Gunther Schuller was born in New York on November 22, 1925. His professional music career began as a French horn player, performing with the American Ballet Theater as a teenager, as principal horn in the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra (1943-1945), and with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (1945-1959). He performed under legendary maestros of the 20th century including Toscanini, Stokowski, Walter, Reiner, Szell, Mitropoulos, and Doráti.
Schuller also played French horn on Miles Davis’ Birth of the Cool and Porgy and Bess recordings, and composed and/or conducted for jazz greats John Lewis, Dizzy Gillespie, Charles Mingus, J. J. Johnson, George Russell and Joe Lovano, among others. He also had significant interactions with Duke Ellington, Ornette Coleman, and Eric Dolphy.
Schuller composed more than 200 works (and created dozens of arrangements), spanning many musical genres including solo works, orchestral and wind ensemble pieces, chamber music, opera, and jazz. Among Schuller’s orchestral works are Symphony (1965), Seven Studies on Themes of Paul Klee (1959), and An Arc Ascending (1996). His large-scale work, Of Reminiscences and Reflections, was composed as a tribute to his wife of 44 years, Marjorie Black, and it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1994. He wrote important concertos for frequently-neglected instruments such as saxophone, bassoon, contrabassoon, organ, and double bass. He composed maverick pieces such as Concertino for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra (1959) and Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk (1960), and he re-assembled, re-composed, arranged, and conducted Charles Mingus’ magnum opus Epitaph (1962/1989).
Schuller conducted professional orchestras and various ensembles in wide-ranging repertoire around the globe for much of his career. His guest-conducting included leading such ensembles as the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Cleveland, Philadelphia, and Minnesota Orchestras, San Francisco Symphony, Berlin Philharmonic, Radio Philharmonic of Hannover, Cologne Radio Symphony Orchestra, Hallé Orchestra, Royal Scottish National Orchestra, as well as the Mingus Orchestra and other American and European jazz orchestras. He co-founded the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra and held titled positions with the Spokane Symphony and the Pro Arte Chamber Orchestra of Boston. Schuller’s discography as a conductor spans many classical and jazz genres and is unusually broad in repertoire and style.
As an educator, Schuller first taught at the Manhattan School of Music before moving to Yale University as Professor of Composition. He was also a central figure at the innovative School of Jazz in Lenox (1959-1960). Schuller began teaching at the Berkshire Music Center (at Tanglewood) in 1963 at the request of Aaron Copland, and subsequently served as its artistic director from 1969-1984. He served as the artistic director of The Festival at Sandpoint from 1985 to 1998. From 1967-1977 Schuller served as president of the New England Conservatory where he formalized NEC’s commitment to jazz by establishing the first degree-granting jazz program at a major classical conservatory, instituting the Third Stream department (he invented the concept of Third Stream music)—later named the Contemporary Improvisation department—to explore the musical genres where classical jazz and other music come together.
Schuller earned three Grammy Awards: Best Album Notes for Footlifters: A Century of American Marches (1976) and for Smithsonian Collection of Big Band Jazz (1985), and Best Chamber Music Performance (1974) for Joplin: The Red Back Book, his landmark recording with the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble that helped launch a nationally popular Ragtime revival. Schuller was the recipient of the William Schuman Award (1988), the MacArthur Foundation Genius Award (1991), the Gold Medal for Music from the American Academy of Arts and Letters (1997), the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and an inaugural membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame. He was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master in 2008 and was awarded the 2015 Edward MacDowell Medal.
Schuller wrote numerous articles and six books on the topics of horn playing, jazz (two essential histories), conducting, arts and aesthetics, and in 2011, volume one of his autobiography, Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty. Despite illness, he never stopped composing, conducting, writing, and being immersed in music. Schuller died at the age of 89 in Boston on June 21, 2015.
It is hard to imagine another 20th century musician who gave so much of his mind, heart, and soul—with the truest and deepest possible devotion—to the breadth of classical and jazz music. In addition to his vast work as a composer, conductor, educator, and author/historian he founded and led a publishing company (Margun/Gunmar Music) and a recording label (GM Recordings); both enterprises dedicated to championing unsung composers and performers in classical and jazz music.
Gunther Alexander Schuller was an idealist in all of his endeavors. He supported everything and everyone he believed in. To many, he was the beacon of the possibilities of that seemingly humble word, “musician,” meant: unfailing devotion to art and artists, exalted levels of musicianship, a passion to share all that he knew, and humility in the face of the master musicians of the past and of his own lifetime.
It was poignant that he passed away on Father’s Day 2015 because he was not only a “musical father” to an unfathomable number of musicians all over the world, but also a Father of American Music in the 20th and 21st centuries.
The vastness of his contributions to American classical and jazz music in all its various forms is—without exaggeration—staggering. It is a legacy that the United States and indeed the world will continue to celebrate, study, reflect upon, and admire for generations.
—Dr. Frederick Harris, Jr.