On Sunday September 12th, the Maria Schneider Orchestra is coming to Bailey Hall as a part of the Cornell Concert Series. Time Magazine said that, “To call Schneider the most important woman in jazz is missing the point … she is a major composer, period.” And this is the truth. If you aren’t familiar with her music, you can stream her set from this years Newport Jazz festival and NPR Music. Her orchestra is comprised of amazing musicians, including one of the premiere alto and soprano saxophonists playing right now, Steve Wilson. If his name’s familiar to you, it might be because he was at Cornell last year with Christians McBride’s group. I got the opportunity to speak with Maria Schneider over the phone to talk music, and even birding.
Tompkins Weekly: How did you get your star playing music? Did you grow up in a musical family?
Maria Schneider: My mother played piano, my sisters, we all played instruments. Mainly, the biggest influence on my life was my first piano teacher. She was a really extraordinary stride and classical pianist from Chicago names Evelyn Butler. And I heard her play when I was five and begged my parents for lessons.
TW: That’s great. When I took my son to see the New Orleans Jazz Orchestra when he was three, the next day he asked for a piano.
MS: It’s amazing how you can get the bug at a young age. I just felt like I wanted to be her.
TW: What other influences do you have, really on your jazz playing and your jazz composition?
MS: When I first started, my piano teacher played in an old stride style and so up until I left high school, I pretty much thought that jazz was dead, that it was a museum thing. But I loved it. She taught me to play stride with very old songs. We didn’t have a record store in my hometown, and we had some Teddy Wilson albums and some old swing and old music. We didn’t have any modern jazz and I didn’t know anything about it. I went to college as a [music] theory major and then slowly added composition to my major. But at that time I slowly became exposed to all, you know, this vast world of jazz that had evolved and I was completely decades behind on. So I started listening to jazz so much, that it really started coming into my composition. And I had a teacher there—and his name was Paul Fetler—who was a Hindemith style classical composer. But he heard how much I was influenced by jazz and suggested that I should write for the big band, which was really nice because a lot of classical teachers, at that time, because this was 1980. At that time a lot of classical composers would have tried to drum all that jazz influence out of me. You know, his idea was to just kind of embrace it. And he could really hear that’s where my enthusiasm was. At that time I was listening to Ellington, Thad Jones, George Russell. And I came to Gil Evans and that really rocked my world because Gil Evens, to me, really felt like the synthesis of classical and jazz—all the nuance and beauty, translucency, and subtlety of classical music together with improvisation and sophisticated rhythm. He became, probably, my biggest influence.
TW: It seems like there’s been a bit of resurgence in, and I don’t want to call it big band jazz because that has certain connotations, but larger groups in jazz. Do you think that’s true and, maybe, why?
MS: I think a lot of composers are looking, like you say, not so much for a big band style, but for a large pallet to write for. And in the jazz world, for me, I was never so much interested in big band jazz except that I wanted to write for large ensembles and in school that’s what existed. By the time I left school, I already had a certain amount of repertoire for big band. It turned out other schools wanted to buy music, there were radio bands in Europe that wanted to play my music, so I’ve stuck by this instrumentation—stretching it as far as I can, to make it sound more orchestral. So I use a lot of woodwinds and mutes and combine players in unique ways so that if you listen to one of my records, it might not occur to you that it looked like a big band. It doesn’t really sound like it.
TW: Reading your liner notes to “Sky Blue” gave me a sense of your composition style. Can you talk about your approach to writing and arranging?
MS: Mainly I just, when I sit down to write. I’m just searching for a personality in sound. And I’m looking for something that I like. If you read my liner notes you might think that, oh she’s writing programmatic music, that she’s writing about something. But that happens very involuntarily. I sit down to write, and I’ll start writing, and all of a sudden I realize that what I’m writing is about something. But, it’s more like it’s coaxing out memories. The music is leading, is drawing memories or experiences out of me and just kind of shining light on them and turning them into sound somehow. I never sit down and say now I’m going to write a piece about birds. That’s never been my way.
TW: So I read that you’re an avid bird watcher.
MS: I love birding. I caution to say avid because you have Cornell Ornithology up there and those are avid birders. I do love birding. I live a half a block from Central Park and it’s an amazing place to bird during migration.
TW: Are you going to get a chance to go to the Ornithology Lab?
MS: I have to see what my schedule is because I’m coming in that morning and doing clinics and then I have a rehearsal, but I’m going to try because I’d like to see it.
TW: Who are you listening to right now?
MS: Nothing. Right now I’m searching for poetry. Actually, I could say that I’m listening to, I was going to sell all my albums, my LPs, and then my boyfriend says, “why don’t we buy a turntable and lets save them.” I didn’t have room here, but he has a house upstate, so I pulled out these records I hadn’t played in twenty years. It was so much fun to hear the things that I loved in the beginning. I was just listening to all sorts of that stuff and even listening to old records, that when I was in college the bands would make records and they recorded some of my music and I haven’t heard that in ages. So it was really fun to just listen. And there was even one of my high school choir. And I’m from a small town, you know it’s a little sort of agricultural town of less then 4000 people. And I thought, oh this is going to sound horrible. But it was beautiful, so it was fun just to go back and listen to the influences because even your high school choir or—people when they ask you what your influences are—its your high school band director or choir director and whatever music you’re playing there. It isn’t necessarily some big lofty Stravinsky or something like that. It’s your day to day life and it’s the landscape around you. And it’s the birds you listen to, that you wake up to. It’s the train that runs by your house. It’s everything.
TW: How have you put the composition of your group together? You have Steve Wilson, which is tremendous.
MS: The band has evolved over time. Some of these players were with me when I first started the band in the late ’80s. A couple of people changed here or there. One trumpet player when to Europe and I brought somebody else new in. But most of us have been together like twenty years. It’s nice every once in a while to have new blood come in, but the consistency of the group is what’s made the group really evolve together. The way these guys play my music is really extraordinary. It’s very powerful. I sit back and listen to them and I’m completely blown away by them.