Gunther Schuller wrote two books about the history and development of jazz. The first, published by the Oxford University Press in 1968 was Early Jazz. The second in 1989was The Swing Era. They were detailed histories, deeply researched and bolstered with musical examples painstakingly annotated by Schuller as he listened to and analyzed thousands of recordings. Schuller died yesterday at 89 (see the previous Rifftides post). For 25 years listeners, musicians and scholars have been anticipating a third volume about the evolution of bebop and the music that has followed it. In a comment on the earlier post, reader Tom King echoed the hopes of those whose reading of Schuller enriched their understanding of the formative early decades of jazz. “Here’s hoping, Mr. King wrote, “that the book is in the works, or in someone’s competent hands.”
Schuller and first I met in 1969 at Duke Ellington’s 70th birthday party at the White House. The last time I called him, a year or so ago, I asked about progress on volume three. I told him that I was recording the conversation for possible future use. How I wish that the use were under happier circumstances. Gunther’s answer touches on the dilemmas that often confront artists who face the realities of existence.
Look, here’s the story. I have received in the last two-and-a-half years twenty commissionsthat’s the term for writing pieces of music for somebody, for a symphony, for a chamber group and so on. That is unheard of in the whole history of music, for a composer in a two-year period to get twenty commissions. I remember when Aaron Copeland and I, one year about half a century ago, each got four commissions in a year. We thought that was unbelievable, and Aaron said to me, “What the hell did I do to deserve this?” So, the conundrum about the jazz book or the autobiographyI also promised a second volume of my autobiographythe conundrum is this: when I compose music I make money. I have not retired. I have to work. I have to write all these pieces, and I need to make money. While, on the other hand, if I start writing a book, I lose money.
To be specific, for example, to write a book might take me six years, especially a complicated one which would like to deal with most of the music that has happened in the period since my second volume ended. Then there would be, maybe, two to three years to find a publisher, then the production of the book. Then, finally, the next year I might get a royalty check for a hundred and twenty dollars and thirty-two cents. So, when I write books I lose money. When I compose music I make money, which, as I say, I still have to.
I’m 88 years old now. I’m very productive. Gunther Schuller is somewhat famous for figuring out how to do things, and he’s done a lot of multi-tasking in his life. And one way or another, unless I get very sick or something, I’m certainly determined to do that extra volume. How I would manage it right now I don’t know, but I will do it, particularly if I live quite a few more years. And mind you, the other problem is that the second volumeThe Swing Era bookwas totally comprehensive. Anyone I talked to, I wrote extensively about them. I listened to every damn record that Tommy Dorsey recorded (he laughs), and the first four years of Dorsey’s band were not the most exciting listening, until Sy Oliver came inwow. Anyway, it was totally comprehensive. I cannot do that. I listened to 30,000 records to write that volume, to be that comprehensive. I would have to be more selective, and that’s fine, too. So, somehow or other, I will figure this out before I die.
I know of no evidence that he started volume three.