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Artist Profiles

Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

By Published: December 16, 2003
When I was sixteen, I went to Yale for one year and stopped going to classes. That was during the McCarthy hearings and I found those hearings on TV a) so much more fascinating than any course at Yale and b) I was going to Yale with a bunch of people that were so much like the people who were running the McCarthy hearings (laughs). So I bailed out and moved to New York and started hanging out at Condon’s [again]. By then, Page had such arthritis that he could barely play the bass, and so they used to let me play. Basically that’s how I got started into that, and another start for me was the trombonist Conrad Janis, who was playing at a place called Child’s Paramount that was right near Times Square. He had a band that was basically the Fats Waller orchestra: Gene Sedric on clarinet, Herman Autrey on trumpet and Arthur Trappier on drums (they all played with Fats Waller) and he had Dick Wellstood on piano and himself on trombone. And he didn’t use the bass regularly, but I volunteered to play there on Saturday nights for nothing, and that’s basically the first jazz [group] I played with, so...

I became friends with Dick Wellstood... in the liner notes to Thelonious Atmosphere [K2B2, 2001] I describe how I first discovered Monk, which was from Dick Wellstood. He had all of Monk’s Blue Note 78s. So that’s how I got started into jazz, and I was living in New York and I met Steve Lacy at a Yale reunion. I went up there and Ros[well] Rudd’s father was a drummer, and he used to get bands together for his class reunions. He hired me and his son of course, and this [pianist] named Hod O’Brien who lives in New York, and that’s when I met Steve Lacy. He’s the one that introduced me to Cecil Taylor. See, I went from being a Dixieland musician to being the bassist in the band that was the forerunner of modern jazz.

AAJ: That’s sort of the route that Lacy and Roswell Rudd went, too.

BN: Well, I introduced Roswell Rudd to all those people. Roswell Rudd basically wouldn’t have broken through to all that if I hadn’t introduced him to Archie Shepp, Cecil Taylor, people like that. Of course, we made that famous record together, New York City R&B [recorded for Candid in 1960, issued by Barnaby/Columbia in 1971].

AAJ: That was supposed to be your date, right?

BN: That’s right, it was, and then when it was reissued eleven years after the fact... I had to sign the rights to the leadership off to include none other than your friend and mine, Cecil Taylor, and that’s how that came to be. I understand it’s still a top-selling album in Europe and Japan, although I’ve never seen any financial proof of it. So fortunately, having gotten to play with Cecil, which was an education in itself musically and otherwise of course, that put me in the pantheon of Jazz, whereas my efforts with Eddie Condon and Conrad Janis would’ve got me nowhere.

Those words may sound a little conceited, but actually that’s a phrase that was used in a conversation with the German critic Joachim Berendt after my appearance at the 1988 Berlin Jazz Festival. The stage manager came up to me and I insisted on using no amplification at the hall of the Philharmonie. I asked him ‘where does Karajan stand’ and he said, ‘oh, he stands right there.’ And I said ‘well, that’s where my band will be.’ And he said ‘no, no, you must stand twenty feet back from there. That’s where we have all our amplification set up.’ So I said ‘does the Berlin Philharmonic use amplification?’ He said, ‘no, no, it doesn’t,’ and I said ‘well, then, I’ll use no amplification.’ So after that concert Berendt came up to me (I’d met him years before at the Five Spot when I played there with Jimmy Giuffre opposite Ornette Coleman for six months) and said ‘I’ve been going to these concerts for eleven years. Your set was the first time I heard every note of the music.’

We haven’t discussed amplification yet, but to me that’s what started the destruction of jazz as I knew it. I heard an album yesterday on the radio by Christian McBride with a guitarist who hasn’t learned the right changes yet, and there was a pianist too, and Christian McBride was playing through a pickup with a fingerboard that hadn’t been scraped in years, and every note buzzed on the A and E string. It was a disgusting manifestation of that... I don’t understand where these great players think they’re going, using an amplifier in the recording studio, or a pickup for that matter... it sounds like a locomotive being launched from the rails. It has nothing to do with wood or music, it’s kind of a sad manifestation... but I digress...

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