With a long beard and strong opinions, Buell Neidlinger was a well-known and colorful local character on Whidbey Island.
Many residents may not have been aware that he was also a legend in their midst.
Neidlinger was a bass and cello player with a career that seemed impossibly accomplished. He was widely considered to be one of the nation’s great musicians. He even had his own genre of music, called Buellgrass.
Neidlinger died March 16 at his Langley home. He was 82 years old.
Margaret Storer, Neidlinger’s wife and fellow bass player, said answering the phone has been a full-time job since word got out of his passing. Calls from the media — including the New York Times — friends and musicians are coming in from across the nation.
“He had such a huge life,” she said. “It’s hard to explain it all.”
Neidlinger touched many lives and helped many musicians during his lifetime.
“In the last six years, he’s been very much my musical mentor and a dear friend,” said Sheila Weidendorf, a Whidbey Island pianist and director of Island Consort. She said she met many other musicians through Neidlinger, who’s known far and wide in the industry. She remembers, for example, Yo Yo Ma calling Neidlinger to wish him happy birthday.
Fellow musicians speak of him with awe.
“He was one of the greatest musicians that ever walked the face of the earth,” said Danny Barnes, a composer, musician and famous banjo player.
Port Townsend musician Matt Sircely agrees.
“There’s a reason,” he said, “why so many of the world’s greatest musicians wanted to stop by and see Buell.”
Neidlinger and Storer moved to Coupeville in 1992 from Los Angeles. Neidlinger continued his music career on Whidbey but was also an active participant in the community. As a member of the Coupeville Planning Commission, he was a vocal and unrelenting proponent of preservation and environmentalism. In one front-page incident, Neidlinger got in trouble at a Coupeville Council meeting for throwing a cookie and was escorted out by the town marshal.
An obituary that Neidlinger wrote about himself with his friend, Linda Morris, describes his personality as “larger than life.”
“The same passion he brought to his music carried over into his relationships, sometimes resulting in fireworks,” it states. “He was rarely lukewarm about anything, and he brought a full set of emotions to everything he did. He cared deeply about music and about our world.”
Neidlinger’s career expanded across the nation and musical genres. Born in New York City, he was a child prodigy on the cello, playing with the New York Philharmonic when he was 12 years old. He fell in love with the bass during a year at Yale; it became the instrument that made him famous.
In New York and Boston, he helped pioneer free jazz — he was Cecil Taylor’s bassist for years — and played classical music in premier symphonies and ensembles, including the Boston Symphony. He was also a teacher. As a faculty member at New England Conservatory of Music, he and another teacher established the first jazz department at a major music school.
He later moved to Los Angeles to teach at CalArts and became the principal bass player in the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra. He then started a career in the motion picture and music recording industry.
The list of famous people who Neidlinger played for is long and astonishing. In fact, most people have probably heard Neidlinger play without realizing it.
In early years, he played with the likes of Billie Holiday and toured with Tony Bennett; that’s him on “I Left My Heart in San Francisco.”
In Los Angeles, Neidlinger played for many different popular artists, from Frank Sinatra to Frank Zappa, Sircely wrote in an article about Neidlinger for Strings magazine. Neidlinger also played on hundreds of scores for major motion pictures, including such films as the Shawshank Redemption.
Storer, who played with Neidlinger, said Barbra Streisand was particularly fond of them; they played on her albums for many years and she was disappointed when they moved to Whidbey.
Neidlinger happened to play on Norman Greenbaum’s song “Spirit in the Sky” as a favor when he was on vacation. His payment was two dozen eggs from Greenbaum’s chickens, Storer said.
Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead put a name to Neidlinger’s signature style. Storer explained that Neidlinger played a few times with Garcia’s bluegrass group, Old and In the Way. Garcia exclaimed to Neidlinger one day, “You turned this bluegrass band into Buellgrass.”
Neidlinger adopted the name to describe his style. Sircely said Neidlinger called on his vast and wide-ranging musical experiences to create a mashup of genres — from classical to jazz to bluegrass and more — resulting in music that is complex, new and somehow perfect.
“He was different than everyone else,” Sircely said. “A different kind of musician.”
Neidlinger and Storer lived in Coupeville for years but later moved to the Freeland area. They lived in Langley for the last year and a half.
Customers of Useless Bay Coffee Company in Langley may have heard Neidlinger play the cello and not realized who he was. Storer explained that Neidlinger gave up the bass in the mid-2000s and stuck to the cello, playing in ensembles and solo around Whidbey. A little tired of attention from those who did recognize him, he went by the name “Billy the Celloist.”
“People would come up to him and say, ‘Hi Billy,’” she said, “He thought that was cool.”