Rifftides Archive: Third Stream Revisited

From time to time, we reach into nine years of posts stored in the Rifftides vaults for pieces that the staff thinks are worth a second look. This is one of those times.

Originally posted on Rifftides on March 25, 2010.

“Third Stream” seems a quaint term nearly half a century after it kicked up a bit of a fuss in jazz and classical Birth Third Stream.jpgcircles. Still, it never quite goes away, as the recent Eric Dolphy posting reminded me. Two of the names that remain associated with the movement are Gunther Schuller and Leonard Bernstein. Several years ago, I wrote about Schuller’s central role in creation of the term and implementation of the concept. It was in a review of a CD reissue of two daring and indelible Columbia albums of the late 1950s, Music for Brass and Modern Jazz Concert. In a moment, documentation of Bernstein’s peripheral but highly visible role in the Third Stream movement. First, about Schuller from that 1997 Jazz Times review:

In his notes for Modern Jazz Concert, Gunther Schuller emphasized the unimportance of pigeonholing the music, “…I will therefore not categorize and typecast the six works on this record.”

Nonetheless, Schuller could not long deny the insatiable human need to label. In 1957 he created a name for this music that drew upon the jazz and classical traditions. It was “Third Stream.” There had been successful meldings of the improvisation and swing of jazz with big classical forms at least as far back as Red Norvo’s 1933 “Dance of the Octopus,” but “Third Stream” caught on as a moniker and persuaded many listeners that the marriage was new. If itgunther schuller ca '62.jpg attracted attention to the works in this album, then no harm and considerable good was done. The inspired playing of Miles Davis on John Lewis’ “Three Little Feelings” and J.J. Johnson’s “Poem for Brass” allowed producer George Avakian to convince Columbia to commit large resources to a Davis project that turned out to be Miles Ahead. That revived Davis’ partnership with Gil Evans and led to Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain. “Poem for Brass” was the first major indication that J.J. Johnson was a large-scale composer. “Pharaoh” allowed Jimmy Giuffre to extend his range beyond the 16-piece band. Schuller’s “Symphony for Brass and Percussion” was not a jazz composition but its presence on the Music for Brass album under the baton of Dmitri Mitropolous shed prestige on the entire undertaking.

Fast forward to 1962 and Leonard Bernstein’s series of televised New York Philharmonic concerts for young people. He included in one of the concerts a piece by Schuller called “Journey Into Jazz.” The segment found Bernstein entertaining, informative and wordy. The portion of the video available to Rifftides excludes much of Bernstein’s setup explanation, which began with a small jazz group on stage with him. It is not just any jazz group. It is Don Ellis, Eric Dolphy, Benny Golson, Richard Davis and Joe Cocuzzo. The band plays briefly, then Bernstein says the following, leading us into the video.

BERNSTEIN: Now that’s about the last sound in the world you’d expect to hear in Philharmonic Hall, isn’t it? Sounds more like your next-door neighbor’s radio, or the Newport Jazz Festival. And yet, that’s a sound that’s been coming more and more often into our American concert halls, ever since American composers began trying, about forty years ago, to get some of the excitement and natural American feeling of jazz into their symphonic music.

Even so, in spite of these tries at combining jazz and symphonic writing, the two musics have somehow remained separate, like two streams that flow along side by side without ever touching or mixing–except every once in a while. But it’s those once-in-a-whiles that we’re interested in today: those pieces in which the jazz stream now and then does sneak over to the symphonic stream, and for a moment or two, flows along with it in happy harmony. And these days–at least, for the last five or fifty years, that is–there is a new movement in American music actually called “the third stream” which mixes the rivers of jazz with the other rivers that flow down from the high-brow far out mountain peaks of twelve-tone, or atonal music.

Now the leading navigator of this third stream–in fact the man who made up the phrase “third stream”–is a young man named Gunther Schuller. He is one of those total musicians, like Paul Hindemith whom we discussed on our last program, only he’s American. Mr. Schuller writes music–all kinds of music–conducts it, lectures on it, and plays it. Certainly he owes some of his great talent to his father, a wonderful musician who happens to play in our orchestra. We are very proud of Arthur Schuller.

But young Gunther Schuller–still in his thirties–is now the center of a whole group of young composers who look to him as their leader, and champion. And so I thought that the perfect way to begin today’s program about jazz in the concert hall would be to play a piece by Gunther Schuller–especially this one particular piece which is an introduction to jazz for young people–

The Rifftides staff thanks pianist-composer Jack Reilly and blogger Ralph Miriello of Notes On Jazz for calling our attention to the video from Leonard Bernstein’s Young Peoples Concerts.

To explore the hundreds of posts in the Rifftides vaults, see “Archives” in the right-hand column and select a month and year.

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  1. David says

    The title “Modern Jazz Concert” was somewhat misleading in that, while the pieces were commissioned for a concert, the recordings were actually made in the studio. For many of us, the highlight of these excellent performances was Bill Evans’ solo on the 3rd movement of George Russell’s “All About Rosie.” Some readers may not be aware that there were two recordings made of this composition, the other one recorded ten days earlier. The 3rd movement of that previous recording was issued on a compilation called Bill Evans: Piano Player. It’s interesting to compare the two versions in that Bill reworks the same motifs in both solos; in fact the openings are almost identical. The later version is, perhaps, a bit more exciting, but both are excellent.

  2. dave bernard says

    Chris Lydon recently posted a two-part audio interview with Mr Schuller on his recent book. It’s on Radio Open Source. That autobiography goes up to about 1963. Mr Schuller is completing the second volume that will continue his career up to present time. An assistant is compiling his discography, but it doesn’t seem to have been made available yet.

  3. says

    George Schuller, Gunther’s son, very graciously helped me research my novel “Songs of Icarus” for the part that deals with the Music Inn and his Dad’s influences on so many ‘back in the day.’ One of my favorite “3rd stream” recordings is the Gary McFarland Orchestra with Bill Evans on piano. Check out “Reflections in the Park” on Spotify under Gary McFarland Orchestra. Thanks, Doug, for the video, Priceless.

    • Doug Ramsey says

      Absurdly, Verve Records has let the McFarland/Evans album fall out of its catalog. It is available on various websites only at extortionist prices.

  4. says

    Living in Mexico without CD’s or vinyl I thank the universe of technolgy everyday for Spotify. Plenty of musicians are not thankful I know but it sure makes my life better. Without it and the love of my life down here Mexico would not be the happy place it has been for me.