Jazz composer-conductor Maria Schneider owes it all, in a sense, to Chicago

“I don’t listen to music to write music,” says Maria Schneider. "It's about doing things in life that give me the fuel to feel like writing something. The experience comes in, and out comes the music, in whatever form it takes."

Classical tones, training and compositional flourishes meet the improvisational spirit of the most adventurous jazz in the music of the Maria Schneider Orchestra — a freewheeling fusion that will find an ideal setting at Symphony Center. In fact, as Schneider suggests, she may never have embarked on this musical journey if it hadn’t been for Chicago.

“I grew up in a small town in southwest Minnesota, not exactly a hotbed of jazz,” says Schneider, who will lead her orchestra in a Symphony Center Presents Jazz concert March 10. “But I had this fabulous piano teacher named Evelyn Butler, who had come from Chicago and had a career there. She was extraordinary, a very strong pianist. She taught me classical music, but she also taught me to play stride. She could play like Dorothy Donegan, like Art Tatum, but I didn't really know about that history of jazz, and in Windom, we didn't have a record store.”

She started her lessons with Butler at age 5 and continued for 13 years. She then proceeded to study music theory and composition at the University of Minnesota and earn a master’s degree from the Eastman School of Music, broadening her initial focus on music theory to develop as a composer and arranger. Her jazz inclinations and passion for arranging led her to work with the legendary Gil Evans, and she received an NEA grant to apprentice with Bob Brookmeyer.

Based in New York, her 18-member orchestra provides Schneider with a full musical palette, with compositions that give her musicians plenty of room to soar. Her commissions have ranged from Jazz at Lincoln Center to the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra. David Bowie came into her musical orbit for a late-career collaboration (and a few mainstays of the MSO, saxophonist Donny McCaslin and guitarist Ben Monder, would help define the jazzier direction of “Blackstar,” Bowie’s final studio album).

“The experience comes in, and out comes the music, in whatever form it takes." — Maria Schneider on her compositional style

An NEA Jazz Master, Schneider has won seven Grammy Awards, for classical composition as well as jazz, including two for her latest and most ambitious album, “Data Lords” (2020), the focus of the MSO’s concert at Symphony Center. (The work itself was a finalist for the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Music.) The two-disc set has won wide acclaim as a career pinnacle. It sets the darker strains of the first disc, with its themes of digital tyranny and the way screens and phones have replaced organic experience, against the lighter, airier music on the second disc, celebrating the natural world. NPR has termed it “the most daring work of Schneider’s career, which sets the bar imposingly high.”

I don’t listen to music to write music,” says Schneider, who was raised to love the natural splendor of southwest Minnesota and remains an avid birder. “It’s more like life stuff. It's about doing things in life that give me the fuel to feel like writing something. The experience comes in, and out comes the music, in whatever form it takes. And with the timing of COVID, the expression of what was in the music just hit a nerve for a lot people.  ... They’d been glued to phones, and this and that, and now there was this disconnecting and reconnecting to nature.”

She takes pride in the meticulous attention to detail in her recorded work, reflected in the care she puts into the compositions, the arrangements, the production fidelity, even the packaging. But she also recognizes that there’s a dimension to experiencing this music in live performance that you just can’t get at home.

“When people see the band, they can see the interactions and the listening that goes on, and that the whole band is just marveling at each other,” she says. “Just the way they are smiling and looking at each other. It creates an understanding of what's going on, the risk-taking in the moment and how special each moment is.

“You get the feeling of like, ‘Wow! That was a special night.’ ... and I always hope that people leave my concerts with that feeling.”