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Buell Neidlinger: From Taylor to Zappa to the Carpenters

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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.
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