Following Her Voice

Maria Schneider trusts her musical instincts

Volume 119, No. 4April, 2019

Interview by Bob Pawlo

Photo credit: Siimone

Evocative. Majestic. Magical. Heart-stoppingly gorgeous. Beyond categorization. These are just some of the ways that critics have described the music of Maria Schneider, a member of Local 802 since 1985.

Schneider and her orchestra became widely known starting in 1994 when they released their first recording, “Evanescence.” There, Schneider began to develop her personal way of writing for what would become her 18-member collective, made up of many of the finest musicians in jazz today, tailoring her compositions to distinctly highlight the uniquely creative voices of the group. The Maria Schneider Orchestra has performed at festivals and concert halls worldwide. Schneider herself has received numerous commissions and guest-conducting invitations, working with over 90 groups from over 30 countries.

Schneider’s music blurs the lines between genres, making her long list of collaborations quite varied, stretching from Jazz at Lincoln Center, to the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra, to David Bowie. She’s earned 12 Grammy nominations and five Grammy awards in multiple genres. She’s also won multiple critics’ and readers’ polls from Downbeat and JazzTimes and honors from the Jazz Journalists Association. She was awarded an honorary doctorate from her alma mater – the University of Minnesota – and won the esteemed Concert Music Award from ASCAP.

Schneider has become a strong voice for music advocacy and has testified about digital rights before the Congressional Subcommittee on Intellectual Property. She’s appeared on CNN, participated in roundtables for the U.S. Copyright Office, and has been quoted in numerous publications for her views on Spotify, Pandora, YouTube, Google and music piracy. She and her colleagues in New York launched, a website and campaign on behalf of the rights of musicians.

Schneider’s 2016 collaboration with her orchestra and David Bowie resulted in his single called “Sue (Or In A Season of Crime),” and brought her a Grammy for best arrangement in the category of instruments and vocals. Schneider and her orchestra also won another Grammy that same year for best large jazz ensemble album for their latest work, “The Thompson Fields.”

It gets better. This year, Maria Schneider was awarded the prestigious title of Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts, and will be celebrated on April 15 at the Kennedy Center along with the other winners. When she found out, she tells us, “I was in absolute shock. The list of people who have been named as NEA Jazz Masters is incredible. They are all my heroes and people who I listened to over the years and loved. It’s an absolutely huge honor and it’s humbling. And this honor is something I share with my whole band, because although I work hard, my music doesn’t stand alone without all of those who have played it, interpreted it and added their improvisations.”

Local 802’s Bob Pawlo recently got the chance to speak with Maria Schneider for this exclusive interview for Allegro.

Bob Pawlo: Let me start with my famous opening question, because it opens so many doors. How did your journey in music begin?

Maria Schneider: I’m from Windom, Minnesota, which is a small town that has a lot of farmland, but also has beautiful nature and landscapes. I grew up with all sorts of wonderful influences around me. My mother was a pretty good pianist, but more importantly, she promoted music and the arts in our family. One of my sisters was very talented in art; the other was a wonderful actress and writer, and we all played various instruments. But there was one person who had the most impact on me. In the mid-1960s, a woman named Evelyn Butler moved to Windom from Chicago after the tragic circumstance of her husband and son both dying of cancer within a month of each other. Evelyn’s daughter had married a chiropractor in Windom, so Mrs. Butler just up and left a great career as a classical and stride pianist in Chicago to retreat to our town and teach piano. It must have been painful on every level. But she was an extraordinary pianist with incredible technique, exuberance and charm and was a fantastic teacher, and she brought so much joy to our little town. Shortly after she arrived in Windom, she joined her daughter and a bunch of family friends at our home for a birthday party for my dad. I was five, and when Mrs. Butler sat down and started playing, my world changed. A few of the friends had brought instruments and were playing as well, which I only know from a picture I have. All I remember was Mrs. Butler. Everything else disappeared that night. I begged my mom for lessons, and Evelyn agreed to teach me. Half of every lesson was music theory. We would analyze every chord progression of every piece, and she encouraged me to write songs for my recitals. She loved classical music, but she equally loved the Great American Songbook, so she gave me this very expansive view of music that didn’t delineate between classical, jazz, pop or standards. And we analyzed all of it in similar ways. She gave me the love of music and permission to experiment at a young age. She opened the musical door for me. Nobody ever had to ask me to practice; I practiced and played incessantly.

Bob Pawlo: Wow. When did you know that you wanted to make a life of music?

Maria Schneider: By the time I applied for college, I was sure I wanted to be a music major. But I was also really interested in birds, and if it hadn’t been music, surely I would have studied ornithology. I have absolutely zero doubt about that. I still ache at the thought of doing research with birds because it’s something I also love. But I really wanted to be a musician. However, I didn’t know what kind. I actually knew it wasn’t in the cards for me to be a pianist – I didn’t have the technique and ability in my hands. I dreamed about being a composer, but that wasn’t a dream I told anybody, because it seemed too big. So I decided that I would go to the University of Minnesota as a music theory major, and I was pretty sure that I would do well in music theory, because I had some background. Now there’s one thing I want to say about my college training. I’ve really come to realize how one’s life can change on a dime with just the smallest comment from somebody. It doesn’t have to come from some big-time professional. There was a graduate teaching assistant there named Susan Anderson. We’d written four-part madrigal exercises for a theory exercise, and a string quartet came in to play our work. Susan said to me afterwards that she thought I really had some talent for composing and that I should add composition to my major. That was just a huge pivotal moment for me, because somebody was giving me permission to say out loud something I had sheepishly dreamed of since I was little.

Bob Pawlo: So the light went on.

Maria Schneider: Yeah, it was a light that was barely on in a corner little room somewhere in myself. I felt that dream come alive, and I started taking classical composition lessons. I also started seriously listening to jazz, because suddenly I was in a big city that had a record store! Before I knew it, my classical composition teacher, Paul Fetler, told me, “You know, Maria, your music is sounding so influenced by jazz, I think you should go watch the big band rehearse and start writing for them.” That was another pivot point in my life. There wasn’t a jazz degree at the U of M at that time, so I started taking jazz piano and arranging lessons from a constellation of wonderful teachers in Minneapolis, and just starting experimenting on my own. A couple of years later, Toshiko Akiyoshi came to Minneapolis to play Orchestra Hall with her big band, and I was just blown away. It made me realize that maybe there was at least some possibility of making a career of writing the kind of music I’d been experimenting with. I’d been doing things in my own unorthodox way, and that was a good way to learn and to find my own direction, but I knew I needed a much better foundation. I ended up studying with fantastic teachers at both the University of Miami and Eastman School of Music for graduate school. My fellow students were also great musicians. Being around such a high level of musicianship really raised the bar.

Bob Pawlo: And after this, did your New York City adventure begin?

Maria Schneider: Yes! After earning my master’s from Eastman, I moved to New York. I started copying music for a living, back when it was still done with pen and paper. (I still score to paper today, by the way). Thank God I had calligraphy skills coming out of college, because I could have never made a living as a composer right away. It took eight years for that. But I learned a lot from copying for great arrangers. One day working at Frank Zuback Music, a composer came in named Tom Pierson. I was headed out when he also left and we ended up having lunch and got talking about composers. I went on and on about how much I loved the music of Gil Evans. That night Tom called me to say that Gil was one of his closest friends, and that he needed somebody to work for him. So this was another huge pivot point in my life. I felt grateful, but of course also felt over my head. But the funny thing about Gil is that he would trust people on his gut feelings. It was 1985, and Gil only lived for three more years after I starting working for him. I copied and transcribed for him, re-orchestrated things that he needed, and helped out a bit copying and orchestrating music for the 1986 Martin Scorsese film “The Color of Money” and also for Gil’s work with Sting, which was recorded on a 1987 bootleg album called “Last Session.” One of the biggest things I learned from Gil was how unique his approach was. For instance, once he asked that I re-orchestrate a piece of his for a European band. I did it in what I thought was flawless textbook fashion, but he literally screamed out in pain when he saw it. He’d wanted people playing in the extreme wrong ranges of their instruments so they’d sound like they were struggling. For him that was perfectly obvious, and he was clearly really frustrated that I didn’t think to do that. I felt horrible that I had done it wrong, but at the same time I wondered to myself what my own quirks were. How would I write if I had my own band and was figuring out my own unorthodox ways? It was yet another pivot point for me to realize that being a great musician or a great composer isn’t about doing it right. It’s about following your instincts so that your personality and your perspective come to the light of day in a very clear and crisp way.

Photo credit: Greg Helgeson

Bob Pawlo: You also worked with Bob Brookmeyer. What insights did you gain from him?

Maria Schneider: I studied with Bob on a NEA grant. He was a huge influence on me and just the greatest teacher. I remember taking a lesson with Bob early on. He had given me the assignment of writing something for the Mel Lewis Band, so I thought, “I want to hear Mel play that cymbal I hear every Monday night in the Village Vanguard. I want to hear that classic medium tempo. I want to hear Thad Jones kinds of chords.” So I wrote a swing tune with the form A-A-B-A. And Bob looked at it, and I could immediately tell that he was pretty disgusted. The first thing he said is, “So, why is there a solo there?” He went on to say, “A solo should only happen when there can only be a solo.” He asked me many similar provocative and challenging questions over the years, and what I started to realize is that I was giving away a lot of the choices in my music to what jazz history said it should be – as opposed to what I was deciding it should be. This was essentially the same lesson that Gil Evans had taught me. Gil was making his own decisions about his music. He wasn’t following what the history of music said the ranges of the instruments should be. Bob was also important to my career in another big way: he introduced me to different radio orchestras in Europe and started telling people about me. Eventually, I got hired by some of them to write and conduct my music. The first was the UMO Orchestra in Finland. I was terrified, but it went well and was really fun. And then a big commission came from a group called the Norrbotten Big Band in northern Sweden. They asked me who would be my dream improviser to write for as a guest, and I said Toots Thielemans. It turns out that Toots even spoke Swedish. Toots had done a lot of work in Sweden and had written a very famous theme for a children’s television show called Dunderklumpen, and when he played it for the encore, the whole audience sang along. I think Toots was one of the greatest improvisers we’ve ever known, and it was just a joy to work with him.

Bob Pawlo: Was this another turning point in your career?

Maria Schneider: Yes. I started making my living as a composer almost entirely, though I was also teaching a little bit, and I even tried my hand at jingles for a brief moment. But most of my work was in Europe, and the bulk of my work back in the U.S. was guest-conducting university big bands.

Bob Pawlo: When you come in as guest artist/composer, what are the key things to getting the ensemble up to snuff before the performance?

Maria Schneider: You have to know what is needed for your music. The biggest key component is in yourself and being able to immediately dissect what’s keeping the music from being the vision that you have in your head. If you sit there and just ask the musicians to play it again and again and again, you’re not going to get there. You need to be able to tell people if it’s about the rhythm section shaping the contour, or about creating a sense of inevitability in the music, or if it’s about a certain kind of articulation, or if a section is overblowing and covering up another idea that’s much more important and isn’t coming out correctly. The hardest part is knowing what you want. After that, it’s about knowing the steps to get it there.

Bob Pawlo: You’ve been a big proponent of fairness and justice for musicians in streaming and digital. Can you talk about that?

Maria Schneider: I was around when Napster took off and made piracy so easy, but YouTube soon became – and still is in many ways – among the biggest problems. It’s not right that we artists have to patrol YouTube to keep track of copyright violations against our own music, and that we are bullied by YouTube into monetizing infringement that first and foremost benefits YouTube. You know, when I testified before Congress, I made the point that copyright exists to incentivize creation. I was sitting right next to an attorney from Google (which, of course, owns YouTube). I said that when users upload something to YouTube, they aren’t asked a single question about ownership or permission. But if someone illegally uploads my music to YouTube and I wanted to file a takedown notice, I have to assert – under penalty of perjury – that it’s truly mine. Then my name gets posted publicly that I’m the “jerk” who took down the music. Then I’m threatened with legal challenges and having to pay the other side’s attorney if I do something wrong or make a mistake. The whole thing is so entirely lopsided. And even if I successfully take down my song, somebody else can upload it the next day, and I’m back to square one. Imagine the collective time wasted, and to accomplish nothing.

Bob Pawlo: To switch to a happier topic, can I ask you what inspires your creativity?

Maria Schneider: I’ve obviously loved music my whole life – everything I’ve played on piano from Ravel to Debussy to Chopin to Bach, and also the pop and jazz I’ve listened to, all of it. And bird songs and Brazilian music and Spanish flamenco. But I have to say, I never actually specifically listen to music to get inspired. What most inspires me is life. Listening to music in order to get inspired confuses me, in a way. I need to have a full life outside of music. So everything from birds and even this whole copyright battle is now musically inspiring to me, because it shakes me. Music is a manifestation of life. I’ve always seen music as being alchemical. It gives us the possibility of transforming our most difficult experiences into something beautiful. Going back, full circle, I would say that my first piano teacher, Mrs. Butler, taught me that lesson every time she sat down to play.

Bob Pawlo: Do you want to say anything about being a woman in the field of music?

Maria Schneider: What I do in music has always been a little bit unusual. I’m not like a woman trumpet player or drummer entering into a sea of male players. I was always primarily a composer or conductor. There really aren’t that many people who do that, regardless of gender. I sort of carved out my own niche just doing what I do, but I feel like I’ve been lucky, and I think that there are a lot of opportunities there. If young women musicians start to feel alone or isolated, I urge them to keep pushing, just concentrate on the music and be as great as you can be. In the end, great musicianship is impossible for anybody to deny.

Bob Pawlo: What do you still look forward to do in your career?

Maria Schneider: I’ve never been a goal setter; I just like to see what comes. I hope that I can keep feeling inspired. I try to imagine that my next project is going to be my best, whatever it is and whatever opportunities come my way. I will say I absolutely loved collaborating with David Bowie, and I hope there will be more collaborations in my future, because working with others has always made me learn, grow and change.

‘Why I love playing with the Maria Schneider Orchestra’

“It’s always great playing with so many incredible musicians. I’ve been in the band since the very beginning, and it’s a rare opportunity to see how such a great composer’s music evolves over the years, and to grow with it.  Maria knows exactly what she’s looking for in every piece she writes but still gives the musicians freedom to interpret their parts in the way they see fit to make it happen. In doing so, the music is always fresh, always different. Even pieces that were written 20 years ago never get old.  And it always helps that Maria knows the capabilities of every instrument and player.” –George Flynn

“In the nearly 30 years that I’ve been in the band, I’ve never once played a concert with her when I didn’t get goosebumps. Moments like that are the reason I went into music. Having been there since the beginning, it has been really amazing to see how Maria’s writing has evolved over the years. Much like Duke Ellington did with his orchestra, Maria writes for specific individuals rather than anonymous people in a band. She might want to hear a certain person playing a specific line or solo. And she has the ability to know when to demand a specific thing of the player, and when to let them bring their own individual concept to her music.” –Tony Kadleck

“Playing Maria’s music is like being inside a living, breathing organism. Performing it inspires you as much as it does the audience. And you feel like the part you are playing was written just for you. She knows each member so well. Also I am surrounded by the some of the most creative and talented players in the world. What’s not to love?” –Keith O’Quinn

“Besides her immense talent, Maria is just great to work for, a lot of fun, and a dear friend to everyone in her orchestra. She’ll call you up the day after a gig, to tell you how much she loved what you played… unlike some other bandleaders I’ve worked for, who’d call you up to cuss you out! Plus, she is very giving of her time in fighting the good fight for musicians’ and composers’ rights.” –Scott Robinson