Gunther Schuller, on of America’s most accomplished contemporary classical and jazz musicians, died Sunday morning in Boston. He was 89. Schuller was highly productive and influential as a composer, conductor, educator, author and music producer throughout his impressive career. He was a close friend and collaborator of such giants as Miles Davis and Frank Zappa, but his musical interests have spanned a much wider range of genres than most of his contemporaries.
“The thing that may make me unique is that I have simultaneously had seven full-time careers in music over the last 50 or 60 years,” Schuller said. “That’s more than Leonard Bernstein.”
Schuller grew up in New York City, where his father served as a violinist in the New York Philharmonic for more than 40 years. He studied briefly in Germany during the 1930’s, but he left because of Hitler’s rise in power and the increasing dictatorial practices of the government there. Schuller returned to New York in 1936 and applied himself to the study of the French horn, which he excelled remarkably at. He dropped out of school at the age of 16 in order to perform a worldwide radio broadcast of Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, conducted by Arturo Toscanini.
Schuller was also a great jazz enthusiast. He especially admired the music of Duke Ellington, and made a reputation from an early age for his deftness across these genres. Throughout his career, he performed with the American Ballet Theatre, with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, and the Metropolitan Opera. In the summers, when the opera was off-season, Schuller played in the pits of Broadway theatres, thus adding another texture to his diverse repertoire.
From 1967 to 1977, he served as president of the New England Conservatory, where he began his serious academic pursuits into the overlap between jazz music and classical music. He established the conservatory’s first ever jazz program in 1969. He composed more than 180 original pieces of music, including pieces for orchestra, opera, small groups, concertos and jazz ensembles. He authored a book on French horn technique, as well as several scholarly works on jazz and the art of conducting. Schuller won a Pulitzer Prize in 1994 for one of his many compositions, called Of Reflections and Reminiscences.