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Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

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That's what it's seemingly coming to with the younger jazz artists. Kind of a minimalist approach
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.

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...

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?
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