Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Schneider, Maria (Lynn)
Maria Schneider has what it takes to make it as a big band leader in the twenty-first century. In the tradition of Duke Ellington and her mentors Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer, Schneider’s writing invites listeners in to her world, as she effortlessly shifts between the straight-ahead and the more complex. She brings textures and blends found in modern classical music into jazz.
Photo by Jos L. Knaepen
Maria Lynn Schneider was born on November 27th, 1960 in Windom, Minnesota, a small town in the southern part of the state. She started playing the piano when she was five years old, and began learning theory at the same time. As a child, Schneider played clarinet and violin, and also took ballet.
Following her graduation from high school she enrolled at the University of Minnesota, where she graduated in 1983 with a bachelor's degree in music theory and composition. She briefly attended graduate school at the University of Miami, but transferred to the Eastman School of Music in 1984. She graduated from Eastman with a master’s degree in jazz and contemporary composition in 1985 and moved to New York City.
Schneider won a National Endowment for the Arts grant to study composition with trombonist Bob Brookmeyer. She worked with Brookmeyer from 1986 until 1991, and cites him as one of her greatest influences. Brookmeyer helped her make inroads to the male-dominated jazz world, opening the doors for her to write for both the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Village Vanguard Orchestra.
At the same time, she began to work with Gil Evans as a copyist and transcriber. She aided the composer on the music for the 1986 movie The Color of Money and also contributed some arrangements to bassist and pop star Sting for his 1987 European tour with Evans. Schneider worked with the composer until he died in 1988.
Schneider and trombonist John Fedchock, her husband until 1994, began rehearsing a jazz big band in 1989. Schneider soon took the lead and reformed the band as the Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra in 1992. That year in September, Schneider recorded her first album for Enja, Evanescence, in September of that year, which she dedicated to Gil Evans.
Evanescence is very rich in textures and a worthy homage to Evans, as it displays Schneider’s gift for writing memorable melodies and her ability to combine them with rich orchestral colors. It was nominated for several Grammy awards, and brought Schneider's name and talents to center stage for many jazz fans, critics and musicians.
Also during this time, Schneider’s band began a weekly engagement at the New York City club Visiones, which lasted until the club closed in 1998. In 1994 she was selected to compose music for Toots Theilemans and the Norrbotten Big Band, based in Sweden. Also in 1994, she was invited to conduct the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra for the premiere of her composition “El Viento.” In 1995, Schneider’s suite Scenes from Childhood was commissioned and performed at the Monterey Jazz Festival, and her band was also invited to play the International Music Festival in China that year. Both of these compositions can be heard on the Orchestra's second album for Enja, Coming About.
In 1998, Schneider premiered new music at the American Dance Festival, in a performance with the Pilobolus Dance Theater. The Maria Schneider Jazz Orchestra's third studio album, Allegresse, with Jeff Ballard playing percussion and Frank Kimbrough on piano, features some of the music written for Pilobolus, as well as such notable compositions as “Hang Gliding," a tribute to her initiation to the sport in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.
By 2000, Schneider was coming in to her own. In January, the Orchestra recorded its first live album, Live at the Jazz Standard: Days of Wine and Roses. The album was recorded and mixed live in two-track stereo by composer and educator David Baker, and was originally conceived after Schneider struck up a friendship with Nicole Rebehn of the Reichsrat von Buhl winery in southern Germany. Schneider visited the winery, and Rebehn named a vintage for her. The CD was first released in a limited production run, accompanied by two bottles of "Maria Schneider Selection" Riesling, which is still produced by the winery.
2000 also marked the year Schneider broke away from traditional recording contracts and distribution. She began to sell her works exclusively through her own website, in partnership with the ArtistShare label. All of her works, as well as scores (but not the wine) are available through her site.
In light of the subsequent implosion of the recording industry, Schneider's move was prescient, and if anything has cemented the devotion of her audience. In 2003, Schneider raised the $90,000 to produce her album Concert in the Garden, which Baker also recorded and mixed shortly before his death, through direct contributions from fans. Released in 2004, Concert became the first album ever to win a Grammy award without any kind of in-store distribution.
With her creative and financial freedom now firmly established, Schneider built her success with the 2007 release of Sky Blue, which featured songs such as “The 'Pretty' Road" and “Cerulean Skies," which was nominated for a Grammy award, as was the album. On both tracks she stretches out – Road is 13 minutes, and Cerulean twenty two – in each case building a masterful edifice of textures.
The jazz critical community has recognized the work of Schneider many times over her career, starting with awards from Down Beat for her work as a student arranger at Eastman. In 1995 she was voted first in the annual Down Beat poll in the category of talent deserving wider recognition and that same year JazzTimes readers voted her first for their annual arranging category. Down Beat readers voted her best arranger in 1997, 2001, and 2002.
Maria Schneider still has many years left in her career, and undoubtedly many musical surprises in store for us. While the big band isn’t what it once was, Schneider has reinvigorated the demand and enthusiasm for the genre with her talents as a composer and conductor. She lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, New York City.
Evanescence (Enja, 1992)
Coming About (Enja, 1995)
Allegresse (Enja, 2000)
Live at the Jazz Standard-Days of Wine and Roses (ArtistShare, 2000)
Concert in the Garden (ArtistShare, 2004)
Sky Blue (ArtistShare, 2007)
Contributor: Jared Pauley
In Conversation with Maria Schneider by Eugene Marlow