The world has been praising Gunther Schuller for his wide-ranging contributions to the world of music. If not exactly a force of nature, or in the heroic mold of the great classical composers and conductors, Schuller was an exemplary tastemaker and the very definition of open-minded. Flitting between the classical music and jazz worlds, Schuller was a rare musician. Traditionally, classical musicians look down on jazz for its improvisatory nature and seeming lack of coherence. Among the first to recognize the artistic merit in the work of the great trumpeter Louis Armstrong, Schuller explained an American art to American cultural snobs.
Schuller’s death, though, brings up a rather problematic matter. To say jazz is lacking critical voices would be inaccurate: Nat Hentoff, Terry Teachout, Gary Giddins, Stanley Crouch, Ted Gioia, Ben Ratliff, Gerald Early —all are still banging their keyboards and producing solid, even brilliant criticism, biographies, and essays. Dead at 89 years old, Schuller was among the oldest of American jazz critics, and his death brings to light the fact that jazz is increasingly lacking young critical voices. Literary criticism, for example, doesn’t have the vacuum. Cynthia Ozick or Harold Bloom may still be declaring masterpieces, but so are Adam Kirsch and the boys and girls at N+1 magazine. It’s a pressing issue for the progress of the art of jazz.