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Maria Schneider: On the Road Again

Mark Robbins By

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Five time Grammy Award winner Maria Schneider and her eighteen-piece collective, some of the finest musicians on the jazz scene today, is on the road in 2018. All About Jazz spoke to the composer/arranger about her work, her love of music and her involvement and commitment to improve on the Music Modernization Act during a stop-over on the tour. The interview was conducted via telephone.

All About Jazz: Good morning, Maria and welcome to Virginia.

Maria Schneider: Thank you, this is a part of the country that we really haven't toured so I look forward to bringing the band there. We're going to be playing a lot of concerts. We're playing one tonight and we'll be playing a little bit of different music every night because I like to change it up and it keeps the band fresh. This band has a great lineup of musicians, some of us have been playing together for thirty years.

AAJ: I was just in Wilmington, NC covering the North Carolina Jazz Festival and one of your band members, Scott Robinson, was playing.

MS: Yes, we've been making music together for thirty years. This is such a fabulous collection of players. Because we've been playing together so long some would think that we would become stale. But, because the music has so much freedom in it, the musicians make it different every night. One of the things audiences always comment about is how much they enjoy watching the band. I think the audience is amazed at how much the band enjoys each other, how they're always surprising each other. It's clearly spontaneous because of the joy and amazement on everybody's faces. When jazz is at its highest it is a communicative art. There are jazz musicians who, when they improvise, they're just trying to show everything they can play and they're not really listening. But when players are really listening to each other and playing with each other, throwing out ideas, sharing things back and forth, the audience can feel how much it is a language. Much of it is communication and that is what is so inviting to an audience. It's like hearing people talk who are really communicating and sharing ideas as opposed to hearing somebody who is just a blow hard, someone who is just talking at somebody. It's about the listening. The players are constantly improvising and taking each other's cues knowing anything could happen at any moment. You could practice a certain way, but if somebody throws something different into the mix you've got to be ready to react. It's wonderful. It's a joy to work with these kind of musicians. For me, the fun of being a jazz composer is hearing how they make my music become something different from night to night. There are so many nights when there is a burst of something and I wish I had a recording of what just happened.

AAJ: So when a player solos, he or she is not necessarily playing from a chart?

MS: So, that's hard to describe. Yes, they are, but I never use the word chart. A lot of jazz musicians do use that term but to me a chart is just like a standard map. My music doesn't really give standard maps. A lot of my music is very descriptive of things, like hang gliding, sailing, to depictions of certain type of birds so when a musician solos he has a role to play to bring the piece from point A to point B. I give them indicators, certain harmonic direction, they know they have certain boundaries, so then the challenge is being creative within those boundaries and making the piece feel the way it should feel whether it's birds or sailing or any number of things. The musician is both being a wonderful improviser for his or her own display and also creating a continuity to the piece so that everything in the end feels inevitable. Also, they are just trying to do something different each time. There are so many different things in play. With these guys you never hear the same thing twice. With some musicians you do. Hearing the same thing twice may be okay but three or four times, no. They're constantly challenging themselves to do different things because that's their motivation as a creative musician.

AAJ: Have you always been a jazz fan? IIs that what you listened to as a kid?

MS: I listened to other types of music. Definitely classical, and the pop music of the day. I grew up starting out in the sixties and there was some really great music, and even that pop music had a lot of orchestration if you think back to The Fifth Dimension, Simon and Garfunkel and all these things had just beautiful beautiful arrangements and melodies and harmonies.Herb Alpert, I was so into that and the bands like Chicago and Earth, Wind & Fire. So, I grew up with really great pop music. My piano teacher in my home town was a stride pianist and I really got a love of standards. Every Christmas my mother would give me either a Rodgers and Hammerstein book, or a Lerner and Lowe, Gershwin, or Cole Porter, so I fell in love with those kind of songs making little stride arrangements on the piano.

AAJ: So what came first, arranging or composing?

MS: I started off in college as a music theory major and then added composition to my major. Then I moved into the classical world and my classical teacher said your music is so influenced by jazz why don't you go and see if you can write something for the big band? The school didn't have a jazz program but it did have a big band. It was the University of Minnesota. That's what got me started and I've never stopped.

AAJ: I recently heard a rock musician say that he hasn't listened to any music for the past forty years because he didn't want anything to influence his writing.

MS: Well, I wouldn't go out of my way to avoid music. A lot of musicians will listen to music while they're writing to get inspired. I'm the opposite, so I'm more like him in that I don't want to listen to music when I'm writing. I want a clean slate. I don't want to be influenced. When I go through long periods of writing I'm not listening to music. It's confusing to me, it gets me out of my own inner world. So I can relate to not listening to music when I'm writing but in another sense to be a musician and not love listening to music is depriving yourself of a wonderful experience.

AAJ: What is your writing process?

MS: I sit down, fool around at the piano. Sometimes something will come to me while I'm walking around. I'm always searching for some little granule of something that I really like, some little hook, some little idea that makes me say "wow, I see a window into a piece here." It's like finding that little DNA fragment that's going to spark a whole piece. That for me is the biggest challenge, finding that first little thing that's going to make me say "Oh, I like that, it feels fresh." That first spark is the hardest thing to find. Most of my avoidance of writing is avoiding the vacuum of not having found that thing yet or the fear that that thing won't present itself again. That to me is the scariest part of writing. Once I find that and I'm convinced that's something I want to work with, then I'm in. I've broken through the surface and I'm immersed and then it's hard work and can be frustrating but at least there's not that sort of existential fear that nothing else will come to me.

AAJ: So at what point do you start thinking about orchestration?

MS: Usually when I start digging into things and working on the harmony I'm hearing the sound of orchestration. I might not know the very specifics of who is playing what but I know the basic direction of what woodwinds are there, are there mutes, is it more trombones and brass?" That comes pretty early on. Some composers write all the notes and harmony and they say "Okay, now let's go see who plays what." I'm sort of making a lot of those decisions while I'm writing the harmony. For me, the sound of the colors, I have a hard time separating that from the rest of it. When I hear a melody I'm automatically imagining what instrument will play that. It's not just a melody, a collection of notes. It's notes that are expressed by a certain tone color and that affects the melody for me. It's a similar process when I'm arranging. When I'm arranging I'm looking for what the DNA of that song is and expand on that. Or trying to find some special little prism to put that song through that has certain kind of properties to it.

AAJ: Have you ever gotten half way through a new composition or arrangement and decided that it's just not working out the way you pictured it?

MS: Yes, and I've had pieces at the end when I've finished them and heard them I say "I just don't want to do this." I had one of those not to long ago and other people say "Oh it's beautiful, I want to hear it!" But I don't! Maybe it will come out of the closet in three years, but not now.

AAJ: In smaller markets, and I consider this area a small market, how is the band received? Jazz is a hard sell around here.

MS: We often sell out because this band is very special. Two of the musicians in the band, Donny McCaslin and Ben Monder are both on David Bowie's last album. These musicians all have their own world. Ryan Keberle has his group Catharsis, which is very successful. Scott Robinson has his own group, Steve Wilson has his own thing also playing in a number of groups. Everybody has their following and to get the whole band together and have them performing is something that doesn't come around very often. It's not like they'll be back next year. It's hard work getting this group on the road, it's like aligning the planets and getting everybody there. It's really going to be fun.

AAJ: I was looking at your new website mariaschneider.com and read of your involvement with the MMA.

MS: Wow, you found that! The Music Modernization Act. This is a one-hundred page bill and people were talking about it and I was busy with other things but then I started really digging into this bill and saw that it has a lot of little things in it that add up to very little transparency, very little accountability, not balanced rights, confusing ridiculous things. Like for instance songwriters, in order to collect their payments, have to have their music registered at the copyright office.

Technically the music has a copyright, by law you don't have to have your music registered at the copyright office. You're more deeply protected in a lawsuit with the registered copyright but technically you don't need it. There's quite a large fee to pay to have to register your music. The copyright office is so overwhelmed with everything that they're way behind in filings. I've been told by publishers that only about forty-percent of musicians are registering their. So imagine a lot of people aren't going to do this because they're going to figure their mechanical royalties from Spotify are going to be less than if they have to register all their works. So that money is going to end up in a black box and guess where the black box money goes: it goes to the biggest publisher. This whole thing feels like it's designed to feed the big fish with the little fish. I've counted about ten pretty outrageous things in the bill. Like the definition of a songwriter to be on the board is basically a person who has written a part of a lyric or part of a song to a piece of music. It uses the word "a" so that means a publisher who co-wrote a song sometime in their career is a songwriter.

C'mon, let's come up with a real definition of songwriter. Some people say they're not actually going to do it that way, well, if they're not going to actually do that then why is everybody resisting putting better language in the bill? So I'm advocating that these changes be put in the bill because I don't want to be talking about it later. Also, there's a big big gift in this bill for Spotify. Spotify has been sued because they haven't been paying the mechanical royalties that they're supposed to be paying. What this bill does is give all the Spotify companies, if they participate in this thing, immunity from liability. So that's a huge thing. Our copyright's are protected by the constitution but we can't sue Spotify? So if we're giving up our constitutional right to protect our work then there better be absolute transparency, accountability, fairness, a fair voice. Everything should be balanced because that's a huge thing to give up for the next hundred, two hundred years. That's just the beginning. Not all my music is registered, so then my question is, and nobody has been able to give me an answer, what about the songwriters from foreign countries that have music on Spotify? Do they have to register at the U.S. copyright office to be paid? I call that musical colonialism.

So I've been quite an advocate for music rights and there's some pretty fun music relating to this that we're going to be playing at the concert. For sure there's one we'll be doing called "Data Lords" like big data.It's basically about the destruction of humanity from artificial intelligence. It's the piece that everyone asks after a concert, "Oh my God, is that recorded yet!" People are really enjoying that. It's fun but I'm dead serious about this stuff but it's fun to have it come into the music in a slightly humorous way. You gotta laugh about this stuff, too. If people want to read about the MMA or other stuff I just put up a new web site [http://www.mariaschneider.com/] and I put all my open articles about Google, the MMA and Uber. It's kind of fun to have this new site and have my articles there, my rants, and my ideas. I hope that they make people think. Here's what I think, let's just make this fair, that's all. Don't we want sustainability? I think one of the biggest ills of our society is short term thinking. We think short term about the environment, we think short term in our corporations, everything is about the next quarter's earnings, making the shareholders happy.

That short term thinking gets us in so much trouble and in the long run it ends up costing us a lot in terms of our culture, in terms of our environment, and in terms of people. There was a man I knew who was very wealthy, an investor, and sadly he died a few years ago. I knew him because he had given a gift of around seventeen million dollars to an environmental organization that I love and that's the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. We were talking about Spotify and Pandora, record companies and he was in shock to hear the realities of these streaming companies and various other things affecting musicians. He said, "Maria, you know why I was successful? I never invested in a company that wasn't sustainable for every person that contributed to the wealth of that company." So meaning, here we have the musicians who are creating the music. They're the lowest on the food chain and it's absolutely absurd because everybody else dies without the music creator, the person writing the music. You have the performers and you have the producers and if it's not sustainable for them all ultimately it will fail. Pandora has failed and I believe Spotify, that model, will fail. It is not sustainable. Now, streaming might stick around but it will have to be developed in a different way economically which I have ideas about. Ultimately, you can't have the majority of the musicians paying for the making of their records and getting a return of .30, or $30, or $300. When I make my records they cost $200,000 to make.

If I put them on Spotify do you think I could ever make that money back? Almost never with a jazz audience. I do it through my web site, through Artist Share, I've created relationships with these fans and they've supported the making of my music and it's a whole ecosystem there that has worked. We've created a back and forth of respect, me respecting my fans and them respecting what I do and understanding what I do because I share that whole process. It's just been wonderful but the problem now for me is that Spotify and these record companies that have submitted to taking equity in Spotify have tipped the balance so far that a lot of people don't even get CDs anymore, people don't even get downloads anymore. They've changed the whole technology because of this thing but it's unsustainable because the musicians now are paying for their own records. In the old days record companies took on the financial risks, they would put up the money. If the record didn't sell then the record company would pull out of any future projects with that artist. Now record companies are not taking on that risk anymore because they know they can't make it back.

Of course the record companies are making money, they're not paying for the records and a lot of them have these old catalogs that don't cost them anything anymore so they're making a little change per song but it's from a huge huge catalog. They're doing well! But ask a musician. Once we, musicians, were all making money, paying our taxes, state and city and now Google is turning all that wealth that we collectively had into data. None of that money is going into the tax system, so why are all of the states all drained and having problems financially? I blame it on big data, the internet, just the way it's structured these companies have no accountability, they don't pay taxes it's really a problem.But anyway, sorry. Sorry you asked?
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