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Maria Schneider: Going Her Own Way

Victor L. Schermer By

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Maria Schneider is widely considered one of the finest contemporary band leaders, composers, and arrangers. For two decades, The Maria Schneider Orchestra has generated excitement and sometimes surprise, at club dates, concerts, and festivals and with GRAMMY-winning records on the ArtistShare label, where Schneider pioneered in the process of commissioning recordings by giving subscribers an inside look at the creative process. Recently, her venture into classical music with the recording, Winter Morning Walks (ArtistShare, 2013), featuring soprano Dawn Upshaw and the Australian and St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, won three Grammy Awards, including "best contemporary classical composition."

Scbneider learned from the best. She honed her composing, arranging, and band leading skills at the University of Minnesota, the University of Miami, and The Eastman School of Music, and then worked closely with Gil Evans and studied intensively with Bob Brookmeyer. But she wasn't satisfied to become a disciple of her mentors. Instead, in 1992, she formed her own big band, which for over two decades has incorporated her own unique style while giving full expression to the cutting edge musicians in the group.

Maria Schneider possesses deep and inexhaustible inner sources of inspiration that attract the best musicians to work with her. She doesn't follow the crowd but instinctively does what feels right to her. She goes her own way and pursues an ideal of musical beauty. In this interview, she talks about her early influences, education, working with Evans and Brookmeyer, her band, the album Winter Morning Walks, and her upcoming projects. She also takes up a topic of passionate interest to her and for which she has become a strong advocate: protecting the rights of composers and musicians from internet piracy that violates copyright laws and proper reimbursements.

AAJ: For a warm-up, we'll start out with the infamous desert island question. Which recordings—of any genre— would you take to that desert island?

MS: One would definitely be Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G Major," especially for the middle movement. I would probably bring the Bach Cello Suites (EMI, 1997) played by Pablo Casals. I would bring some Brazilian music, including Joao Gilberto's Amoroso (Warner Bros., 1976) with the Claus Ogerman string arrangements, and Egberto Gismonti's "Infancia." Can I bring a couple of my own albums?

AAJ: Absolutely.

MS: I would probably bring Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004) and Winter Morning Walks. To go to an island without bringing a few of my "babies" would be really sad. There's so much other music. I would bring Gil Evans for sure, although which one to choose is difficult. I'd probably bring his recording of Porgy and Bess (Columbia, 1959) with Miles Davis. And maybe The Individualism of Gil Evans (Verve, 1964). I'd also bring recordings of some singers such as Kate McGarry and Luciana Souza,

Early Life and Musical Influences: A Teacher to Remember.

AAJ: You grew up in a small town, Windom, Minnesota, in the farm country?

MS: It's prairie that's mostly been turned into farms.

AAJ: Were your parents farmers?

MS: No, but my father was in the agricultural field. He was in the flax business. He ran a big flax plant in Windom, and he was an engineer who designed machinery. He was brilliant.

AAJ: What was your early musical exposure?

MS: My mother had a record collection. She loved classical music. She loved Chopin, so we had Vladimir Horowitz playing the "Polonaises" and Arthur Rubinstein playing the "Ballades." She had Debussy, Stravinsky, Bach. And then she did have some Teddy Wilson and Artie Shaw. There was no record store in Windom; the records were sold in the clothing store. So we would get the pop music of the day: Tijuana Brass, Fifth Dimension, "Hey, There, Georgie Girl," the Seekers. To this day, I still love that music. I would say a lot in praise of Jimmy Webb, Laura Nyro, the people who were writing for the Fifth Dimension, those folks, and the arrangers, like Bill Holman, who arranged a lot of that pop music. The pop music of the Sixties was fantastic: Simon and Garfunkel, of course, and The Beatles.

My piano teacher Evelyn Butler was a huge influence. She was not only a great classical pianist, but a terrific stride pianist as well. She was a complete anomaly in Windom. She had had quite a career in Chicago, and the only reason she ended up in Windom was because her husband and son both died of cancer within a month of each other. Through desperation, she came to live with her daughter in Windom, where she decided to teach lessons. She knew a lot of theory and was a good improviser, a really good stride pianist. Her second husband was Kendrah Butler, who played with the Glenn Miller band. She was a phenom of a pianist, very much like Dorothy Donegan.

She started teaching me theory from my very first piano lesson. I was a little kid, so she would put words to the notes. Major triad: Bright-the-Day [Schneider sings the notes]; Minor triad: Dark- the-Night. She would explain that music has a feeling, and everything comes from theory. Similarly, she would attach words to the I-IV-V chord progression, the first inversion, and so on, to give tangible meaning to the theory. She had a way of teaching children theory in a way they could understand and enjoy, sort of as if they were watching a puppet show, and then above the stage, they could see the puppeteers moving. So they're enjoying the show, but also watching how it's happening. They could grasp technically what's making it happen, making it so lifelike. She taught music like that.

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