Trying to summarize the experiences and accomplishments of the Northwest Bach Festival's Artistic Director Gunther Schuller in an article this size is a challenge. At the age of 76, Schuller has packed the last six decades with his work as a professional musician, composer, conductor, educator, writer, music publisher and promoter of quality music. There aren't enough hours in the day to contain all of his projects, he says, leading to an overloaded schedule.
"I have six careers," he points out. "Composition is my first calling, but conducting and performing come right behind. I'm also trying to write my autobiography, but the world won't let me. I haven't written anything for three months now."
If there's one common thread uniting every thing he undertakes, it would be a passion for music and for opening people up to the rich pleasures of well-crafted, creative, high-quality music, regardless of its source or tradition. Like anyone who's driven by a passion, Schuller has strong and definite opinions, says Gertrude Harvey of Connoisseur Concerts, the producers of the Northwest Bach Festival.
"He wants what he wants, and he's going to find a way to get what he wants, but his whole mission in life to be faithful to the music," she says. "I expected to be intimidated by him, but I got over that fast. He's an absolute delight to work with."
Born in November 1925, Schuller grew up in New York as the son of German immigrants. His father was a musician with the New York Philharmonic, so he was exposed to the classic symphonic repertoire at an early age. By 1942, Schuller was a good enough French horn player to participate in the NBC Symphony's American premiere of Shostakovich's Symphony No. 7, directed by Arturo Toscanini. Then came six months with the American Ballet Theater Orchestra under Antal Dorati. In 1943, at the age of 17, Schuller was named principal French horn of the Cincinnati Symphony.
Despite this early immersion in the world of classical music, Schuller had an interest in jazz from a young age. "I heard my first jazz probably at about age three," he says. "By the time I was about 11 or 12, I was trained in classical music, but I became aware of jazz as a great music. Hearing Duke Ellington and others, I said, 'This is just as great a music as classical, only different.' That was heretical at the time."
In Cincinnati, Schuller frequented the nightclubs in the city after symphony rehearsals and met some of the jazz greats of the time, including Duke Ellington. After returning to New York two years later to join the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, he continued his exploration of jazz. This was when bebop was taking off, and Schuller connected with artists like Dizzy Gillespie and John Lewis (later of the Modern Jazz Quartet). Lewis introduced him to other emerging jazz leaders, and soon Schuller was sitting in on jazz recording sessions, including the "Birth of the Cool" sessions with Miles Davis.
Schuller's career as a performer continued on parallel tracks in jazz and classical music throughout the 1950s. "I've spent my entire life in both worlds," he says. "I played a regular position in the symphony, then I'd go play jazz. I worked consistently with the greatest [symphonic] conductors of the time, plus Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and others. I was so lucky."
At the same time, he began integrating these diverse musical influences in his compositions and became one of first classically trained musicians to contemplate jazz seriously from a compositional point of view. From this merger sprang what would become known as the Third Stream, a blending of jazz and classical elements into something completely new. In a 1999 interview reported in the All About Jazz online magazine, Schuller talked about how the term came about.
"I coined the term Third Stream because there was no name for this music where classical music and jazz were coming together. By the way, that all started already in the 1910s and 1920s with composers like Stravinsky and Debussy, and Gershwin, of course, so there was this long history of this combination of classical and jazz but there was no word for it. I used it more or less almost as a verb or as an adjective but not as a slogan or a title; I was very modest about it. But one day in some concerts that John Lewis and I were giving with J.J. [Johnson] and some others & Ouml; ...ohn Wilson of The New York Times used the term Third Stream in a headline in the Times and the die was cast."
As the 1950s turned into the 1960s, Schuller left the world of performing on the French horn, continued his composition work and added a new endeavor: education. Teaching positions at the Manhattan School of Music, Yale University and the Lenox School of Jazz ultimately led to his appointment as President of the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston, where he served from 1967 through 1977. At the Conservatory, he sought to bring jazz into the academic world and have it recognized as a music fit for serious study. At the same time, he worked to increase knowledge of ragtime, classic jazz and contemporary classical music, both within the Conservatory and in the broader musical community. This mission continued in his 25-year association with the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony.
About 20 years ago, Schuller founded two music publishing companies (Margun Music and GunMar Music) and a record company (GM Recordings) with the explicit goal of distributing the music of lesser-known contemporary composers and performers -- both jazz and classical -- to a broader audience.
"That was the whole purpose of starting these companies," he explains. "To help young composers and middle-level composers whose work was not getting published. I spent my own money getting their music published with little chance of return on my investment. I've called it my charitable institution." He sees big record companies ignoring the work of artists whose music, while creative, high quality and perhaps challenging, is not guaranteed to bring in huge profits, and he has made publishing such work his own crusade. "I want to help my colleagues," he says. "From a business point of view it's stupid, but from an artistic perspective it's heroic.
"Contemporary classical composers don't get played," he continues. "If you look at the Spokane Symphony's programs, they may do one or two pieces a year by a living composer, but Beethoven and Mozart get played all the time. And I'm not picking on the Spokane Symphony here -- the same thing happens all over. I undertook a totally altruistic enterprise to get this music out."
Of course, raising the visibility of contemporary composers doesn't hurt Schuller's own recognition, either. In recent years, many honors and accolades have come his way. He received the Pulitzer Prize in Music in 1994 for his composition, Of Reminiscences and Reflections; in 1995, he was selected as Musical America's Composer of the Year. Honorary degrees, fellowships, and lifetime achievement awards have all been bestowed on him.
For all his accomplishments, Schuller's real passion remains the same: bringing a range of quality music to people everywhere, especially outside the major cities. In a speech to public radio music personnel in May 2000, he railed against the forces of profit-driven mediocrity in the media and insisted that one who loves a diversity of musical forms and genres is far from elitist.
"He or she is just someone who is more roundly interested, more curious about the world around us and has a broader, higher set of life values, that go beyond mere creature comfort and acquiring still more fame and wealth," he noted. "We know -- deep in our hearts and minds -- that a nation, a country, a people are ultimately remembered and defined by the art, by the culture, by the intellectual, aesthetic and emotional creativity they leave behind."