Gunther Schuller and the Challenge of Sonny Rollins: Stylistic Context, Intentionality, and Jazz Analysis

Benjamin Givan, Skidmore College


Scholarly opinion has for many years been divided over Gunther Schuller’s landmark 1958 article, “Sonny Rollins and the Challenge of Thematic Improvisation.” Jazz theorists view the article’s close analysis of Rollins’s 1956 jazz saxophone improvisation “Blue 7” as one of their discipline’s founding statements; historians and ethnomusicologists meanwhile tend to fault it for neglecting cultural context. In either instance the specific details of Schuller’s analysis have been largely accepted as being internally consistent. The present study proposes that the analysis of jazz improvisation ought to engage more extensively with broader stylistic issues in addition to the specifics of isolated individual performances. Such a musically contextualized perspective reveals that Schuller’s principal argument—that, in this particular improvisation, Rollins developed motivic elements of a composed theme—is false. “Blue 7” was in fact improvised in its entirety, and the melodic pattern that Schuller cited as a thematic motive was one of Rollins’s habitual improvisational formulas, heard onmany of the saxophonist’s other 1950s recordings. This canonic recording, as well as the notion of Rollins as a “thematic” improviser, therefore needs to be reconsidered.