Gerard Schwarz is one of America's top conductors, particularly noted for championing the first great age of American symphonists. He is also a gifted trumpet virtuoso. He began studying the trumpet at the age of eight. He attended the National Music Camp in Interlochen, Michigan, during the summers of 1958-1960 and studied at New York's High School of Performing Arts. He studied trumpet with William Vacchiano, principal trumpeter of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra (1962-1968). He received his Bachelor's Degree from the Juilliard School in 1972.
He joined the American Brass Quintet in 1965, and with it toured the United States, Europe, and Asia, remaining with the ensemble from 1965 to 1973. He was a trumpeter in the American Symphony Orchestra from 1966 to 1972, becoming its first trumpet in 1969. With that orchestra he played a considerable quantity of new and American music. During this period is was also a member of the Aspen Festival Orchestra and the Casals Festival Orchestra. He was appointed co-principal trumpet of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra from 1972 to 1975. As a trumpet player he made a number of important recordings, many of which are now in the CD catalogues. He was the first wind player to win the Ford Foundation Award for concert artists (1971-1973), which enabled him to commission a trumpet concerto from Gunther Schuller, and commissioned a number of other trumpet works from composers including Dlugoszewski and Brant.
Meanwhile, he pursued a conducting career. In 1968 he began conducting for the Eliot Feld Dance Company, of which he became Music Director. He also was music director of the Waterloo Festival, and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. In 1975 he was appointed music director of the 92d Street Y Chamber Symphony, which was later renamed the New York Chamber Symphony, and has maintained that position since. He became music director of New York's Mostly Mozart Festival in 1982. In 1981 he founded the Music Today contemporary music series in New York, serving as its music director through 1989.
In 1983 he was named Music Advisor of the Seattle Symphony Orchestra. In 1984 he became its Principal Conductor, and in 1985 its Music Director. With the Seattle Symphony he has become known for having one of the most innovative and wide-ranging programming of any major symphony orchestra, with a strong emphasis on music of the great American symphonic composers such as Hanson, Diamond, Creston, Copland, and their contemporaries, a large amount of which he has recorded. He has guided the orchestra to its highest artistic level, and seen it through construction and occupancy of its new venue, Benaroya Hall. He is also artistic adviser of the Tokyo Bunkamura's Orchard Hall, where he conducts the Tokyo Philharmonic in six concerts annually.
In 2008 Schwarz announced his retirement, effective at the end of his contract in 2011, when he was named Conductor Laureate.