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Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

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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?
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