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Remembering Buell Neidlinger, A Genre-Hopping Bassist, Composer And Music Teacher


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to listen back to an interview with Buell Neidlinger, a versatile genre- and style-hopping bassist, composer and music teacher. He died of a heart attack earlier this month at age 82.

His career began as a child prodigy playing cello with the New York Philharmonic. He later premiered works by John Cage and Igor Stravinsky, and played with the Boston and Houston symphonies and the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. As a jazz musician, he became known as Cecil Taylor's first regular bassist starting in the 1950s. He also spent almost 30 years as a studio musician and recorded with pop stars like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and the Eagles.

In 1997, he moved to Whidbey Island in Washington state and continued to release albums. His latest, "The Happenings: Music Of Herbie Nichols," was released last December. When I spoke to him in 1989, one of his groups, String Jazz, had recently released an album called "Locomotive," which includes this Mercer Ellington tune "Jumpin' Punkins," which we've played a lot on our show.


BUELL NEIDLINGER: I always like the sound of the violin and the mandolin together. And when you put them with a saxophone, then you get a unique American sound that's been going around since I think about 1915 when they used to have bands like that before - you know, in the South.


GROSS: The repertoire that the String Jazz group plays is mostly Monk and Ellington. And I wonder, what do you learn by going very deeply into the work of composers?

NEIDLINGER: Well, I only - the only music I play anymore mostly is - unless I wrote it myself or one of my friends did - is Monk and Ellington because, to me, they are the chief American composers, right with Copeland, Ruggles and Ives, and possibly even more important than those composers. And so that's why I play them. And what do I learn from it? I don't know. I just like the music very much.

GROSS: Do you think that your classical training has helped you a lot as a jazz musician?

NEIDLINGER: It - the whole thing is one ball, you know? And whatever I studied and learned and when I pick up the instrument, that's what I put to work. So the - it runs the whole gamut of my experience from playing with Willie "The Lion" Smith to Sir John Barbirolli. You know, it covers the whole spectrum.

GROSS: In jazz, you became well-known for playing with Cecil Taylor, joining him in the mid-'50s. How did you meet up and start playing together?

NEIDLINGER: Well, he needed a bass player, and nobody else was interested in playing with him, I guess. And so that's how he got me. And actually, I was, I think, a member of the original Cecil Taylor Unit, if I'm not mistaken. And I made all of his first recordings, which are now being reissued on the - what is it? - the Mosaic label.

GROSS: When you started playing with Cecil Taylor, what was he doing different from any...

NEIDLINGER: Everything.

GROSS: ...Other pianist that you'd ever played with?

NEIDLINGER: Everything. Everything was different. He's a completely unique fellow. It's a fantastic energy. And his playing struck me most and also quite the developed musicality that he possessed. It's another complete ball there - fantastic.

GROSS: In some of the sessions from the 1950s that have just been reissued, Cecil Taylor is playing really outside, and you're playing really tight rhythms behind him.


GROSS: ...Very propulsive.


NEIDLINGER: I don't find his playing that outside. But anyway, it depends on what you're hearing experience has been how outside things are, you know. By the time I'd played with Cecil Taylor, I'd already heard Stravinsky, Bartok, Schoenberg, Weber and Berg (ph), so - and Ruggles, and Ives and people like that. So to me, it wasn't that outside.

GROSS: In your liner notes, you write that Cecil Taylor sometimes liked to create anger at sessions. Did you think of him as having a musical reason for doing that?

NEIDLINGER: Not just at sessions. He enjoyed watching that energy in many situations. And I guess he still does today. He has a little perversion that way. But I suppose he felt that he could obtain some out-of-the-ordinary musical energy from players who were angry, yeah.

GROSS: What would he do to make you angry to get that energy?

NEIDLINGER: Oh, maybe do about 30 too many takes of the tune after it was all gone, or like in the case of one tune on this reissue here, "Air," I think 29 takes or something like that. You know, and in fact, "Take 9" is the masterwork. So, you know, it's just - it's a tradition, I think, in that sort of music to egg people on in various ways.



GROSS: You've done a lot of sessions and I'm sure some of them have been great fun and musically fulfilling and that others have been music that you'd perhaps consider kind of schlocky and it's been a chore but it paid OK. Can you give an example of a session that you'll always remember?

NEIDLINGER: One - certainly several wonderful sessions come to mind. One session that comes to mind the most recently is one with Roy Orbison where he recorded his last album. That was a thrilling session to actually in this day and age of technology, work with someone who could sing the whole song on one take and make it what he did. That was a thrill. Another session that comes to mind that was certainly interesting was one time, I got a call about 9:30 at night to come down to Studio 55. I got there.

It was Barbra Streisand sitting at the piano. And she was playing this - not too well - this thing she had written. And she said, let's put a bass on this. So I stood behind at the piano and we put a bass on it. And, of course, later, she said it was too cabaret. So I had to do it over again. But, you know, that turned out to be "Evergreen," which was, I guess, one of her biggest hits. And that sort of thing is always fun, you know.

GROSS: I want to play something from your new record "Aurora." And this features you on bass and Marty Krystall on tenor saxophone and Peter Erskine on drums. I want to play a piece that you wrote for this record. It's called "Buell St. Blues." You want to say anything about it?

NEIDLINGER: Sure. The "Buell St. Blues" is a play on "Beale Street Blues," and it's actually sort of a paraphrase of that piece. It was one of my favorite compositions of W.C. Handy.

GROSS: Can I just get you to hum a few bars of "Beale Street Blues" for our listeners who don't know it?

NEIDLINGER: Sure. (Singing) If Beale Street could talk, if Beale Street could walk, ma-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-na-da-da-doo-bop (ph). Like that. But the similarity is in the modulation because after he goes again (singing) ba-doo-ba-doo-bop (ph), ba-doo-ba-doo-bop (ph), ba-doo-ba-doo-ba-doo-ba-doo-ba-doo-bop. And here comes the mod - (imitating trombone) like, have a trombone (imitating trombone). It goes to the other key, a 4th up. And that's what "Buell St. Blues" does too except it's in the minor.


GROSS: My interview with Buell Neidlinger was recorded in 1989. He died of cancer March 16. He was 82.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, being a teenage girl worrying about pimples, boys, the SATs and the possibility of being deported. My guest will be Sara Saedi. She was 2 when her family fled Iran in 1982 and came to California where they had relatives. When their visitors' visas expired, they stayed illegally, hoping their applications for green cards would be approved. Saedi became a citizen when she was 26. She now writes for the TV series "iZombie," and she's written a memoir about her teen years called "Americanized." I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: Fresh Air's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. I'm Terry Gross. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.