Buell Neidlinger, Acclaimed Genre-Crossing Bassist, Dies at 82
By GIOVANNI RUSSONELLO MARCH 25, 2018
Buell Neidlinger in January. He thrived in almost any musical idiom. Jim Carroll
Buell Neidlinger, a masterly bassist who had a significant role in the establishment of free jazz, took part in the premieres of works by John Cage and Igor Stravinsky and had credits on numerous hit songs and soundtracks, died on March 16 at his home in Whidbey Island, Wash. He was 82.
His wife, Margaret Storer, said the cause was a heart attack.
Mr. Neidlinger’s virtuosity manifested itself early, first on the cello, which he played proficiently before his teens, and then on the upright bass. So did his ability to thrive in almost any musical idiom.
He attended Yale for one year, studying classical music and playing in a Dixieland group called Eli’s Chosen Six. Dropping out, he headed to New York, his hometown, to find work on the jazz scene.
“I was going to Yale with a bunch of people that were so much like the people who were running the McCarthy hearings,” he said in a 2003 interview with the website All About Jazz. “So I bailed out.”
In New York, he apprenticed with Walter Page, a former bassist for the Count Basie Orchestra and onetime leader of the Oklahoma City Blue Devils. He also sometimes played with Billie Holiday on club dates in her final years.
In 1956, he joined Cecil Taylor, a young pianist and composer intent on disrupting the fixed linguistics of bebop and hard-bop; Mr. Taylor’s innovations in this period helped establish the avant-garde form known as free jazz. Mr. Neidlinger played with Mr. Taylor’s groups until 1961.
At 24, he also recorded an album with Mr. Taylor, the cheekily titled “New York City R&B.” His playing on the album is rangy but precise — effecting a loping swing on “O.P.,” his own composition, and a faster, more insistent style on Mr. Taylor’s “Cell Walk for Celeste,” reflecting the influence of big-band bassists.
The album was released under Mr. Neidlinger’s name on the Candid label, then reissued by Columbia, this time with Mr. Taylor credited as a co-leader. It would become a classic document of free jazz’s inchoate years.
But Mr. Neidlinger saw early on that a career in jazz could spell hardship. “Being out of town all the time and living in cheap hotels, starving to death,” he told All About Jazz. “And so I was determined to learn to do every style I could, and it’s put me in good stead.”
Mr. Neidlinger teamed with the jazz musician Anthony Braxton, left, for one of his albums for his label, K2B2.
He complemented his jazz gigs with studio work in the early 1960s, recording on a number of pop singles, including Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
But after being caught with heroin in his possession, Mr. Neidlinger lost his cabaret card — the New York City-issued license required of musicians playing in nightclubs — and moved to Providence, R.I. He kicked his drug habit while immersing himself again in classical music.
Later he became a member of the Houston Symphony and received a series of performance grants. He played on the debuts of new works by Cage, Stravinsky and other prominent composers and eventually landed a spot in the prestigious Boston Symphony Orchestra.
In 1971, he moved to California, lured by the thriving studio work there. He was hired by the California Institute of the Arts and became the principal bassist for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He spent almost 30 years as the principal bassist in the Warner Bros. Studio Orchestra, and recorded with pop stars like Barbra Streisand, Dolly Parton and the Eagles.
As with so many virtuoso musicians a level below stardom, much of his work was unattributed. Mr. Neidlinger liked to tell the story about the night when he was awakened after midnight by an assistant to Ms. Streisand. He went to the studio, he said, and helped her finish writing the song “Evergreen,” which became the theme song of her 1976 movie “A Star Is Born” and a hit as a commercial release.
“She never gave me any publishing on it,” he said, referring to a credit that would allow him to collect royalties. “If she had, I’d be living in Monaco or something.”
But to some degree Mr. Neidlinger took business into his own hands; in 1979 he started a small record label, K2B2, with the saxophonist Marty Krystall. In 1980 the label released “Ready for the 90’s” as Krystall Klear and the Buells, Mr. Neidlinger’s first album as a leader since “New York City R&B.”
Around this time Mr. Neidlinger began his relationship with Ms. Storer, also a professional bassist. His previous three marriages had ended in divorce. She survives him, along with two children from the previous marriages: a daughter, Miranda Neidlinger; and a son, Mike.
Buell Neidlinger was born in New York City on March 2, 1936, and grew up there and in Westport, Conn. His name combined those of his parents: the former Jane Buell and Roger Neidlinger, who ran a business leasing cargo spaces on ships.
After a career of more than 40 years, Mr. Neidlinger moved to Whidbey Island in 1997, where he played in a string quartet every week with Ms. Storer and continued to release albums on K2B2. His latest album, “The Happenings: Music of Herbie Nichols,” featuring Mr. Krystall and the guitarist Harold Alden, came out last year.