Gunther Schuller never graduated from high school. He took a different path.
A prodigy on flute and French horn, he earned his musical education as a member of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, which he joined at the green age of 17. By his early 20s, Schuller was already filling the principal horn seat at the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. Shortly thereafter, he was introduced to Miles Davis, who invited Schuller to play on the sessions that would become “Birth of the Cool.”
Despite his lack of formal education, Schuller was born to be an educator.
“There’s nobody that can teach that way,” says Ran Blake, his friend and longtime colleague, “really getting people to listen.”
As a teenager with the Cincinnati Symphony, Schuller was already teaching musicians, many of them considerably older than he was. In his 30s, he effectively retired from performing to devote himself to composing, conducting, and teaching. In 1967 Schuller was named president of the historic New England Conservatory of Music, where he soon announced his intention to follow his instincts. Once again, he took a different path.
Soon after assuming the NEC presidency, Schuller established the institution’s groundbreaking Jazz Studies program, the first fully accredited jazz program at a music conservatory. To mark the 50-year anniversary of that landmark achievement, on Thursday the NEC Jazz Orchestra, featuring Schuller’s son the drummer George Schuller, presents “The Music of Gunther Schuller” at Jordan Hall.
The event continues a series of celebratory Jazz50 concerts, with upcoming performances in New York City by distinguished NEC alumni and faculty all-stars, among them Fred Hersch, Donny McCaslin, Dominique Eade, and Darcy James Argue. None of those talented people would have been associated with NEC were it not for Schuller, who led the conservatory from 1967 to 1977.
Born into a musical family — his father was a violinist for the New York Philharmonic for more than 40 years — Schuller was a natural scholar who wrote highly regarded books on the roots of jazz and the swing era. By the time he was appointed president of NEC, he’d already coined the term “Third Stream,” which described his belief that there should be a “third stream” of music combining elements of, but standing distinct from, jazz and classical.
“He was thought of as this maverick who could change the whole outlook of the conservatory,” says George Schuller, who graduated from NEC in 1982. (His brother, Ed, a well-known jazz bassist, also studied at NEC, but didn’t graduate.) Schuller is still a bit mystified about how his father, who died in 2015 at age 89, managed to smuggle such drastic change into the “stodgy” conservatory tradition.
“I just wonder what the board really was thinking when they hired him,” he says. “Dad wasn’t lobbying for a job like that, I don’t think.”
Schuller hadn’t bargained for the backlash, either. Prior to NEC, he’d been on the faculty at the Manhattan School of Music and at Yale. It was while lecturing at Brandeis University in 1957 that he reportedly first floated his concept of a third stream.
His idea stirred controversy in the jazz and classical worlds alike. Dissenters from each side resented the suggestion that they infuse their own tradition with theories from the other.
“People accused him of trying to change jazz,” says George Schuller, who hosted a free-form jazz show called “Impressions” on WMBR for several years before moving on to found the forward-thinking big band Orange Then Blue. “He wasn’t — he was just trying to find a middle ground.”
“I can guess that some of the criticism could roll off his back,” says Blake, speaking in a separate conversation. “He could be very diplomatic, but very decisive.”
There were some “core problems” with Schuller’s notion, his son allows: “There were classical musicians who didn’t know the elements of jazz, and there were jazz musicians who couldn’t read music.”
Yet there has always been some measure of interplay between jazz and classical. Duke Ellington, whose music a young Gunther Schuller transcribed and arranged for the Cincinnati Pops, was a meticulous composer. Charlie Parker revered the music of Igor Stravinsky, who was inspired by ragtime and boogie-woogie.
Today, George Schuller says, “there’s a real respect for what Gunther was trying to do back in the ‘50s.” Third Stream “has finally established itself as a viable entity.”
Alongside his tenure at NEC, the elder Schuller directed the Berkshire Music Center at Tanglewood, a post he would hold until 1984. The many accolades he collected over the years include a MacArthur Foundation “genius” award, a lifetime achievement award from DownBeat magazine, and — of particular note for the high school dropout — at least 10 honorary degrees.
For the Jazz50 tribute, George has plucked a few rarities from his father’s archives, which are now housed at the Library of Congress. Those include a couple of tunes the elder Schuller arranged for Charles Mingus and an arrangement of Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low” that he once wrote for the opera star Rise Stevens. George will also present a song he wrote upon the death of his mother, Marjorie, in 1992.
It took Gunther Schuller a few years following the death of his wife before he felt ready to return to composing. The result, the orchestral piece “Of Reminiscences and Reflections,” earned him a Pulitzer Prize.
Blake, the innovative pianist who helped Schuller start NEC’s Department of Third Stream a few years after the launch of the jazz program, will perform a piece called “Blues for Gunther” with the Ken Schaphorst Big Band, using Schuller’s favorite 12-tone row — the “magic” row.
After a dip in enrollment some years ago, the department — now known as Contemporary Improvisation — has enjoyed a resurgence under co-chairs Hankus Netsky and Eden MacAdam-Somer, Blake says.
“We have so many string players, so many bluegrass players,” he says. The scope of the third stream just continues to broaden: “I myself cannot play straight classical or straight jazz. But this was going on in the ‘20s and the ‘30s, maybe even earlier.”
Though the department name has changed, Blake doesn’t much mind, and he doesn’t imagine Schuller would, either.
“I call it third streaming, not third stream,” he says. “It’s a process.”
JAZZ50: THE MUSIC OF GUNTHER SCHULLER
With the NEC Jazz Orchestra. At Jordan Hall, 30 Gainsborough St., Boston, Dec. 5 at 7:30 p.m. Free; reserved ticket required. www.necmusic.edu