Composer-arranger Maria Schneider has found a sweet haven on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, where she has been living and working since 1993. Upon entering her cozy, one-bedroom apartment in a rent-controlled building on 72nd Street, located just half a block from Central Park, one is struck by the smart, efficient use of space. “I live a pretty lean life here, right?” she laughs while surveying her tidy habitat. “I pretty much work, eat and do business here.”
But she definitely could use another room. “I wish I had a place just for music where the business is shut out,” she says. “There can be a lot of distractions here when I’m working on writing. But one of these days I’m going to have just a small studio with a Steinway B, a drafting board, maybe a little sound system—and no phone, no computer, no nothing. It doesn’t need to have a view. It’s just a functional space. It needs to feel like a practice room—just a place to go to work.”
Until then, her Yamaha upright piano is tucked in one corner of the apartment, topped with sheet music for a new piece she’s working on clipped to a board. “I don’t use a computer for writing,” she says. “I just write the old-fashioned way. I come up with little ideas and I scribble and draw little arrows and hang things up to see how they connect. It’s just my way of working, trying to come up with harmonic schemes and melodic fragments and finding ways of connecting them, like putting a puzzle together.”
Several moody, impressionistic oil paintings done by Schneider’s sister, Kate, adorn one wall. Across the room is a picture of her 85-year year old father, Don Schneider, in full duck-hunter’s regalia, proudly posing with some fowl he bagged back in Maria’s hometown of Windom, Minn. Next to that is a picture of Gil Evans conducting and a picture of Schneider standing with Brazilian legend Milton Nascimento. Another old photo depicts a joyous scene at the Schneider household. It features Mrs. Butler, Schneider’s first piano teacher, playing Maria’s first Baldwin piano at a house party, accompanied by an accordionist and a saxophonist. They are surrounded by neighbors, all smiling, including one man whom Schneider identifies as a farmer who grew the best sweet corn on the planet.
“The reason I got exposed to jazz in Windom was that this woman moved to town in 1965 when I was five,” Schneider says. “Her son and her husband both died of cancer within a month of each other, and her only living relative was a daughter who married a chiropractor in Windom. She was like a Dorothy Donegan-style player, and she had red hair. She came over to the house one night and started playing stride, and I just flipped out. I wanted to be her.”
Light floods in through a window near the business nook of Schneider’s apartment, which contains her desk, her Apple laptop computer and her incessantly ringing phone. Nearby is a shelf topped with trophies marking her many accomplishments in music, including a batch of four glass obelisks from the Jazz Journalists Association for album, composer, arranger and large ensemble of the year for 2005. There’s also her Grammy for 2004’s critically acclaimed Concert in the Garden on ArtistShare, the Web-only label that Schneider has been actively involved with since its inception. Her new ArtistShare project, Days of Wine and Roses: Live at the Jazz Standard, was recorded to two-track in January 2000.
While Schneider did grew up in a small prairie town with images of corn fields, grain elevators and endless horizons, she feels right at home in New York City. “One of the things that I love about living in Manhattan is that it’s the closest thing to living in a small town that I’ve ever experienced in a big city,” she maintains. “Because your neighborhood becomes like your village. You’ve got everything you want close by so you walk everywhere, and you get to know everybody along the way. Everything I need is in my neighborhood, and it’s really social.
“This is, for me, the best area of town to live in,” Schneider says. “And what’s key is Central Park, because I’m an avid bird watcher. I used to bird watch as a kid, and I only recently discovered how incredible Central Park is as a bird-watching place. You can stand in one spot and not move and see nine varieties of warblers on a good day. The whole experience just pulls you out of yourself and shows you something wonderful, to where you marvel at creation and the world. It brings you to the same kind of place when you marvel at music.”
“I just love Brazil and Spain. My favorite places there are Rio de Janeiro and Barcelona, because I love the architecture there. A couple of other places that I’ve gone that I was just completely crazy about are Iceland and also Slovenia, which is just incredible.”
“I think I dress sort of feminine. I think I started to try to a little bit because I grew up as that kind of duck-hunting kid. I don’t have a lot of things in terms of clothing but I do admire real fashion.”
“Last year I went figure skating at Wollman Rink in Central Park with [vocalist] Theo Bleckmann, who was a champion figure skater in Germany. I used to figure skate, too, but he was much more competitive. Theo had done ice dancing and I had never done that, so he was showing me moves. And I think this winter we’re going to try to work on some things together.”
Mozart’s Letters, Mozart’s Life by Robert Spaethling (Norton), Always Magic in the Air: The Bomp and Brilliance of the Brill Building Era by Ken Emerson (Viking) and The Island at the Center of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony That Shaped America by Russell Shorto (Vintage).
“I’m into health food, which was inspired by this Chinese doctor that I see. He asked me not to eat white sugar or gluten anymore, and at first it was so frustrating because I was a sugarholic. Every day I’d have a brownie and latte when I was writing. But then I started to get into the foods that I could eat and started making things. I do a lot of things now with seaweed and discovered this whole world of grains and pastas that are made from other things. I avoid dairy and I cook with pumpkin oil and sesame oil. When I go to a restaurant, here and there, I enjoy a regular meal. But I never eat sugar anymore and I never get sick anymore. It’s amazing when you get used to not eating white sugar how bad you feel when you eat it.”
The Pet Psychic on Animal Planet. “This is a woman who can talk to animals and tell what was wrong with them. I became so addicted to that show.”Originally Published