Sunday, September 6th, 2015
Gunther Schuller (November 22, 1925 – June 21, 2015)
An important mentor for me died in June. Gunther was incredibly generous and helpful to me during the crucial years when I had just left college and was beginning my concert career. Why he took such an interest in me still baffles me. I never attended New England Conservatory, where he had been president until just before our paths crossed. He was busy with his publishing and recording companies, as well as his creative careers as educator, writer, composer, and conductor. Despite all this, he made time to produce my first four solo albums. He worked with me on interpretive details prior to the recording sessions, ran the sessions, and did most of the editing. His recording company sent the albums to critics, which helped my career immensely.
Visiting Gunther was always interesting and enlivening, his house abuzz with workers, people working on the record company, the publishing company, helping him with his tours and other various musical pursuits. The house itself was filled to the gills with books, piles of CDs everywhere, sheet music, instruments of all kinds. And Gunther going in all directions at once, but always intent on creating and supporting music of the highest quality possible.
It is interesting to see as the years pass that my life has become, while on a smaller scale, very-much like his. I have also created my own record company and pursued lots of other musical activities that have employed many people along the way, lots of whom have worked at my house. Gunther was well-known for combining an interest in both jazz and classical music, and more and more I too am leading rich lives in both. We both have transcribed lots of jazz performances; I think he had a special admiration for Duke Ellington while my god has been Oscar Peterson. Again, on a smaller scale, I have also tried to help other musicians, from students at l’Ecole St. Trinité in Haiti, to American musicians such as Chad Bowles (now head of the piano department at Peabody Conservatory’s Prep School) and Travis Sullivan (founder of the jazz group Bjorkestra). If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, I suppose he should have felt flattered.
However, while I have on occasion told him of his effect on my life, I haven’t actively stayed in touch. And it was both a conscious and sub-conscious decision. I know what it is like to need to focus on your work, to contemplate and digest; and then to have people all over you, distracting and enticing you away from your work. One time I did contact him because I wanted him to hear my CD where my trio reinterpreted note for note an entire album by the Ahmad Jamal Trio – I believe the first time someone had done this for an entire album. He told me, “Fred, if you only knew how many people send me CDs thinking that I have nothing else to do than to listen to them.” I knew that he was right – not only CDs, but books, scores, videos, and other musical media. Gunther’s wearing so many hats made him a magnet for musicians of all persuasions.
So I decided that the best way to thank him for everything that he had done for me was to not call him and disrupt the flow of his work. He didn’t need me to cheer him on.
Gunther lead a rich and wonderful life, and I will always be grateful to have known him.