Bassist Buell Neidlinger, born March 2, 1936, has had in many respects a genre-defying career. A child prodigy on cello, Buell graduated to bass and playing Dixieland in New York during the early ‘50s. It wasn’t long, however, before he joined the bass chair of the first Cecil Taylor quartet (including soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy and drummer Denis Charles). Buell cut five and a half sessions with Taylor and another two with Lacy before becoming involved with new directions in classical music (Cage, Kagel, Crumb, Busotti and von Biel). Since the early ‘70s, in addition to teaching and studio work, he has led his own groups with reedman Marty Krystall, trumpeters Warren Gale and Hugh Schick, harmonica wizard Peter Ivers, and violinist Richard Greene, many for the K2B2 label he co-runs with Krystall. On November 13, 2003, Clifford Allen sat down to interview Buell by phone. Here are the results.
All About Jazz: I wanted to first start with how you made the switch from ‘cello to bass and how you began your jazz career.
Buell Neidlinger: Oh, when I was young I was one of those – what do you call those people – prodigies? I was a cellist, and my cello teacher Luigi Silva’s idea was that in the summer you should take bass lessons for a month, because it would strengthen your hand for the cello, which is very true. Not only that, it makes the fingerboard of the cello seem that much smaller, and so the technical demands seemed much less than they had previously. Anyway, he hadn’t chosen a bass teacher for me, but he told my parents they should find one. My uncle was more interested in music than my parents were, and they put him to work to find a bass teacher. So, he picked me up one evening and took me down to Eddie Condon’s nightclub in the Village (it was on Third Street then) and he pointed to Walter Page, the great bassist in the Basie orchestra who was also with Eddie Condon for many years, and he said ‘there’s your bass teacher.’ And so I commenced having lessons with Walter Page. He had some ability with the bow – I had a lot more than he did – and he did show me the bass and how to play it, and I got interested in him as a person and I started to hang around Condon’s a few times (of course you had to go with an older person). I was thirteen or something – I was pretty young.
And that’s how I got started on bass. The cello became, as is the case with many prodigies, a source of emotional and mental difficulty, [and when] I was sixteen I flipped out and had to be hospitalized for a time. They put me in this sanitarium where, strangely enough, the great Chicago jazz pianist Joe Sullivan was recuperating from alcoholism, and our therapy was [music]. I don’t know how they found out I could play the bass or whatever, but a bass was procured (probably the worst one I ever played on) and we would go down in this rotten old dusty gym in this sanitarium, where there was an upright piano, and play together. That’s when I learned one of the great lessons right off the bat – that if you want to play bass with a pianist, it’s best to stand at the left side of the keyboard so you can see what his left hand’s little finger is gonna do. You play the same note and you’re in business. That put me in great stead all my life when I played jazz with piano players, which incidentally I don’t do anymore. The reason I don’t is that I discovered that when you play with a B-flat instrument, a trumpet or a saxophone, that the overtones of those instruments are so pure that when you put the tempered piano against those instruments it basically (unless you’re Kenny Drew or someone who understood that aspect of the piano) cancels out a great deal of the humanity of the instruments, the human sound, because the overtones don’t have anything to do with the piano.
AAJ: Yeah, I understand what you’re saying. I actually did some improvised cello for a while, and when I would play with my friend who played bass clarinet, it always sounded so much more pure than when I would play with a pianist. That’s probably the same sort of situation.
BN: Sure it is; of course if you were going to play a Beethoven cello sonata, Beethoven knew all about that and probably took it into account. But we don’t have very many improvisers with the capability of Beethoven. So yeah, you noticed something that I noticed. And I guess Gerry Mulligan was onto that too when he started that group with Chet Baker and a drummer and a bassist without a piano, which by the way was one of the first jazz groups that ever appealed to me.