in: News & Features

December 9, 2009

Jazz Propelled into Mainstream Conservatory Education: Gunther Schuller at The Helm of NEC


The BMInt staff’s interview on November 22 with Gunther Schuller lasted two hours. Part 1 was a cut-and-paste of discussions related to two then-upcoming performances of his music. This excerpt deals with Mr. Schuller’s role as president of New England Conservatory (from 1967 until 1977) and his founding of the jazz curriculum.

BMInt: Larry Phillips [Boston organist and reviewer for the Intelligencer] says he went to the Conservatory just because of you.  One day he saw you in the corridor, mopping, and he said, ‘Is this what the conservatory has come to’?

GS: (Laughing) I did that because there were so many problems in the building and there wasn’t enough cleaning up and all of that.  So I just did it myself just to show, Here’s the president, sweeping the stairs…

‘If I can do it, you can do it’?

<p>Commemorating Premiere of Schuler's "Where the World Ends"</p>

Commemorating The Premiere of Schuller's "Where the Word Ends"

Yes. I had to do a lot of that. … Most of the Board thought it was sinful to give money. They are sitting on the Board and they didn’t want to support it financially. Ant they were very wealthy people, most of them. I just got up in the middle of the meeting and said ‘$5,000! Here! Here it is! Now, listen!’… I shamed them into it. And you know, I’m just a poor musician.

Did the composition of the Board change a  lot when you were president?

No, no!  it didn’t change at all. This was the Board that I inherited. By the way, there were no Jews, no Blacks, no, no anything.

Just WASPs — I mean, at the end of your tenure?

It had changed slightly, including the chairman, and that got a little bit worse, not better. But look, never mind. The two people and I, the three of us who saved the Conservatory, were David Scudder and Jim Terry, who were both young on the Board. The three of us got the Ford Foundation grant, 2.5 million dollars, to be matched, and that’s what saved the school.

Was it going to collapse?

OH! It was bankrupt!  It was financially… they had $220,000 in the bank!  And enrollment, which were supposed to be 715, was 215, the padlock was gonna come on the door, with the sheriff. And I rescued the school — with these two guys.

Who was your immediate predecessor?

Chester Williams, whom I care for. He was a wonderful second in command; he probably shouldn’t have been president. But he already inherited a terrible situation. I was brought in by all kinds of folks. Leinsdorf, Will Shumann, Aaron Copland, all these people said, …  ‘Listen, If there’s anyone who can rescue the school, it’s Gunther.’  And I’m a high-school drop-out. I didn’t even have a certificate from my grammar school! I don’t have anything!

How old were you, and what year was that?

I was 40. [Actually, we checked. He was 38]

Yeah. So anyway, Oh, you took all that down (laughing)?

I hope so!

Anyway, that’s history, you know that’s nothing new. Except that he didn’t know it!

Well, while we’re on that subject, Larry has one more question, … in his first year, he took Sound and Score, that you taught with Rudy Kolisch and Bob Cogan. Cogan directed him to Ligeti’s Continuum, saying that he should examine the Fibonacci sequence. Later, that study came to Larry’s advantage in the Bruges International Harpsichord Competition, where that piece was the pièce imposée. Larry was a prizewinner that year.

Oh, WOW!

What was that course Sound and Score? Was it about movies?

No, no, no! It was just about the opening of the world of sounds. I mean this sort of followed John Cage, who had been saying, ‘Listen, sound, I mean, music, is not just proper sounds of Mozart, or Stravinsky, or whatever.’ I mean, when you start thinking about all the ethnic and world musics, you know, with all the incredible sounds they produce  and different scales, and different everything, … so it was our collective attempt to open up. And this was not just for composers; we had people from outside, including by the way from the Board, coming in and also talking about creativity, you know, in music.

So there was no prerequisite?

No, no. We just invented it, ad hoc. I forget the circumstances.

And who were Rudy Kolisch and Bob Cogan, your co-teachers?

Well!! Rudy Kolisch is —

… Oh, I may know more than I’m saying, but I am asking questions for the readers, who don’t know as much…

Oh yeah, good excuse. Oh, I see! Excuse me [realizing that the question was for input for the article] Kolisch is the great violinist and leader of the great Kolisch String Quartet which eventually, after Hitler kicked the Pro Arte Quartet from Belgium out of Europe, because of the war, ended up in Madison, Wisconsin. And it became known then as the Pro Arte Quartet. But originally Kolisch founded the Quartet in Vienna in the 1930s, and when he was retired by the University of Wisconsin because of age — I think he  was 70, I immediately hired him to come to the Conservatory. So I had both Louis Krasner, the other great violinist who commissioned the great Berg Violin concert? and Rudolph Kolisch, these great figures in the history of music and string playing… and then of course Cogan was on the faculty. He was the most progressive, advanced, composer and had been chairman of the Composition faculty. He’s still there. Still teaching. I didn’t have,  — as president, I was damned busy you know, saving the school. All the things I had to do: fundraising, —

You also taught from the beginning of your tenure?

Well, My teaching was mainly doing the orchestra, conducting the orchestra, but I did teach some courses now and then, and as I say, I got involved with this one, just to keep me busy.

Larry has another question regarding NEC. Do you have anything to add to the comments in the panel discussion during recent jazz celebration?

Well I gave my first and last words in that panel discussion. There’s nothing to add. I just recounted how and why I started that jazz department, which was the first  full-fledged jazz department in any school in the United States, and I at that point in the panel lamented the fact that this was necessary, that I, Gunther Schuller, classical composer, but someone involved with jazz, should as late as 1967 create the first conservatory, when in fact jazz is the one home-grown music, and recognition of it was nil, and in fact almost everyone was opposed to having a jazz element in the school, especially at universities and so on.

This hearkens back to how Harvard refused to have music in its curriculum until John Knowles Paine –

—Yeah, John Knowles Paine. Yeah, right. Listen, the saxophone, because it was associated with jazz, was not allowed as a major at the Conservatory when I got there. I mean, it’s ridiculous!

Did you hire Ken Radnovsky? Was he the first?

Well, I hired Allard, and Allard then retired, and Ken was his major student. Yeah. So anyway, I created, when I say a full-fledged jazz department, I meant four-year undergraduate, two-year graduate, and with all the courses included but then special training in jazz, and improvisation, and in composition and arranging, and technique. And I brought in all my colleagues in the jazz world, you know, to teach there.

What are some famous names?

Well, Dizzy Gillespie, Jaki Bayard, I dunno, Sam Grovers, you name ’em.

And how have the numbers changed over the years? What percentage — how many of them were jazz students?

Well, they became — by the way, we had at least, even the first year, at least 30 jazz students, and then it grew beyond that.

And at that point, you only had 250 in the whole school.

Well, yeah, I immediately increased it. But of course I have to be precise. The jazz department: I didn’t get it started until two years after I had became president, because it took me a while to organize that and to find out how we’re going to do this, financially and structurally, and so on, and or course there was some resistance from some parts of the school, ‘What! Jazz? You gonna have jazz? You can’t teach jazz!’ Even the jazz people, a lot of them at the time, were against the teaching of jazz, because they said it you put it into the academy, you are going to stultify, you are going to make it stiff, and un-spontaneous. Of course, it could happen, but that is not what it would automatically do.

Were there jazz musicians at NEC that couldn’t read music?

Well, some of the ones that came in at that time. some were little kids, younger teenagers, I brought in from Roxbury, and some of them couldn’t read.

I mean, some of the teachers? Some of the famous jazz —

Oh no, no, because I brought in ones— I mean, Jaki Bayard was one of the great arrangers and composers. He passed away. He was murdered, as a matter of fact, many year ago. But he played five different instruments. He could teach every instrument. And of course Dizzy Gillespie could read. And Phil Wilson — you know, trombone player from Boston. I can’t remember all the names. I mean, some of them I could get only for a couple of days, or a weekend, or for a week, because these were all working musicians at that time. This was when jazz, was still, everybody was touring and traveling and working. In fact, Jacki wanted to settle down in Boston, so I had him as chairman of the jazz department for about three years.

Does this correspond to when you had your New York radio program?

No, that’s before I came to Boston. long before. No. That was is ’58 to ’62.

Many people probably still remember that program on W—.

OH! I can’t  — I could go to outer Mongolia and people say, ‘Ah! You’re that guy! You introduced me to modern music and I now like it!!!’

It was called The Scope of Jazz.

Well, that was the jazz program. The classical program was called ‘Contemporary Music and  … Innovation’, or something …


Evolution, Yes, that’s right. Evolution. Yeah. Three years. And I did those programs every Sunday, almost every Sunday, for three years, unpaid, had to buy my own tapes because the station couldn’t afford it — O my God! — and my own record collections. And I bought a lot of records, because I played the records, and then commented on the piece and the performance.  And I did in chronologically. I started with 1899. I was able to play Debussy’s Nocturnes and Schoenberg’s Verklärte Nacht, which were written in ’98. And that sort of set it up. It went year by year. And some years were so rich. I remember that 1908 was so rich in great music having been written and was available on recordings, that I spent something like seven weeks on 1908. For other years, I could barely fill an hour program. Partly that was because there were works that I would have liked to have played, but there were no recordings at the time.

Time for you to do the program over again!

(Laughter) Well, you know all about that program, yeah.

You really sounded like one cool dude!

Then I created the ragtime group. By the time I was through, I had four different  jazz orchestras. I had a Duke Ellington orchestra that played only Duke Ellington’s music, I had the Ragtime Group —

Now, THAT must have been one of the greatest popularizers of NEC

Of course. Of course. Particularly the Ragtime. Because it was [music] I grew up with. By doing this, I brought Ragtime back. Totally forgotten, dead music. In 1972 I decided to play four rags by Scott Joplin. In a concert. I remember there was a Rossini Overture, a piece by Villa Lobos, and one other I can’t remember… and in the middle of that I plunked four rags.


No, no, no. These were from the Redback Book. It hadn’t been orchestrated then. We don’t know when, probably around 1905 or 1906. I can’t tell you what a stir that was! The faculty. The students. ‘Where did you find this great music! Who’s this guy Scott Joplin? Never heard of him!’ And that started the whole thing, because to make a long story short, I taped the concert and sent it to Martin Williams at the Smithsonian who was a Ragime authority, critic, you know, and he eventually called Angel Records in California and said, ‘Listen, you gotta record this group!’ and we ended up in California recording a record of Ragtime music which won a Grammy. And then the motion picture film The Sting took over my arrange—not my arrangements, my editings, because I had copyrighted them — and they used them in the film, and then of course it became a world-wide thing.

So there are three people responsible for the revival of Ragtime. One is Joshua Rifkin, who prior to me had made a recording of Joplin rags. But he played them like Chopin Nocturnes — he didn’t play them like dance music, which is what Ragtime was. And then there’s Vera Lawrence, who published all the Ragtime music of Joplin. The great American musicologist and pianist, by the way. And the three of us brought back Ragtime. That became, as you implied earlier, a big money maker for a fundraiser for us. I mean, I remember one occasion where Josiah Lilly — the pharmaceutical family? — gave us $500,000 just because of that concert.

That was also at the time you edited Treemonisha for performance, and that was the first time it had been performed on stage since his lifetime?

It never was performed in his lifetime. He could never get it performed. That was 1974. I was asked, I was commissioned, to make an orchestration of it because there was only a piano score.

Had Joplin ever scored it?

Well, we don’t know. Look, Whatever happened, happened in the last three-quarter year of his life. So it’s all a very ambiguous, literally, not much is known. There is this constant story, rumor, that he and his student Patterson started to orchestrate Treemonisha, but by that time he was very ill. He eventually died of Syphilis complications. They certainly did not [complete it]— even if they had started. We are not even sure about that. So there was really, really nothing. Whatever there was, is lost or gone. What he had tried to do was to get some wealthy people together to have him play the music on the piano and to sing along, to get a production on Broadway, but it never happened. No one, no one, nibbled, you know. So he died, having written, you know, the first opera that a Black composer wrote.

Did he pay to have it published? Is it a vanity release?

He paid HIS OWN money to have it published! No one would take it! Even his own publisher, John Starr, who made a lot of money on Joplin, refused to do it. ‘What are you doing, writing an opera! Blacks don’t write operas! That’s for white people.’ You know, that sort of thing. So he published it out of his own funds, and he did a beautiful edition. He paid for the engraving, and all the rest.  Beautiful. And Vera Lawrence published it.


  1. The following correction should be notated:

    In 1972 a production of the FIRST orchestration of Treemonisha was preformed in Atlanta Georgia. This orchestration was completed by composer T.J. Anderson, then composer in residence for the Atlanta Symphony. A recording was made by NPR of the production.

    Comment by Janet Anderson Bennett — December 15, 2009 at 9:53 pm

  2. A reader emailed this excerpt from Wikipedia which supports the previous comment:

    The world premiere took place on January 27, 1972, as a joint production of the music department of Morehouse College and the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in Atlanta, Georgia. The performance was directed by noted African-American dancer Katherine Dunham and conducted by Robert Shaw, one of the first major American conductors to hire both black and white singers for his chorale. The production was well-received by both audiences and critics.[13]

    Along with Joplin’s first opera (A Guest of Honor, 1903), the orchestration notes for Treemonisha have been completely lost, so subsequent performances have been produced using orchestrations created by a variety of composers, including Thomas J. Anderson, Gunther Schuller, and most recently, Rick Benjamin.

    Comment by Lee Eiseman, publisher — December 17, 2009 at 11:57 am

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