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Maria Schneider: Raising the Bar

Tom Greenland By

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Maria SchneiderMaria Schneider, one of the most innovative big band composer/arrangers of the past two decades, is on a roll—in an era of declining record sales and rising recording costs, she is flying high. Sky Blue (2007), her second release through ArtistShare, has garnered considerable accolades; largely fan-funded, the album is not only an artistic triumph but a product and paragon of the new jazz business model. In a recent conversation, Schneider shared her thoughts on femininity, musical influences, writing, audiences and the role of the internet.

All About Jazz: What can you offer from a woman's perspective?

Maria Schneider: First of all, when I started being a part of this music, in school, I really was oblivious to the fact that I was the only girl, and I think part of it was because when I was a kid my father used to bring me out duck hunting with his friends; so I was always with men, so I had a lot of "comfortability" with men, always. And the women I was around: my piano teacher, a great stride pianist, was a woman; there was a really wonderful painter in town—she was a woman; the drama coach—she was a woman.



In most artistic disciplines it's sort of a man's world; in my tiny town of Windom, Minnesota, this little agricultural town, the artists were women. So I think a lot of it has to do with what your first mindset is. When I went to school and I was the only girl, I didn't really think about it. And the other thing is I didn't grow up in a place that had a strong jazz tradition. In terms of genre, I still feel very free, because I don't feel like I owe some kind of debt to the tradition of jazz. I have this kind of open feeling that whatever my music is, is somehow valid.



That isn't to say that I haven't had a few little voices go off in my head over the years, like when I was studying with [Bob] Brookmeyer and I'd gone through college and I wrote this piece for the Mel Lewis band. Mel was nice enough to let me write something for them, but it didn't have the muscle of the Mel Lewis band, really. And I remember saying to Brookmeyer when I was studying with him: "I wanna be able to write like a man," and he said, "OK, I'm gonna show you some things. But," he said, "what's beautiful is that you're not a man. I'm so tired of men!" So here and there I questioned it and I also here and there thought, "Can I do this? This is for jazz musicians. Am I able to do this?" But then, pretty quickly, it was natural for me to just drop that and say, "Whatever is in me, through my past and through what I listen to, that's what I express."

AAJ: Do you remember the first time you heard your own music?

Maria SchneiderMS: Oh yeah! The first thing I heard was just a little theory exercise, a string quartet and that's when my theory teacher said, "You should really be a composition major." And I was thrilled, because the feeling was amazing. Now I panic every time I hear something new. I still get nervous.

AAJ: Did you wonder, "Wow, I did that!" or, "How did I do that?"

MS: Well, sometimes I get the feeling of, Why did I do that? [laughs] Usually the things that I think are going to sound great, it's like: "Why does that not sound good?" and the things that I think are just going to be awful, it's like: "Wow, that sounds really good! Why? I didn't expect that!"



So sometimes it's the opposite of what you expect and then I think, "God, do I really know anything at all?." A lot of it is like stabbing in the dark. I think the most profound influence on me was realizing the power, through Gil [Evans] and Miles [Davis'] collaborations, of the connection of written music with improvisation—how connected and beautiful and expressive that can be. And that's what I'm most trying to develop.



That's the hardest thing to me in writing this music, because anybody can learn to write a chart and have somebody blow on it and you think, "Oh goody, now I'm going to write out the changes and they're just going blow." But to compose something, a skeleton under something that is moving harmonically in a through-composed way and trying to make the soloist an integral part of the piece and a part of the development of the piece—that's very, very difficult. And you need players who are very sensitive and think compositionally and not in terms of ego and wanting to show everything that they learned, but really playing for the music.



And so that for me is the real beauty, and that's why I had so much fun in Brazil, because all these players bring their thing to my music. I'd put it there, and they didn't just give me a good performance of my music, I also gave them a chance to be themselves on my music. And so together, at the end of the evening, we all can thank each other for different things, but we created something that was our own. And I go to Italy, and I worked with these great musicians in Italy: the same thing; that's a special relationship. With each of these groups I have special relationships because of the intimacy that we share when we make music. It's really very wonderful. And then of course with my own band, that's like my marriage partner.

AAJ: Do you write with people in mind?

MS: I write with nothing in mind. At this point, my players are so burned in my brain, it's like you with your wife—you know her so well that it's just there; you can't avoid it; she's part of you. My players, their sound, are now so a part of me, that I can't help it. I don't think I could even think to write a certain way; it's just there. Like if I'm writing something for [trumpeter] Ingrid [Jensen], I'm hearing Ingrid and that's it. But the thing is, I'm hearing it one way, but what I've discovered is there's a multitude of ways and even instruments that can play those solos. And what's really fun for me—when I go someplace and somebody who I don't know brings something to it and then they show me something in my music that I never knew it was; and I love that, because then they show me a different place. That opens me up to see things in a fresh way, just like other people you meet help you open up and see. Sometimes I come back to the band and I'll say, "Oh, you guys, we should try this; let's open up this way; this person did this; it worked really cool; try this." Once, with this piece called "Wyrgly," I worked with these students in France and the saxophones got one bar off from the brass for a second. I was, like, "Oh my God, that is so cool!" And then with my band we started playing like that on purpose for the whole first part of the piece, playing with everybody a bar off from each other. So it can be like that.

AAJ: How important is an audience to a performance?

Maria SchneiderMS: You know how it is in a jazz club—you can feel if you have one of those audiences that are, like, "Woo!" It just brings it out of the musicians; they want to play. When you can't see the audience, you don't get this feeling that you're communicating to somebody, so all of a sudden you're thinking, "Are they there? What are they thinking of me," as opposed to if you see them sitting there and reacting. You can see and feel their bodies, so when you're playing you feel them reacting and you feel like you're communicating to them. And I can feel by the way my band plays, by the expressions on their faces. With a dark audience in an unlit space, it's like you just suck the life out of it; it's very difficult to play that way. I remember we played in Buffalo, New York and there was this big guy sitting in the front, just loving it, and the whole band was playing to this guy. Audience is very important.

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