What the Third Stream Isn't
April 5, 2013 10:49 AM   Subscribe

In 1957 composer, conductor, and sideman Gunther Schuller defined the Third Stream as "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music." He also defined what it was not.

-- It is not jazz with strings.
-- It is not jazz played on 'classical' instruments.
-- It is not classical music played by jazz players.
-- It is not inserting a bit of Ravel or Schoenberg between be-bop changes nor the reverse.
-- It is not jazz in fugal form.
-- It is not a fugue played by jazz players.
-- It is not designed to do away with jazz or classical music; it is just another options
amongst many for today’s creative musicians.

Schuller also insisted that, "by definition there is no such thing as 'Third Stream Jazz'"

Decide for yourself.

The Modern Jazz Quartet - Sketch
Duke Ellington - The Tattooed Bride
Cal Tjader - West Side Story
David Amram - Triple Concerto


Miles Davis's exemplary, Sketches of Spain.
posted by timsteil (23 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite
Listening to these, and I want a Hi-Fi, one of the ones with the mirror on the lid so you could see the record spinning from your Eames chair, a whiskey sour in hand...
posted by Slap*Happy at 11:07 AM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Shuller's Third Stream program at New England Conservatory has evolved into the Contemporary Improvisation program, and not all the musicians it turns out sound like Jazz players at all.
posted by mr vino at 11:07 AM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

So people have been mixing Jazz and anything they can think of for ages. IMO Third stream is the most successful, fusion least so. Nu-jazz is jazz+Electronica. Latin jazz self explanatory. Bossa Nova is Samba plus jazz.

Beside the improvisational nature, what makes jazz so attractive to being remade with something else?
posted by Keith Talent at 11:07 AM on April 5, 2013

Well, I'm not a musicologist, but you can have harmonic complexity ranging from the inane to the Byzantine within "pure jazz," so lots of less flexible forms can easily be absorbed into it.
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 11:15 AM on April 5, 2013

Pretty sure it's just the improvisational nature. What else is there that is universally and uniquely 'jazz'?
posted by Doleful Creature at 11:15 AM on April 5, 2013

What else is there that is universally and uniquely 'jazz'?
For most of the history of jazz, one might have answered something like: "a high degree of rhythmic syncopation" (e.g. swung triplets) and "radically expanded harmony" (e.g. dominant 7th chords taking the place of triads, the use of 9ths and 11ths, and harmonic devices like tritone substitutions). But, jazz has evolved and morphed in so many directions that you can't really say that any more. Honestly, it's gotten pretty hard to decide these days "is it or ain't it jazz?"!! Once when I was doing a radio broadcast, I said: "If people are making an ungodly racket using electric guitars, it's rock, but if they're making an ungodly racket with saxopones, it's jazz!". Of course I didn't really mean that, but I think the intention of the performer is often the determining factor in whether a recording winds up filed under "rock", "jazz" or "new music".
posted by crazy_yeti at 11:26 AM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

Beside the improvisational nature, what makes jazz so attractive to being remade with something else?

Jazz, as it emerged in New Orleans already was a mix - European "classical" music, marches, African music and rhythm, the blues, etc. Adding something new or emphasizing one aspect of the mix is just following in the tradition.
posted by tommasz at 11:41 AM on April 5, 2013

So, whatever someone thinks "Third Stream" means, that shows that they are an idiot? What a great invention.
posted by thelonius at 11:43 AM on April 5, 2013

I once read a pretty fun Everything2 writeup about jazz (linked from MeFi, natch). Wish I could find that again, it was good.
posted by Doleful Creature at 12:05 PM on April 5, 2013

No discussion of Third Stream would be complete without mention of Gunther Schuller's greatest student and admirer, Ran Blake, one of the most inspiring teachers, bosses, and friends I have ever had (full disclosure). With a stylistic palette that encompasses Thelonious Monk, Film Noir soundtracks, Stevie Wonder, Charles Ives, and Hank Williams (to name but a few), he is the living embodiment of "Third Stream" (although he somewhat eschewed that term when I knew him) and time spent with his music will be dramatically rewarded.
posted by fingers_of_fire at 12:27 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Whenever Gunther Schuller's name comes up, I say the same thing, and I'm going to say it again now: GUNTHER! YOU'RE THE BEST JAZZ HISTORIAN WHO EVER LIVED! WRITE THE SEQUEL TO Early Jazz AND The Swing Era ALREADY, WE'VE BEEN WAITING FOR 22 YEARS AND YOU DON'T HAVE THAT MUCH TIME LEFT! Ahem. You may now resume trying to decide what makes jazz jazz. (Duke Ellington settled that quite a while back: "There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.")
posted by languagehat at 1:07 PM on April 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I used to see Third Stream in central PA decades ago. Apparently they're still together.
posted by MtDewd at 1:50 PM on April 5, 2013

Don't forget City of Glass, Stan Kenton's album of Bob Graettinger's music (the link is to the first of three youtube uploads of the whole album). Really awesome stuff.
posted by kenko at 2:39 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

You may now resume trying to decide what makes jazz jazz. (Duke Ellington settled that quite a while back: "There are simply two kinds of music, good music and the other kind.")

I don't see how what Duke Ellington said helps settle what makes jazz jazz, and it's facile to think that there's nothing about jazz broadly construed that sets it apart from, say, gagaku. (Even given "Ad Lib on Nippon".) Ellington is right that one should be broad-minded and attempt to see the good qualities of music regardless of its style, but the denial of style or genre entirely is kind of obtuse.
posted by kenko at 2:46 PM on April 5, 2013

denial of style or genre entirely is kind of obtuse.

Well yes, and no. I can definitely sympathize with Ellington's glibness here. My own experience playing and writing music has led me to similar thoughts on the matter. At one point when I was trying to clean up my sprawling (and admittedly unusual) iTunes library I was like "fuck it" and mass-deleted the genre column on all 22,000 tracks.

Most of the time I don't regret that decision. Genre and style are useful for marketing and for discussing music history. After enough time has passed, even an historically distinct style or genre becomes diluted by the influence of other styles or genres over time and it's easy to see why someone like Ellington, who was heavily influenced by many other styles and genres, would want to reject any such labels on his own work which he surely viewed as a synthesis of many things that came before.

Is modern gagaku precisely the same as historical gagaku? Or has it been corrupted by other styles? When we talk of "classical" music, what are we talking about? Music from the Classical period? Art music, or maybe just Music With Certain Instruments on Certain Chords? Of course not. Beethoven wrote in both the Classical and Romantic styles. Bach was firmly Baroque. I think. Debussy and Satie were Impressionists, though they didn't like the term. Mahler was late Romantic. Aaron Copland is generally just referred to as an "American composer". Or is that American Classical, then? Or maybe Modern American Art Music? Is it really useful that there are there are over 50 subgenres of metal?

Radiohead was heavily influenced by Mingus while recording Kid A and Amnesiac. The third track from Kid A employs John Harle's 40-voice saxophone choir...and an Ondes Martenot inspired by Messaien. The last track on Amnesiac employs a jazz band. Is it jazz? Or rock? Or alternativeIt's probably neither, and it doesn't matter: it's just Radiohead. It's good, friend. Real good.

I like labeling stuff too but there's an awful lot of music that's pretty hard to label. It's not entirely obtuse to want to eschew the hand-wringing over genre and just back to enjoying the music...
posted by Doleful Creature at 3:43 PM on April 5, 2013

Is modern gagaku precisely the same as historical gagaku? Or has it been corrupted by other styles?

"Corrupted"? Strong stuff, that.

Modern gagaku unquestionably has a strong lineal connection to historical gagaku (that's one reason we call it modern gagaku), and presumably has a pretty strong family resemblance to historical gagaku in terms of sound, playing style, compositional style, etc. Someone styling himself a composer or player of modern gagaku music thereby situates him- or herself in a tradition that includes historical gagaku essentially and, say, Pierre Boulez (who was himself influenced in some works by gagaku) incidentally. Similar things can be said about the term "classical", even though it's significantly more bleached: the term invokes a network of compositional, lineal/historical, and performative connections and traditions. That isn't to say, of course, that the term offers a bright line separating "classical music" from other things, but why should we expect a genre term to perform that service for us? [Wittgensteinian remarks on games and family resemblance incorporated by reference.]

I'm reminded of some of Pat Metheny's comments on Kenny G:
And after all, why he should be judged by any other standard, why he should be exempt from that that all other serious musicians on his instrument are judged by if they attempt to use their abilities in an improvisational context playing with a rhythm section as he does? He SHOULD be compared to John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter, for instance, on his abilities (or lack thereof) to play the soprano saxophone and his success (or lack thereof) at finding a way to deploy that instrument in an ensemble in order to accurately gauge his abilities and put them in the context of his instrument's legacy and potential.

As a composer of even eighth note based music, he SHOULD be compared to Herbie Hancock, Horace Silver or even Grover Washington. Suffice it to say, on all above counts, at this point in his development, he wouldn't fare well.
Why should he be compared to Hancock? Why is that a relevant comparandum? Because he situates himself (and, in the incident to which Metheny was responding, in which he dubbed himself into a Louis Armstrong recording, situated himself quite explicitly) in a jazz tradition. Whereas it would (probably!) be analytically less useful to put Kenny G alongside, say, Doc Watson.

Genre terms are, after all, in large part analytical terms: they serve to situate what we're listening to (or reading, or whatever) in a family, set relevant terms for comparison and assessment, tell us, to some extent, how to listen, etc. They can perform that service without having bright lines or mutually excluding one another or being bastions of purity or whatever. They can perform that service while allowing for ambiguous cases where it's unclear where something falls, if it falls anywhere. They have a synthetic use too: think, for instance, of the use writers have found in tvtropes. (Or even just the difficulty and rarity of being a really great player in multiple distinct genres or styles. Genre is a constraint, and like all constraints, it enables creation. Even Evan Parker played (as Jim O'Rourke once complained) "Evan Parker trio music", not, as you might think, really free arbitrary music.

So I think that, while it's admirable to try to take each piece on its own individual terms, something that you might well symbolize by deleting all the "genre" tags, (a) you can't really do that anyway and (b) you'd just end up hampering yourself. You end up depriving yourself of a useful critical vocabulary and a useful way to listen. That's completely compatible with what I take to be the real meat of Ellington's remark, which is that the good music is just good music, and it's not the case that as good as country & western can be, it can never be as good as good jazz, or that as good as the best jazz can be, it can never be as good as the best European art music, or whatever.
posted by kenko at 5:34 PM on April 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Which is to say, you can't "just [get] back to enjoying the music". You can eschew hand-wringing, sure, but nothing I said above required hand-wringing.
posted by kenko at 5:34 PM on April 5, 2013

Well said, I stand corrected.
posted by Doleful Creature at 5:44 PM on April 5, 2013

Gagaku and Jazz Third Stream and Fusion, for those who are curious, and want to be ruined forever.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:27 PM on April 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is a good post and a good topic thanks...
I would like to add George Russell to third stream soup pot.
posted by quazichimp at 7:37 PM on April 5, 2013

Not like this is worth a MeTa, but a serious shoutout
to both Doleful Creature and Kenko, for making me go look up Gagaku, a thing I had NEVER heard of before, and odds are never would have. And I certainly never would have seen the through line of these similar styles of music.
posted by timsteil at 7:46 PM on April 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

posted by Paul Slade at 5:07 PM on April 6, 2013

This is Polymath's husband chiming in to a discussion about a topic that gets discussed in this household a lot.

Good points on genre, from both sides. Personally, I find that the musical ensembles that are hardest to pin down with a genre are the ones I enjoy the most.

What type of music does Ween play? Mister Bungle? Jacob Fred Jazz Ensemble (actually, they play Third Stream Jazz, as I've just discovered)? The more discussion it takes to describe what type of music the band plays, the fresher and more surprising it is for me to listen to. Bands that socket themselves solidly in to a genre are ones that will become boring very quickly...
posted by polymath at 10:18 PM on April 6, 2013

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