Buell Neidlinger 1936-2018
What turned out to be Buell Neidlinger’s final contribution to this blog arrived on March 9, in response to a piece about Keith Jarrett’s latest release. Buell had seen the accompanying photograph of Jarrett, Gary Peacock and Jack DeJohnette relaxing on stage at Boston’s Symphony Hall: “Thought I recognised the floor… worked there for three years,” he wrote. In 1967 he had joined the Boston Symphony Orchestra and also the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he taught bass and chamber music and, with George Russell, established the first jazz department of a major music school.
It astonished me when Buell sent some words to this blog, commenting on something I’d written about Cecil Taylor. His participation in Cecil’s trio version of “This Nearly Was Mine” made a huge impression on me when I first heard it in the early ’60s. It remains a favourite, not least for the way Buell’s bass shadows Taylor’s piano inventions with such devotion and beautiful note-choice.
As a young cello prodigy, born in New York City and brought up in Connecticut, Buell studied with Gregor Piatigorsky and had lessons from Pablo Casals. After switching to double bass, he played with Billie Holiday and Lester Young, with Hot Lips Page and Herbie Nichols, with Igor Stravinsky and Leopold Stokowski, with Cecil Taylor and Ornette Coleman, with Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra, with John Cage and George Crumb, with Duane Eddy and Roy Orbison, with Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony and Neville Marriner’s LA Chamber Orchestra, with the Beach Boys and Earth Wind & Fire, with Frank Zappa and the Eagles.
The instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah. “I sold it years ago to a girl in Hollywood for $15,000,” he told me during the course of our only conversation, on the telephone from his home in Washington State.
He also talked about his friendship with James Jamerson, whom he had met in a Hollywood studio. Buell had acquired his first bass guitar in 1953, but by the time he bumped into Jamerson on a Michael Jackson date he had become a first-choice double bassist in the studio orchestras. “Basically he was through already,” Buell said. “When Berry Gordy moved to LA, he basically signed the death warrants of a bunch of great musicians.”
Neidlinger remembered the Motown studio in Hollywood as the first place he worked where they had a transmitter. “You’d cut your shit,” he said, “and you’d go out to the car park and listen to it on the radio. If it didn’t sound good, you’d go back and do it again.”
He also remembered Jamerson’s addiction to alcohol. “He was living in a motel on Hollywood Boulevard. It was pretty ugly. After we had a meal on Santa Monica Boulevard, he invited me back. Whisky and gin bottles everywhere. He had a sliding closet. There weren’t many clothes in there, but there was his upright bass with no case. He played Fender bass on the Motown hits, of course, but really he was an upright bass player.”
Buell had strong views about everything, including bass players. He thought Paul Chambers was the greatest bass player who ever lived. He liked players who didn’t try to play the instrument as if it were a guitar, playing too many notes at the top of the instrument’s range. (This was a man whose first paying job in New York was as a dep for the ailing Walter Page, who had been the bassist in Count Basie’s pre-war band.) When Maurice White died, he sent a note to the blog saying that the EW&F man was the greatest drummer he’d ever recorded with.
In his later years Buell moved to Washington State, where he lived with his wife, Margaret Storer, another bassist. He had a group called Buellgrass, including the fiddler Richard Greene, which played his version of bluegrass music, and he and Margaret played baroque music with friends — he back on cello, she on violin.
Did I mention that he depped in Thelonious Monk’s quartet for a night at the Five Spot in 1957, alongside John Coltrane and Shadow Wilson? And for Charlie Haden in Ornette’s quartet in 1959, also at the Five Spot? And that his first No 1 was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”, on which he played in the string section? He seemed to have cherished every note, every encounter, every experience. I’m not sure there’s ever been anyone quite like him, or will be again.
What an astounding blog post! I am going to check the credits on a WIDE range of albums/CDs to find examples of his playing. I hope the woman to whom he sold his bass knew that “the instrument he played on “This Nearly Was Mine” was the same one he used on “Hotel California”. Once owned by King George III, it had been played in the first performance of Handel’s Messiah.” Amazing!!! The glimpse into Mr. Jamerson’s life in Los Angeles is quite sobering. Deep sigh. Another terrific musician who left his mark/energy/spirit/creativity on a significant number of recordings… THANK YOU for writing and sharing this blog post with all of us.
Thank you for the post.
I like very much Neidlinger’s tribute to Nichols: “Blue Chopsticks: A Portrait of Herbie Nichols” (K2B2, 1995).
Please correct the name of his teacher, it should be Gregor Piatigorsky (a.k.a Grigoriy Pavlovich Pyatigorskiy).
Thanks for the Piatigorsky correction, Nikolas. And for the tip about the Nichols album.
As we know, all four Herbie Nichols own albums were recorded in trio format only. Neidlinger arranged Nichols tunes for horns and strings thus fulfilling a wish Nichols himself had once expressed to the bassist. The CD contains following message to the pianist: “Dear Herbie, During our last pnone conversation (4/8/63) I made a solemn promise to you – Someday I’d record your music with horn and strings. Something you had always hoped to do. Here it is, Herbie, with lots of Love from me – A resonant portrait of you. Buell”.
On “I Left My Heart in San Francisco,” Neidlinger was playing a session for Tony Bennett, which, had I been writing your piece, I would have made clear, despite it being, to us, common knowledge. In any case all this makes for a nice symmetry: his final comment to you was about a photo of mine. On the ferry heading back to the mainland from Whidby Island, after my 2015 visit at their home with Buell and Maggie in 2015, I found myself wishing I could take several weeks to do nothing but record his anecdotes, tales of a career that covered more waterfront than anyone else I can think of, spun by a master raconteur. It would have been one hell of a memoir. Sigh. When Roswell Rudd passed (12/21/17), Buell wrote that he’d be joining him soon, but I doubt he meant this soon. Sigh. One never knows. With both of those former members of Eli’s Chosen Six gone, Steve Swallow is now the senior Yalie standing. Long may he prosper in continuing this estimable lineage.
Thanks, Patrick. I’ve taken your advice and clarified the mention of “I Left My Heart in San Francisco”…
What a thoughtful and touching piece.
Whenever he commented here I always got a bit of a kick out of the thought that I was reading something that Buell Niedlinger was reading too (testament to a great blog). I’ll miss those pithy, informative and entertaining comments. What a great musician, untrammelled and adventurous. I was playing his Soul Note recording ‘Locomotive’ with his String Jazz ensemble yesterday and enjoying very much his take on Monk and Duke – highly recommended.
Another fine tribute from the most informed of writers. Always learn something even when the artists are familiar to me. Great stuff.
A lovely tribute, Richard. Thank you. From reading Buell’s contributions to The Blue Moment, I knew he was a player but was, until now, blissfully unaware he boasted such a rich and varied cv. Little did I realise that, with my own occasional comments, I was brushing alongside such stellar company ! RIP.
I’ve got a very soft spot for Cecil Taylor’s “Looking Ahead” album on Contemporary, with “African Violets” etc. A much underrated date and the first time I heard that group. Its very accessible. Also the two very early Steve Lacy albums, “Soprano sax” and “Reflections”. But that’s an extraordinary range of people to have played with and for. I also share his admiration for Paul Chambers.
‘Looking Ahead’ is a great album. If I remember correctly, Lou Reed’s jazz show on his college radio station while at Syracuse U was named after one of the tracks: “Excursion on a Wobbly Rail”.
There was also Wobbly Rail Records (Chapel Hill, NC, 1998-2003) where about a dozen of wonderful CDs had been released.
I remember seeing him playing in Cambridge Ma with his rock band around 1970. First time I ever saw a clear plexiglass Ampeg bass. I enjoyed him on many recordings.
Truly sad that perhaps one of the best hardly known ( by the general public ) legends leaves his mortal coil creating yet another vacuum in the creative world . And though a few may know him for playing on this album or that … perhaps his greatest contribution was his arranging and producing . One of my favorites are the albums he did with Leo Kottke on ” A Shout Towards Noon ” as well as ” Regards from Chuck Pink ” Both IMO having been Kottke’s best by a long shot .
And yes … ole Buell was a curmudgeon even in his youth … sarcastic as the devil himself and definitely a royal pain in the ___ to work with . But believe me when I say … the end result more than justified how difficult the man could be .
My only regret is that by the time I’d launched my solo career ( and independent label ) Buell had pretty much walked away from producing never allowing me the opportunity to see what his genius might of done with my compositions and playing
In closing I’d say rest in peace Buell … but knowing the man as I do .. I’ll chose to say … keep on playing , taking names and kicking __ Buell ..
PS; Perhaps the most insightful , complete and honest interview Buell ever granted anyone ;
Thank you, Richard, for such an informative and, more importantly, affectionate blog.
An outstanding piece, Richard. I found it highly illuminating in connecting quite disparate pieces of music. You had me laughing with pleasure at the link between the first performance of “The Messiah” and the Eagles’ “Hotel California”.
It was also highly evocative in sending me hunting out tracks featuring Neidlinger which I first heard in the 1960s which I haven’t played for some time – and whose power I had forgotten. “Lazy Afternoon” from “The World of Cecil Taylor” on Candid and a batch of versions of Ellingtonia “Johnnie Come Lately” (Cecil Taylor at Newport) with superb work by Lacy, and a wonderfully angular version of “A Train” in the guise of “Excursions on a Wobbly Rail” (Looking Ahead)
Buell Neidlinger (bass) and Cecil Taylor (piano) at Newport in 1957 must be the coolest photograph ever taken of musicians in that period. Thanks Richard for this.
Wonderful post. I’ve always known that you can’t put music in little compartments, from “file under so and so” to “I don’t like jazz/opera/folk/usw”, and this gentleman is a prime example. My eyes nearly dropped out of their sockets when I read about Buell’s bass……
I remember meeting and playing with Buell in Boston in the early 70’s mostly in people’s basements as he tried to form a group. My memories are that we played through a lot of different styles. He was quite a powewrful presence. He told us that when he lived in Houston and had mostly black musicians come to his house tfor jam sessions it ended up with a cross being burned in hs yard. I believe that happened several times but he was not in the least intimidated.
Great tribute! i first became aware of Buell’s work through Swingrass during the early tears of my obsession with Monk and Monk covers. Only later did i connect him with Cecil Taylor and Steve Lacy, but never realized until today how ubiquitous he was….wow. He will be missed.
If it were me, I’d point out that Buellgrass was not just his take on bluegrass, but also a vehicle for both Monk and Ellington covers
I was honored to put together a Buellgrass show in Seattle in 1998, after Buell contacted me following a review In a fan mag, Jelly, now long gone. Bill Frisell sat in with the group. Quite a show.
It strikes me as both ironic and unfortunate that even now, two weeks after his departure, there has been not an obituarial word about Buell Neidlinger in the Los Angeles Times, the newspaper of record in the city where he worked so widely for so many years. There was a nice one in the New York Times on 25 March: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/03/25/obituaries/buell-neidlinger-dies.html