Legendary jazz bandleader Duke Ellington once quipped, "It don't mean a thing if it ain't got that swing." Well, contemporary large-ensemble pacesetter Maria Schneider's music certainly swings. It also sways, swoops, envelops and inspires.
Even in a genre known for free thinkers, the Big Apple-based composer is unique. Her creations follow few, if any rules: classical motifs meet dazzling flamenco sweeps; pastoral timbres brush up against passionate improvisational passages; electrifying harmonies surge and recede with ballet-like grace. And her business model is as unconventional as her music: Schneider sells all her CDs independently, through her website.
Although some jazz enthusiasts might consider big-band music old-fashioned, Schneider puts a fresh coat of paint on the genre's black-and-white façade. She brings her 18-piece ensemble to the Flynn MainStage on Friday, January 20.
Schneider, 45, was born and raised in Windom, Minnesota, where she began studying piano and music theory at the age of 5. After receiving music degrees from the University of Minnesota, the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music, she made her way to the big city. There, a chance audience with master composer-arranger Gil Evans led to a pivotal gig as his assistant. Schneider subsequently scored for the Woody Herman and Toots Thieleman bands and conducted prestigious groups such as the Stockholm Jazz Orchestra. Terrific experience, to be sure, but it wasn't until she began composing for her own ensemble that she really hit her stride.
These days, Schneider is on top of the world. In addition to a loyal fan base and booming CD sales, she now has her own Grammy -- awarded for her latest release, Concert in the Garden. Not bad, considering you won't find any of her music in record stores. Seven Days recently spoke with the composer from her New York City home.
SEVEN DAYS: Many big-band leaders of yesteryear were known for their instrumental prowess. Is it satisfying to be just the composer?
MARIA SCHNEIDER: I don't know what the other thing is like, so it's a little bit hard to say. For me, the way of expressing myself is through writing. The music I create is very detailed and complex, so it's my whole and entire world. But I participate in performances, because I conduct. That definitely helps mold the music. When we do sound checks, a lot of times I'll be with the sound guy and it feels like something's missing. Occasionally I'll panic and get back up there. Then I'm like, "Ahhh -- OK!"
SD: And you've got a pretty unique conducting style.
MS: It's kind of spontaneous. What I hear in the music -- or I should say, what I don't hear in the music -- makes me respond physically. I didn't set out to conduct. In rehearsals, I'd show people what I was looking for with my body and my hands, to save time. Before I knew it, I was conducting my own music.
SD: You studied piano when you were younger. Do you still use it to compose?
MS: Oh, yeah. And I also play just for fun.
SD: What attracted you to scoring for large groups?
MS: I was always interested in composing and fascinated with orchestration. There are just all these colors. At the University of Minnesota, it just so happened that I had one of the greatest orchestration teachers, a composer named Dominick Argento. And at that point I became enamored with Gil Evans' music -- a lot of it was long-form, like classical, yet it was still jazz.
SD: Your work draws from a wide variety of traditions. What are your main sources of inspiration?
MS: It's half classical, half jazz, with bits of music from around the world. My family had spent a little time in South America. They brought back some records, so I had a few things, enough to have a sense that there was very interesting music in other places. But I really didn't immerse myself until later. And there's still so much more to discover.
SD: Improvisation is one of jazz music's chief concerns. Do you always leave room for free expression?
MS: I do. I think every one of my pieces contains some improvisation. But it varies. Some are very tightly composed, and the improvisations are over music that isn't really that malleable. Others can morph into completely unique forms from night to night.
SD: Sometimes it seems like jazz is on the verge of becoming a museum piece or, worse, background music for brunch. What do you think?
MS: It's only because people look at it like that. They want to preserve it, but they're so scared of it going away that they end up killing it. Jazz is about collaboration in every moment, so why not have the influences and eclecticism of the world start to come into it?
SD: You worked as Gil Evans' assistant when you were coming up in the New York scene. What did you learn from him?
MS: Mostly the importance of being yourself. His music was so uniquely his own, and it really inspired me. He showed me that as much as I loved the music of my heroes, I ultimately had to separate myself from them and figure out my own thing. Their thing was already so good; like, I'm gonna try to do it better? I had to go back to the fork in the road and find my own path.
SD: Did you seek him out?
MS: No -- it was an accident! I was working in a music copping office in midtown Manhattan, in the same area that he was. I caught the tail end of that era, too -- copping by hand with pen and ink. We were doing stuff for the Tony Awards and the few little record dates. One day a composer came in with a score, and we ended up getting together and talking. He asked me who my favorite writers were and I started going on and on about Gil Evans. He called me later that night and said, "I didn't tell you earlier, but Gil is my best friend. I called him today and told him about you because he's looking for an assistant. He wants to meet you." It was just a dream come true.
SD: Nice coincidence.
MS: It was. Honestly, I'd thought about something like that a long time before, but I dismissed it because I didn't believe that kind of apprenticeship even existed. I didn't think of it again until I met him. Then it was like a lightning bolt to my head. He came walking towards me, and I couldn't even find his hand to shake, because I was freaking out so much! He was shooting all over the room -- it was like some Carlos Castaneda mushroom experience, or something. So I just shut my eyes and stuck my hand out!
SD: Recording and touring with such a big group must present some major hurdles. How do you keep the ship afloat?
MS: It's hard. You know how your parents can press your buttons sometimes? Well, I was talking to my father about a week ago, and he asked me, "Are you making any money on these tours?" And I said, "No, actually not." So he goes, "So why do you have the band, then?" I got so upset, because sometimes it is frustrating. But you know what? If I didn't have this band, I wouldn't have my voice. My music has developed out of the time that I've devoted to being with this group of musicians. Making music is something completely profound. For me, it's as deep as matters of faith.
SD: You sell all of your music through your website. What's wrong with the conventional route?
MS: The industry assumes that the artist does it simply for the love. Our reward is supposed to be that they even want us. That's why I started the whole Internet thing. Now I'm actually making money off my records. I kind of think this is the wave of the future. Both methods will probably exist, but for an artist like myself, the financial difference is amazing.
SD: Has winning a Grammy created any new opportunities for you?
MS: Totally. I was surprised what a big effect it had on my career. I heard a musician say, "Yeah, it doesn't change much," and I didn't say anything, but I was thinking, "Uh-uh -- it means a lot." It increased the sales on my website by a long shot, and brought a lot of respect from regular people who aren't in the music business. They're like, "Wow -- you won a Grammy?" Even the doorman at my building tells everyone.
SD: So you went to the award ceremony?
MS: Oh, yeah. It meant a lot to me personally. I always wanted to win a Grammy -- I've been thinking of it since I was a kid. Of course, I had my Oscar speech worked out back then. And Miss America. I also pretended I was her! But the thing that was so great about getting a Grammy is that I won for what I think is my best album, and did it all through my website. It was very gratifying.
SD: You've got independent success, critical acclaim and artistic freedom. What do you work on next?
MS: [laughs]. My love life!