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Third Stream

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Title: Third Stream  
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Subject: Charles Mingus, Ron Carter, Charlie Parker, J. J. Johnson, Artie Shaw, Mary Lou Williams, Miles Ahead, Wavy Gravy, Don Ellis, Teo Macero
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Third Stream

Third Stream
Stylistic origins Jazz, classical music
Cultural origins 1957 United States
Typical instruments Instruments commonly used in jazz, instruments commonly used in classical music

(complete list)

Third Stream is a term coined in 1957 by composer Gunther Schuller, in a lecture at Brandeis University, to describe a musical genre which is a synthesis of classical music and jazz. Improvisation — a key element of jazz, but far less common in classical music — is generally seen as a vital component of Third Stream.[1]


In 1961, Schuller defined Third Stream as "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music".[2] Schuller insisted that "by definition there is no such thing as 'Third Stream Jazz'".[3]

Schuller noted that while purists on both sides of Third Stream objected to tainting their favorite music with the other, more strenuous objections were typically made by jazz musicians who felt such efforts were "an assault on their traditions." Schuller writes that "by designating the music as a 'separate, Third Stream,' the other two mainstreams could go about their way unaffected by the attempts at fusion."[4] Because Third Stream draws on classical as much as jazz, it is generally required that composers and performers be proficient in both genres.

Critics have argued that Third Stream—by drawing on two very different styles—dilutes the power of each in combining them.[5] Others reject such notions, and consider Third Stream an interesting musical development.[6]

In 1981, Schuller offered a list of "What Third Stream is 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 option amongst many for today’s creative musicians.[7]

Earlier fusion attempts

Schuller suggested that a similar fusion was made by Béla Bartók, who earned great acclaim after incorporating elements of Hungarian folk music into his music, which had earlier been heavily influenced by Claude Debussy and Richard Strauss.

Attempts to integrate jazz and classical music began in the early 1900s almost as soon as the former became recognised as a distinct style of music. Some Ragtime music drew upon classical music, and symphonic pieces such as George Gershwin's 1924 Rhapsody In Blue blended jazz and symphonic music. The piece La création du monde by French composer Darius Milhaud includes jazz-inspired elements, including a jazz fugue. Igor Stravinsky drew upon jazz for several compositions, such as "Ragtime", "Piano-rag Rag Music" and "The Ebony Concerto" (the latter composed for jazz clarinetist Woody Herman and his orchestra in 1945). Other notable composers who utilized jazz elements in at least a few compositions include Maurice Ravel, Bohuslav Martinů, Paul Hindemith, William Grant Still, George Antheil, Aaron Copland, Ernst Krenek, Kurt Weill, Dmitri Shostakovich, Morton Gould, and Leonard Bernstein. Though few of these examples can be strictly classified as Third Stream as they do not involve improvisation, they do demonstrate that there was widespread mutual interest and appreciation between the jazz and classical traditions.

Much of Duke Ellington's work has often been recognized as being among the early efforts to blend the elements associated with both genres. His music has been described as sharing characteristics with that of classical composers such as Delius, Debussy, and Ravel, particularly in impressionistic mood pieces such as "Mood Indigo," "Dusk," and "Reflections in D," as well as in more extended composed works such as "Creole Rhapsody," "Reminiscing in Tempo," and "The Tattooed Bride." These tendencies were also shared by his frequent co-composer Billy Strayhorn.

Pianist Art Tatum drew upon elements of classical technique and recorded jazz versions of short pieces by European composers such as Antonín Dvořák, Jules Massenet, and Anton Rubinstein.

Another important jazz-classical fusion was Artie Shaw's "Interlude in B-flat," recorded in 1935 with the most unusual ensemble of a string quartet, a jazz rhythm section, and Shaw on clarinet and saxophone.

Much of Charles Mingus's oeuvre before and after the coining of the term "Third Stream" parallels Schuller's idea. Indeed, the title of Mingus' two-part album Jazzical Moods (1955), a blend of "jazz" and "classical," may have helped to inspire Schuller; the two men were also friends.


Despite the early examples noted above, critic Scott Yanow writes, "it was not until the mid-to-late '50s that more serious experiments began to take place. Schuller, John Lewis, J. J. Johnson, and Bill Russo were some of the more significant composers attempting to bridge the gap between jazz and classical music."[8] Yanow also suggests that the impact of Third Stream music was blunted by the rise of free jazz in the late 1950s, which overtook Third Stream as the leading development in jazz. Schuller was heavily involved with the Columbia Records LPs Music For Brass (1957) and Modern Jazz Concert (1958) later re-issued became what is known as the recording Birth Of The Third Stream (now as CD). The recording greatly helped to push the concept and legitimacy of the style and approach to this music.

Jazz composer and producer Teo Macero, who went on to produce Miles Davis and Dave Brubeck, was influenced by the Third Stream movement. Other notable examples of the style include Lewis's Modern Jazz Quartet and solo efforts, Teddy Charles, Don Ellis, Gil Evans, Bill Russo, George Russell, Brubeck and his brother, Howard Brubeck, Jacques Loussier and his Play Bach Trio, Jimmy Giuffre, Toshiko Akiyoshi, David Amram, Ran Blake, David Baker, and Bob Graettinger. Many free jazz composers and performers, such as Cecil Taylor, Anthony Braxton, Yitzhak Yedid, the band Oregon, and Sun Ra, were also influenced by the Third Stream school.

Charles Mingus' immense final work, Epitaph, was edited and premiered at Lincoln Center in 1989 by Schuller.

Fred Tompkins, has forged a style which seems to enjoy the benefits of fully notated composition, while also capturing the strong, propulsive essence of jazz. His early works were often accompanied by the drumming of Elvin Jones and then by other drummers from New York or St. Louis.

Examples of recordings that synthesize composed and improvised music are the albums Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and Gil Evans; European Windows and the film soundtrack Odds Against Tomorrow by John Lewis; Extension by Clare Fischer (as well as the orchestral portions of Cal Tjader's West Side Story and Cal Tjader Plays Harold Arlen, both arranged by Fischer), Focus and Stan Getz Plays Music from the Soundtrack of Mickey One by Getz and Eddie Sauter; Perceptions by Dizzy Gillespie and J. J. Johnson; Alegria by Wayne Shorter; Scorched by Mark-Anthony Turnage and John Scofield; Wide Angles by Michael Brecker, and Myth of the Cave by Yitzhak Yedid. These albums feature a soloist improvising in a jazz style over a complex composed background.

Composer Krzysztof Penderecki experimented with compositionally guided free jazz improvisation in his "Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra." Hans Werner Henze also brought free jazz into his compositions—-notably, in "Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer"—-though some may consider his use of jazz to be more incorporated texture than synthesis.

The contemporary Ukrainian composer-pianist Nikolai Kapustin writes fully notated music in a jazz idiom that fuses the Russian piano tradition with the virtuosic styles of Tatum, Oscar Peterson, and others.

The thesis completed at the University of Texas in 1999 on how to push the boundaries of Third Stream composition.



  • Gunther Schuller: Musings: The Musical Words of Gunther Schuller; Oxford University Press, 1986; 0195037456

External links

  • Third Stream description at Verve Records
  • Jazz Resource Library
  • Gunther Schuller in conversation with Frank J. Oteri, May 5, 2009 (includes video)
  • Contemporary Improvisation (formerly Third Stream) department at New England Conservatory
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