TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest became interested in women's health when her own health became a problem. A few years ago, when Maya Dusenbery was in her 20s, she started experiencing progressive pain in her joints. She was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease. She's one of the lucky ones in the sense that she got an accurate diagnosis. Lots of people don't, but that's maybe especially true for women, who Dusenbery says are twice as likely as men to have chronic pain conditions.
Women are also more likely to have poorly understood diseases, or contested diseases as they are sometimes called, like fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, and chronic Lyme disease. Dusenbery's new book, "Doing Harm," is about gender bias in the medical system and how women's symptoms are often dismissed or misdiagnosed. Dusenbery is also the executive editor of Feministing, a website of writing by young feminists about social, cultural and political issues.
Maya Dusenbery, welcome to FRESH AIR. So a few years ago, when you were 29, you were diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. What is it and what symptoms were you having that brought you to the doctor?
MAYA DUSENBERY: Yeah. Rheumatoid arthritis is an autoimmune disease where the immune system starts attacking the lining of the joints. And in my case, my symptoms began a couple of weeks after I had a really bad bout of the flu. I just woke up one morning, and my knuckles and my hands were stiff and painful for the first couple hours after waking up. And then sort of over the course of two or three months, that spread from my hands to my ankles and toes and then knees and eventually shoulders and elbows as well. It's a very painful disease because the immune system is causing inflammation and is kind of swelling, and I was very lucky that I got treated quickly. So my symptoms have actually been in remission for many years now.
GROSS: So you got an accurate diagnosis pretty quickly. So how did that lead to this book about gender bias in medicine?
DUSENBERY: Yeah. I wanted to sort of understand what was happening to my own body, and as I learned more about autoimmune diseases was very struck by the fact that they are very common. You know, they affect 50 million people in the United States, it's estimated, and three-quarters of those people are women. And most surprisingly to me I was starting to hear stories of other patients who did not have that easy time getting diagnosed that I did and really had experienced very long diagnostic delays and felt, during that time, that they were seeing multiple doctors over multiple years, that their symptoms were not taken seriously or they were dismissed as stress or just otherwise sort of minimized. And, yeah, as a feminist, I sort of suspected that there might be something to the fact that three-quarters of people with autoimmune diseases are women.
GROSS: So medical understanding of autoimmune diseases is still relatively new, right? I think you said, like, there's only been about 50 years that there's been something described as an autoimmune disease. So do you think for many years before medical understanding of autoimmune disease reached the point that it's at now - and there's still a lot doctors don't know about it - that women were especially dismissed who had the kind of cluster of pain symptoms now associated with autoimmune disease?
DUSENBERY: Autoimmune diseases, since they affect a range of different parts of the body, have very diverse symptoms. But one of the most common ones that really is common kind of across all of them is fatigue - a really sort of deep, deep fatigue that isn't, like, just, you know, being sleep deprived from staying up too late. And, you know, that fatigue - comparable to pain - is really, you know, this very subjective symptom that's hard to sort of communicate to other people.
And I think that women are up against this real distrust of their own reports of their symptoms. And so conditions like autoimmune diseases that really are sort of marked by these subjective symptoms of pain and fatigue I think are very easy to dismiss in women when you just - you know, if you're not believing a woman who - when she says, you know, I'm - no, I'm really just, like, functionally incapacitated by this fatigue. It's - you know, it's not normal. And that still happens, you know? And even though we do know about autoimmune diseases, during that diagnostic delay women are often told that, you know, you're just stressed or tired and have a really hard time kind of convincing doctors that this fatigue is abnormal.
GROSS: You write about women you know who've taken men with them - a relative, a friend - to the doctor to kind of vouch for them.
DUSENBERY: Yeah. I found this just really one of the most disturbing things that I found in my research, how many women reported that, as they were kind of fighting to get their symptoms taken seriously, you know, just sort of sense that what they really needed was somebody to sort of testify to their symptoms, to testify to their sanity and felt that bringing a partner or father or even a son would be helpful and then found that it was, that they sort of were treated differently when there was that man in the room who was, you know, corroborating their reports.
GROSS: So one of the areas that there are actual gender differences in how the problem can present is in heart attacks. You write about how women are often in the middle of a heart attack in the emergency room and they're sent home. How are the symptoms different for some women's heart attacks than men's?
DUSENBERY: Yeah. So heart disease is probably the area where there has been the most research into these gender differences, you know, which isn't to say that it's, you know, the only disease that has these differences. I think that - there's been a recognition that sort of the for the first 35 years we were studying heart disease, we were really mostly studying it in men. And so there's been a concerted effort to kind of go back and compare women's experiences to men's, which has led to the knowledge that women are more likely to have what are considered atypical symptoms, which, you know, the only reason they're considered atypical is because the norm has been this male model. So atypical symptoms like pain in the neck or shoulder, nausea, fatigue, lightheadedness - and women are more likely than men to actually not experience any chest pain at all, which, of course, can be a huge barrier to getting diagnosed accurately.
And partly as a result of those differences in symptoms, which are some - still not sort of always recognized by health care providers - women, especially younger women, are more likely to be turned away when they're having a heart attack - sent home. One study found women under 55 were seven times more likely than the average patient to be sent home mid-heart attack. And you also see - you know, even if they're not sent home, you see longer delays to getting, like, EKGs and other sort of diagnostic testing or interventions in the ER setting.
GROSS: So you write about how women have been left out of medical research for a long time and that's affected how accurately women are diagnosed. That's also affected what kind of dosage of medication they're taking because they weren't included in the studies of medication. So why were women left out of these studies for so many years?
DUSENBERY: Well, one of the big reasons was that there was a lot of concern about including women in drugs trials specifically because of concerns about affecting their hypothetical fetuses. So in the '70s, the FDA actually had a policy of prohibiting any women of childbearing age from participating in early-stage drug trials, and there was a sort of general hesitancy about including them in any clinical drug trials. So I think that was a big factor. But we also see that, at that time, women were also excluded from studies that were just observational studies, not, you know, drug trials. You know, the - in the '90s, when there were congressional hearings about this problem, the public learned that women had been left out of things like the - a big observational study looking at normal human aging that was ongoing for 20 years. It started in, I think, the '50s, and for the first 20 years, women had been left out of that.
A lot of the really foundational research on heart disease and looking at risk factors and the study that concluded that taking daily aspirin can reduce the risk of heart disease - that was done on about 22,000 men and zero women. And for those kind of things, you know, I think the reason was researchers believe that women were too different from men and also sort of too different from each other. So women who were postmenopausal versus premenopausal or pregnant or postpartum, you know, women have differing hormone levels according to where they are in their menstrual cycle. And all of this was kind of just seen as too complicated to account for. And so it just seemed sort of easier to study men and get cleaner results that way and then just sort of extrapolate the results to women. So, you know, which, of course, is ridiculous because the very sort of reason for excluding women is then the very reason that they need to be included, you know, that their differing hormone levels might actually make a difference. But researchers kind of decided that they would just ignore that fact or turn a blind eye to that.
GROSS: In a way, I mean, you know, I could see why researchers or the FDA would be reluctant to include women of childbearing age in medical research studies because we've seen some things go really wrong with certain drugs, like DES and thalidomide, that lead to deformities in the babies they were carrying or lead to cancer in later years. So where is the medical profession on that now?
DUSENBERY: In 1993, Congress passed a law saying that women need to be included in NIH-funded clinical research. And in the aggregate, women do make up a majority actually now of subjects in NIH research. However, we still don't know that women are necessarily adequately represented in all areas of research because the NIH just sort of looks at the aggregate numbers. And the outside analyses that have been done show that women are still a little bit under represented. More importantly, even though women are usually included in most studies today, it's still not the norm to really analyze results by gender to actually see if there are differences between men and women.
So experts have described this to me as a sort of add-women-and-stir approach where women are included but we're still not getting the knowledge we need about ways that their symptoms or responses to treatment might differ from men. The other big problem is that that federal law only applies to clinical research with humans. And over the past 20 years, it's been an ongoing problem to get preclinical researchers, so researchers who are doing studies on animals or with cell lines, to pay attention to sex differences. It's still firmly the norm to just use male rats. And it's really only in the last few years that the NIH has kind of started to tackle that problem and now, you know, really urges preclinical researchers to pay attention to these potential sex differences.
GROSS: So let's take this to a practical level. Like, if say pharmaceutical studies are done mostly on men, say men of average size, and you're a woman who's small, would the dose that you'd be taking be different than the dose that was tested on men of average size?
DUSENBERY: Yeah, definitely. So there are a lot of factors that go into these recognized sex differences in drug metabolism and response. And so percentage of body fat affects it, hormones, different levels of enzymes. All of these things go into it. But really the probably the most sort of straight forward is that on average, men have a higher body weight than women. And yet, even that difference is not usually accounted for. You know, we prescribe drugs based on this one-size-fits-all dosage, which ends up meaning that on average, women are sort of being overdosed on most drugs.
GROSS: Well, I'll tell you what, let's take a short break here and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Maya Dusenbery, author of the new book "Doing Harm" about gender bias in medicine and research. She's also the executive editor of the website Feministing. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF PAQUITO D'RIVERA'S "CONTRADANZA")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Maya Dusenbery, author of the new book "Doing Harm" about gender bias in medicine. And it's about how women are often misdiagnosed or their symptoms are dismissed. And she's also the executive director of the website Feministing, which has feminist analysis of social, political and cultural issues. There's a category of illness now that's described as a contested disease. And I think that women are more prone to these, quote, "contested diseases" than men.
What are they? What are those diseases or syndromes?
DUSENBERY: Yeah, so contested diseases would include things like chronic fatigue syndrome, fibromyalgia, chronic Lyme, multiple chemical sensitivity, which is now known as chemical intolerance. And all of these conditions disproportionately affect women. And this sort of contest is between the medical establishment that has historically insisted that these conditions are basically all in your head, that they're psychogenic, and the people who are actually affected by them, who very strongly consider them physical conditions.
And there's now a growing recognition among the medical community that we should treat these as sort of poorly understood diseases that we don't know that much about in large part because we have not studied them. And what's happened is that these conditions have been caught in this catch 22 where because they affect women and we have this longstanding stereotype that women are prone to hysteria, the medical community has just assumed that they must be psychosomatic and so has devoted very, very little research funding and effort into studying them.
But, of course, funding that actual scientific research is the only thing that would prove that they're real diseases. And so it's created this sort of vicious cycle that I think we're just now kind of getting out of.
GROSS: So in spite of the fact that women endure childbirth, which can be incredibly painful, I think women are assumed to be - or at least often assumed to be - more sensitive to pain, that they don't handle pain as well as men, that therefore they complain more, that they bring more medical symptoms to doctors. You write about how it's hard for some women to figure out what to do because of this. If they tell the doctor how much pain they're in, they might be seen as hysterical. If they try to underplay the amount of pain they're in, that leads to another problem. Can you describe this situation that a lot of women feel that they're in?
DUSENBERY: Yeah. So I think women are sort of expected to have this overly emotional response to pain. That's sort of the stereotype. And then the other stereotype is that men are sort of expected to be stoic and keep a stiff upper lip. And so what happens is that if women sort of play into that stereotype by being emotional and - they're often dismissed as just hysterical. But if they go the opposite route and try to be really stoic - and a lot of women do report feeling a real pressure to do that, they feel like they have to be anti-hysterical to the point of actually underreporting their pain. But, of course, right, that does not necessarily help them either because then they are underreporting it, and that's not a good strategy if the goal is to get doctors to take your pain seriously.
GROSS: Right. If you're not in a lot of pain, why are you here?
GROSS: In your book, you tell a lot of stories about women who were misdiagnosed or were - who were sent home saying, like, well, there's really nothing wrong. Why do you think it's important to tell those stories?
DUSENBERY: Yeah. I think it's so powerful for women to start kind of talking about these experiences because what I sort of didn't realize before I did all this research is that I think there is a lot of silence around these experiences. I think that women tend to sort of internalize that dismissal by a doctor or they assume that it's just bad luck or they think that, you know, they could have done something to advocate for themselves better. And so I think that the silence about this issue, that really prevents women from seeing how common these experiences really are.
And I think when you start talking about these really frustrating, disrespectful experiences in the medical system, women see that they're not alone, that it's not just them, that they share these experience with a lot of other women. One of the big reasons this problem is so entrenched is that health care providers aren't getting feedback on their diagnostic errors. They don't sort of see this as a problem yet. And I think that a sort of storytelling about this can really be powerful in just sort of putting it on the radar and exposing the extent of the problem.
GROSS: Maya Dusenbery, thank you so much for talking with us.
DUSENBERY: Thank you so much for having me.
GROSS: Maya Dusenbery is the executive editor of the website Feministing and author of the new book "Doing Harm." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review a new book by Jan Morris, who is famous for her works about travel and history and for her 1974 memoir about being a transgender woman. We'll also hear my 1989 interview with Jan Morris. And we'll hear my interview with bass player and composer Buell Neidlinger, who died earlier this month. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When the actor and writer Michael Palin interviewed Jan Morris for BBC TV in 2016, he said of Morris, she's kind of a nonfiction novelist. She creates an image and a feeling of place that stays in your mind. Our book critic, Maureen Corrigan, says that particular Morris magic informs her latest book, "Battleship Yamato." After we hear Maureen's review, we'll hear the interview I recorded with Jan Morris back in 1989. Here's Maureen.
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: For over 40 years, Jan Morris' admiring readers have followed her wherever she's chosen to go. Perhaps best known for her grand descriptive powers as a travel writer, Morris, who's now 91, has also written acclaimed works of history and biography. In 1974, she published a groundbreaking memoir called "Conundrum" about the other thing she's best known for, namely her courage in going public about being a transgender woman at a time when that term wasn't even used.
Two years earlier, Jan, then James, a married man and father of five, underwent gender reassignment surgery in Morocco. Somewhat tongue in cheek, Jan Morris has said that I do not doubt that when I go, the event will be commemorated with a small, back-page headline that reads sex change author dies. Surely that prediction is wrong, in part because of the widespread changes in cultural understanding about gender that Morris herself has helped usher in. The book of Morris' that I love and teach and reread almost yearly is called "Manhattan '45."
In it, Morris takes readers back to the beginning of one of New York City's great golden ages. The book opens on a vision of the British ocean liner, the Queen Mary, which had been turned into a troop ship during World War, II entering New York Harbor. Its decks were crammed with jubilant American servicemen and women. Morris wasn't on the Queen Mary that day - personally experience that moment of triumph at war's end. As 17-year-old James Morris, she joined the Queen's Royal Lancers and served in the closing stages of World War II.
Like "Manhattan '45," Morris' latest book, "Battleship Yamato," opens on a ship poised at another signal moment at the end of the war. The Yamato was not only the most powerful warship in the Imperial Japanese Navy but the most powerful warship the world had ever seen. It carried a crew of around 3,000 men and each one of its main gun turrets was as heavy as a destroyer. Morris calls the Yamato an ironically beautiful instrument of death. The short, illustrated book Morris has written about the Yamato is what she calls a reverie on the varied emotions that war summons up, including pride and splendor, sacrifice, squalor and carnage.
I think it's safe to say that Morris has also written a reverie on accepting the inevitability of death. Morris focuses in on the Yamato's fateful final two days in early April 1945. It was almost the end of the war in the Pacific. And American forces were about to invade Okinawa. The Imperial Japanese Navy had been all but decimated. As Morris tells the story, on the morning of April 5, the thousands of sailors aboard the Yamato were mustered on deck to learn their mission, namely that the ship and her few remaining escort vessels would form an attack force called Ten-ichi-go, translated as Operation Heaven Number One.
The little band would hurl itself against the massive U.S. forces invading Okinawa. Morris references Shakespeare's "Henry V," Picasso's "Guernica" and other masterpieces of war to talk about this moment. Just as powerful here is Morris' signature tone as a writer in which a deep emotional connection to her subject is palpable beneath the surface of her restrained words. Listen (reading) for it is not only we a century on who know the fate of Ten-ichi-go. The sailors might cheer their captain, but all too many of them understand what that message means.
Yamato herself is to commit suicide as the noblest of kamikaze weapons. At best, she is to beach herself on an Okinawan coral and in her death-throes, use all her guns, all her ammunition, all her heroes in support of the Japanese army. At worst, she is simply to blast away at her enemies until she herself is sunk. The Yamato was indeed sunk in 3 1/2 hours on April 7, 1945. Some 2,500 men were lost. Her sinking signaled the end of the dominance of sea warfare and as Morris suggests, perhaps the end of the Age of Empire.
This book itself signals yet another end. Certainly, it will be one of the very last books written about World War II by an author who saw active service in that war. That sobering fact only adds to the elegiac resonance of this magnificent little book.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Battleship Yamato" by Jan Morris. After we take a short break, we'll hear the 1989 interview I recorded with Jan Morris. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. After hearing Maureen's review of Jan Morris' new book, we thought it would be interesting to listen back to the interview I recorded with Morris in 1989. In her 1974 memoir "Conundrum," Morris wrote (reading) I spent half my life traveling in foreign places. I've only lately come to see that incessant wandering as an outer expression of my inner journey. Until 1972, Jan Morris published under the name James Morris. At the age of 46, Morris underwent gender reassignment surgery. Two years later, she wrote about gender in her memoir "Conundrum."
When I spoke with her, she'd just published a book called "Pleasures Of A Tangled Life." In the prologue, she wrote that there was a time when new to womanhood, she tried to forget that she'd ever lived as a man. But over the years, she came to think that this was not only intellectually dishonest but rather dull. Yet Morris didn't write much about gender in the book I talked to her about. That book focused on the pleasures that had sustained her over the years. She wrote that a pleasure she highly recommends is androgyny. So I asked her to explain.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)
JAN MORRIS: Well, androgyny means to me that I have shared, if not in the present, at least in the past, a lot of the emotions and the experiences of both genders. And why I say at the beginning of the book, chiefly to make you smile, that I highly recommend the advantages of androgyny, why I said that was that in my experience, if you share both the emotions of both sexes, neither sex is frightened of you. Both sexes are willing to confide in you. Nobody thinks you're a threat.
And since it seems to me that life - well, my life, anyway - has been a constant urge towards reconciliation and unity, that does seem to me an enormous advantage in life's quest.
GROSS: When you were still writing as James Morris, you were best-known for being the reporter who climbed Mount Everest with Edmund Hillary and for your volumes "Pax Britannica," which was about the Victorian empire. Do you think your writing changed when your gender changed?
MORRIS: To begin with, I did think so. I seemed to fear in myself more of a compassion towards detail rather than sweep, if you understand me. It seems to me I was exploring smaller things rather than larger things. But as the years have gone by, I seem perhaps simply to have widened to be moved equally by both, if you understand me, both by macrocosm and by microcosm. And that may be, again, another symptom of the fact that I've come to terms with what I am more completely than I had some years ago.
GROSS: You've traveled and written about travel for much of your life, and you think you write in a different style than many American travel writers do.
MORRIS: Yes, I do. And I think there are historical reasons for it, as a matter of fact. You know, I think that Americans having all, after all, come from somewhere else perhaps feel properly really that they have an extra lean upon the world. They have - they do genuinely, I think, have a more universal view than Europeans do. And therefore, when they go abroad, they - it's easier for them, I think, to identify - and more natural for them too - to identify with other peoples. But for somebody like me, not merely from Britain but actually from Wales where my people have probably been since Neolithic times without much change, it's very much harder for us to pretend to identify with other peoples. And added to that is the old English culture, a rather arrogant, insular culture, which led people back in the 18th and 19th centuries to go abroad in a spirit absolutely of slightly arrogant independence.
GROSS: Yeah. Well, you write that you had to learn to see Africa in non-colonial terms. What were some of the things you were up against because of your own upbringing that you felt you had to unlearn when travelling?
MORRIS: Certainly, I think the imperial aspect of it because people of my age - I'm 63 this year - people of my age were brought up in Britain to think of the world as ours, really. The parts of it that weren't ours were generally misguided (laughter) and the majority of it was ours anyway and was colored largely red upon the map. And so one went abroad in a spirit of unfair and illicit privilege.
I remember Alan Moorehead writing about the British officers in Cairo during the war. And he said that all of them seemed to think that they came from very rich, privileged backgrounds. And of course, they didn't at all. The richness and the privilege came from history and from the empire. And we were all - it was true of us all. And that is something that I did gradually unlearn. Like all the rest of us when I was very young, I went abroad in that spirit, not exactly of jingoism but certainly of overweening confidence.
GROSS: One of the experiences that I think first made you famous or kind of famous was your experience on Mount Everest. You were there with Edmund Hillary when he scaled to the top. And you were the first person to report it to the press. What was the experience like when you got to the top there?
MORRIS: When you say sort of famous, you got it right.
MORRIS: It was Andy Warhol's fame - wasn't it? - 15 minutes of it, but in fact, it changed my life, you know, because I was young and having even a sort of specious success of that kind alters one's whole attitude and attitude to one's self. I was only there simply to write about it, you know. And the excitement for me was not so much actually getting to the top of the mountain as the excitement of getting a scoop, as we used to in those days to call it, the only one I ever had (laughter).
GROSS: And did you think, well, I'd better exploit this fame right away to get myself more pay for what I'm writing or to write for a more prestigious place or to write my first book or whatever?
MORRIS: (Laughter) No, I'm not a New Yorker.
MORRIS: I was quite happy with what I was. The only thing I did want to do was to write a book about it. And unfortunately, The Times in those days was - not only were all its correspondents anonymous, but you weren't allowed to do anything at all except write for The Times. So I - after a few years, I did leave The Times in order to write books.
GROSS: You were really quite successful in the world of men - I mean, for instance, being able to climb part of Mount Everest, you were an officer in the cavalry. I guess wanting the gender change didn't have to do with what we would perceive as success as a man.
MORRIS: No. It didn't have to do with anything, as a matter of fact. I've - it was a mystery to me then and it remains a mystery to me now. I personally think it had some sort of a spiritual purpose behind it, which is inexplicable to me, but that's my own conviction.
GROSS: I think it was at the end of "Conundrum" you wrote I have lived the life of a man. I live now the life of a woman. One day perhaps I shall transcend both. Are you still interested in transcending both, and what do you mean by that?
MORRIS: I think it's conceivable that I have transcended both, as a matter of fact. I feel myself to be part of each and of both and that seems to be a not unhappy situation.
GROSS: Did you say happy or unhappy?
MORRIS: Not unhappy (laughter).
GROSS: Oh, oh.
MORRIS: Somewhere in between the two (laughter). I rather like these double negatives.
GROSS: (Laughter) Why would you prefer transcending both sexes rather than being part of one?
MORRIS: Because, as I've said before, it seems to me the purpose of my life anyways is a quest for unity and reconciliation. And that's a beginning, isn't it?
GROSS: OK. Well, I thank you very much for talking with us.
MORRIS: Thank you very much indeed.
GROSS: Jan Morris, recorded in 1989. Her new book, which Maureen Corrigan reviewed earlier in the show, is called "Battleship Yamato." After we take a short break, we'll listen back to my 1989 interview with bass player and composer Buell Neidlinger, who died earlier this month. He played with people ranging from jazz avant-gardist Cecil Taylor to country star Dolly Parton. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MERCER ELLINGTON'S "JUMPIN' PUNKINS" PERFORMED BY BUELL NEIDLINGER'S STRING JAZZ)
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MERCER ELLINGTON'S "JUMPIN' PUNKINS" PERFORMED BY BUELL NEIDLINGER'S STRING JAZZ)
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...
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CECIL TAYLOR'S "AIR (TAKE 21)")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF CECIL TAYLOR'S "AIR (TAKE 21)")
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Once more.
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF BUELL NEIDLINGER'S "BUELL ST. BLUES")
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.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
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.
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.