Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music & Beauty, Part I

Gunther Schuller is a composer, conductor, horn virtuoso, jazz historian and critic who had the nerve and the authority years ago to decree that “all musics are created equal.”  He’s walked that walk through a 70-year career between Beethoven and Bill Evans, Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Parker. And he’s talking the talk with us the same way – old, new, jazz and classical music, back and forth intimately and equally because, as he says, “well, they’re equal.”  Above a certain level where genius “changes the language of music,” it’s all democracy.  “No matter what its label, if something is perfect, well then, it’s perfect.”

Gunther Schuller got started late, at age 11, without teachers but with any uncanny gift for reading music.  He learned by studying scores, listening to records, and then feeling “the vibrations on the floor of the pit” with the Metropolitan Opera Orchestera.  He made it to the Met in the 40s as a teenager on the French horn, the same horn he played with Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” nonet in the 50s.  He revived the New England Conservatory in the 60s and 70s and, inside it, revived the ragtime jazz that became the soundtrack of the Robert Redford and Paul Newman blockbuster movie, The Sting.  In his 89th year, Gunther Schuller has a dozen or more commissions for new pieces in his own a-tonal mode.  And he’s assembling a second volume of autobiography.  The first volume, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, runs 600 pages through the 1950s in the New York of his boyhood, what he remembers as, day and night, a “cultural paradise for all the world.”

Music in this show:

Thelonius Monk – Misterioso

Count Basie & His Orchestra – Broadway

Thelonius Monk with John Coltrane

Frederick Delius – Sea Drift

Alexander Scriabin – Piano Concerto in F sharp minor Op. 20

Alban Berg – Violin Concerto

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart – Violin Concerto No. 3 in G major, K. 216

Johnny Hodges – Funky Blues

Charlie Parker – Parker’s Mood

Duke Ellington – Rockin’ in Rhythm

Duke Ellington & His Orchestra – Things Ain’t What They Used to Be

Bille Holiday – Fine and Mellow from The Sound of Jazz

Erroll Garner – Lover

Milton Babbitt – All Set

Bill Evans – Some Other Time


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  • Mark Aisenberg

    Beautiful show. I’m looking forward to the second half. Thanks.

  • dmf

    democracy of genius?

  • It’d be neat if, during Part 2, someone could namedrop Solomon Ntsele, Fairuz, Eyo:bo, Djivan Gasparyan, Toumani Diabaté, Zakir Hussain, or even Zoila Augusta Emperatriz Chávarri del Castillo and Umm Kulthum… It’s common to focus on individuals’ names, but broad ears may call for more diverse names.

  • Harvey Wallerstein

    For me, this was one of the most enjoyable podcasts of all times (I repeat ALL times!) – being a lover of jazz and classical western music, and a longtime follower of Gunther Schuller since my NYC days, I loved it.

    Awaiting the 2nd installment with bated ears !

    Harvey Wallerstein
    Carmiel, Israel

    • Kunal Jasty

      Thanks! Do you have suggestions/links for any Gunther Schuller recordings and compositions I should include in part 2?

  • Cliff Sloane

    I have two questions for Mr Schuller, if he may:

    1. Are there any examples in his career as a critic when he changed his mind, in both directions? For example, were there any musicians he criticized back in the day and had to re-assess, or people he praised and now wonders, “What the hell was I thinking?”

    2. I had a strongly positive reaction to Eric Dolphy’s “Out to Lunch.” One of the things that thrilled me was observing that the melodies appeared to resemble 12-tone rows. How does this sit on the scale of “insightful” to “naive” to “wrong”?

  • Cliff Sloane

    Another regret. Does he regret his opposition to the acquisition of Moe Asch’s company? Seems to me it turned out to be a brilliant decision, IMHO.

  • d diefendorf

    when is part 2?

  • Ron Della Chiesa

    Wonderful interview with Gunther Schuller. One of the truly great musicians of our time or any time! His book ” A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty” is a must read.
    Looking forward to part 2 with this legendary gentleman.
    Bless you Chris and many thanks.

  • Helen Credle

    Hello Gunter Schuller. It is hoped that you, fondly, remember me. You hired me to run The NEC Community Service Department back in the day. You allowed me to do some wonderful programs in the Commonwealth’s prisons, etc. Remember, I’m the African American lady that Webster Lewis brought to your attention. Please contact me, it would be a thrill to catch up with you. Oh, by the way and with the deepest of gratitude thank you for making me and the “kids” of Roxbury not only aware but the chance to be a part of Tangle Wood. By the way, where’s Harvey Phillips. Loving you Gunter is the Roxbury Community’s blessing.

  • Wonderful show! I binge-listened to several installments this morning and found the Schuller interview particularly interesting and inspiring! CL always asks the questions I’m interested in answers to! I’m off to do more transcribing!! Keep the great converstions coming!


  • What a wonderful interview with one of the real giants in the history of 20th century music—the man is a “set of walking encylopedias!”
    I was privileged to spend considerable time with Gunther while he was writing the book; in fact I typed at least three full chapters in their early draft form. Every day with him was enlightening, fascinating, and an eye opener! Oh the stories I heard firsthand about Dmitri Mitropoulis, Bernstein, Mingus, Alec Wilder, Bill Evans, Bernstein, Gil Evans–it was a turnon! What I was most struck by was his insatiable and continual quest for knowledge–a never ending process!
    The man has lived the life of 8 to 10 people! How on earth he has managed to compose, conduct, record, teach, lecture, and everything else—is one thing, but to have done these things at the HIGHEST levels as well! Amazing…staggering…astonishing and he’s still at it!!! Hooray Gunther—one of a kind!

  • Potter

    I hardly know what to say first in appreciation. First, you jogged my memory about two things regarding Erroll Garner. I listened to that album “Concert by the Sea” so many times during a certain period of my life that it is embedded or imprinted in me to bring that time back listening on a “stereo”, a not too good set either (but no matter). But, too, I actually saw/heard Erroll Garner in concert (’61?)in NYC- at Basin Street East. I remember him sitting on telephone books to play because he was so short. As Gunther says- those years before the 70’s were a different time in NYC. I was very lucky to take in some of the greats– paid for on a friend’s track winnings (Yonkers)!!

    I don’t know if you can get a Billy Holiday- Lester Young album in the states. I have one from Japan where they really appreciate American Jazz. Well we know they have good taste!

    I will always wonder why musicians fall into hard drugs. Is it the culture or what?

    As always thank you and to Gunther Schuller. I cannot imagine how one can transcribe as he does. Amazing.

  • kyoung21b

    Great interview with one of my long time heroes – I particularly loved Schuller’s polyrhythmic deconstruction of Concert by the Sea, finally helping to articulate what it was that so transfixed my stoner compadres and me as early teens when we found ourselves speechless after repeatedly listening to my mom’s copy.