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A Tonal Bird. Maria Schneider, living a full life.

John Robert Brown

The January meeting of the International Association for Jazz Education (IAJE) in Manhattan, with 7,000 delegates, was replete with historic names. By and large they were left alone by the other delegates. In a context where every second person is a celebrity, then almost no one is a celebrity. One steps into a lift, and there's Phil Woods or Benny Golson. On trade booths one sees Buddy DeFranco, Mark Levine or Bill Watrous. At lunch I see Loren Schoenberg. Go through the jazz alphabet: Ruben Alvarez, Dave Brubeck, Paquito D'Rivera, Kurt Elling, Frank Foster, and so on, many times, and you only mention a fraction of the jazz notables in attendance. A true measure of the current acclaim accorded to Maria Schneider, then, is that she attracts attention even in such august company. Her Thursday evening concert in the massive Imperial Ballroom of the Manhattan Sheraton, though pitted against three other simultaneous events, were signed 'house full'. Currently, Maria Schneider is big news.I had arranged to meet her during the afternoon, after a radio interview, in a public area.

Though she had seen me waiting, and acknowledged me, I couldn't get near for the many enthusiasts wanting to speak to her. When eventually we did meet (it took fifteen minutes), the interrupting fans made it difficult to greet her, and impossible to escort her to the interview lounge. Eventually Schneider coached me in the correct body language. "Look at me and keep talking," she advised. "Then we won't be interrupted." We pushed through the crowds. It worked, up to a point. Eventually we sat down over a cup of tea and a tape machine, in the calmer surroundings of a private lounge on the 44th floor of the Manhattan Hilton Hotel, and began at the beginning."I had music in my family. My mother played piano, and had a lot of instruments around the house," she said, "But my first moment, in which music really hit me was very powerful. When I was five years old there was a woman living in my home town. That was a very small town, south western Minnesota, a farm town, between three and four thousand people, three hours from any really big city, so really rural. But there was a woman there, named Evelyn Butler. She was originally from Chicago. In 1965, when I was five, her mother and her son both died from cancer within a month of each other. So her only living family left was her daughter who had married a chiropractor that lived in Windom. So she moved to Windom, and my parents invited her over to dinner."Mrs Butler was an amazing stride pianist, jazz pianist from Chicago, very much like a Dorothy Donegan kind of style, with a lot of personality and a redhead. I'm a redhead. She was pretty old then. She never told anyone her age. "She was a great classical pianist, and after dinner she sat down and played. For me, the intensity of it was almost as though the music became sculpture. Her personality was so strong that she created - and this is what I feel really touches me, and applies to all the people that have a lot of personality in their playing - the music leads beyond sound and becomes enveloping. It becomes sculptural. And that was it. I wanted to be her. I want to do that. That music made me feel that's what I wanted. "At age five I begged for lessons, and starting studying with her. She taught me from an early age...first lesson she started teaching me theory. She taught me about chords, and part of each lesson would be playing out of a fake book, and then classical, very old style. But there were a lot of holes. We didn't have a record store in Windom, so by the time I was eighteen years old the only jazz I had was some Earl Hines, some Teddy Wilson, and some old Ellington from 1936. "I was so naive, and she was so into older jazz. She really knew nothing about anything more modern. So I thought that jazz died. I didn't realize that jazz had kept evolving. "So I went to college as a classical musician, feeling like I was born in the wrong era. I move up to Minneapolis and - lo and behold - one night this kid comes to my room. He hears me playing this old Ellington.

He said, 'You like jazz?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, 'Okay. I'm going to lay some records on you.' And that was when I realized that something else had happened: Coltrane and Herbie Hancock, and all these things he gave me. That's when I went to the record store, and said, 'Oh my God, look at this world of music, do you know?'"I make an obvious observation: the pianists Maria mentioned - Hines, Wilson - had clearly all enjoyed a classical training."I think in some way it appealed to me, maybe," she says, "Because of that. Ellington too has touches. He was a good stride pianist, too. It's an odd beginning, and it's probably the reason that my music is not entirely jazz. Something else. I think some people think I'm looking to change things somehow. I'm not. I naturally have this very odd background."Typical jazz is song form, where you have the tune and it cycles around. Basically it is theme and variations, different people blowing, and some different things. But my pieces are these long through-composed pieces, where the beginning part of the piece, it goes through this whole evolution where the soloists are soloing over something completely different, and it's a whole story. Much more like classical music, like programmatic classical music."Since the essence of longer serious music comes down to a question of form, and the age-old challenge of 'going on', I ask Maria Schneider how she lays out the framework of a new composition."It''s a very odd process," she says, "And I'm going through it right now again. You know, I wish I could learn to lay out the whole thing ahead of time. The problem is that compositionally, when I come up with an idea, I can't envision the totality of the piece until I know all of the different things that can happen with this idea. So I end up sort of playing with it. Okay, it can turn into this, it can become something angry, it can become something elongated and smooth, it can become something short with space in between, and it can do all of these different things. So I kind of flounder for a long time.

It's like putting together a puzzle. And then one day: 'Ah-hah,' after I've worked with it long enough, convinced myself I don't know how to write, that I'll never find the answer, that I'm sunk. Then, all of a sudden, invariably one day it all comes together. Hopefully in time for the commission deadline." She laughs. "Which is what I'm going through right now. I wrote this positively wretched thing, I've got a commission deadline, and I'm back to the drawing board again. "But what of some of the more obvious parameters, such as the length of a commissioned piece? That's usually specified."Stravinsky said he'd get really excited when he knew how long a piece would be. That was a parameter for him. But right now I'm working on this piece; I think they wanted it to be fifteen minutes. But the idea doesn't warrant a fifteen-minute piece. It's more of a miniature, which is rare for me. I don't want to make it a fifteen-minute piece just because they're paying me for that. I want to make it a good piece. So I'm going to make it what it is, and just say, "Pay me by the minute. If I don't produce fifteen minutes, you don't have to pay me for fifteen minutes. "An obvious question, maybe, but obvious questions have to be asked. Why not put it on ice, write something else, then come back? "It's too late." She clasps her hands in a gesture of finality. "The deadline's too close. There's no time for the ice."In a recent interview with Michael Brecker I was flabbergasted when he confessed to using a mentor, someone he refers to as 'coach'. The person's identity has never been revealed. Does Maria Schneider ever consult anyone?"This piece, I did, actually," she confesses. "I went to one of my good friends. She was actually at the rehearsal, and I said, ''We have to talk about this.'' She's a Brazilian singer and composer, Luciana Souza, and a really dear friend. We've bounced music off of each other before. This time I said, 'Lu, listen to this. What is wrong? Because it's a very Brazilian kind of influence here.' And she said, 'Maria, it just unfolds too fast. Take your time.' She heard it immediately. Maria is candid about her creative dilemmas.

"Of course, if I'd sat calmly...but I was in a complete utter panic," she confesses. "And it's nice when you can do that, because sometimes somebody else just says something like that and you see it and you say, ''You're right. That's it.'' You've got some distance. I don't often do this. I've rung Bob Brookmeyer before, in tears: ''Bob! Help me! Listen to this. Why does this stink?'' Bob has carried me through some panics before."One of my favourite people to play my music for is my best friend. Her name is Marlene Whittemore, and she's great. My gauge for her is that when she loves something, she cries. I look for the tears. I say, ''Marie, let me play something for you.'' And when I turn around, if she's silent and crying, then I'm like: 'Oh good. It works!' Because she cries when she loves something."I'm moved by Gil Evans, Ravel, Hindemith, Balanchine ballets, Picasso, Miro, Dali, Paul Klee, choreography, dance." The list is delivered fluently. Maria Schneider knows what she likes. "I grew up dancing. I took ballet, I took tap, I was a figure skater. Not a very good figure skater, but I used to do figure skating half-time show at the hockey game. For me, music is motion. The way I figure out my pieces is that I have a much easier time if, say, I put them on a little tape recorder, and then I stand up, put the headphones on and hold the tape recorder and move round, dancing. When the music stops my motion in the wrong way, then I think, okay, maybe I'll work on this part. "The hardest thing when you write is when you are sitting down. Music is art in time. So your piece has to carry somebody through time. But when you start to write, all of a sudden you become sort of two-dimensional. You are looking at this idea out of time, and you're not feeling this breadth of time. So if I dance, suddenly I'm hearing the music in the context of the body, which forces me to pull this thing into time, and feel it. It's multi-dimensional."Her explanation reminds me of a saying of a harmony teacher friend, who once observed that 'harmony is a cucumber'. That is, one can't understand either harmony or a cucumber by inspecting vertical slices.Maria smiles. "That's true," she says. "That' s just the hardest thing, figuring out that everything happens in the time that it should, that everything feels inevitable, and that the surprises feel inevitable. It has to have surprise, and it has to have - sometimes - things that you expect. Everything has to happen at just the right moment, that makes you go: 'Aah', 'Oh', 'Yeeess,' ' NO' , ' TELL ME MORE!' "At this point we both subside into giggles, because Mariah's declamatory, orgasmic, explanation is attracting attention, ruffling the placid decorum of the exclusive Hilton lounge."I work at the piano. Sibelius? [music writing software] I don't even know how to use it. I give it to a copyist and they put it into Finale [software] now. And I only started doing that because I can then make PDFs and send my music on the website. But I was a copyist when I first moved to New York. I copied for Gil Evans, I copied for Bob Brookmeyer. Then Gil started urging me to do more contrasting musical things.

I was a good pen-and-ink copyist, and the computer thing wasn't really happening yet then. "I feel really young, but it's amazing that when I came to New York, nobody was doing the computer thing. When I was in college as an undergrad I took orchestration with a wonderful, wonderful composer named Dominick Argento, a classical composer, wonderful orchestration teacher, and he made us do all our projects in pen and ink so that we would learn to copy. It was a great gift, because that's how I made my living in New York. Thank God I had that skill." And what of the art of calligraphy today? Does her former profession still exist in the Manhattan music profession?"Oh yes, sometimes people request it. My band likes looking at my hand copying. It's better. Recently I handed out the Finale parts to replace my old parts, as I'd cleaned up some mistakes and details and errors, and they all said, 'Put out the old music; it looks like music.' But it's not practical any more." Were you a straight composer at university?"I first went to the University of Minnesota as a theory major, and I dreamt of being a composer but I didn't presume I could do it. Coming from such a small town I just felt that I was probably really behind. Then I did these little theory exercises, where they have you write a short string quartet in the style of this or that. My teacher said, 'Wow, you really should be a composition student.' At the same time I was starting to listen to a lot more jazz. I became a composition student, and I got really frustrated with the classical composition world because at that time - I think it's changing a lot now - if you wrote something tonal, it was just worth nothing. And I'm a tonal bird. I like melodies. I like songs. That is not my language. It's not that I don't even like that language. It's not my language; I don't speak in that language. I enjoy listening to Elliott Carter. And I loved when we studied his quartet. I hated trying to write something, you know, the chain-link theory. I couldn't make it speak for me. So it was the jazz world that was accepting my harmony. The classical world looked at it like, 'Oh, it's so romantic.' "Is minimalism of any interest?"Minimalist never moved me that deeply. It never grabbed me in the way that Ravel grabbed me.In between university and Gil Evans I went to grad school. That's when I got more deeply into jazz. What I did was I compressed all my classes of classical studies into three years at Minnesota, so that my last year I could start studying with people in the community. They didn't have a jazz programme at my college, so I studied piano with a Brazilian named Manfredo Fest. He was on Concord [records], he died now, a blind pianist from Brazil, wonderful. I studied with him. And some different composers in Minneapolis. Then I went to the University of Miami and Eastman as a jazz composition major. And that's when different people came through, like Dave Holland and George Russell. "Again, it's like the first lesson I got when I was five, especially George Russell. He did some of his old music, like All About Rosie, so wonderful.

His music had such personality. I kept thinking, 'Who am I? I write this piece and it sounds like this, and that piece sounds like that. How do I find myself?' And I came to New York really perplexed. Then I sought out Bob Brookmeyer. And I met Gil Evans totally by accident." Her meeting with Evans is a famous tale, but stands re-telling in her own words."It was kind of freaky. I was working in this music-copying office and a lot of times working the xerox machine. A composer came in. I was xeroxing a score and we got chatting about composition. He said, 'You''re a composer?', and I said, 'Yes, I went to Eastman.' We had some people in common. Then we ended going out for tea or coffee, and talking about what you love. He asked me who my favourite composers were, and I started talking about Gil Evans."He didn't say anything. We just exchanged numbers because we were going to a Penderecki concert together. Then, that night, he said, 'I just want to tell you that I called Gil Evans today, because he happens to be my closest friend, and he needs somebody to work for him, and he wants to meet you.'"Wow! Talk about synchronicity. Working a xerox machine in Hell's Kitchen in New York, walking every day by these porno theatres. I was just so depressed, and then all of a sudden - that was it."Bob Brookmeyer was really instrumental in helping me find my own style. He was really wonderful. He didn't expect me to try to write the way he writes. He just guided me, and it was really great."Some of the names Maria Schneider mentions are, to put it politely, not famed for being easy going, or for having great patience. Clearly she has bundles of natural charm. Nevertheless, wasn't she ever pushed to her limits? Did being a woman help?"I don't have a lot of feelings about feminism, really, because I never think of myself as a woman. As I'm talking to you, of course I'm a woman." She refers to her earlier little faux pas, crying out ecstatically in the lounge. "So we're aware: you're a man, I'm a woman. But when I'm speaking or making music, I'm putting it out there, I'm looking out through my eyes, I'm not thinking in terms of 'I am a woman expressing this'. So if I sit down and I'm talking with Bob Brookmeyer about music, we're meeting in the realm of music, and I'm very clear in that. I never ever at a young age had somebody say, 'Well, 'cos you're a girl, you can't do that'. I never got any complexities in my mind. I'm lucky, really, because a lot of women struggle with this thing. I'm not an instrumentalist. I'm not playing the trumpet or trombone, so I have an easier time. I have my own niche. Nobody really does what I do, composing and conducting alone. It's very unusual, I'm not really compared to anybody. "George Russell was a real curmudgeon with the band at Eastman. He was unbelievable. I wasn't playing in the band, I was just watching. In everything he said, he was right. He just said it in the way that I'd never have the balls to say. So I just enjoyed watching these guys that were playing real lazy and without any passion or balls. I was thinking, 'Yeah'. I loved that he was so intense about his music that he could even stand to hear these college kids butcher it even though he was getting out in the next day. Not that they were butchering it, and it was Eastman. And Bob Brookmeyer, he's a tough man. He's strong in his opinions, but he was always very kind with me. Very kind."How did her own band begin?"Around the time I was studying with Bob, and still working with Gil before he died. I had written something for the Mel Lewis band, and Mel and I got into a big fight about the tempo. And Mel said, 'You should just start your own band.' I was telling him the tempo that I thought it should be."I'd written it, but he said it should be much slower. I said, 'No, it's faster.' And we got in this big fight. I loved Mel, but he was another of those men - assertive, absolutely. So I appreciated what he felt, and it made me go, 'Yeah, you''re right.' I started my own band. I wanted to do that anyway. It was a little kick in the ass. "

Also, writing, doing some things with Gil, I was trying to do it in the way that Gil would do it, writing for Mel Lewis's band, trying to write something that I thought Mel Lewis's band would want to play. And then dating [trombonist] John Fedchock, who was with the Woody Herman band, and they invited me to write something. So I tried to do it in the style that Woody Herman would do it. I'm putting on all these different hats. I've got to figure out who I am. So I started the band with John Fedchock, and then in time I got this Monday night gig. At one point we split up the band and I continued, I got these Monday night gigs. Then I just started to record my own music. I couldn't get a record company interested, so I did it myself. Very much like I'm still into the second phase of that again, now. But that was very scary. "I saved up $30,000 copying music, recorded the band. It was a hell of a lot of copying. And I sold it for ten. That was a lot, because other record companies were offering me less. I was very grateful for Enja putting that out, and giving me really good publicity. That first record got a lot of attention. It was nominated for two Grammy awards - this little thing that I did all on my own. It was really pretty neat, you know, very gratifying to have that something that you do from the ground up yourself, and have it that successful. So the band became really popular. I mean, we'd play this little club, Viseones. People would come in from all over the world, and they started to invite me to work with their orchestras. So they come and say, 'We have a band in Stockholm. Would you come over with your music?' or, 'We have a band in Germany.' And before you know it, I've worked with more bands than you could shake a stick at. I've really worked with a lot, all over the place. Isn't that wonderful? I've met a lot of musicians. And I was with Enja up until recently. Now I've decided to go on my own, and do this marketing my own music from my web site."The website is powered by something called artistShare.

It allows me to have my own website, and through my website to be able to upload all sorts of streamed data downloadable things. And through that, what I'm able to do is create a forum for my audience to be able to be part of my projects. I'm recording a new album now, and paying it for myself. If I don't raise any money from this album it's going to come out of my pocket - which is a little scary. But, what I'm doing to the website is I'm offering all these levels of participation. What I came up with was pre-order of an MP3, pre-order of a high-quality download. I going to have pre-orders of actual mail order CDS, of which I'm doing a limited edition. And what these people get by pre-ordering is news updates, they get listed on the web pages, participating in the project. They are going to get concert news updates. And little lessons I learned - I did this today, this is what happened, something unique about recording, about going from digital to analogue. Who knows what it is going to be? They can be part of the process, and kind of learn, and see what it is to make a recording. But for people who are deeper into music, like composers and things, what I'm offering are if they become, say, a composer participant they pay a certain amount of money and then I'm sending them downloads of scores. I just load this into the back end of the website. It's very easy for me to do. Anybody who participates on different levels automatically gets the score, maybe I include an explanation of the score, harmonically, what I'm doing. So it's like online education. What I'm educating people about is what I'm learning in real time, in the process. "I'm trying to be very honest. My parents actually said to me, 'Maria, you are being so honest that people are going to think that they've wasted their money, because you've just told them that you think you're writing bad music!' I said, 'Listen, this is what I go through.' "I qualify it. For instance, if I say 'I wrote a piece of dreck today, that thing I wrote is absolutely horrible, I'm back to the drawing board, I'm so depressed.' But, on the other hand, I know that the pieces that I hold closest to my heart, the same thing happened when I wrote Coming About. I burst into tears in front of the band, which is true. Now it's one of my favourite pieces.

"At the first reading I had to tweak some things, and I was just shocked when I heard it, it just wasn't what I expected. It was terrible. So I'm sharing this process, and it's scary to do, in a way, and really making my naive choices and being really naked with the whole thing. So far, the people who have signed up for it love it. There are levels: people who have money can be listed on the actual recording, I offer gold participant, silver participant. I have one person signing up for that one thousand-dollar level. That pays for one person for my recording." Does she teach?"I teach lessons, but not often. I don't really have time; I barely have time to write. But the web site is my way of teaching now. If people want to know what it is I do and how I do it, this is the best way to teach. I really love studying theory, and that's another reason why the website thing is good, because I write intuitively AND I write using logic and theory. I do both. But sometime, when you go back and analyse your music - that's what I'm finding - when I do this harmonic analysis, all of a sudden.'This is really interesting; I did this and I had no idea that I did that.' Other things, I' m very conscious of. Yes I did this on purpose, and this is why."Sometimes with students I talk about looking in your writing for a simple solution. I always use the example of Gauss, the mathematician. When he was a young boy, in his math class the teacher sent him home with a project where they were supposed to add up all the numbers from one to a hundred. And Gauss just sat and said, 'Oh, the answer is 5050.' The teacher said, 'Well, how do you know that?' And Gauss said, 'Well, one plus 100 is 101, two plus 99 is 101, and so on, so it's just 50 times 101.' And composing can be the same way sometimes. That you find all of a sudden this one thing that becomes a prism for the whole idea to blossom. And I'm always searching for that thing. To me, there are two solutions. There's the easy solution and the simple solution. The audience wants the simplicity that has the magic, clarity and beauty behind it."And beyond music?

"I became so busy doing music that I do nothing else but music. I read, sometimes I go to movies, love to go to the ballet, I used to figure skate, for a while I was taking kung fu, then I was taking some Flamenco dance, some Chi Kung (Chinese movement for health, similar to Tai Chi), in the summer I ride my bike in Central Park. I'm right by the park, and I love that. For me, music comes out of living a full life - a sound manifestation of life. And if all you are doing is music, music has nothing to speak about. One of my goals for this year was just to have more fun."

Later, when I call her to check on a few facts: "I'm working on that piece I hated. Tomorrow we rehearse the new version. I have hopes. It's birdlike. Maybe I'll call it 'A Tonal Bird'."

Click here to visit Maria's website

This article first appeared in Jazz Review magazine. Not to be used without permission.
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