Revisiting Maria Schneider

2019 NEA Jazz Master composer, conductor, and arranger
Headshot of a woman.

Photo by Jimmy and Dena Katz

Music Credits:

“NY” written and performed by Kosta T, from the cd Soul Sand, used courtesy of the Free Music Archive.

“Green Piece” and “Evanescence” from the album Evanescence, composed by Maria Schneider, performed by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.

“Three Romances, part 1” from A Concert in the Garden , composed by Maria Schneider, performed by the Maria Schneider Orchestra.

“Bombshelter Beast” and “Coming About” from the album, Coming About, composed by Maria Schneider, performed by the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra.

“El Toreador” from The Individualism of Gil Evans, written and performed by Gil Evans.

“The Thompson Fields” and “Arbiters of Evolution” from the Thompson Fields, composed by Maria Schneider, performed by the Maria Schneider Orchestra.


Jo Reed: Welcome to Arts Works produced by the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Today, we’re revisiting my conversation with composer, arranger, conductor and 2019 NEA Jazz Master, Maria Schneider.

Jazz Master Maria Schneider has been wowing audiences for over three decades with her jazz-infused highly original and evocative orchestral compositions.  Schneider’s music is intimate but it can also soar. It is intensely personal and often autobiographical evoking the great Minnesota plains where she was raised. And while Schneider’s home is in jazz, she’s also written classical work and collaborated with David Bowie on the Grammy award winning song, “Sue”. 

Maria Schneider is also a strong advocate for musicians’ rights. She stopped working with traditional record labels in 2003 when she became the initial artist on ArtistShare, the first crowdfunding web platform.  The resulting album, Concert in the Garden, became the first Grammy-winning album to be crowdfunded and to have internet-only sales.

For 15 years, the Maria Schneider Orchestra played a Thanksgiving Week residency at New York City’s Jazz Standard—and it was always a sold-out musical event. As we know the pandemic put the performance of live music on hold for over a year, there was no residency in 2020 and sadly, the Jazz Standard has shuttered its location. But Maria Schneider has been busy—releasing her album Data Lords in 2020 which was named a Pulitizer Prize finalist and won two Grammy awards. And now the Maria Schneider Orchestra has returned to the stage performing in late November at New Jersey Performing Arts Center. So, it seemed like a good time to revisit my interview with Maria.

Although Maria Schneider has lived in New York City for decades and travels throughout the world, home for this 2019 NEA Jazz Master remains the town of Windom in southwestern Minnesota….

Maria Schneider: Oh. It was great because it was a very small town where I came from. Windom had, I think back then it was 3,666 people, which in the Bible belt that's 666, I remember, it made an impact. But it was a great town and I had a dance teacher. I took tap and ballet. At a certain point, we even have a little skating arena, a big skating arena so I got to take skating, piano lessons. We had a band. We had a choir. We had a tiny really awful little orchestra. But still the opportunity to play violin with other people and make music was wonderful. Then, we had the country, going out in the fields and playing and finding things in the dirt and at the lake and birds and it was a great way to grow up. I love small towns.

Jo Reed: What music would you listen to at home? Did anybody play any instruments or how did music factor into your life growing up?

Maria Schneider: I remember my first aha moment with music. We had a piano on our house. My mom played Chopin actually quite well but it was when I was five years old, my parents had a birthday party for my father. Friends of theirs said, our mother just moved to town, can we bring her? Well, it turned out that this woman's mother, Evelyn Butler, was a stride pianist from Chicago, classical pianist too, extraordinary, and her only living family was this daughter in Windom. So she came to Windom to teach piano lessons, so that night I heard her play. I saw her. The joy, the personality coming through the music and I said, I want to be her. I want that. And I begged for lessons. From then on, music, it was in me. Mrs. Butler introduced me to this whole world of the great American songbook, which also my mother was in to. I started falling in love with Cole Porter and all of these things and starting to create little stride piano arrangements out of those songs.

Jo Reed: Did you ever think about being a pianist?

Maria Schneider: When I was studying with her I dreamed of being just like her. I wanted to be a piano player. And I would sit at home. Our house was on a hill with a field across the way and the highway down. It was very kind of surreal open landscape, bleak quite honestly. And I would sit and play piano and I would imagine that the cars going by had radios in them and that some of them were talent scouts. That they could hear and that they would listen and then hear what I was doing and take me away. I dreamed of being like Vladimir Horowitz or something like that. But then at a certain point, I realized I didn't have it my hands. I would practice Mozart again and again and again. I could never get that feeling in me. At a certain point, I said, I don't know that I can be a player. What am I? Because I know I have musician's heart. I know I love music. I wanted to be a musician. And I dreamt of being a composer but coming from a town like Windom it seems like too far of a goal. Who would I be to come from Windom, Minnesota and say I want to be a composer? So I hid that dream for a while.

Jo Reed: How did composing and then jazz begin to work its way into this picture?

Maria Schneider: When I lived in Windom, the jazz I was exposed to was very old style jazz: Teddy Wilson and Old Ellington. Those were the kind of things that I was oriented to. I honestly knew nothing about the whole development of jazz. We didn't have a record store in Windom. The records were sold in the clothing store. The store was called The Wolf Store. So I went to college as a music theory major at the University of Minnesota, and there was a boy that heard me playing Old Ellington on my record player and he knocked on my door and he said, "You like jazz?" and I said, "Yeah." He said, "I have a huge collection. Come out to my room and I'll lend you some records." And so he gave me Herbie Hancock, Headhunters. He gave me some Coltrane with McCoy Tyner. He gave me Mingus so I brought these things back to my room, very naïve, and I felt like I was shot out of a cannon into a whole new era and then I started listening like crazy. And I went to the record store. On the radio I heard Bill Evans. I bought Bill Evans' albums and I'm embarrassed to say the way I discovered Gil Evans is after I fell in love with Bill Evans. I went back to E bin at the records store and I saw Gil Evans and I said, "Well, maybe they're related" and then I started buying Gil Evans' music. That's where my world exploded because suddenly, it was the love of classical music with improvisation and the spirit of jazz. I heard such a natural mix. It wasn't like two things coming together that don't meld but it was this obvious deep love and understanding and emersion in both that I said, "Oh my gosh, this is my world."

<Music up>

Jo Reed: The interest in orchestra and big band, where did this come from? Because by the time you were coming along, this was fading just because economically it's so difficult.

Maria Schneider: So when I was studying classical compositions, specifically at Minnesota, my teacher's name was Paul Fetler and he heard so much jazz influence coming in to my music and he didn't really know exactly what to do with me and he did the best thing he could have done. He said, "Maria, there's a big band at the school. Why don't you go watch them rehearse and write something for them?" And the director of the band, his name was Dr. Frank Bencriscutto, invited me to start writing for the band so I was just flailing. Not really knowing what I was doing, taking lessons with a guy in the band, because there wasn't a jazz program at the school. The great thing was is that I used my imagination. I didn't really know what I was doing and I got to follow my own unorthodox path and find ways to make the things that I heard forcing myself to make them work. And so I fell so in love with writing for large jazz ensemble and for improvisers that then I went on to graduate school at Eastman School of Music where I studied with this great teacher, Rayburn Wright. And I fell so in love with jazz composition and people like George Russell, Bob Brookmeyer, Gil Evans, all of these people, Mingus. And I said, this is the world I want. Also, there's one other story, can I tell you one other story?

Jo Reed: Absolutely.

Maria Schneider: I had an aha moment when I was at the University of Minnesota. Somebody invited me to a concert of Toshiko Akiyoshi. And she was performing at Orchestra Hall where the Minnesota Orchestra performs. This is a classical music hall and she brought her band from L.A. And I went to the concert and I absolutely loved it. The thing that struck me was, here was a person who was traveling with a big band, essentially, playing in a classical concert hall for almost a sold out, if not sold out house and I thought, "Wow. This is something you can do to make a living," and it gave me license to do it too.

Jo Reed: You began working with Gil Evans. How did that happen? You became his assistant. So from finding his album in a record bin and listening and saying, "Oh my God." How did you actually end up being his assistant?

Maria Schneider: It's really crazy. I moved to New York after I finished graduate school and I had wanted to study with Gil Evans but I was told by people that Gil doesn't teach and he's a little bit of a recluse. At a certain point, when I first came to New York, I worked as a music copyist in an office and people would come in. We had big Xerox machines and I always had to do the Xeroxing of the scores. And a guy named Tom Pearson came in with a huge score and I Xeroxed it, we got talking about music and he asked me who my favorite writers were and I started going on about Gil Evans, saying everything I loved and he called me that night and he said, "I didn't tell you today but Gil happens to be my closest friend and I called him and told him about you and he needs somebody to do work for him, copying and various things, and he wants to meet you." Can you imagine? I was jumping up and down and twirling in circles. I was so excited. It was the impossible happened. It's incredible.

Jo Reed: There you are, you’re Gil Evans' assistant. Tell me what that experience was like and what you learned with him.

Maria Schneider: First of all, orchestrating for Gil Evans is something. That's just something no mortal should do but here I was in my 20s doing it and he entrusted me and I remember one time I brought this thing in to him that I'd finish and he recoiled, he was so horrified at what I'd written which was textbook. It was exactly like I learned at Eastman. It was textbook. He said, "No. Oh my God, no, Maria. I want some of the high instruments going to be bottom of the range and I want some of the low instruments going up out of the range so at the end everybody feels like they're struggling." And I remember just thinking, "Oh my God, what a freethinker" and no wonder Gil's music is just undeniably him. It can't be anybody else's. Those were the moments that made me say, "I got to start my own band because I need to find out what are my quirks? I want to find out who I am. I want to be as much Maria as Gil is Gil and Bob Brookmeyer is Bob," because I was studying with Bob also.

Jo Reed: You got an apprenticeship from the National Endowment for-

Maria Schneider: Endowment for the Arts, yeah. I got a wonderful apprenticeship grant to study with Bob and I found out really what these people were made of and it is pure individuality, personality, strong choices. Choices about their own music that they are just sure about. It's amazing.

Jo Reed: Are you composing at this time?

Maria Schneider: Yes. I had come out of school with a composition degree and I was composing. At the time I was studying with Bob, I was working with him, developing my composition. He was an extraordinary teacher. Amazing teacher and I was learning so much by being with Gil at the same time and I started writing the music in that period that ended up being the music on my first album, Evanescence.

<Music up>

Jo Reed: So here we are. It's 1992 and you decide, I'm doing my own band. What a leap of faith. That's an extraordinary thing to do.

Maria Schneider: Yeah. I had saved up enough money through being a music copyist to start thinking about recording my own pieces. I had approached record companies about recording my band and everybody said, "Oh, no." So I just decided, "Okay, I'm going to record this music and then see if I can sell it to somebody." We caught a magic on that record. I still listen to that record and I'm amazed by the musicianship and what we managed to get.

<Music up>

So I started shopping it. Most people said no because they said they didn't know how to market me. Those were the days where you had to be able to sell something in a record store but Anja Records in Europe picked it up and that was a label I really respected and loved. So I ended up on that label. They bought it for about a third of what I paid for it and I felt lucky just to have somebody put that out and that got my name on the map. It sold very well. For a big band it did really, really well.

Jo Reed: You and the orchestra then started appearing every week at Visiones.

Maria Schneider: Mm-hmm.

Jo Reed: And I'm curious about what that gave you in terms of your development both as a composer and as a conductor to be working with these people every week in a live event. That just strikes me as both terrifying and fabulous.

Maria Schneider: I was offered a gig to perform weekly at Visiones in Greenwich Village, which was a great place because it had a low cover charge, had a lot of walk by people, so those people would just come in on a whim to hear the band. I was terrified when I first got the gig because I didn't have that much music and I thought, "Playing every week," and it went a couple of months and then they said, "Let's continue." Well, it went for five years. But the extraordinary thing about it was, I think for the players it was good because playing a lot of the same music week to week, slowly I was adding music but it forced them to always try to find new things in the improvisation because there they are with players they respect. They can't play the same thing every night. They wouldn't want to play the same thing every night and I think it pushed them. For me, I got to be with an ensemble that was playing my music on a steady basis, and they started developing ways collectively of phrasing my music, not just things that I dictated but things that they did on their own. And when I started hearing the phrasing possibilities, it made me start writing to that and when I started hearing the different directions they would take solo sections, it occurred to me, wow, I can do something I didn't know I could do. The way I think of it is that this gig playing 50 some nights a year for five years created a slow improvisation where I'm hearing them play my music. I'm hearing what they do and it's creating something unique in me to give something new back to them. They give me what I expect and ask for but then they start morphing it and changing it, which brings something new out of me. And so I would say if I had been working with different musicians I would be a different composer. I'm not the kind of composer that sits at home, writes in isolation, goes and works with an ensemble somewhere or people I've never met and then I go somewhere else with other people. No, these are people that I get to develop the music with and so they are just such an intimate part of who I am as a composer so I'm just eternally grateful to all of them. There have been changes throughout the years but they all … I carry a piece of all of them in my music.

Jo Reed: How do you compose? Tell me your process for writing.

Maria Schneider: When I write, I sit here and I grope. I grope through my brain. Sometimes I play. I'm just looking for ideas. In music, I'm looking for a personality, something … Not just something that sounds good or sounds cool, but something that all of a sudden, takes me somewhere, a lot of times to a place, a place from childhood. It might be a certain landscape or a certain story or an idea. I'm looking for something that takes me away and when I find myself playing something and all of a sudden, I find myself daydreaming and attaching something to that idea, then I start getting excited because then I can use that idea, the experience or the story or whatever it's attaching itself to, to help me develop the piece. Sometimes there are pieces that are just purely music but a lot of times, The Thompson Fields is a recollection of Windom, Minnesota and the landscape, the prairie landscape, Scenes from Childhood. “Bombshelter Beast” is recalling the fear of the air raid sirens, the tornadoes, all the various fear aspects of childhood of monsters and nuclear war.

<Music up>

Jo Reed: What about the orchestration? Does that come in pretty early on with the writing or when does that factor in?

Maria Schneider: Even back when I was a kid, I would listen to records and I remember thinking, I loved orchestration so much and I remember thinking, "Oh, you put a flute there or something here. I wouldn't have done that. I might have done this." I remember thinking that way back when, just loving orchestration and to this day, orchestration is always a part … The color of the colors are in me when I'm coming up with the ideas. I never come up with a musical idea on its own and then say, "Okay, now I'm going to put the band on it." And there are different writers. Bob Brookmeyer was much more that way. The intricacy of the development and the lines and then putting the different horns on it as a section but I'm always hearing the color well … I can't even write the harmony unless I'm imaging the color because I would pick different harmony if I was imagining a different color. It's always there, that's just a part of me and that's something I've loved.

Jo Reed: How do you then teach your compositions to the musicians in your band? How do you introduce them to it, and how much space are you leaving for them?

Maria Schneider: So the problem is I don't want to come in to a rehearsal saying, "Okay, guys, this is the window. When you play … I want to sound like … you know?" If I come to my guys like that or I really want you to be like this bird, I'm sorry, that's a turnoff. They might think I'm crazy. I try to get them partly there and get them to hear the music and sort of hear it and then I wait for the moment when I start telling the audience what it's about. Because now I'm not saying, "I want you to be a bird." I'm saying to the audience, "You know this is a piece that's evocative of these birds." Now, he has to get up and play. He needs to be the bird without me telling him how to be the bird and I can't even tell him how to be the bird but it's his own interpretation to make it something and make it different every night. You have it in the music, you describe it, but then you have to let them find it. They have to find it for themselves and connect it to themselves to make it truly happen.

Jo Reed: Well, you really did that with The Thompson Fields, “Arbiters of Evolution”. You had Scott Robinson and you had Donny McCaslin.

Maria Schneider: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Jo Reed: I mean talk about sounding like birds. That was amazing.

<Music up>

Maria Schneider: Yes. I'm fortunate, so fortunate that I'm with musicians that trust me and I trust them. The hardest part is just getting through that period when we don't quite mutually get it. The hardest part for me is to trust in my first vision and just to say, "Maria, you heard it, it's there." I'm getting better at that. In the beginning, it wouldn't be there right away and I'd think, "Oh my God, I'm horrible. I don't know how to write. This is a disaster and I'm a loser." But I'm getting to the point now where I'm like, I'm feeling I've been through this many times before, trust your instincts, maybe you have to make some tweaks, go through it step by step. Soon enough they're all going to hear it. Once they get an inkling of what it is, then now they all know what they're reaching for. And it's so fun. When I'm conducting the band and I feel like I'm on top of that Thompson silo in a performance and I'm feeling it, I'm thinking, "Wow, this is crazy. How does this happen? I don't even know how it happens. It's a mystery."

Jo Reed: Is conducting the fun part and writing the anxiety-producing part? Or is, God knows, being in front of a live audience can bring its own challenges.

Maria Schneider: Absolutely, the challenging part is the writing and then the second most challenging part is the first rehearsals getting through the self-doubt. Trusting that my instincts were there that maybe there are things to tweak but that trusting myself and not doubting and moving ahead. Those are the biggest hurdles.

Jo Reed: What about when you're writing commissioned work? Is that different for you?

Maria Schneider: I hate commissions. I shouldn't say that because after one completes a work then you love the commission but the process, the thing of somebody paying you to write something and having an expectation, what's she going to write for us and I'm thinking, oh, what if they hate it, what if it's no good, what if I come up …? Like you have no more ideas. What if it's over, what if it's a disaster and that's really a problem for me. But I had a really great lesson. The best part for me about working with David Bowie was … and it happened right here in this spot. He was standing right here in front of me and I think of it all the time because I was so scared when we were working together and I said, "David, what if you don't like it? What if we spend all this time and this money recording this big band thing and you hate it?" He just laughed and he said, "Maria, the great thing about music is if the plane goes down, we all walk away." That single statement that he made right here has helped me when I'm turning around and facing the piano and writing on my writing broad to just say, "Oh, let's try this. What's to lose? Let's risk it." I'm so thankful for that. He was like an angel that came with that right message for me.

Jo Reed: How did you and David Bowie get together?

Maria Schneider: He contacted me out of the blue. He had come to hear the band before and he liked the music and he contacted me out of the blue. His first love in music was jazz so David followed things and somehow he found his way to my music, thankfully, because that was one of the more fun things I've done in my life. I really love what we created together, I really love it.

Jo Reed: What was the process of working together?

Maria Schneider: It was very back and forth. It was really fun. We had a couple rehearsal sessions with a few of the musicians from my band to test things out to really hear them. Then at the very end he had lyrics and right before the recording, he came in with new lyrics. They were very dark and wonderful.

Jo Reed: And that was “Sue”.

Maria Schneider: That was “Sue”.

<Music up>

Jo Reed: It won a Grammy.

Maria Schneider: Well, it won a Grammy for best arrangement so yeah, that was nice so the plane didn't go down.

Jo ReedConcert in the Garden is another Grammy Award winner and the first to win a Grammy with online sales only. Tell me about that record and explain ArtistShare and how that works and how it works for you?

Maria Schneider: Let's see. It was 1998 when Google formed and then we started having things like Napster and people's ability to start searching music and getting it for free, this sort of free for all with music. It started really wreaking havoc in the music business. And a friend of mine said, "Maria, what's the one thing nobody can file share?" And I said, "I don't know," and he said, "The creative process." He said, "What if I create a platform where you announce that you're going to make a record, you document the process of making your record, we pre-sell it, people can come in at different levels, and we eliminate all the middle man, the records store, everything. We sell directly to the fan on the internet and there will be no anonymous sales. You will know every person who buys your music so you can develop a relationship and then when you do your next project you write to all those same people." So we did it with Concert in the Garden and it did very well. I've never turned back. I'm still doing it to this day.

<Music up>

Times are getting really tough now with streaming. Streaming is a whole new ballgame. People don't even buy CDs anymore. People don't even want downloads anymore. So it's going to be interesting to see how this is going to play out in the future and what's going to happen when I do this next project, we will see.

Jo Reed: Is there any one concert that you’ve done that really stands out for you that you can describe?

Maria Schneider: I can describe maybe one of the most joyous nights of making music with my band was playing in my hometown for the first time because so much of my music is autobiographical. Sitting there were my parents and so many people who knew the Pretty Road. Sitting there were the Thompson family. I hadn't even done the Thompson Fields record but I'd written a piece called “Coming About” about sailing with the Thompsons.

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There were so many pieces inspired by those people and when I would talk about the music and the Pretty Road you'd see everybody nodding. Remembering the Pretty Road and just embracing the music and realizing that my whole world of music that I've come to, the whole foundation is in that hometown. There was so much support. I was allowed to have every dream. I had the support. I had great mentors. I had great friends, a great sense of community support. I was lucky. I had a great family who in a small town with a record store that isn't a record store but just a bin in a clothing store, that my mother exposed me to the arts and both my parents to the outdoors. I don't make music about music. To me, music is an expression of life. Music is just the conduit. I am still expressing things from my childhood because to me there was so much magic there. Not that everything was magic and great, but there was so much alive there and there's plenty of material there to keep me inspired for a lifetime.

<Music up>

Jo Reed: We just revisited my 2019 interview NEA Jazz Master-- composer and conductor Maria Schneider.  You can keep up with Maria and her upcoming performances at Maria  You’ve been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed. Thanks for listening.


Today, we revisit a conversation with 2019 NEA Jazz Master composer, conductor, and arranger Maria Schneider who creates highly original and evocative compositions for her jazz orchestra.

A New York Thanksgiving tradition was a week-long series of performances by the Maria Schneider Orchestra at the Jazz Standard. As we know the pandemic put the performance of live music on hold for over a year, there was no residency in 2020 and sadly, the Jazz Standard has shuttered its location. But happily the Maria Schneider Orchestra has recently returned to the stage performing in late November at New Jersey Performing Arts Center.

Much of Schneider’s music is autobiographical, evoking the Minnesota plains where she was born and raised. She returns to the theme of her childhood in a prairie town again and again; in fact, she’s come to realize that the foundation of her music is her hometown. She finds parts of it magical, and we certainly hear it in her music. Although she’s composed classical work and collaborated with David Bowie, Maria’s musical center remains in jazz. In this podcast, we talk about her connection to jazz (especially to the music of NEA Jazz Master Gil Evans), the ways in which she and the musicians in her band inspire one another, her collaboration with Bowie, and how her deep ties to Windom, Minnesota, translates into mesmerizing music.