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This first volume of the American composer, conductor, horn player and teacher Gunther Schuller’s autobiography spans three-and-a-half decades to the career-changing year of 1960, and stretches across nearly 700 pages. While the book’s length is not altogether heavenly, it is, on the whole, enjoyable and in many ways richly rewarding.

Few figures have been so prolific, and fewer still so instrumental in recognising and articulating the uniquely wide-ranging nature and multi-faceted identity of American music as it came of age in the middle of the last century. The son of a New York Philharmonic violinist, Schuller played horn with the American Ballet Theatre at 15, leaving two years later to become one of the youngest principals to have played with the Cincinnati Symphony, before joining the orchestra of the Metropolitan Opera.

By then, he was already steeped in jazz, recording with Miles Davis and later developing a long friendship with Duke Ellington, the regret of not taking up the iconic bandleader’s invitation to join his band lingering into later life. His fascination with jazz was complemented by remarkably catholic musical tastes.

Schuller, who celebrated his 85th birthday last November, championed what he regarded as the natural commonality of form and function, point and purpose, of music in all its national, cultural and stylistic guises. His own early compositions in the late 1950s were crucibles in which base jazz and precious classical idioms were re-fashioned into something new and distinctively modern, expressions of what he came to describe as the ‘Third Stream’.

Full of telling observations and commentary drawn from his own, clearly detailed diaries, Schuller writes with astonishing recall and a warm, conversational tone that conjures something compellingly intimate, and as honest about personal as about professional experiences. As a warts-and-all profi le of one of America’s most under-valued musical talents it is an essential book; as a first-hand history of American music in the middle of the 20th century, it is altogether invaluable.

MICHAEL QUINN Read the full review on Agora Classica

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