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Gunther Schuller dies at 89; fused classical, jazz in 'Third Stream'

Gunther Schuller had played for classical great Arturo Toscanini, but he also recorded with jazz icon Miles Davis. So he was uniquely qualified when, in 1957, he began to advocate the marriage of the two musical traditions.

The initial reaction was intense

"I was vilified on both sides," the horn player-turned-composer-conductor recalled in the Boston Globe last year. "Classical musicians looked down upon jazz and quite a few jazz musicians were against it too because they thought….having classical music go into jazz would stultify jazz."

Over the next decade, however, Schuller's ecumenical approach bore fruit. He established the first degree program in jazz at a prestigious classical conservatory — the New England Conservatory, where he spent a decade as president. His compositions fusing the two genres were performed by major orchestras around the world. Noted jazz musicians, including John Lewis and Ornette Coleman, wrote for and performed with symphonies and string quartets.

Schuller, whose championing of the hybrid he called "Third Stream" music brought him a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation grant, died Sunday in Boston from complications of leukemia. He was 89.

Once described by critic Leonard Feather as "the ultimate Renaissance man of 20th century music," Schuller had more than 200 compositions to his credit, including solo and orchestral works, chamber music, opera and jazz. He won the 1994 Pulitzer Prize for music for the orchestral piece "Of Reminiscences and Reflections."

He also wrote two admired jazz histories — "Early Jazz" (1968) and "The Swing Era" (1989) — and had his own music publishing and recording companies.

Born in New York on Nov. 22, 1925, Schuller grew up in a classical music family: His mother played piano, his father was a violinist with the New York Philharmonic and his grandfather had been a conductor in Germany.

A French horn player, he dropped out of high school at 17 and became principal horn with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. At 19, he was a member of the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, where he played for Bruno Walter and other maestros. He was also a member of the NBC Symphony Orchestra, where he played under Toscanini. But he harbored another musical passion.

He was about 16 when he discovered Duke Ellington.

"I said to my father, 'You know, Pop, I heard some music — Duke Ellington — last night and…that music is as great as Beethoven's and Mozart's," Schuller recalled in a National Public Radio interview in 2009. "And he almost had a heart attack because that was a heretical thing to say."

When he wasn't playing "La Traviata" or "Aida," he haunted New York jazz clubs, soaking up bebop as it blossomed in the mid- to late 1940s.

Because French horn players were rare in jazz, he earned a spot in Miles Davis' group when it recorded the seminal 1949-50 "Birth of the Cool" sessions, which fused jazz and classical techniques. Later, Schuller would perform and record with Coleman and other jazz greats, including J.J. Johnson, Eric Dolphy, Dizzy Gillespie and Charles Mingus.

In the mid-1950s, he formed the Modern Jazz Society with John Lewis, the classically trained jazz pianist and musical director of the Modern Jazz Quartet.

In 1957, he coined the term "Third Stream" to describe his vision of melting the boundaries dividing jazz and classical music. He and Lewis made two albums for Columbia that merged the genres: "Music for Brass" (1957) and "Modern Jazz Concert" (1958).

By the 1960s Schuller shifted his focus to composing, teaching and writing. He led the New England Conservatory in Boston from 1967 to 1977, where he established the Third Stream department with pianist Ran Blake as its chair.

He also founded the New England Conservatory Ragtime Ensemble, which earned a Grammy Award for chamber music performance in 1973 for the album "Scott Joplin: The Red Back Book" and helped spur a ragtime revival. Schuller won two more Grammys for writing liner notes.

In 1989, he helped assemble an all-star orchestra and conducted Mingus' epic "Epitaph," which was also released on record.

A 1991 MacArthur fellow, he wrote "The Compleat Conductor" (1997), which offered a history and philosophy of conducting and was critical of many eminent conductors for failing to follow printed scores. In 2011, he published his autobiography, "Gunther Schuller: A Life in Pursuit of Music and Beauty."

His major orchestral works include "Symphony" (1965), "Seven Studies of Paul Klee" (1959) and "An Arc Ascending" (1996). He composed two operas: "The Visitation" (1966), based on a Franz Kafka story, and the children's opera "The Fisherman and His Wife."

His best-known Third Stream-style compositions include "Transformation for Jazz Ensemble" (1957), "Concerto for Jazz Quartet and Orchestra" (1959) and "Variants on a Theme of Thelonious Monk" (1960).

After his wife, Marjorie Black, died in 1992, he was unable to write music for a year. His Pulitzer-winning composition, "Of Reminiscences and Reflections," was dedicated to her.

His survivors include his sons, George and Edwin, both jazz musicians.

elaine.woo@latimes.com

Twitter:@ewooLATimes

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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