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Music in the Late Twentieth Century


CHAPTER 7 The Sixties
Richard Taruskin

Unlike “folk,” which never recovered its pure identity after the infusion of rock, jazz (or rather, some eminent jazz musicians) recoiled from “fusion” into a purism comparable to that of academic modernism. This recoil mirrored a larger one within American society. The “melting pot” ideal that saw America as a land offering equal opportunity to all who were willing to shed their ethnic particularities and assimilate (or “integrate”) into the general culture was now widely questioned by minorities and vocally rejected by some of their spokesmen. In its place, many now embraced the principle of multiculturalism (or, in its more strident variants, cultural nationalism), a far less sanguine view that expressed the disillusion of those who, during the turbulent decade of civil-rights violence, concluded that the melting-pot or integrationist ideal was a smokescreen concealing and protecting the interests of the existing white (and Christian, and male) power structure.

The movement toward integration had received its biggest boost in 1954, when the United States Supreme Court, in deciding a case called Brown v. Board of Education, ruled unanimously that racially segregated schools were unconstitutional because separate facilities, excluding minorities from the majority “mainstream,” stigmatized the excluded and were therefore inherently incompatible with the constitution's guarantees of legal equality for all citizens. That moment had its musical reflections. One, it could be argued, was the success of Elvis Presley, a white performer who frankly emulated a black style (but without the degrading camouflage of blackface makeup). Another was the so-called Third Stream.

The term, and to a large extent the music to which it referred, was the brainchild of Gunther Schuller (b. 1925), a remarkably versatile musician who began his career as a French horn virtuoso (occupying the solo horn chair in the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra from 1945 to 1959), who composed prolifically (chiefly in a serial idiom), and who maintained an enthusiastic interest in jazz that led him to become one of the major historians of the genre. Schuller coined the phrase in 1957 to denote (in his words) “a type of music which, through improvisation or written composition or both, synthesizes the essential characteristics and techniques of contemporary Western art music and various ethnic or vernacular musics.”41

It is a slightly misleading (and slightly patronizing) definition, since jazz was by 1957 far from a purely ethnic or vernacular music (nor, beyond its being written, could anyone have actually defined the “essence” of contemporary Western art music except contentiously). But the broadness of the definition reflected Schuller's ecumenical conviction, characteristic of its optimistic time, that “any music stands to profit from a confrontation with another.” The Third Stream was envisioned as the confluence of two “mainstreams.” “Western art music,” in Schuller's view, “can learn a great deal from the rhythmic vitality and ‘swing’ of jazz, while jazz can find new avenues of development in the large-scale forms and complex tonal systems of classical music.” In practice, the Third Stream was the fruit of a collaboration between Schuller and John Lewis (1920–2001), a jazz pianist and arranger who had studied theory and composition at the Manhattan School of Music and who was already interested in reconciling jazz techniques both with the larger forms of literate composition and with modernist structural ideals. Even his improvisations, in the words of one critic, had “a degree of motivic unity that is rare in jazz.”42 In 1951, Lewis teamed up with the vibraphonist Milt Jackson (1923–99) in the Milt Jackson Quartet (the remaining players being a bassist and a drummer), which the next year was renamed the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) under Lewis's direction. The MJQ quickly gained a reputation as a “progressive” ensemble, whose refined and somewhat cerebral signature sound (sometimes identified as “cool jazz”) was a florid counterpoint between Jackson's solos and Lewis's unusually melodic accompaniments.

It was on the basis of this already somewhat “classically” oriented, hence devernacularized (and despite all the members’ being African-American, de-ethnicized) jazz approach that Schuller, who as a twelve-tone composer employed a similarly devernacularized idiom, developed the Third Stream idea. He promoted it in terms that unabashedly proclaimed the values, and even the slogans, associated with the liberal integrationist moment in American social policy:

Third Stream is a way of composing, improvising, and performing that brings musics together rather than segregating them. It is a way of making music which holds that all musics are created equal, coexisting in a beautiful brotherhood/sisterhood of musics that complement and fructify each other. It is a global concept which allows the world's musics—written, improvised, handed-down, traditional, experimental—to come together, to learn from one another, to reflect human diversity and pluralism. It is the music of rapprochement, of entente—not of competition and confrontation. And it is the logical outcome of the American melting pot: E pluribus unum.43

For an idea of Third Stream music in practice we can compare a composition by Schuller with one by Lewis. Schuller's Transformation (1957) is composed for a jazz combo precisely matching the instrumentation of the MJQ, plus an ensemble of orchestral instruments (winds and harp). This is Schuller's program note:

In Transformation a variety of musical concepts converge: twelve-tone technique, Klangfarbenmelodie (tone-color-melody), jazz improvisation, and metric breaking up of the jazz beat. In regard to the latter, rhythmic asymmetry has been a staple of classical composers’ techniques since the early part of the twentieth century (particularly in the music of Stravinsky and Varèse), but in jazz in the 1950s it was still an extremely rare occurrence. As the title suggests, the work begins as a straight twelve-tone piece, with the melody parceled out among an interlocking chain of tone colors, and is gradually transformed into a jazz piece by the subtle introduction of jazz-rhythmic elements. Jazz and improvisation take over, only to succumb to the reverse process: they are gradually swallowed up by a growing riff which then breaks up into smaller fragments, juxtaposing in constant alternation classical and jazz rhythms. Thus, the intention in this piece was never to fuse jazz and classical elements into a totally new alloy, but rather to present them initially in succession—in peaceful coexistence—and later, in close, more competitive juxtaposition.44

Integration without Prejudice?Integration without Prejudice?Integration without Prejudice?

ex. 7-5 Gunther Schuller, Transformation, fig. [J] to fig. [L]

Ex. 7-5 shows the “reverse process” Schuller describes, in which the fully notated music of the “classical” instruments gradually swamps the partially notated music of the improvising combo. Lewis's Sketch (1959) pits the MJQ against a string quartet. The two groups share a fund of motivic elements (notably a short scale figure descending a minor third); but again, as in Schuller's piece, they alternate rather than collaborate, the “composed” music acting sometimes as a frame, sometimes as a harmonic background, for the improvised. Ex. 7-6 shows the end of the piece, the only moment that attempts the “integration” of all the performers in a single texture. Neither Schuller's piece nor Lewis's actually attempts, let alone achieves, the kind of integration or fusion that theoretical descriptions of Third Stream seem to promise. The idea of two indigenous musical currents meeting on absolute terms of equality was attractive to Americans. But in actual musical practice, Third Stream compositions left the crucial questions—were the currents truly indigenous? could they really meet as equals?—unanswered, and the trend had effectively died out by the 1980s. Even in its brief heyday the idea met with considerable skepticism, especially after Schuller characterized Third Stream as “the Europeanization of jazz.”45 This ill-starred term reactivated notions of upward social mobility, and not just for jazz.

Yet Third Stream never aroused the antagonism that jazz-rock fusion inspired; and that must be because the musics it sought to fuse—conservatory-style composition (in Schuller's case twelve-tone) and “progressive jazz”—were both of them considered elite musics at the time. The offspring born of their wedlock could be comfortably accommodated, in the context of the late 1950s and early 1960s, to the idea of “maturation of taste” as a rite of passage. Neither jazz nor classical listeners needed to fear that their elite status would be compromised by a taste for Third Stream.

Integration without Prejudice?Integration without Prejudice?

ex. 7-6 John Lewis, Sketch, end

Jazz-rock fusion, on the other hand, was seen as part of a general encroachment of commercialism on art that practitioners and devotees of elite genres all saw at first as a mortal threat. Indeed, rock did seem to be swallowing up everybody's audience, and appeared to traditionalists of all stripes as the common enemy, even as it was claiming the allegiance of many who would previously have “graduated” to one of the traditional elite genres. By the end of the 1960s popular music accounted for more than 70 percent of all record sales, leaving jazz, folk, and classical to compete for the remainder. Since then the disparity has only grown. In the 1990s, classical music and jazz each commanded a measly 3 percent of record sales. They had become “niche” products. For classical music in particular, which had always claimed a universal “human” appeal (and founded its sense of superiority to other genres precisely on its vaunted universality), it seemed a death sentence. The history of classical music in the last three decades of the twentieth century was basically a history of coping with the threat put in motion by the sixties.


(41) Gunther Schuller, “Third Stream,” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. IV, p. 377.

(42) Thomas Owens, “Lewis, John (Aaron),” in New Grove Dictionary of American Music, Vol. III, p. 41.

(43) “Third Stream Revisited,” in Musings: The Musical Worlds of Gunther Schuller (New York: Oxford University Press, 1986), p. 119.

(44) Musings, pp. 131–32.

(45) “The Avant-Garde and Third Stream,” Musings, p. 121.

Citation (MLA):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." The Oxford History of Western Music. Oxford University Press. New York, USA. n.d. Web. 7 Oct. 2022. <https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007007.xml>.
Citation (APA):
Taruskin, R. (n.d.). Chapter 7 The Sixties. In Oxford University Press, Music in the Late Twentieth Century. New York, USA. Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007007.xml
Citation (Chicago):
Richard Taruskin. "Chapter 7 The Sixties." In Music in the Late Twentieth Century, Oxford University Press. (New York, USA, n.d.). Retrieved 7 Oct. 2022, from https://www.oxfordwesternmusic.com/view/Volume5/actrade-9780195384857-div1-007007.xml