Unlike most musicians who’ve gone on to distinguished musical careers, as a kid, Maria Schneider wasn’t forced to take piano lessons. In fact, as a five-year-old she begged her musically-inclined parents to let her have them.
The Grammy Award-winning jazz composer and conductor brings her eponymous 19-piece orchestra to McCarter Theater on Friday, February 20. The show should be spectacular for anyone who appreciates big band jazz.
Schneider’s latest album, “Sky Blue,” was funded by her audience through a program called ArtistShare. It was released in 2007, and named “Jazz Album of the Year” by critics at the Village Voice and was one of only two albums to receive a five-star review from Downbeat magazine in 2007.
“It’s all original music,” Schneider says in a phone interview from her upper West side apartment in Manhattan, where she supervises a staff of two to promote her music, mainly via her website, www.mariaschneider.com.
“I would characterize my music as orchestral jazz,” she says, “and it includes lots of experiences from life and my appreciation of nature. For somebody unfamiliar with me, listening to my music, they might not realize they’ve just heard a big band.”
She says her own musical journey began in tiny Windom, Minnesota, where she grew up the youngest of three sisters. “I had a piano teacher who had moved to Windom from Chicago when I was five,” Schneider says, “and Windom being a small town, my parents invited her over for dinner one night. Afterwards, she started playing stride and then playing classical. That was it. It was an instantaneous love of music. I begged to take lessons.
“Later on, my parents never once had to say, `Maria, time to practice.’ They just let me play and sometimes had to drag me away from the piano.
Her father was an engineer for the paper goods company Kimberly Clark, and her mother a housewife.
“I loved jazz and pop standards as much as I loved classical music and Beethoven,” Schneider says, “and I still feel that way. My music reflects a natural mix and respect for different genres of music. I never had this notion that I had to be beholden to a lineage in jazz. I consider myself a bit of a musical mutt: everything comes into my music. I’m not consciously trying to mix them, they just mix automatically.”
Jazz writers, including some hard-nosed jazz critics, have asked “but is it jazz?” By now, she’s gotten commissions from both jazz and classical music organizations. After all, “jazz is ‘America’s classical music,’ as announcers on WBGO (88.3 FM, Newark), often like to say.
“I would say the music is more jazz than classical because it couldn’t be played unless the musicians were able to improvise, and it does have elements of improvisation,” Schneider says.
As a child she says, “we listened to classical music because my mom loved classical music, but we also listened to older jazz recordings by Teddy Wilson and Artie Shaw. My father had to travel quite a bit to South America, and I have videos of my parents on their honeymoon in Brazil at Carnival, so I always had this fascination with other countries,” she says. “He also had to learn to fly, and he would often just take off out of the field behind our house. So even though I grew up in this very small farm town in southwest Minnesota, I connected to the rest of the world.”
Schneider’s two older sisters have gone on to distinguished careers as well: one as a lawyer and writer and the other is a painter and architect.
The youngest Schneider didn’t really know much about jazz culture until she got to college at the University of Minnesota, she admits. There, a student down the hall from her played some John Coltrane and Herbie Hancock records for her. In college she also discovered jazz music on public radio and became a fan of Gil Evans, Bill Evans, and trombonist/arranger Bob Brookmeyer. Schneider majored in classical theory and composition and then attended the University of Miami and the Eastman School of Music in Rochester, NY, earning a masters in jazz and contemporary media.
She moved to New York City — where all good and promising jazz musicians must eventually go — in 1985. Was there culture shock moving from Windom to Miami and then Rochester to New York City? Not really, Schneider says. “One thing New York has in common with Windom, is you can walk to everything. In New York, your little neighborhood becomes your community, so this neighborhood, the Upper West Side, has this sense of community that I love.”
After moving to New York she immediately sought out trombonist, arranger, and composer Bob Brookmeyer, who she idolized. She began taking composing lessons with him. She was using a Xerox machine at a copy center one day and met a guy and they started talking about jazz music. Schneider told him how much she loved the compositions of [jazz composer-pianist] Gil Evans. They went out for a coffee, “and then he called me that night and said, `I didn’t tell you today, but Gil is my closest friend.’ So at that time I started working with Gil, as his assistant.”
Brookmeyer, 79, just received a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master designation last fall at Lincoln Center. Evans passed away in March, 1988, in Cuernavaca, Mexico.)
“Even as a kid, I was fascinated with the idea of orchestration,” Schneider says, adding that the chance to work with Evans constituted her first big break as a budding jazz composer. As a performer, she brought her orchestra to Visiones, a jazz club on West 3rd Street, in the early 1990s, which helped her build a following as a jazz composer and conductor. “Working at Visiones every Monday night in the Village for five years helped develop a fan base and word just spread from there, because people could come in and pay a really cheap cover charge. We developed ourselves and an audience at the same time.”
In interview after interview, Schneider cites Brookmeyer and Evans, both top shelf jazz composers, for helping her along in her career. As one might expect, it’s rough business leading a 19-piece jazz orchestra and trying to make it work, economically. But Schneider has paid her dues, and then some. “We manage to do it somehow. I work very hard at what I do.”
At McCarter on Friday, Schneider will conduct her 18 piece orchestra, which includes an accordion player. The orchestra includes Tim Ries, Dave Pietro, Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin and Scott Robinson on reeds; trumpeters Augie Haas, Mike Rodreguiz, Laurie Frink, and Kenny Rampton; trombonists Keith O’ Quinn, Ryan Keberle, Marshall Gilkes, and George Flynn; Gary Versace, accordion; Ben Monday, guitar; Frank Kimbrough, piano; Jay Anderson, bass; and Clarence Penn, drums.
As for what she learned from her long tenure as Evans’ assistant, Schneider says Evans was a modest, soft-spoken man who didn’t really preach too much. “He wasn’t really a teacher, he didn’t expound on things. I just helped him, and I learned things from being around him. What I saw from being around him was that he was dedicating his life to his own vision. And Bob Brookmeyer is the same way. And they both had a lot of respect for one another. Through Bob and working with Gil I had to figure out what my voice was. So, eventually, I had to step away and be devoted to my own work.”
Maria Schneider Orchestra, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place. Friday, February 20, 8 p.m. Big band presented by 19-piece ensemble. Her latest recording, “Sky Blue,” earned a Grammy award. $40 to $48. 609-258-2787 or www.mccarter.org.