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Nasty Mozart Pushes Maria Schneider Into Jazz Composing

Maria Schneider
Maria Schneider with her orchestra at the Jazz Standard in 2009. Schneider, who began taking piano lessons as a child, found her niche as a composer and conductor while studying music theory at the University of Minnesota. Photographer: Dina Regine via Bloomberg

Nov. 20 (Bloomberg) -- Jazz composer Maria Schneider struggled with her Mozart piano lessons as a child. That might well have been her first push toward a different end of music.

Schneider, 51, has been ranked as jazz’s top composer and arranger in the DownBeat magazine Critics poll for the past 3 years. Her Maria Schneider Orchestra has been the poll’s top big-band choice each year since 2008. Her 2004 album, “Concert in the Garden,” was the first CD sold only on the Internet to win a Grammy Award.

She also figured out how to get paid decently -- a challenge in the big-band world where gig payments are sliced many ways. Her recordings on ArtistShare, an online music site, allow her to generate income from fans who help finance a CD as well as from record sales.

Schneider leads her band tonight through Sunday at New York’s Jazz Standard. She talked to me last week during a break from a record-mixing session.

Cole: How did you discover music?

Schneider: A woman named Evelyn Butler moved to Windom, Minnesota, where I was born, from Chicago. She started teaching piano lessons, and I was the incredible beneficiary of her move. There was no division between classical and jazz for her. I was 8 years old when I wrote my first song.

Horrifying Mozart

Cole: Why didn’t you stick with the piano?

Schneider: I listened to a young girl play Mozart who had won a competition. She was perfection! It was horrifying for me to watch. I said, “OK, I can toss that off my list.” I don’t know that girl’s name or where she went. She probably lives in my building in New York! You know how those things go.

Cole: Why were you intimidated by Mozart’s piano works?

Schneider: Mozart is so hard to play and play well. It’s seemingly simple, but it’s very, very difficult to play. You can’t hide when you play Mozart. Back when I started with Mrs. Butler, I knew I didn’t have great technique. I knew I was a musician, but I wasn’t a performer.

Cole: You studied music theory at the University of Minnesota and later worked with the legendary Gil Evans and Bob Brookmeyer. What did you learn from them?

Schneider: Gil really inspired me to try to find my own voice. They were both very strong personalities. You can’t look at them and say, “I want to do that.” You have to say, “I’m going to be as dedicated as they are.”

Cole: What’s the advantage of recording with an online venture like ArtistShare instead of a traditional record company?

No Middlemen

Schneider: You eliminate the middlemen. Under the old way, the record store, distributor and record company are taking a cut. You end up with nothing because the record company has built in a huge profit margin.

If I could have watched a musician make music as fans do through ArtistShare, I would have learned more. Many of my fans have become friends. It’s not just the money, it’s the support.

Cole: I understand your love of bird-watching was partly the inspiration for your Grammy Award-winning composition “Cerulean Skies.”

Schneider: Being in nature was central to my childhood. When I delve into the world and look at trees, and you look at the magnificence of birds, their path to migration, it’s really inspiring. My reason for making music is the joy of expressing the beautiful things in life.

The Maria Schneider Orchestra performs at the Jazz Standard, 116 E. 27th St. in Manhattan tonight through Sunday (excluding Thanksgiving Day) at 7:30 and 9:30 p.m. (and 11:30 p.m. as well on Friday and Saturday). Information: +1-212-576-2232;

(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)

Muse highlights include Greg Evans on TV, Laurie Muchnick on books.

To contact the reporter on this story: Patrick Cole in New York at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff in New York at

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