Gunther Schuller (b. 1925), classical French horn player, composer, and conductor, is involved with both jazz and classical music. Playing in the Cincinnati Symphony and the Metropolitan Opera orchestra as principal horn and touring with the American Ballet Theatre orchestra, he established himself with distinction as a classical musician. His love of jazz, brought about by one of Duke Ellington’s radio broadcasts, prompted the innovation of a new genre of music, that he referred to as “Third Stream Jazz.” He described it as the “third” main stream of music with the first and second of the early 1950s being classical and jazz. Writing arrangements for the Modern Jazz Quartet, he combined classical elements of Western art music with jazz elements, creating the new improvisatory style genre. Active in both classical and jazz, Schuller has been an important mentor, advocate, and activist for many musicians, including Miles Davis, Charles Mingus, Donald Martino and even Scott Joplin. His awards are numerous and include a 1994 Pulitzer Prize for Of Reflections and Reminiscences, the Downbeat Lifetime Achievement Award, and an inaugural membership in the American Classical Music Hall of Fame.
Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra was originally written for the New York City Ballet in 1961. Instrumentation called for a solo jazz quartet of vibes, piano, bass, and drums, along with flutes, oboes, clarinets, bassoons, contrabassoon, horns, trumpets, trombones, tuba, percussions, harp and strings. Leonard Bernstein decided to play Journey into Jazz for one of his Young People’s Concerts, and asked Schuller to conduct while Bernstein narrated. Re-released in 2008 by the Boston Modern Orchestra Project, which is this recording on Spotify. Variants for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra follows a theme and variations form, the most common structure for jazz performance. Instead of variations on a 32-bar popular song, however, orchestral material is presented by the solo jazz musicians, then returns to the orchestra for the finale. The piece is based on a 12-tone scale. Movement III features the vibes against the violins with rapid movement between the two instruments, and drums, although sometimes interspersed with flute.
Here is the link for Spotify:
György Ligeti’s Six Bagatelles for Wind Quintet(1953) is a modern, classical composition that quotes folk music and features flutes, bassoon, and orchestra, giving it similar instrumentation to Schuller’s piece. The composition is entirely different, however, as Schuller’s jazz arrangement creates the new Third Stream genre, and Ligeti’s is pure classical. In Ligeti’s piece the instruments answer each other’s phrases, as they also would in jazz, but the swing of the rhythm does not exist.
It feels strange to bounce back and forth to the two styles of music. That makes Schuller’s innovation of combining the two genres even that much more amazing.
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Ledbetter, Steven. Liner Notes for Gunther Schuller: Journey into Jazz: Variants/Concertos. BMOP, Gil Rose, conductor. 2008. Compact Disc.
Murphy, Molly. “Interview for the NEA (National Endowment for the Arts).” January 10, 2008. http://arts.gov/honors/jazz/gunther-schuller.
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