Maria Schneider – On a Wing and a Prayer

Maria resWhen Maria Schneider formed her jazz orchestra in 1992 the members earned $25 a night, and she pocketed just $15. Now people travel to New York from around the planet to hear the band, and Schneider is acclaimed as one of the world’s leading jazz composers. But she doubts she would have dared to pursue this career were she starting out in today’s user-unwilling-to-pay music environment. “I think I would have been too scared and I would have done something else instead,” she says.

Like what?


Birds are Schneider’s second passion. In expressionistic rather than literal ways they flit through her music like half-seen ones in the branches of a dense tree. The passion is serious enough for her to be on the board of directors of New York’s Cornell Lab of Ornithology.

Becoming a jazz composer was especially improbable for a girl hailing from Windom, Minnesota, in the mid-west’s extreme back blocks. The catalyst was Evelyn Butler, a stride and classical pianist who moved to Windom when Schneider was four, and was invited to dinner by Maria’s parents. “She came, and she played piano,” Schneider recalls, “and I’ll never forget that night. She did this stride thing, and she was laughing and very exuberant, and then she played classical, and she would do crazy things to entertain everybody. She had insanely great technique, so she would do big runs and fall off the end of the piano and come back playing and laughing. My life turned instantly to magic at that point, and I just said, ‘I want to be her!’ I begged my parents for lessons, and she was this magnificent teacher who encouraged me to write songs right away. If it weren’t for her it would have never happened. Then it would have been birds, and that would have been good, too.”

Thereafter Schneider studied music and composition at three universities including the Eastman School of Music, and with the great jazz composer Gil Evans, who showed her how the nuance of classical writing and the improvising of jazz could interact, and that made her concentrate on jazz.

“I did one rather large classical project in my life that had absolutely no improvisation” she says, “and I conducted it three nights in a row with the St Paul Chamber Orchestra. While I was happy with how the music sounded the performance experience felt very lonely, because I’m so used to players making things their own from night to night… That’s the thrill for me: that my music can be the springboard to make that happen, and make people find a way of playing within themselves that they otherwise wouldn’t. A lot of my music requires the musicians almost to get inside of a character and play a role, like a play. There are certain parameters, and then are certain moments that are more open for certain people, and they can really take it somewhere.”

For Sydney Festival Schneider collaborates for a second time with the local Jazzgroove Mothership Orchestra, featuring the Belgian pianist Jef Neve as guest soloist. Just don’t go up to her after the performance and tell her that you found the music “interesting”. “I’ll clunk you on the head if you say that,” she declares. “If you come up to me and you’re crying then I’m happy! I want people to be moved, and I do think that that is the thing that draws me to be a musician, and maybe the reason why musicians can’t help but be musicians, even when, economically, it’s the stupidest thing you could do.”

Maria Schneider: City Recital Hall, January 22.