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Maria Schneider – Music is About Life

Jazzed Magazine • April/May 2016Spotlight • May 20, 2016

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maria-1There are a lot of things that you probably already know about Maria Schneider. Schneider, in a conversation with JAZZed discussed many of those topics: her childhood in Windom, Minnesota; her album Concert in the Garden and how it was the first fan-funded album to receive a Grammy; her preferred teaching techniques; her many accolades.

Schneider and her orchestra have not only been nominated for twelve Grammys, but they’ve taken home five. Her latest wins were for Best Large Jazz Ensemble Album for The Thompson Fields, and Best Arrangement, Instruments and Vocal for “Sue (Or in a Season of Crime),” which she recorded with the Maria Schneider Orchestra and David Bowie. As this particular Grammy win with Bowie is still fresh in all of our minds, the conversation began there and evolved organically to touch upon everything from Schneider’s avid love of bird-watching, to women in jazz, to Schneider’s astrological sign (she’s a Sagittarius). “I have a lot of Capricorn in me,” she says, “which is very hardworking, taskmaster, things that balance out that ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ Sagittarius in me.”

The conversation was deliciously candid, and hopefully you will discover a side of Maria Schneider you have never seen before.

First and foremost, congratulations on your wins this year at the Grammys. I was just listening to ‘Sue’ before I called you to get into the spirit of this interview. There was such a story to it.

Yeah, it was fun to do and [David Bowie] was so open to doing something that was kind of crazy, so it was a lot of fun.

Why don’t we talk about this piece for a minute? What were some of your influences going into making it and how was the overall experience? 

Influences… that’s a hard one because I just kind of threw everything to the wind, I just kind of got into it. He wanted it to be very dark, he wasn’t quite sure what the words were; that developed in time and his final lyrics came when he brought them to the session. I didn’t know exactly what the words were going to be, but I knew he wanted it really dark and he wanted that drum and bass kind of thing with the really fast frenetic drums going, which I hadn’t really done before. I had done other pieces for my own band where I would conduct things out of time with the horns with the rhythm section time or the drummer still keeping the time, so I thought I would try to do that in that slow section after Sue dies, where he says, “Sue, goodbye.” I guess there’s a bit of that low contrabass clarinet, feels a bit Gil Evans-ish to me, but you know it’s sort of just drawing on things that I had done over the years. It was just really fun to do something with David that stretched the boundaries so far with something that was going to be on a pop album.

What I want to do now is circle back to Minnesota where you were born. Can you tell me a little bit about growing up in Minnesota and do you think it had a very distinct influence on not only the type of music you make, but the type of artist you’ve come to be today?

Absolutely. I was born in an area in the country where it’s very sparsely populated; there was a very open landscape. There’s very dramatic weather. Things felt, especially back in the ‘60s and early ‘70s, surreal. Sometimes the atmosphere was almost bleak and depressing, and at other times it was exotic and beautiful and I knew there was something very special about my childhood, or unique, but then at the same time it felt very un-unique because everything was very flat and open, seemingly like there was nothing, and yet it is kind of exotic in its sparseness. I think all those things play in. I think also growing up in a place where you have to sort of create your own fun and your own entertainment affected my life. This wasn’t a place where… well, okay, we had a movie theatre, but the movie didn’t change very often. It’s not like you went out some place that often to be entertained. It was more like you made your own fun and sought out your own fun. I think part of that was looking inward to a sort of make-believe world inside your own head. It was a unique place to grow up, for sure.

Maria and the band doing a big band masterclass with a group of students in Birmingham, UK

Maria and the band doing a big band masterclass with a group of students in Birmingham, UK

Let’s talk a bit about Evelyn Butler, who I know played a very large influence on you in your youth and sort of inspired you to start playing.

She would have never probably have been a product of Windom, Minnesota, because she was this extraordinary, concert-level pianist, and very, very accomplished. She was from Chicago and ended up in Windom only because her only living family was a daughter who lived in Windom. These extreme sorts of circumstances brought her to leave her world and move into this little farm town to be close to her daughter and start teaching piano lessons. So I got this incredibly sophisticated musician with a very exotic appearance. She wore very brightly colored clothing. She might have a little feather boa, a pair of rhinestone studded cat eyeglasses, dyed red hair, lots of makeup on. She was just wild and very, very joyful and wonderful. She was a great teacher because she right away in the beginning wanted her students to understand music theory, to compose songs, to dress up little arrangements of standards with chord changes. She taught music in a very unique way for someone coming from a place like Windom, Minnesota.

Have there been any other teachers or people who you feel had a very deep impact on you growing up?

Oh yes, lots of them. I mean growing up in Windom alone, my nursery school teacher, I would say she had a huge impact on me. It was only one day a week, Wednesday mornings, going to Busy Bee Nursery School, but she really taught lessons that I carried throughout my life. One example is putting all the kids outside out by the parking lot – there was some gravel and grass, not very interesting – but she would put us there in kind of the dirt. We’d each have a little circle of string, and we’d sit there and she’d have us look at everything that went on within that string. You would see an ant carrying something or everybody would find something interesting in that little world of nothing. It became a kind of rich world where everyone would talk about what they saw and I just think that just carries tremendous lessons for life about how much richness there is in any seemingly un-rich moment. And of course my band director! My choir director. Moving onto college, I had great teachers at the University of Minnesota. And there are so many more! I just have been blessed with incredible, very devoted teachers. I am very grateful for all of them.

You formed the Maria Schneider Orchestra in ’92 and since then you’ve performed all over the world. Can you tell me about any particular experience abroad that sticks out? 

Well, we just had a gig in Munich in this little jazz club. It was kind of a throwaway gig in a way because it paid almost nothing, but we had this off night, paying for hotels on an off night is just a disaster because I needed to fill the space with something, anything. I took this gig, though it paid almost nothing, and it was really, really fun. I think it might have been one of the best nights the band has ever played. It was just this electric night where everything came together and you just never know when those moments are going to happen. One thing I love best about the band and what we’ve developed together is they are so creative from night to night and they listen so carefully. I try to, in a lot of the music, leave creative space where they can really just take the music somewhere and make it surprising, make it their own, make it new every night, and that I think keeps it alive for them and I know, for me, it’s my favorite aspect of the music. There have been some very, very special nights. One of my favorite nights was going back and playing Windom because a lot of music is inspired still by people and places and things back home and from my childhood. To go back there and play that music for those people, tell those stories about the music, and to have everyone in the audience nodding and smiling and knowing this common background that we all share, was really powerful, and powerful for my band to see as well.

What would you say is the driving force everyday that wakes you up and makes you yearn to create music?

[She laughs, a jovial full laugh] You’re assuming that I wake up every day yearning to create music, and that’s not an assumption I would make. Right now, I’m doing these commissions and I have such a love-hate-despise relationship with commissions. On one hand, they force you to create, but I feel so much pressure from it. It makes me so miserable because I don’t want to disappoint people. I’m doing that right now. And you know what happens is I get into some kind of idea, I get excited if I like what I’m working on, then the energy of what I’m working on starts to drive me, but getting over that hump, the fear of creating or the fear of not creating something or the fear of disappointment or failure is just torturous.

Maria conducting the band at their annual Thanksgiving week residency at Jazz Standard in NYC

Maria conducting the band at their annual Thanksgiving week residency at Jazz Standard in NYC

Jazz composition has historically been male-dominated, and I know you’ve touched on that in interviews, but do you think things are changing and expanding for women in jazz? 

For me, that has never been a big issue in my mind. It’s never been foremost in my consciousness ever since the beginning. I’ve had women mentors ever since I was a child. I talked about my nursery school teacher, my piano teacher – you know, these were women. When there were a lot of men, I really never took notice of that either. So I was lucky that I didn’t have that in my psyche because I believe that, like anything in life, when you have something in your mind, it’s very hard to take it out. If you don’t have it there to limit you, it’s just kind of a blessing. I’ve never seen my gender as being relevant in any way about anything, in terms of my music. There are so many incredible women doing really incredible things for the genre. Look at Ingrid Jensen on trumpet. Look at Terri Lyne Carrington on drums. Look at Anat Cohen. There are just so many artists that I listen to – Carla Bley, Jane Ira Bloom. There are just tons of phenomenal musicians. The thing that really drives me crazy about the whole “women” thing is special festivals and things: “Women in Jazz,” as if they need to give a special day for women. Or some place will have me for a concert and they’ll say “Oh, this is our ‘Women’s Concert,’” and I say, “You know what, don’t degrade me that way.” Like, you either want me for a concert or don’t. Some of these places want to prove that they’re being gender-equal or something, so they want to call attention to it. I just think if you make sure that you’re hearing all the music out there and it’s good, chances are quite a few of them are going to be women. 

I think as there are more and more women doing this music there will be more and more mentors. The thing people forget is that when this music first developed, it developed in a different time, a different culture. Jazz was a late night culture with lots of drugs, and all sorts of things that for most women… most women were having kids and taking care of their families. That wouldn’t have been an attractive lifestyle, or a lifestyle befitting the way most women were expected to live back then. But there were women that came up around that time who played within that generation and developed. But now music is coming up in educational institutions and it’s not such a late night thing. More and more women are having a different kind of lifestyle. This makes it all possible to choose different kinds of career paths, so that’s why we’re going to be seeing more and more women coming up in the scene.

You just touched on something that I think is so important, something a lot of people when discussing gender don’t acknowledge – the way we speak to children and the things we indoctrinate them with from a young age. I went to a panel at NAMM for females in percussion, and one of the percussionists said, “I never thought of myself as a female drummer, I thought of myself as a drummer, and other people imposed my gender onto me in that way, that I was a female percussionist and not just a percussionist.” 

I think you’re absolutely right and one thing I think about is how we speak to children. I’ve caught myself doing this and I’m always horrified when I do. I think the biggest roadblock for young girls doing anything creative is that girls are given this constant message that how they look, how they appear, how other people perceive them is the most relevant thing. Boys, the message they get is about what they make, what they do, what they create. The perfect example of this is:   watch what you find yourself saying to a little boy versus a little girl. The little boy you would never tell him how cute his little pants are or you love his little top. You would ask what he’s making or what is he doing. The little girl, you’ll compliment her little dress, or her shoes, or her hair. Those messages on how you appear and how that’s relevant to the world can be interpreted by children to define who they are. It makes it very hard for young girls to know who they are, because you’re constantly seeing yourself anticipating what other people are seeing or thinking that are looking at you. It’s very distracting. 

Shifting gears a bit, your ArtistShare funded album winning a Grammy – how has that affected your feelings on fan-funding platforms vs. record labels? 

I’m a huge advocate of fan-funding. When I won my Grammy this time, I talked about this book called Who Owns the Future? by Jaron Lanier. He says how musicians are the canary in the coalmine and he paints this very bleak picture. But if you own your own work, imagine this reality: As an artist you own your own music, you set your own prices, you sell directly to your fans, which means you own your own hard-earned database of fans – it’s not owned by some big data company. This idea that everything basically belongs to you and you call your own shots, that reality is what made my record. I’m managing to fund records that have budgets as big as $100,000 through this fan-base that I’ve developed over the years through ArtistShare. ArtistShare has helped me build my own business, it’s helped me be entrepreneurial, and it’s helped me to have a platform to share more than just a CD with fans. I can share behind-the-scenes things, I can share all this stuff that develops a relationship with the fans, and gives the fans a feeling that they have an investment in this music. They know that they make a difference. It has been just huge for me. I think a lot of musicians think if they do something, they must see results immediately. And to me, getting back the money from the record isn’t the only thing. It’s the investment in building that fan-base, building that trust within that fan-base. That’s the true thing of value. You can take that with you, as long as you respect them and don’t disappoint. It’s worked incredibly well for me and there’s no way I’d be making these records if it wasn’t for them, I’m convinced of that.

So in terms of recent teaching gigs, how often do you find yourself teaching and where? 

I teach when I do clinics. Sometimes when my band performs, one of my favorite things to do is to do a clinic with my whole band. So I’ll have a student band sit in a circle, because I rehearse with my band in a circle, and then I’ll have each of my players sit next to the corresponding student player. I use my band as an example. I have my guys play a section; I’ll mix it up with my brass guys with the student rhythm section or a student soloist getting to play with my rhythm section. Them hearing that example, you can just see in their faces how much they light up, and we’ve done this several times. All but one time, the band director started to cry. So that’s one kind of clinic I love to do. I do clinics where I do master classes about writing, trying to help students find ways to open up their ideas and develop their creative ideas. Then I also do teaching about the business because the business is really suffering, and part of the reason for that is the lack of knowledge and involvement from the musicians themselves. They’re sleeping at the wheel. 

Several of us in New York have started a campaign called We are trying to get every musician there is out there to sign up, there’s even a place where fans can sign up. It’s just a place where they can learn about some of the issues, we keep people up to date so they can advocate and have some power over their own future. One thing we’re noticing is that some of the companies doing the nastiest things, the pressure of putting the spotlight on them from an organization that all these musicians belong to, it’s such bad press that hopefully will make them behave better, without having to change the laws. It’s very difficult to change the laws, especially with all the lobbyists and everything. But if you put pressure on the industry from the people inside, if you make a video and say, “We see the things you’re doing, we’re making a video and this is bad, we’re all watching,” hopefully the bad actor will say, “We don’t want this bad publicity, we better turn this around.” 

I recall reading that you are an avid bird-watcher, and you can hear when we were talking about Windom toward the beginning of the interview that you have such an appreciation for nature. Has your love of nature and bird watching sort of crept into your music over the years?

Especially with my latest album, I just let all the stops out on that. I put in all sorts of photos. That’s my favorite thing in life. I’m highly anticipating spring. In the winter, I have such a deep depression because all my birds go away and when I don’t hear them sing, it just makes me crazy. It’s such a longing. When you see the birds migrating, it’s really like seeing jewels in the trees – a little bit of red, orange, a black-throated green warbler, a black-throated blue warbler. There are so many species. It’s just so much fun and so inspiring. 

What’s next for Maria Schneider, not only in music, but also in life? 

I try to leave some space in my life for the unexpected – for instance the David Bowie thing, when that happened, my life was just so crammed full. I squeezed in one piece, he wanted to do more, but I only had time to do one and we had talked about me opening up my schedule, so we could do more and then he passed away. So sad… I’ve got some commissions for my band. Mostly, I want to concentrate on writing for my band because I like it, and also because it’s what allows me to make a living. If I get a commission to write for my own band, writing new music for my band gives me new music to perform, gives me the possibilities of new music to record, brings a freshness to the audience, and it keeps building on itself. I find that if I step outside and do a classical project here and there, my band gets into a stale period. It’s hard then to pull out of that.

I think I want to concentrate on my band. I’ve never been a huge planner. The things that have come into my life have been greater and unexpected, things I could never fathom myself. If someone asked who I would like to work with, I would’ve never have thought of saying David Bowie. I wouldn’t have even thought of that. I want to leave space for those sort of things to happen. I try not to cram my life full of projects and arrangements, things like that. I really want to do my own thing, my own band. I’m pretty selfish in that way. I have to leave time for things like birds. This is kind of an analogy I use from my upbringing, but one of the most important things in farming is you can’t constantly expect land to be fertile and bring up a crop. You have to let land go fallow. You have to change the crop. You have to let it be for a while, and regenerate. It’s the same thing with creativity. This idea that churning out a record every year, constantly creating, and not having anything else… It’s the things like birding that brought a whole new era into my music. I need a lot of living of life in order to have anything to say musically. My music has never been about music; it’s been much more about life. If I’m not living a life, then there ain’t much to say.

What advice do you have for fellow educators and scholars?

The most important thing when you’re teaching is trying to uncover whom that person is and helping them find a way to develop their own unique voice. In music, it’s very, very hard because you’re teaching so many students and you’re trying to get results. You want to show them all kind of the same way to proceed in order to get results from everybody at relatively the same time. But sometimes if you show somebody a way to do something without them having a chance to explore their naïve, convoluted, natural way of expressing themselves, you can teach them an effective way to work, sure, but before they have a chance to develop their own way. Once they lose that, they don’t get that chance. It’s important for a creative person to grope and grapple with their own unique ways. Find a way to not iron out all the wrinkles in somebody. Help them find their uniqueness. In the end, that’s what music and art is about.  You don’t want to teach someone too many tools and tricks without letting them stumble a little. 

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