Remembering Buell Neidlinger

If you read the comments section on “06880,” you know Buell Neidlinger. He wrote often about old-time Westport, music, and topics of the day.

Buell commented most recently on Friday morning. That afternoon, he died. He was 82 years old.

Buell was one of the most interesting readers I know. He led a rich, fascinating life, most notably in the music world. Read on to learn more.

Buell Neidlinger (Photo/Drew Kampion)

A resident of Whidbey Island, Washington, he arrived in Westport in 1938, at 2 years old. His parents rented a house on South Compo Road. Buell went to Bedford Junior High, then St. Luke’s in New Canaan.

He spent one year at Yale, then floated around. He returned to Westport, working in Frank Zack’s “high-class haberdashery” downtown.

He sold aluminum windows. Meanwhile he practiced bass in a warehouse, playing along to records.

Max Kaminsky, a famous jazz trumpeter renting in Westport, convinced Buell to move to New York — superb advice. He backed Billie Holiday when she played clubs, during the last years of her life.

In 1957, Buell Neidlinger played at the Newport Jazz Festival with pianist Cecil Taylor. (Photo/Bob Parent)

The first hit record Buell played on was Tony Bennett’s “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.” He went on to play and record with Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Ray Charles, the Beach Boys, Elton John, Dolly Parton, the Carpenters, the Moody Blues, Barry White, Whitney Houston, Ringo Starr and Bill Monroe.

He hung out with Pablo Casals — in Westport. (Click here to read about that encounter. For more on his youth here, and his Westport recollections, click here.)

Buell had not been back to Westport in decades. But he discovered this website, and rediscovered his hometown. That meant a lot to him.

From time to time, he would call. “This is Buell,” he’d begin. Though we never met, we felt like old friends. In a gravelly voice, he’d describe some long-ago adventure in town. He’d ask about an old landmark. Then he’d apologize for taking my time, say, “I’ll talk to you soon,” and hang up.

Buell died suddenly — just hours after commenting on “06880.” His Whidbey Island friend Drew Kampion sent more details on his extraordinary life:

Buell’s gone, but the music lingers on through nearly 70 recordings made in a 60-year career in the music business. As a bassist, he backed up many who became household names. But name recognition or not, Buell could hold his own in any musical setting.

Buell Neidlinger (center), flanked by Roy Orbison and T Bone Burnett.

He was born in New York City on March 2, 1936 into a privileged life. He was exposed to great musicians from an early age. His music training began at St. Thomas Choir School at the age of 7, where he also began playing the cello. He became accomplished on the instrument.

At Yale University he became interested in the bass. By age 25 his jazz apprenticeships with Joe Sullivan, Herbie Nichols, Dick Wellstood, Vic Dickenson and Oran “Hot Lips” Page had led to recording and performance gigs with Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Lester Young, Rex Stewart, the Gil Evans band, and Cecil Taylor (whose bassist he was for 7 years).

Composer Gunther Schuller encouraged Buell to further expand his classical abilities (and hired him to participate in history-making Third Stream concerts at Circle in the Square). He also joined Sir John Barbirolli’s Houston Symphony, and moonlighted around Texas with Arnett Cobb, Little Esther Phillips, Bobby Blue Bland, and James Clay.

The recipient of a Rockefeller performance grant in 1965, Buell worked closely with composers Mauricio Kagel, Sylvano Buscotti, George Crumb, and John Cage to develop new string playing techniques and sounds, giving premier performances of their compositions worldwide. He freelanced with Stokowski’s American Symphony, City Center Opera, the Budapest and Amadeus string quartets, and small ensembles led by Igor Stravinsky, Karl Richter, and Schuller.

In 1967 he became a member of the Boston Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Erich Leinsdorf, and joined the faculty of the New England Conservatory of Music, where he helped establish the jazz department.

In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles to teach at CalArts. He was chosen by Neville Marriner to be principal bass with the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, a post he held for 8  years.

Buell Neidlinger and his wife, Margaret Storer, on the Warner Brothers sound stage in 1993. The big blue trunk carried his 1785 Italian bass.

In LA Buell began an extensive recording career. He played in hundreds of major Hollywood movies from the early 1970s to the late ’90s. He recorded with Barbra Streisand, Frank Sinatra, The Beach Boys, The Eagles, Elvis Costello, Earth Wind and Fire and Frank Zappa, to name a few. He also produced recordings of his jazz ensembles, toured Europe and America, and produced other artists, such as Leo Kottke.

In his spare time he presented master classes in chamber music and jazz at Aspen, Tanglewood, Eastman School of Music, Harvard, New York State University, Rotterdam Conservatory, and the annual San Luis Obispo String Seminar.

Buell was larger than life. The same passion he brought to his music carried over into his relationships, sometimes resulting in fireworks. He was rarely lukewarm about anything. He brought a full set of emotions to everything he did. He cared deeply about music and our world. Those who knew him intimately found him to be an extraordinarily sensitive and kind man, and felt privileged to be his friend or musical associate.

His wife, Margaret Storer, was also a professional bassist. They were an elite team on the studio and film circuit in Los Angeles, and after they moved to Whidbey Island. They were married for 36 years. She was his love and his rock. He also leaves behind two children, Mike Neidlinger and Miranda Neidlinger.

In his later years, Buell played around Whidbey Island in many venues. He could be found entertaining customers as Billy the Cellist, playing Bach cello suites at the local coffee shop, or with his favorite string quartet, while eating chocolate and telling stories of his long life in the music business.

Buell Neidlinger playing in a coffee shop on Whidbey Island. He called himself “Billy the Cellist.”

16 responses to “Remembering Buell Neidlinger

  1. A. David Wunsch

    This is beautifully written.
    ADW Staples 1956

  2. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    Thank you for posting this and letting all of us know. Charlie and I send our sincere sympathy to the family. Buell was just enough older than I am that our paths never personally crossed in Westport. We became acquainted through 06880. We tried to make a telephone contact but the time difference was enough that we never connected. I volunteered to take a picture of his parents graves when I was in Westport but Hurricane Harvey canceled my trip and I haven’t made it back to date so my promise was never fulfilled. Buell shared with me a wonderful memory he had of singing in the Saugatuck Congregational Church’s Choir when my grandmother was the organist. I printed that e-mail and it is preserved for our children and grandchildren as an illustration of how we can make a difference in someone’s life with out ever knowing it. Buell made a difference in my life when he shared that memory and I am sure that he made a difference in the lives of many people. I always looked to see if he made a comment on this blog and loved each one that he posted. Rest in peace Buell. The heavenly choirs are just a little bit stronger now that you are up there contributing your talent. Music down here is just a little bit weaker with out you.

  3. I am so saddened to hear this. I am honored to have been connected to Buell through this blog. He absolutely did love it! He contacted me and we spoke on the phone. We shared a love of local history and old houses. At first, I thought he was exaggerating about his life, but I actually think it was even more colorful than anyone knows. To think that his artistry is within the fabric of our lives is astounding. His music is everywhere! One story he shared was about his antique house on Clinton Ave and all of the evidence of Indian activity that he found, including the hand hollowed canoe that was submerged in the (Aspetuck Saugatuck) river. His passion was palatable. My sincere condolences go out to his family and friends and to his beloved Italian bass.

  4. Bill Boyd (Staples 66)

    What a remarkable life! I so enjoyed reading his story…God’s speed Buell and again, thank you Dan.

  5. Bonnie Bradley

    It was the summer of 1955, the summer before Buell went off to Yale, the summer that Buell and I were boy and girl together – a teenage romance. I was socially immature, particularly because I had been isolated by eleven years at all-girl Bolton School (GFA) – in those days Westport’s private and public school kids just didn’t mix. I learned so much from him. He treated
    me like an angel, with interest in my thoughts, and with love. The big bass was always with us. I vividly remember sitting nearby as he rehearsed his band in the basement of a Wilton church, sunlight pouring through the windows. I have never forgotten him or those times. But as the years have gone by, after his year at Yale, we never caught up with each other again…

    Buell was my first boyfriend. Among the boys and men I have known since, he was to be the finest in many ways: super intelligence, thoughtful, kind, compassionate, a gifted and brilliant musician. These gifts helped him and all of us survive feelings of drifting and melancholy as the 50s turned into the 60s and 70s. Buell’s music was his anchor and guiding star. I’m very glad he received the accolades he so richly deserved.

    It’s thanks to Dan – who never met him in person but recognized Buell’s
    very special gifts and brought him back to Westport in this blog – for reconnecting me with Buell at last. A year or so ago Dan gave Buell my address – he called me and we had a wonderful hour-plus conversation.
    I will always miss just knowing he was out there making beautiful music
    for the world.

    Rest in peace sweet Buell. We will never forget you, with love always…


  6. Oh no! I was thinking we just moved pretty near him and I wanted to look him up! 🙁 So saddened by this. I think we all loved Buell for his contributions and memories on 06880. What a colorful life he led here — no cookie cutter life – that’s for sure. He knew my mother-in-law and her work and I was looking forward to meeting him. He was a gem and we’ll have to meet
    up in another time and space.

  7. He was indeed a fascinating person who led a very full life–right to the very end; we should all be so fortunate.

  8. I will genuinely miss Buell’s cogent 06880 commentary. His thoughtful opinions often caused me rethink or recalibrate my own.

  9. Dermot Meuchner

    Just a genius of the bass. Farewell Buell.

  10. Bart Shuldman

    Dan-a memorable post. Thank you. God bless Buell. RIP.

  11. Susan Palma Nidel

    A great loss. Don’t forget Cecil Taylor. A big part of his life!

  12. Peter Barlow

    I’m late with this but Buell would appreciate that I was back in Westport at a Musical. Buell and I were good friends in the 1950s. We shared musical interests and sailing interests. As a jazz bass player he had the best intonation of any jazz bassist I’ve heard and most jazz bassists are none too accurate with that. In boating we shared preferences for wooden boats, Herreshoffs, and other classics. We reconnected after many decades thru 06880. Buell was also an extraordinary classical bassist and cellist.

  13. Buel and his wife Maggie have been our neighbors for the past few years. Two nicer, kinder people you could not hope to meet.
    I often asked Buel about his amazing career. There were enough fascinating stories to fill a book! He was funny, thought provoking, reflective. But he was just as willing to talk about world events, or simple neighborly things, like landscape gardening. I did notice a recurring theme in his conversation: fond memories of his hometown, which I find rather touching now.
    Buel and Maggie made the most beautiful music together with their string quartet, the sound wafting out the open windows of their home on summer mornings. But I suppose the sound I will miss most of all his rich “baritone” voice calling for his cat, “Kitty.”
    He was a good man. A good neighbor. We’ll never forget him. Our hearts go out to Maggie in her loss.

  14. As a student at Harvard (class of ’85) I was there when Buell was an artist-in-residence under the Peter Ivers Fund, and had the pleasure of participating in his program. Over the course of a semester, he encouraged the students to write compositions and ‘workshop’ them, getting feedback from him and fellow students. And it all culminated in a memorable performance.

    Many years later, I myself became an artist in residence at Harvard, and it was initially proposed to me that I should give two lectures to fulfill my obligation, and I remembered my wonderful experience as a student with Buell, and instead of just giving a few lectures I structured my residency to mirror what I had experienced as a student. After all, the program was under the auspices of “Learning From Performers”, and I thought, what better way to learn about performance than to go through the entire process: to compose, plan, rehearse, get feedback from one’s peers, practice, get nervous(!), and finally perform one’s work.

    He will be missed.

  15. Mary Cookman Schmerker Staples '58

    I keep coming back to this post and am delighted to read more comments.
    I hope more keep coming.