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Artist Profiles

Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

By Published: December 16, 2003
I always played jazz, even when I was working in symphonies. When I was working in Houston I was with Arnett Cobb, I recorded with Little Esther Phillips, Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and I played with James Clay. When I was in Buffalo I had a group with Andrew White and also Charles Gayle. I discovered [Gayle] in Buffalo at that time; he was pushing televisions around the Westinghouse factory. He came down to a session I used to have at a little coffee shop and sat in, and that was the end of my friendship with Andrew White, who just detested him.

AAJ: What year was that?

BN: It was probably late ’62; [Gayle] wasn’t working as a musician because nobody wanted anybody to play like that. I thought he was great... I haven’t played with Charles in many years, but he won’t fly since September 11, so he doesn’t come out here anymore. So basically I discovered Archie Shepp and Charles Gayle.

Andrew was flourishing by this time; he had the [JFK] Quintet gig; he’d also transcribed most of Coltrane by this time. I shared a house with him and the percussionist John Bergamo in Buffalo. I can’t tell you how excruciating it is to hear a needle drop on a record and play three or four notes, be lifted and then dropped again forty or fifty times in a row in the same place! That’s what Andrew did in those days. Another person making the most accurate transcriptions of Coltrane in those days was Zita Carno. Zita used to go to Birdland and transcribe Coltrane solos; and at the end of the night she’d walk up to him and say ‘here’s what you played tonight.’ Zita’s beautiful; I got to know her in LA later, when she was the pianist of the Los Angeles Philharmonic.

Around that time, [White] took me and Bergamo down to Washington and played the same club he had played [previously], the Cavern or something. We started to play and after the first tune, the owner of the club who’d hired the JFK Quintet for years came up to Andrew, and he says ‘Andrew, what kind of music is this?,’ and Andrew said ‘we call it free jazz.’ And the guy says, ‘You’re goddamn right it is, ‘cos I ain’t payin’ you a fuckin’ penny to play that shit!’ One of the great club-owner lines of all time... (laughs) Andrew, even though he detested Charles Gayle, he got an indication of something from hearing him that day down at the coffee shop and he tried to get into it, though I don’t think he was ever very successful at it.

AAJ: He was pretty successful at writing books, though...

BN: Yeah, he was, and did you know his father was the bishop of the African Methodist Episcopal Church of the United States? You know ministers’ sons... that’s how he became a saxophonist I guess (laughing).

AAJ: I’d actually set up another question about contemporary music; as far as the openness of the pieces you played. You did some stuff with [composer Mauricio] Kagel?

BN: Oh yeah, Kagel was up in Buffalo too on the same grant program I was on, the Center for the Creative and Performing ‘Acts’. I performed quite a few of his pieces, including one for two cellos with the great Siegfried Palm, called “Match.” It took me three weeks to learn it, on a borrowed cello.

AAJ: ‘Only’ three weeks?

BN: Well, yeah, I hadn’t played cello for many years. I learned a lot of shit from Siegfried, though; he’s a great cellist.

AAJ: Though sadly not well known; I’ve talked to young cellists my age, and they’re like ‘Siegfried who?’ Anyway, my question was how do you compare improvisation in jazz and what you learned in jazz with the directed improvisations in pieces like the Kagel?

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