Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters
AAJ: So what happened after you met Cecil and started playing with him? What effect did his own musical direction have on your direction as a bassist at that time?
BN: Well, if I had been going south, now I was going north. It was completely opposite to anything I’d ever experienced or knew, but it was quite fun and the energy of it was incredible. The first time I ever played with him, he had an apartment he shared with his dad on the sixth floor at 98 Sheriff Street. I took the subway down there and climbed up six flights of stairs. The first time I was there, I think Lacy was there but I don’t think Denis [Charles] was involved yet, so it was just the three of us. And Cecil said ‘do you know “Cottage for Sale?” I said ‘no,’ and he said ‘well, it doesn’t matter, we’ll play it anyway.’ So that was my introduction to playing with him, and I can’t say it was downhill from there, but the first time was really good – as an experience it turned my thinking around. But I’d already heard Stravinsky; I’d already heard composers that were not in the mainstream, and my ear had already been trained.
Many years later in Hollywood I met Lawrence Brown, who was a great Ellington trombonist (what tipped me to Joseph Woodard’s inadequacy as a jazz writer – he didn’t even know who Lawrence Brown was)! But anyway, I met Lawrence; he used to come to record sessions as the union representative. He’d go around to all the studios... I said ‘Mr. Brown, why don’t you play any more in public? You’re such a great artist on the trombone.’ And he said ‘after you been with Duke, there’s nowhere else to go.’ I always kind of felt like that about Cecil – after playing with him and then going to play with Mal Waldron or other people, they were great but they never seemed to have that energy. I began to think maybe I ought to seek other avenues for musical expression. I started to take bass lessons with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic, Bob Brennand, and that got me trained on bass as highly as I’d been on the cello, and I started to do a lot of different kinds of work. I also ended up playing in great orchestras. Even though I hadn’t met Mr. Brown yet, I understood then how it’d be hard to play with anybody like [Cecil] again.
By [the early ‘60s] Cecil didn’t work anymore; he had a quick burnout due to Ornette Coleman’s arrival in New York. Prior to that, we were the kings of jazz. Everybody was writing about us, everybody was coming to the Five Spot to hear us – it was quite something. But you know Ornette was brought to New York by three guys who put money together, and I think they took money from Ornette’s work for quite a few years after it. They were Gunther Schuller, John Lewis [MJQ] and the guy who ran the Jazz Review, Hsio Wen-Shih. They kind of had a financial interest in pushing Ornette; they had brought him to New York, and then it was Time Magazine for him and nothing for Cecil. Seeing as I couldn’t work with Cecil anymore, I had to seek other avenues for work. So that’s how I studied bass to the extent that I could get other kinds of work.
AAJ: So you began studying with Cage and Crumb in the early ‘60s, is that correct?
BN: Not exactly studied; I performed world premieres of their compositions, and I had a grant at this place in Buffalo called the Center for the Creative and Performing Arts, (or as it became known due to the incessant sexual activity of director Lukas Foss, the Center for the Creative and Performing ‘Acts’). And that’s how I met George Crumb, who was also a fellow in that program; he wrote music for me and that’s how I got involved with him. I’d already played two seasons in the Houston Symphony and I’d achieved my first symphony position. How that happened was that I got busted and lost my cabaret card, and couldn’t play [in New York clubs] anymore, so I moved to Providence, Rhode Island. I lived there for a while and got rid of my heroin habit, and I started playing with the resident rhythm section in a jazz club. The Boston Pops was going on tour, so I auditioned for [Arthur] Fiedler and he hired me for the tour. When we got to Houston, there was a bass opening in the symphony, I auditioned and got it.