Third Stream is a term coined in 1957 by composer Gunther Schuller in a lecture at Brandeis University to describe a synthesis of jazz and classical music. Improvisation is generally seen as a vital component of Third Stream.
In 1961, Schuller defined Third Stream as "a new genre of music located about halfway between jazz and classical music". He insisted that "by definition there is no such thing as 'Third Stream Jazz'". He 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". He wrote 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". Because Third Stream draws on classical as much as jazz, it is usually 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. Others reject such notions and consider Third Stream an interesting musical development. In 1981, Schuller offered a list of "What Third Stream is not":
Schuller suggested that a similar fusion was made by Béla Bartók, who earned 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 recognized as a distinct style of music. Some ragtime music drew upon classical music.
Paul Whiteman employed string sections in his jazz bands in the 1920s, as did Artie Shaw in the 1940s. These musicians had written parts and supported the improvisers. More dramatic attempts to bridge jazz and classical were made by Charlie Parker in 1949 and in the 1950s by J. J. Johnson, John Lewis, and William Russo.
George Gershwin blended jazz and symphonic music in Rhapsody in Blue (1924). French composer Darius Milhaud used jazz-inspired elements, including a jazz fugue, in La création du monde. Igor Stravinsky drew from jazz for Ragtime, Piano-Rag-Music, and the Ebony Concerto composed for clarinetist Woody Herman and his orchestra in 1945. Other composers who used jazz include George Antheil, Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, Morton Gould, Paul Hindemith, Ernst Krenek, Bohuslav Martin?, Maurice Ravel, Dmitri Shostakovich, William Grant Still, and Kurt Weill. Although few of these examples can be classified Third Stream, they demonstrate interest and appreciation for jazz among classical composers.
Reginald Foresythe was among the first musicians to combine the two genres, beginning in the 1930s. He called his style "The New Music". Critics praised "Garden of Weed" "Serenade for a Wealthy Widow" and the Bach-influenced "Dodging a Divorcee", but the British public was baffled. Foresythe's music found a warmer reception in America, resulting in collaborations with Ellington, Benny Goodman, and Earl Hines. Artie Shaw recorded "Interlude in B-flat" in 1935 with the unusual ensemble of a string quartet, a jazz rhythm section, and Shaw on clarinet and saxophone. Although not Third Stream in conception, pianist Art Tatum drew on classical technique and recorded jazz versions of short pieces by European composers Antonín Dvo?ák, Jules Massenet, and Anton Rubinstein.
A fusion of jazz with contemporary classical music came from the pen of Pete Rugolo, chief architect of the Stan Kenton Progressive Jazz Orchestra from 1947 to 1948 and the Innovations in Modern Music Orchestra of 1950 and 1951. A student of Milhaud, Rugolo studied the scores of Debussy, Ravel, and Stravinsky. The exploratory works of Robert Graettinger for Kenton from 1947 to 1952 combine contemporary classical techniques. His use of colorful graphs and charts for big band took his music into a harmonic and rhythmic realm unknown in jazz. Duke Ellington's music has been compared with that of classical composers Debussy, Ravel, and Frederick Delius in impressionistic work 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 shared by his collaborator, composer Billy Strayhorn. Ukrainian pianist Nikolai Kapustin writes fully notated music in a jazz idiom that fuses the Russian piano tradition with the virtuosic styles of Art Tatum and Oscar Peterson.
Composer Krzysztof Penderecki experimented with compositionally guided free jazz improvisation in his "Actions for Free Jazz Orchestra". Hans Werner Henze brought free jazz into his compositions in Der langwierige Weg in die Wohnung der Natascha Ungeheuer.
Others influenced by Third Stream include Ron Carter, Eddie Daniels, Jacques Loussier, Modern Jazz Quartet, James Newton, George Russell, Ralph Towner, William Kanengiser, Turtle Island Quartet, Mary Lou Williams,Toshiko Akiyoshi, David Amram, Ran Blake, David Baker, Anthony Braxton, Howard Brubeck, Teddy Charles, Don Ellis, Gil Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Teo Macero Oregon, Sun Ra, Cecil Taylor, and Yitzhak Yedid.
Schuller was involved with the Columbia albums Music for Brass (1957) and Modern Jazz Concert (1958). Pianist John Lewis was instrumental in arranging for Atlantic to record Schuller's Jazz Abstractions in 1960 with Jim Hall, Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Bill Evans. 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. The title of Mingus' two-part album Jazzical Moods (1955), a blend of "jazz" and "classical", may have inspired Schuller; the two men became friends. Charles Mingus' immense final work, Epitaph, was edited and premiered at Lincoln Center in 1989 by Schuller.
Other examples of recordings that synthesized composed with improvised music include Miles Ahead, Porgy and Bess and Sketches of Spain by Miles Davis and Gil Evans; European Windows and the film soundtrack Music from 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; Alegría 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. The music of American classical composer Charles Ives was used in this way in the 2014 album Mists: Charles Ives for Jazz Orchestra.