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LIANE HANSEN, host:

No one could accuse composer Gunther Schuller of being a slacker. At the age of 83, Schuller has a Pulitzer Prize and a MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant under his belt. He played principal horn in the Cincinnati Symphony as a teenager. Then he jumped genres to record with jazz legend Miles Davis. Schuller figured out a way to combine jazz and classical to form a new style of music. And he's still composing. Andrea Shea of member station WBUR has this profile.

ANDREA SHEA: Gunther Schuller doesn't sleep much.

Mr. GUNTHER SCHULLER (Composer): When I was 18, my parents tell me you have to sleep eight hours every night. And I said, God, you know, if I sleep eight hours every night, I'm going to piss away one-third of my life just by sleeping. And life is too short.

SHEA: In his waking hours, Schuller has composed nearly 200 pieces of music over the past seven decades.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Schuller's latest was just premiered by the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Jazz writer Bob Blumenthal was in the audience. He calls the work, "Where the Word Ends," a time capsule of Schuller's career.

Mr. BOB BLUMENTHAL (Jazz Writer): I was sitting there and at one point I said, oh, yeah, boy, he sure loves Stravinsky — just some of the rhythmic tension, which isn't a jazz rhythmic tension. There were other parts where I said, oh yes, he did play with the Miles Davis nonet because some of the harmonic feeling and some of the color in there. And Gunther as a kid was playing in that band. So I really felt like I was hearing a lot of Gunther in there.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Gunther Schuller is well known for straddling two distinct styles of music: classical and jazz. Schuller's father was a violinist in the New York Philharmonic, and the teenager inhaled music by Stravinsky, Beethoven, Ravel and Schoenberg.

Mr. SCHULLER: I was so possessed by music, so obsessed with it, that I just worked every day studying, I would say, 18, 19 hours. Sometimes I didn't even eat.

SHEA: Or sleep, as we already know. Schuller longed to be a composer, but he was a natural on the French horn. At 16, he landed his first job with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra. Then he returned to New York to join the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra. One night, sitting in the kitchen doing schoolwork, Schuller says he heard something on the radio that completely rocked his world.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHULLER: I said to my father, you know, pop, I heard some music — Duke Ellington — last night, and, you know, that music is as great as Beethoven's and Mozart's. And he, you know, almost had a heart attack because that was a heretical thing to say.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Jazz became Schuller's new obsession. In the late '40s and early '50s, French horn players were rare in jazz ensembles, and that helped him to get in with some greats — including Miles Davis with whom he recorded music that came to be dubbed "The Birth of the Cool."

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Schuller got his big break on the concert stage in 1956. That's when the music director of the New York Philharmonic conducted and broadcast his "Music for Brass."

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHULLER: The next thing I know, I get a letter from Aaron Copland, and from Samuel Barber and all these famous composers who were, you know, the kings of the land. And suddenly I was a recognized composer of at least some promise.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. SCHULLER: So I was living this double life, jazz and classical music. And how much more wonderful can it be?

(Soundbite of laughter)

SHEA: Well, actually, Schuller thought it could be more wonderful, so he created a third life by combining jazz and classical. He dubbed it "The Third Stream."

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Schuller may have been happy, but bringing the jazz club into the concert hall and vice versa, didn't please everyone.

Mr. SCHULLER: It wasn't controversial to me — it was totally logical. In fact, I said, my God, these two great musics and they are in separate camps — they don't talk to each other, they hate each other, they vilify each other. We've got to get these musics together.

SHEA: To that end, Schuller enlisted the help of a young improvisational pianist named Ran Blake. Blake went to the New York jazz clubs with Schuller and became his student. He says Schuller was the first to say his Third Stream concept was not actually new.

Mr. RAN BLAKE (Pianist): "Porgy and Bess" could be considered Third Stream. Beethoven using country dances, yes, that's mixing court with the field music — it's not quite as dramatic as jazz, classical, Ethiopian, Richard Strauss.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: Blake and Schuller moved to Boston, where Schuller became the president of the New England Conservatory in 1967. There they created the Third Stream Department. And Schuller continued to make trouble. Always outspoken, he wrote highly critical books about jazz and classical music. He also conducted and started his own record label. But composing has remained Schuller's life force.

(Soundbite of music)

SHEA: The New England Philharmonic recently performed a piece Schuller composed when he was 19. He was thrilled to hear it played for only the second time in six decades.

Standing in his living room, surrounded by books and stacks of orchestral scores he writes by hand…

Mr. SCHULLER: I'm 83 years old. You accumulate a lot.

SHEA: Schuller says the creative process that's consumed him since he wrote his first piece — on a toy xylophone for his baby brother — still mystifies him.

Mr. SCHULLER: Why are we sitting there with a blank piece of paper, manuscript paper and an idea comes to us suddenly — where does it come from, you know? We don't know. We will never know.

SHEA: What Gunther Schuller does know for sure, though, is that there is little time for sleep. There are deadlines to meet. He's got five orchestra compositions to finish this year.

For NPR News, I'm Andrea Shea.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: You can hear music from throughout Gunther Schuller's career at nprmusic.org.

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