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’?
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.