VIDEO: Gunther Schuller

By
Berklee Office of Communications
September 15, 2008

Music legend Gunther Schuller, famous for fusing classical and jazz, issued a call-to-action to students and other aspiring music professionals at Berklee on September 5. He was keynote speaker for the college's Opening Day.

Harmony Department chair Joe Mulholland interviewed Schuller, one of the industry's foremost scholars, arrangers, composers, and conductors. The following are excerpts from that wide-ranging interview, which ran the gamut from luck and circumstance to the Duke to a radical musical idea.

On luck and circumstance:

"I will admit that I had some measure of talent, but I had...the most amazing experiences that helped me become this sort of multifaceted musician working with jazz and classical music simultaneously at a very high level," said Schuller. He credited his early education in Germany, his music tutelage in New York, living in the music hub of New York City ("I feasted on this cultural, artistic paradise."), and his father, a musician in the New York Philharmonic.

 

On open-mindedness:

"You have to open those floodgates very wide and take in everything you possibly can. That's the best recipe, and you'll have a happy and successful life."

Watch the video to hear more of Schuller's advice for students.

 

On discovering jazz:

"I was not really listening seriously or analytically to jazz as a musician," said Schuller, noting that in the late 1930s and 1940s, everyone was either listening to classical or jazz. "One night while I was doing my homework I had to stop because I heard music and sounds on the radio. I was overwhelmed. I got goose pimples all over me... One piece really knocked me out." At that point, he realized that jazz was just as relevant as classical music. "I knew then that I'd have to be working as a musician in both careers."

On Duke Ellington:

Schuller first heard Duke Ellington live at the age of 17. "I stood there mesmerized in front of the bandstand," he recalled. He got to know Ellington by going to his performances, and was invited to stay with the band at a theater in Cleveland during one of its tours. He happened to get the room next to Ellington and was privy to his late-night composing after his shows. "He'd sit at the piano and started what I call ruminating on the piano, improvising. Here I am next door... and I hear him improvising until 4 a.m. ...Every once in a while he would stop, and I would hear the scratch of a pencil. He had just played something he thought was worth writing down." The next morning, his band would collaborate on what Ellington had written the night before.

On merging classical with jazz:

Schuller was at the forefront of what, at the time, was considered a controversial idea: bring jazz and classical music together. "I was deeply involved in both musics simultaneously and I started to talk about bringing them together," he said, noting that he coined the term "third stream" to represent his idea. "That was a radical idea and I was crucified on both sides of the fence because both sides felt that I was preaching something that would contaminate one or the other of the musics... That which was so radical and thought to be impossible is now, of course, accepted."