at the Manhattan School of Music, beginning a long and distinguished teaching career that includes his tenure as co-director, along with David Baker, of the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and professor of composition of music at Yale. From 1967 to 1977, he also was president of the New England Conservatory of Music where early in his tenure he established a jazz department offering both undergraduate and graduate degree programs. He was artistic director of Tanglewood Berkshire Music Center from 1970 to 1985.

Schuller is a proponent of what he called "the Third Stream" -- an effort to fuse the two primary streams of music, jazz and classical, into a new hybrid -- of which pianist/composer John Lewis was one of the main practitioners.

Schuller's jazz writings include Early Jazz: Its Roots and Musical Development (1968), considered one of the seminal books on the history of jazz, and The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930–45 (1989), the second volume of a planned three-volume history of jazz. Schuller also is a recipient of a MacArthur Foundation "Genius" Award (1991).

NEA: Tell me 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 St. 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.