July 1, 2015

Gunther Schuller, RIP: A Life Inside Music

When he was just a young musician, Gunther Schuller decided on four hours of sleep a night. At 18, Schuller told us, “I figured out, ‘God damn it: if I sleep eight hours a night, I’m ...

When he was just a young musician, Gunther Schuller decided on four hours of sleep a night. At 18, Schuller told us, “I figured out, ‘God damn it: if I sleep eight hours a night, I’m going to piss away a third of my life.’” He then stuck to that regimen for fifty or sixty years of work.

Schuller, who died last week at 89, was a prodigious, captivated, sometimes cantankerous prisoner of every kind of modern music: between Beethoven and Bill Evans, Igor Stravinsky and Charlie Parker, and his own atonal compositions, which he was still getting ready right up until the end. In one of his last interviews, Schuller showed us what he did with the extra hours: refining a taste, and building a biography, that passed through all the musical streams of the past century.

He began in earnest at the Metropolitan Opera in the 1940s as a teenage prodigy on the French horn, the same horn he played with Miles Davis’s “Birth of the Cool” nonet in the 1950s. Schuller revived the New England Conservatory in the 1960s and ’70s and, inside it, revived the ragtime jazz that became the soundtrack of the Robert Redford and Paul Newman blockbuster movie, The Sting.

We interviewed Schuller at his house in Newton, a shrine to the loves of his life. It’s a home he made with his beloved wife, Majorie, and gave over to a grand piano topped with piles of sheet music, a wall of vinyl records, and hallways full of scores and programs. (You can get a look inside in this short documentary on Schuller recorded last year, amid the melting snow.)

Gunther Schuller was a music writer of the first rank: his histories of jazz are still considered definitive. And the first volume of his autobiography, A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty, thrums with the New York of his youth, what he remembers as, day and night, a “cultural paradise for all the world”: a mélange of jazzmen, artists, filmmakers, curators, African-Americans and German-Jewish emigrés, in a game of endless artistic oneupmanship.

52nd_Street,_New_York,_by_Gottlieb,_1948_crop

So of course it was Schuller, up late with his beloved wife, down Broadway between the Met and the jazz clubs, who went on to decree that “all musics are created equal.” Above a certain level, past which genius “changes the language of music,” it’s all pure democracy, and silly to say that Beethoven was better or worse than Mozart — or Duke Ellington:  “No matter what its label, if something is perfect — well, then, it’s perfect.”

On July 4th weekend,  we’re remembering Gunther Schuller. There was no more passionate guide to the many tones, feelings, and forward leaps of the musical 20th century in America, down to the vibrations in the pit of the Met.

Gunther’s Desert Island Discs

We talked about a lot of music in this hours-long conversation, but our new intern and producer Grant Holub-Moorman assembled a playlist of the best of it. From jazz virtuosos to The Rite of Spring, it’s perfect music born on the cutting edge.

Schuller accompanied his recommendations with opinions, technical observations, and stories — like this one, of a chance encounter at the East Side apartment of the Baroness von Koenigswaerter, one of jazz’s most memorable patrons in America:

…She had this huge apartment near the United Nations building, and that was a hangout for musicians. And by the way, when you walked into that — whatever number of rooms it was — man, you would get high just by being in there: oh, God!

There wasn’t very much furniture in half of that place; there were just mattresses on the floor. And so all the musicians gathered there, just as they wanted to. She did an open house…

Well, one night I went there. I wanted to meet somebody, I can’t remember who. And I laid down on one of these mattresses, and I kind of held my nose and ears. And Bird comes along: “Hey, Charlie!” And he stayed and laid down on a mattress near me. We talked about things, bad and good, in jazz and society and so on…

We lay there for a while, and Charlie said, “Gunther, I can’t stand it any more.” And he started: “I’ve played every kind of music I can play, I’ve played every kind of blues that I can play. I can’t do it anymore, because I know there’s” — I’m paraphrasing, of course — “I know out there there’s other great music, and I so much want to learn it.” And he mentioned, in particular, Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra, which he had heard. I think John Lewis had told him to listen to it. John was doing the same kind of thing: trying to get musicians enriched in the other type of language.

It was terrifying. He started almost crying. He said, “I want to study with you.” And I said, “Of course, of course.” Then it never happened, because (a), one time he said he was gonna come — he never showed up. And another time, his saxophone was in a hock shop, a pawn shop… And three months later he died.

Parker died watching TV on the sofa of the same apartment, on March 12, 1955. The New York Times notice three days later is below. The police and the Times were famously wrong about Bird’s age: at his death he was 34 years old. CP-death

Schuller called our attention to another such melancholy moment, on television: the famous final concert of Billie Holiday and Lester Young, together on CBS’s The Sound of Jazz, on December 8, 1957. The song was “Fine and Mellow”:

…Lester and Billie hadn’t seen each other in a while. I kind of feel that they were in love with each other. Lester was in such bad shape at that time that the producer had begun to decide, “We can’t have him perform; he can’t do it.” Then they had a meeting amongst the musicians and they finally said, “Listen: we cannot do this program without Lester Young. Whatever happens.”

And so then he played. He played only 12 bars. I’m gonna choke up now. And Billie sang it a thousand times. And she stood there looking at him, about ten feet away from him. If you ever saw love expressed on a film, in this music, it was that moment.

April 24, 2014

What’s So Great About Mahler?

This week we're taking on Gustav Mahler, and his farewell Ninth Symphony. The irresistible, inexhaustible Ninth has inspired the admiration of musicians, writers, and composers for more than a century. Benjamin Zander, conductor of the Boston Philharmonic Orchestra, is one of Gustav Mahler's great conductors and champions. He's the one taking us inside the music tonight.
Teju Cole: the Consummate Mahlerian
"Rite of Spring" Revival
Norman Lebrecht: Why Not Mahler?
Video: Four Paths to the End
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Benjamin Zander is giving us the maestro’s tour around Gustav Mahler’s Symphony No. 9, an epic novel without words, the musical match of Tolstoy’s War and Peace, except that Mahler 9 is about Life and Death. It’s the only work of art you can think of in which the author and the audience have the experience of giving up the ghost, together. It stretches the sounds of silence, and every other form and mood – waltzes, marches, fanfares, folk tunes. It’s so full of ideas and one man’s emotions you can forget that he’s repeating himself over and over. It’s the last pinnacle of Vienna’s orchestral history, the first masterpiece of Hollywood music before there were movies. It lives on near the center of the concert repertoire as a heart-rending farewell to life and a foretaste of a century of breakdown and trouble ahead, starting with World War I. This is the symphony that opens with music that’s close to silence, and closes an hour and a half later with a more extended, almost endless hush of strings.

If you need a refresher, watch Philharmonia‘s short guide to the symphony:

And see Ben Zander’s TED talk on bringing classical music to the general public:

 

More Reading

• Alex Ross’s piece on Gustav Mahler in the London Review of Books;

• Lewis Thomas’s full essay, “Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony”;

• “Four Ways to Say Farewell,” a short documentary featuring Leonard Bernstein on the Ninth Symphony;

• and our own take on the video, with four endings to Mahler’s 9th cut together:

Podcast • March 20, 2014

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

We're picking up the thread of a long conversation with Gunther Schuller. He’s the man who first mapped a Third Stream of “jazzical” music between classical and jazz temperaments. In this second half of our conversation, I’m asking a question I put to Richard Powers a couple of months ago: is there any summing up the 20th Century disruptions of tonality and rhythms in mainstream music?

We’re picking up the thread of a long conversation with Gunther Schuller, in his living room outside Boston.  He’s been a sort of one-man vessel of many revolutions in 20th century music, a player of many parts, too: a French horn virtuoso in orchestras led by Toscanini and Fritz Reiner, a modern composer still winning commissions in his 89th year, a jazz player back in the day too with Miles Davis, Bill Evans and the Modern Jazz Quartet; also a principal big-book historian of jazz in its early, swing and modern eras; and all his life an instigator of things, like the Ragtime revival that went to Hollywood in the 60s and 70s.

He’s the man who first mapped a Third Stream of “jazzical” music between classical and jazz temperaments.  So the thread in Gunther Schuller’s autobiography and our conversation so far has been the many musics in a sort of democracy of geniuses: Duke Ellington in the Pantheon with Beethoven and Mozart; Erroll Garner’s piano improvisations standing tall next to Shubert and Chopin.  It was Gunther Schuller’s line years ago that “all musics are created equal.”   By now his third stream is inundated by maybe 300 world streams of genius music.

 In this second half of our conversation, I’m asking a question I put to Richard Powers, the musically astute novelist of Orfeo, a couple of months ago: is there any summing up the 20th Century disruptions in tonality and rhythms of mainstream music?  And Gunther took it immediately to Igor Stravinsky, the Russian-born composer who started a riot in Paris in 1913 with “The Rite of Spring,” a riot that changed Gunther Schuller’s direction and in a sense, never ended.

Music in this show:

Louis Armstrong – Potato Head Blues

Igor Stravinsky – The Rite of Spring

Gunther Schuller – The Twittering Machine

John Lewis – Three Little Feelings

Ravi Shankar – Improvisations on the theme from ‘Panther Panchali’

Vijay Iyer – Brute Facts

Duke Ellington – Ko-ko

Duke Ellington – Harlem Air Shaft

Duke Ellington – Rockin’ in Rhythm

Duke Ellington – Don’t Get Around Much Anymore

John Coltrane – Coltrane Plays the Blues

John Lewis – Jazz Abstractions (composed by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall)

Podcast • March 8, 2014

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 ...

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