Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

June 26, 2015

Gunther Schuller Dies at 89; Composer Synthesized Classical and Jazz

Filed under: music,obituary — louisproyect @ 8:36 pm

The NY Times obituary  for Gunther Schuller is must-reading for anybody interested in contemporary music. It pays tribute to him both as an avant-garde composer of atonal music but also as a pioneer of what was known as the “Third Stream” in the 1950s and 60s, an attempt to bridge the gap between classical music and jazz that was epitomized by the Modern Jazz Quartet. To some extent, Schuller was merely expanding upon earlier works of synthesis such as George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue”, Igor Stravinsky’s “Ebony Concerto” that was written for Woody Herman, and Darius Milhaud’s “Creation of the World”, a ballet score that the composer wrote after being exposed to jazz in Harlem in the 1920s.

Although I have no deep insights about Schuller’s politics except that he hated racism, the MJQ saw the Third Stream as a way of breaking with the notion that jazz was “entertainment” served up for white audiences as some kind of “jungle music”. Ironically, Duke Ellington, one of the men most responsible for attempting to bridge the gap between classical and jazz, performed “jungle music” in the 1920s himself. Who said that popular culture and race were not complicated matters?

Schuller certainly was aware of the cognitive dissonances in his discussion of Paul Whiteman and Jimmy Lunceford, who was about as close to Duke Ellington in his mastery of the big band style even if he never reached Ellington’s prominence. To some, the aptly named Whiteman was the prototypical white appropriator of a Black style, in effect the Elvis Presley of his day who was the first to perform “Rhapsody in Blue”. In Schuller’s indispensable “The Swing Era: The Development of Jazz, 1930-1945”, he ties the strands together in a brilliant synthesis:

Paul Whiteman in his biography Jazz writes of his father that he was “the best-balanced man” he ever knew—”He never had a drink until he was fifty-five and never smoked until he was sixty”—and he added that he was always “keen on athletics.” That happens to be also a perfect description of Lunceford.’ After taking a bachelor’s degree in music at Fisk University, followed by graduate work there and at New York’s City College (while working with the bands of Elmer Snowden and Wilbur Sweatman), Lunceford went to Memphis and taught music and athletics (sic) at Manassa High School. Here he met Wilcox and Smith, and when they went on to Fisk for further study, Lunceford followed them, and became an assistant professor of music at Fisk. By the time Wilcox and Smith graduated, the band, conceived back in Memphis, developed further at Fisk, and having added in the meantime two outstanding rhythm men—Moses Allen (bass) and Jimmy Crawford (drums)—had already acquired a considerable reputation throughout the South.

It is clear that Lunceford tried to emulate his teacher, Whiteman, Sr., in the same way that Wilcox and Smith at heart regarded Lunceford as their teacher and emulated his sense of discipline and exacting musicianship. Lunceford in fact was in some ways a black Paul Whiteman—down to leading his band with a long white baton.

But the similarities go further. Like the Whiteman orchestra, Lunceford’s band carried a whole retinue of arrangers; he insisted on painstaking rehearsing to achieve the highest possible technical and musical proficiency; he insisted further on playing a wide variety of that music most favored by audiences, developing among other things, like Whiteman, a superb dance orchestra. Lunceford also stressed in the band’s on-stage behavior—as John Lewis was to do with the Modern jazz Quartet twenty-five years later—that music was a profession to be respected and that, if musicians wanted to be considered respectable, they might begin by treating their music and their profession with respect. This was in startling contrast to the conduct ascribed to jazz musicians, then—and, alas, even now—as rather vulgar gin-guzzling inebriates, disreputable Don Juans, and worthless spendthrifts.

Lunceford would have none of that attitude in his band and cultivated a quite different image. As Wilcox said of Lunceford: “He didn’t like anything done sloppily, and that carried into his music.”

I am aware that for many jazz fans to link a musician to classical and “serious” training and, worse yet, to portray him as a disciple of Paul Whiteman amount to absolute anathema. But that is another myth that jazz in its maturity might finally dispense with. The notion that a black musician “tainted- by formal training of one kind or another is thereby inherently less of a jazz musician reveals a special inverse racism, as deplorable as its opposite. The theory of pedigree in jazz is simplistic at best. A man, a musician, is what he is; and what he produces as a musician is the sum total of all his talents. A musician’s antecedents and heritage neither guarantee nor preclude talent and quality, although they certainly may define and predetermine some of its characteristics. It is precisely those specific personal. intellectual, emotional, and psychological qualities in Lunceford’s makeup, influenced by his background and early training, that determined to a very large measure the quality of the Lunceford band’s music-making—its strengths as well as its weaknesses. That it was for some years one of the very finest jazz orchestras of its time is undeniable; and we cannot rewrite history in order to reconcile it with some preconceived premise. Not all white influences on black music are automatically negative in impact—starting with the early black ragtime and jazz musicians’ assimilation of white European harmony.

One thing that is not mentioned in the NY Times obituary was at least for me one of his greatest accomplishments—hosting a show in the early 60s on WBAI called “Contemporary Music in Evolution”. You can get a feel for how much the station has degraded by looking at program guide from 1960:

Screen Shot 2015-06-26 at 4.20.49 PM

It was that year that I first heard about WBAI and became determined to listen to it in my tiny village in the Catskill Mountains, a hundred miles from NYC. I had read somewhere, probably in Time or Newsweek, that there was this radio station in NY that had some daring offbeat programming. So hungry was I for something like this that I persuaded my father to have our local TV repairman mount an FM antenna at the top of a telephone pole in our backyard. You can imagine my glee when the signal came through loud and clear.

Up until I started listening to  “Contemporary Music in Evolution”, my knowledge of classical music was limited to the records I got from the RCA Victor Record Club or occasional jaunts into NYC to pick up vinyl at Sam Goody’s near Times Square. Mostly that meant listening to Tchaikovsky, Beethoven, et al. Schuller’s goal was to illustrate how late 20th century atonal music, including the 12 tone style he favored, had antecedents in Debussy, Ravel, Mahler, and other composers who were still wedded to tonality. This meant serious and discussion on the air of excerpts from a piece like “Afternoon of a Faun” to point out how chromaticism opened the door to atonality. It was the most mind-blowing education I got in music that a lower middle-class child of high school graduates could have possibly gotten.

God bless Gunther Schuller. May he rest in peace.

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