Jazz composer, arranger
Maria Schneider is a noted American jazz composer and big band conductor who, like her mentors, the late Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, creates unique and celebrated musical pieces for large bands. Schneider has often referred to her works as jazz chamber music. She's earned critical and popular accolades throughout her career, most often from European audiences and critics.
Schneider was born and raised in Windom, Minnesota, where she began taking piano and music theory at the age of five. Her first teacher was a jazz pianist who had moved to the town from Chicago. She also took the requisite ballet and tap and figure skating lessons and later played clarinet in school band as well as violin. After high school, she attended the University of Minnesota, where an American Ballet Theater performance of Leonard Bernstein's ballet Fancy Free made her calling clear. "I was hoping to be a composer of some sort, but I wasn't sure if I had the talent. But that night … I remember thinking, 'Oh, my God. This is what I want to do,'" she told Down Beat.
With bachelors degrees in music theory and composition, Schneider began graduate studies at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, New York, where she studied jazz and contemporary writing. She earned a masters degree in 1985, and moved to New York City that summer. A National Endowment for the Arts grant gave her the opportunity to study with Bob Brookmeyer, a trombone player and a noted jazz composer/arranger whom she counts as one of two influential mentors. She studied with him between 1986 and 1991.
"He was the person who made my career happen," she told Down Beat in a 1996 interview. "And he's still the man I go to when I get stuck or frustrated. He's my real support." In that same interview, Brookmeyer described her as "already a fully developed writer when she came to me.… I offered a combination of emotional and professional support, especially of her role as a woman in jazz, because that's something that needs to be addressed, since jazz has a history of being a male enclave." It was he who provided her with some of her first work for the Thad Jones–Mel Lewis Orchestra. He also made it possible for her to begin writing for the Village Vanguard Orchestra.
Her studies did not end with Brookmeyer, however, In 1985 she also went to work for Gil Evans—a well-known triple threat in the jazz world: a composer, arranger, and bandleader. Schneider worked as Evans's copyist and periodically served as a ghost composer. Examples of this include music for the film The Color of Money (1986) and for jazz-dabbling pop star Sting's European tour.
Schneider says Evans had a lasting influence on her career even before they began working together. "When I first heard Gil's music, I heard the passion of music," she said in a reprinted excerpt from a 1992 interview in Down Beat. "I realized that this was the emotion I wanted to express in my own music. She worked with Evans until his death in 1988.
Schneider next teamed with her then-husband John Fedchock as coleader of a rehearsal jazz band. She formed her own big band, the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, in 1992. The group performed weekly at the Manhattan club Visiones from 1993 until it closed in 1998. During this period they recorded Evanescence, an album dedicated to Evans's memory that was nominated for two Grammy awards. It also brought her to greater public attention, and soon afterward, critics began to take note. The follow-up, Coming About, was released in 1995. Although her time performing with the band was fruitful, Schneider said she needed to take a break from the weekly commitment to explore different compositional ideas. The band did remain together and continued to perform as well as tour.
Schneider described the process of composition to Bob Protzman of Down Beat magazine as a painful, even traumatic, struggle. "A piece just doesn't spin out. I struggle and mold and work very hard for every one," she told him. "All I can think of after a piece is first performed is the pain of the process—the bumpy ride it was putting it together. I can't feel good about it. Eventually, though, when I can get some distance, I can look at it with its own personality and become a friend to it."
Her work has frequently included commissions for European-based groups. Down Beat reported in 1996 that this represented "much of her income" at that time. Schneider has been commissioned by organizations including the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, Orchestre National de Jazz (Paris), Toots Thielemans and the Norrbotten Big Band (Sweden), Danish Radio Orchestra, Monterey (California) Jazz Festival, and the Metropole Orchestra in the Netherlands. She also wrote a dance piece performed by the acclaimed Pilobolus Dance Theatre in 1998.
Much has been made of Schneider's gender, a topic she dislikes discussing. "If Schneider's strawberry blond, blue-eyed looks get the paparazzi's pulses racing, her music has the cognoscenti enraptured," wrote Will Friedwald in Entertainment Weekly in 1996. When pressed, her male counterparts discuss her virtues strictly as a composer and band leader. "She has a wonderful command of the orchestra as an instrument," Jon Faddis, director of the Carnegie Hall Jazz Band told Entertainment Weekly in 1996. "Like Frank Foster and Slide Hampton, she gets great colors and harmonies.… It's fun to see such a powerful band with a woman in front.… [H]er music and her arrangements stand up with anybody, regardless of race, creed, or sex."
Critic Terry Teachout, writing in Time in 2000 said "To call Schneider the most important woman in jazz is missing the point two ways. She's a major composer—period." He waxed poetic about her 2000 release Allegresse, the main track of which was originally written for Pilobolus Dance Theatre, calling it "full of rainbow clouds of translucent, glittering sound, interwoven with … compelling solos."
She struck up an acquaintance with Nicole Rebehn of the Reichsrat von Buhl winery in southern Germany while performing in Manhattan. After Schneider was invited to the vineyard to pick grapes, the winery named a Riesling in her honor. A live recording of originals and jazz standards was packaged with the limited-production bottles—The Days Of Wine And Roses Live at the Jazz Standard. The first release was issued in 2000 and has continued with subsequent vintages.
For the Record …
Born Maria Lynn Schneider on December 27, 1960, in Windom, MN; married John Fedchock, c. 1980s; divorced, c. 1994. Education: University of Minnesota, bachelor of arts in music theory and compo sition, 1983. Attended University of Miami, 1983–84.
Master of music, Eastman School of Music, 1985. Stud ied composition with Bob Brookmeyer, 1986–91. Moved to New York City upon graduation, won NEA grant, became assistant to Gil Evans, 1985; after Evans's death formed rehearsal jazz band, 1988; formed Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra, 1992; released Evanescence, 1994; released Coming About, 1995; composed piece for Pilobolus Dance Theatre, 1998; released Allegresse, 2000; Days Of Wine And Roses Live at the Jazz Standard released 2000; turned to self-distribution, circa 2003; started recording new work, 2004.
Awards: National Endowment for the Arts grant, 1985; Gil Evans Fellowship award, 1991; Down Beat Readers' Poll Award, Arranger of the Year, 2001. Down Beat Critics' Poll, Arranger of the Year, 1997, 2001, 2002.
Addresses: Management— John Levy Enterprises, Inc., 1828 Coolidge Ave., Altadena CA 91001. Website— Maria Schneider Official Website: http://www.mariaschneider.com.
Schneider now controls distribution of her albums, which are available solely through her website. As of 2004 she was reportedly working on a new recording. "I never want to be on a treadmill where I compose music to keep my career going," she told Down Beat. "I don't want to be just interested or educated at a concert. I want to be moved. It's like in Brazil. Music isn't a condiment or an accessory to life for people there. It's the sustenance."
With the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra
Evanescence, enja, 1994.
Coming About, enja, 1995.
Allegresse, enja, 2000.
Days Of Wine And Roses Live at the Jazz Standard [Limited edition recording packaged with wine bearing Schneider's name], 2000.
Kernfield, Barry, editor, The New Grove Dictionary of Jazz, second edition, Macmillan, 2002.
Down Beat, November 1996; October 2000; December 2001.
Entertainment Weekly, July 12, 1996.
Newsday, June 26, 1996.
San Francisco Chronicle, January 19, 2001; March 19, 2002.
Time, October 16, 2000.
Maria Schneider Official Website, http://www.mariaschneider.com/ (February 20, 2004).
—Linda Dailey Paulson
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