She has racked up an impressive array of achievements in her career—from the apprenticeships with Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer to winning the first Grammy for a record sold only online (2004’s self-released Concert in the Garden).
I spoke to Schneider back in April, just before a show April 20 at Page Auditorium on Duke’s campus, but the interview was not in time for recess’ last issue and was then lost in the ether. Now for the first time, Soul Merchant’s exclusive interview with Maria Schneider. Post script: I missed a lot of the show, but the parts I heard were phenomenal. Highly recommended.
How did you come to be a bandleader, composer and arranger and not an instrumentalist?
It wasn’t really a decision. It just is who I am and that my expressive voice comes through composition. My music is so intricate that when I first started rehearsing I didn’t think I’d be about being a conductor. But when my group performed the music, it seemed that they performed best when I was standing in front conducting. It wasn’t like I wanted to be a bandleader. This is kind of who I am. I think sometimes being a musician isn’t really a choice.
Did you play with the group early on?
I grew up playing piano, but I never was comfortable performing. When I sat down to play, I never had that passion to perform. In fact, I had an anxiety when I sat down to play piano and I never had great technique. It’s in the people. Some people freak out to have a piece of theirs performed. It’s just what I do.
Another thing that I do that I don’t think a lot of writers do is that when I’m writing music, I’m writing music for musicians, I’m really writing for those musicians, I’m going out of my way to make those people sound better than they’ve ever sounded. So often writers are writing to write a cool piece but it doesn’t matter who’s playing on it. I know my orchestra very well and I like to make them sound wonderful.
How did you come to lead a big band? When you formed the band , did you have any role models as band leaders beside mentors Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer?
They’ve always been an influence on my writing. I grew up loving classical music, standards, old-style jazz. I didn’t know much new jazz. Over the years I fell in love with flamenco music, Brazilian music. What I always loved about Brookmeyer and Gil is that their music crosses boundaries, but not self-consciously so, in that ‘I’m trying to incorporate jazz techniques to the classical world.’ Gil’s music had many of the orchestration and harmonic qualities of classical music. Bob Brookmeyer’s music has the formal qualities—development and not theme-and-variations the way most jazz is. I became attracted to their music because it was so much “more.” It fit more with my background.
Why did you choose to use the big band format?
The way it actually started was that in college. I probably would have started a band with a more unusual instrumentation if I had my druthers, but in college that was the only group large enough available to play compositions. Then when I came to New York, I was writing for the Mel Lewis Orchestra and I didn’t want to have to start over from scratch.
As much as everyone told me having a big band is a financial disaster—and in some ways I think now they are right—it allowed me to make a living writing for big bands. What I’ve tried to do over the years is to make my music not sound like big bands. Just to be honest, big band is not something I really love and I don’t think most people would immediately think of big bands if they heard my music, but I do love complex, intricate music with lots of intricacies and improvisers included.
Can you talk about the challenge of running a continuous big band?
It’s just so many people to pay. Whenever we go on tour we have to pay all these people, I have to figure out how to buy all these plane tickets. I’m finishing up a new record and the mixing is expensive because there are just so many things going on. My record is going to cost about $140,000.
Has the move to ArtistShare [an all online music network that gives musicians control over the entire creative process] helped?
It’s really helped beacuse it cuts out all the middle men. Now my profit margin is so much greater that I can sell far less and make a lot more. I sell exclusively. What we’ve done to fund records—besides people just preordering [and thus sponsoring recording] is we can take people who are like patrons in a way, so it makes a huge difference. I had one generous person give $18,000. I’d never met him.
Were you worried before you made the switch?
I was hoping. I just kind of made a leap of faith because for me financially—I would put years into these albums and I was losing money. At that point, I was just like, It’s this or nothing. It turned out to be the first profit-making recording I ever made and it cost twice as much as any of my other records. This one is far more expensive than my last record, though—on the last one I had Trey Anastasio, who gave me a studio and engineer who basically did it free. This time around I don’t have quite those things to go on. I don’t even think Trey has his studio anymore.
Is it difficult to keep the group together? You’ve got some of the biggest names in jazz in this band, all with projects of their own—Ingrid Jensen, Donny McCaslin, Ben Monder, Frank Kimbrough.
It’s really hard to corral them all for a rehearsal or even for a gig . For this gig I’m really lucky because I have my whole rhythm section. I have Donny, I have Rich Perry. I have so many great players in my band. A lot of times before I take a gig, I shoot out an e-mail to see if anybody can’t make a gig, if they have a tour or something. If enough people can’t make a gig, I won’t take it. Usually most everybody is there. It’s always more than three-quarters of the band. Last year we toured a lot, went to Europe—was it twice?—we went to Brazil...
How do recruit players?
We’ve been together for so many years that—sometimes if something happens and I need new musicians, I’ll ask guys in my band. I kind of check by word of mouth. Like [drummer] Clarence Penn—I went out and saw him with Chris Potter and I though, Oh my God, he would sound great in the band.
Do you intend to keep going with the band?
At one time I thought I was going to stop it, but then we’ll play a concert and I realize it can’t stop, it’s like killing an organism. I may expand my life to do other things—last year I had a big commission, for example—and might have fewer gigs some years, but I don’t think I’ll stop.
What have you been listening to recently?
I’ll be honest with you. Because I’ve been making a record, I’ve been listening to nothing but 5 billion version of my record. I love Braziliam music—Egberto Gismonti, Hermeto Pascoal—and I’v been listening to a wonderful record by a woman named Kate McGarry. There’s a record a friend told me I have to hear by a band called Guinga, so I’m looking forward to that.
Do you listen to anything that might be a surprise to people?
Simon and Garfunkel, the Fifth Dimension [sings a few bars]. STuff from when I was a kid in the ’60s. I also love Jimmy Webb. There’s an album where he does 10 pieces singing them himself, it’s called Ten Easy Pieces. I love it. The songs of the ’60s were so much more intricate, the form and harmony and the melodies. I don’t hear much pop music today that’s like that these days. I don’t know why. I think marketing and everything became more visual. The musicians became younger; ab muscles became more important than the music
So we shouldn’t expect any Maria Schneider music videos soon?
We were going to do a DVD. But it won’t show off my abs, I’ll tell you that. Although they’re not bad!