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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.

AAJ: Evelyn Butler wasn't intimidating like we know some teachers can be.

MS: She was the opposite of intimidating. She was a big presence, with bright red hair and already quite old. She had a big laugh, wore a lot of makeup, and might be seen wearing a purple moo moo and green satin slippers and rhinestone studded glasses. She drove way too fast. She was constantly arrested for driving too fast! [Laughter.] She was a crazy lady, and everybody loved her because she was just such a flash of color in this little town. She was like an alien coming into Windom and giving so much life to it. She was amazing, really a blessing to all of us. All this despite the hell she'd been through in her personal life.

AAJ: She sounds like a wonderful person. So then at what point did you start seriously getting interested in jazz?

MS: That came much later. But early on she taught me to start playing stride. We would take standard tunes and dress them up with little stride arrangements. I loved it. And she gave equal attention to that as to Mozart. Every Christmas, my mom would give me a book of Cole Porter or Rogers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, and so on. So I loved standards, and I always lamented that I was born too late. I'd wish I was born when Mrs. Butler was born, when that music was alive. Because in the 1970s, what we were hearing on the radio in Windom, like "Havin' My Baby" or "Tie a Yellow Ribbon," it wasn't quite the same to say the least!

Acquiring Jazz and Composing Skills: Minnesota, Miami, and Eastman

MS: So at that time, I didn't realize anything about the evolution of jazz. I knew nothing about small group jazz, nothing about the evolution of jazz until I went to college at the University of Minnesota. Then I started listening to public radio, and some jazz records. I had an old Ellington album from the 1930s. I thought that music was long since dead, but then this guy heard me playing it, and he invited me to come listen to all his jazz records in his room, and gave me a few to borrow. There was Herbie Hancock's Head Hunters (Columbia, 1973), and then there was a McCoy Tyner with John Coltrane. My mind was boggled by the harmony McCoy Tyner played, the left hand, the quartal voicings, the slippery harmony that was completely different from stride. And I started hearing pianist Bill Evans on the radio. And then I went to the record store and started buying things voraciously. And it was then that I discovered Gil Evans—because it was next to Bill Evans in the record store!

AAJ: You serendipitously came across Gil Evans' records, a chance occurrence that would later affect your whole life, as when you worked closely with him, and he had such a major impact on you.

MS: It did, but at the University of Minnesota, there was no jazz program. I started there as a music theory major. Then I added composition, a discipline which during that time in the early 1980s was totally into atonality and serial music, which wasn't so much my cup of tea as a means of musical expression. I enjoyed doing it in theory class, but it didn't speak to me in terms of my own personal expression.

My composition teacher, Paul Fetler, was a student of Hindemith. Fetler was a great teacher. Two of the best classes I ever took were at Minnesota. His was advanced counterpoint, where we spent a whole semester studying every piece from Bach's "Art of the Fugue." We had to write a fugue every week, utilizing the technique Bach exploited in each subsequent fugue we studied. It was very difficult. And I also had an incredible orchestration class with Dominick Argento, who was a quite famous classical composer. I regret that I didn't also get to study composition with him at some point as well.

Anyway, Paul Fetler realized how much my music was influenced by jazz, and he suggested I write for the big band at the school. So I started watching them rehearse, and that's when I got the bug! I started writing for them. I took lessons with a fellow student, Bob Parsons, who was writing for the band. And then I started taking piano lessons in the community with Manfredo Fest, the great Brazilian pianist. And I had another teacher, Lance Strickland. And I bought books and studied on my own. I got a book by Rayburn Wright, who taught at Eastman. I studied a book by George Russell about the Lydian Chromatic Concept. I would say that, although I took some lessons, I was largely self- taught. I studied scores, and I watched the band rehearse. To this day, I think that's the best way to learn, because if you have somebody spoon-feed you—"here's step one, step two"—you're never going to discover what your own unorthodox path would be. It's much better to do it yourself and find your own way, stumbling a bit on the way. That's how you find a voice that's unique.

AAJ: I'm very moved by how original your music is, how much it reflects your own approach rather than being a conglomeration of what others have done.

MS: Something like that develops over time, but it helps if you're not a pack animal. You have to take responsibility for your own education. If you get lazy, and expect to be taught, you're only going to become a follower. Of course, people taught me, and I learned. I soaked up everything. One time Dave Liebman taught a clinic in Minnesota, and he gave me just a short little lesson. But what he taught me in that lesson I never forgot. Up to that point, I thought everybody had to just solo on the changes of the tune. He showed me how I could extract something that would really open it up, and boy, it was really freeing. Just in that little lesson, he had a huge influence on me. Years later, there were a couple of times I got him to play on my music. The energy he puts through the horn, his innovativeness, and never losing the sense of humanity. It's startling. I think he is one of the most unappreciated undecorated heroes of the music there are. He's phenomenal. I love Dave Liebman. His energy is wonderful. I love to be around that, because I feel like that myself. He's got such a fire. It's amazing!
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