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? 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.
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? BN:
Well, I think that’s what made composers like Kagel and Crumb and Wuorinen and Schuller, whether it was more free-form or whatever, that’s what made them admire my playing. It’s because I put the energy, the forward motion of my playing into that kind of music. I know Stravinsky loved my playing, because at the Stravinsky Festival in 1971 I played the “L’Histoire du Soldat,” and he was sitting in the balcony smiling, and he loved it and came down afterwards, told me that I’d played the greatest performance of “Soldat” he’d ever heard. And I said, ‘oh, why is that maestro?’ and he said ‘because you go forward.’ See, most classical musicians don’t go forward; they’re tied to bar lines. A bar line to a classical musician is almost like a note, but when you play jazz you don’t think of bar lines, especially if you play free jazz, there’s no 4/4 time, no 3/4 time. By the way, they say Cecil Taylor invented free jazz, but basically most of his music was written out when I worked with him; I don’t know if he still does that. A few years ago, I had a student who played at University of Wisconsin. Cecil [taught there] and he got a lot of money for putting together an orchestra and playing, and this kid, when he came back from this experience, he brought the music Cecil had given them to play, and... I’m afraid I’d have to characterize it as a childish use of the Darmstadt mechanism. AAJ:
How do you mean? BN:
Well, you know there was that summer school at Darmstadt, and that’s where a lot of modern notation came to be. AAJ:
Like the graphic scores. BN:
It’s still being used by many composers, but Cecil’s use of it was very childish, like a kindergartener’s Darmstadt. That’s why I always had a question about Cecil. I don’t think he ever studied it to the extent that he could’ve used it to the utmost. ‘Play A or hold B,’ that was the kind of direction he’d give, you know. I guess it became thrilling when he put the piano on top of it; I don’t know, I wasn’t there. But in terms of educating a bunch of kids about how to play some free music or whatever, it might’ve been better if he hadn’t written anything. AAJ:
Yeah, I still don’t understand sometimes how he could’ve taught a class at, where else was it, Antioch? BN:
He taught at several places, you know... Well, he had a big problem at the University of Wisconsin where he gave a final exam and flunked everybody. AAJ:
He flunked the whole class? BN:
Yeah, I think it cost him his job there. He’s always been difficult no matter where he is. AAJ:
You had taught some too, at Cal Arts and the New England Conservatory? BN:
That came years later, after I was in the Boston Symphony. While I was with the BSO, I went out [to California] to record with Frank Zappa on October 19, 1969. That’s a date I’ll never forget because it was a turning point in my life. That day I met Mel Powell, who was the dean of music at the new school and had been interested in hiring me. After our meeting in Frank’s basement he hired me and I went to Cal Arts. The faculty of strings was supposed to be Jascha-Heifitz, William Primrose, Gregor Piatigorsky, and myself; I thought that’d be quite a step up from the Boston Symphony. I got there and the faculty was Raphael Drouain and Yoko Matsuda, violin; David Schwartz, viola; and Joel Krosnick, cello – nothing like the first list. I taught there for eleven years anyway; the second day I was there I went down to the local union, and I ran into a composer there named Fred Myrow, whose father wrote “You Make Me Feel so Young” (among other tunes). I knew Fred from Tanglewood; he had a movie session the next week, and he hired me. I went there to MGM, and being interested in the recording process, I went right into the booth and introduced myself to the engineer. He said, ‘you know, I’m hearing something over your mike that I haven’t heard here in 23 years.’ I said ‘oh really, what is that?’ and he said ‘I’m hearing in tune, rhythmically precise bass playing.’ He showed me where the sliders were for the basses, and they were all the way off. He hadn’t turned on their mikes in 23 years and he had been taking the basses on the general mike over the podium. He became my best advertisement, and in a month I was working almost every day. I still taught at Cal Arts, but I started to make a lot of money doing [studio work], and I did that for 27 years. AAJ:
So Cal Arts wasn’t a great-paying teaching gig? BN:
No, it was the worst. I think they matched my salary from the Boston Symphony my first year. I believe it was $18,000 that you made from the Boston Symphony in those days which wasn’t very much money. At that time it was the greatest orchestra in the world, or so they said. When I was in Boston I was teaching from sunup to concert time at the NEC (where, by the way, Gunther Schuller had hired George Russell and myself as jazz faculty) to make ends meet. AAJ:
Did you ever have any interaction with the visual and conceptual artists that were at Cal Arts, like [photographer/conceptual artist John] Baldessari? BN:
Oh, yeah, constantly. That was the great part of the school – a lot of great artists were there. The first year of the school was like being in paradise, there were no requirements. We used to play Bach cantatas at 2 AM with a nice little choir and orchestra, it was just incredible the things that were going on there. Then, accreditation raised its ugly head, and that was the end of that. AAJ:
When was that exactly? BN:
The second year; it was a miracle that it became accredited. AAJ:
Meaning far less freedom as far as what you could do. BN:
That’s right, they constructed a curriculum and the whole business. If it’d kept going the way it was... I mean, people were leaving big colleges all over America to come there to teach or be a student, you know? Because of the freedom, and that didn’t exist anymore and that was the end of that. AAJ:
Did you ever do any inter-media pieces or any actual pieces with the artists (as far as combining music and visuals)? BN:
Oh yeah, I played on a lot of student films and played student dance performances. I also played in some of the theatre performances. Yeah I did quite a bit, it was nice. You know Baldessari?
[this part of the interview was unfortunately garbled due to a kink in the tape. Buell and I discussed his Baldessari drawing, as well as Eleanor Antin and the Art Institute of Chicago, the cello, and the unfortunate difficulty finding K2B2 releases in Chicago and Minneapolis record stores] AAJ:
As far as the studio gig went, there are some preconceptions one would have – ‘incidental’ music as compared to ‘foreground’ music. Would you say that there is a tension between performing studio music and ‘art’ music (I hate to use the word, but I’ll use it anyway)? Have you found a way of rectifying that? BN:
Of course there’s a great difference between the two; as you get into background music or what you want to call it, just as in creative music you meet people of different abilities. So, let’s say when you run up against people like Maurice Jarre – who doesn’t work anymore but was a great movie composer; he had been a friend of Boulez and Stockhausen, went to school with Boulez, and could’ve gone that way but chose otherwise – he’s a master in the studio creatively. You know, he can write a cue from the podium, that’s how great he is. So, there’s a difference, but there’s also a similarity, and that’s why once again they liked my playing, ‘cause even if I didn’t change their notes, I brought a certain attitude toward the ‘forward motion.’ And also I played in tune and in time and so there’s really no difference in that. The big difference is money, my friend. AAJ:
Studio music pays. BN:
Yes, it does. And every now and then you run into something creative. One instance of that is the song “Evergreen” by Barbra Streisand. I made 21 different albums with Streisand; I’ve known her since she was in New York. I was asleep one night and the phone rang and it was the answering service, and they said ‘Streisand wants you to get down to Studio 55 right away.’ Seeing that it was after midnight and I was double-scale to begin with and that was four-scale, boy I got down there right away. I called the cartage company and they brought my bass. She was sitting at the piano and she’d started this tune, “Evergreen.” She couldn’t figure out how to put the bridge to the A section. So, I showed her at the piano; I would call that being creative, and she never gave me any publishing on it (if she had I’d be living in Monaco or something) (laughing), but every now and then you get to put in your two cents’ worth. AAJ:
Yeah, I probably have even heard that, just by virtue of my parents listening to a lot of Streisand when I was a kid. BN:
She is an amazing artist. You know, she never practices, never warms up. She just opens her mouth and the most beautiful voice I think I’ve ever heard... the three most beautiful voices I’ve ever heard have been pop or whatever kind of music you want to call it, and they were her, Karen Carpenter, and Billie Holliday. Now when I worked with Billie she had no voice left at all; it was like ‘sprechstimmung’... it’s a singing technique devised by Arnold Schoenberg where instead of singing the notes she spoke them in a whispered way. There’s a little bit of pitch to them, but not very much. And that’s the way that Billie was singing towards the end of her career. Those are real voices. I still hear Karen; I made a lot of records with them too [The Carpenters]. I go to airports or supermarkets or whatever, and her voice comes over the loudspeakers, and the fuckin’ hair goes up on the back of my neck – you can hear why, the same with Barbra. My wife and I were in the orchestra that opened the MGM Grand Ballroom with Barbra, I think it was New Years’ Eve 1993. My wife’s a bassist too – I don’t know if you know that... AAJ:
No, I didn’t know that. BN:
She’s the most recorded bassist of all time. She plays on the flipside of “We Are the World,” although now they say I’m the most recorded bassist ‘cause I play on the Eagles’ greatest hits album, which I believe has now surpassed the Lionel Ritchie effort. AAJ:
Are you still doing much studio stuff? BN:
I do quite a bit; but I can’t talk about it because I do all non-union work... I won’t go into it, but I stopped working in LA in August 1997. That was my last session there; after that I resigned from the AFM, and ever since then every bit of work I do is cash. I don’t feel that I can name the people that I work for, ‘cause most of them belong to the union and I would get them in trouble. You’d be amazed how many people belong to the union, and big film companies that are signatories to major contracts with the union are just falling all over themselves to get up here to Seattle, or out in Nashville or wherever they can go, to get their product for between 39 to 50 percent cheaper. So that’s the kind of work I find myself doing; I collect a pension check every month from all the work I did, a huge [royalty] check once a year from all the union work I did, and now I’m doing non-union work exclusively. AAJ:
Well, do you ever find any disadvantages to having your hand in so many pots over the years, as far as concentration or direction? BN:
No; I didn’t’ play ‘cello for 25 years and then I got one, and now I play almost as exquisitely as I did when I was eleven or twelve. So whatever you do keeps going no matter how long you don’t do it for I guess... I saw early on that there was no way to have a career in [jazz], without being out of town all the time and living in cheap hotels, starving to death, and so I was determined to learn to do every style I could and it’s put me in good stead. I think every musician owes it to himself to learn to play in every style that’s possible.
Let’s look at these musicians. Let’s look at the bass players – Paul Chambers, Jimmy Garrison. They’re dead, man, you know, long before it was time for them to die. Why was that? It was because they couldn’t get work anymore. They destroyed their physique through using drugs and trying to compete with loud drummers. And we could name a bunch of other bass players too, and many players of other instruments. I didn’t want a life like that. I wanted a home if possible, children, stuff like that. So I had to learn what to do.