Jeff Neighbor: Bass & Ukulele
“I’m A two Beat Guy in A Four Beat World.”
by Alex Walsh
Jeff with his grandson, Finn.
Jeff Neighbor is a Bay Area acoustic and electric bassist, and a longtime ukulele strummer. He has had a long career playing in the theater and as a jack-of-all trades musical sideman. “I’ve just had a sweet, long ride, and I’m still ridin’,” he says with a smile as he drops me off at the BART station. Up until that afternoon I didn’t know anything about Jeff except that I had seen him play at a few gigs. What better way to find out about someone than to interview them about their passion?
Jeff lives in the Berkeley Hills with his wife, Alicia Telford, a French horn player. His music room is full of fake books, sheet music, and musical instruments. The living room has a grand piano, a fish tank, and a great view of the bay. “We love to have musical parties here,” he says. Alicia has her own music room that doubles as a teaching studio. They have a garden, two dogs, a cat, and a backyard that opens onto miles of running trails.
It’s a hot summer’s day, and the hills are buzzing. Over home-made gazpacho, we talk about Jeff’s life as a musician.
“My father brought home a ukulele when I was six, and I was hooked,” he says. Jeff’s parents met while they were working in the medical facility at the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington State. His mother was a nurse, and his father was a doctor who went on to become one of the founders of the Kaiser Hospital system. Jeff, the oldest of three, was born in 1942 in a hospital that is now under water because of the dam. Music was a way of life for the Neighbor family, who often burst into song in the family car. “I remember my father playing Irving Berlin on the piano and my mother sitting on the piano, singing. As children, we would be put to bed while the adults partied and sang around the piano downstairs. That’s the kind of family I grew up in.”
Jeff picked up the ukulele very quickly, and in 1952, Sid Garfield, the founder of Kaiser, gave him a guitar as a gift. He soon fell in love with playing bass runs on the guitar. By this time, the Neighbor family had relocated to the Bay Area and settled in Orinda, where the Neighbor children (2 boys and a girl) benefited from a top notch public school music education (all three became musicians, and married musicians). In the fifth grade, when his music teacher brought him to the instrument room to pick out an instrument, Jeff was immediately drawn to the bass. “It had that deep, rich sound. I fell in love with it right away.”
As a teenager, Jeff became a music maniac. “I lived and breathed music,” he recalls. “That’s all I did. I fell in love with jazz and classical music, and I especially loved show tunes.” His parents completely supported his interest. In tenth grade, Jeff went to the Cazadero Summer Music Camp, where he met his lifelong friend, Tony Kaye.
“I got off the bus with my bass, and he was there with his guitar. We ended up playing jazz tunes through dinner and late into the night.”
After high school, Jeff went to Occidental College in Los Angeles as a music major. He also excelled as a cross-country track runner (he was able to run a half mile in 1:51). For the next two summers, he worked in a band at the Tahoe Tavern in Tahoe City with trumpet player Mario Guarneri. “It was a great training ground for me,” says Jeff, “We’d start the evening playing background dinner music, take a break, and then play dance music the rest of the night.”
In 1961, Jeff joined Richmond’s Local 424 to play gigs on his school breaks. In 1964, he graduated college and decided to get a teaching credential at UC Berkeley, where he became active in the Free Speech Movement. During this time, Jeff worked constantly, especially with contractor Dick Foy. In 1965, he joined Local 6. By then, Beatlemania had taken over and Jeff was so impressed with Paul McCartney’s melodic playing that he started a Beatles cover band with his brother, Fred. He also began teaching in the Richmond Public School District and continued to gig constantly. He soon discovered that he would have to make a choice between teaching and gigging.
Jeff chose gigging. In 1969, he went on tour with a folk-rock group called The Joy Of Cooking Band, who had released an album on Capitol Records. The group recorded two records with Jeff, and by 1972, had run its course. Jeff returned to the Bay Area, unsure whether he should return to teaching. He soon reconnected with his old summer camp buddy, Tony Kaye, who was playing a run of Gigi in San Francisco. Tony said they needed a bass player in the pit, and he should audition. Jeff got the job, and for the next 30 years, became a first call musician for Wayne Allen, the theater contractor at the time.
Jeff’s experience with the Joy Of Cooking Band opened many doors for him with the rock elite in the Bay Area. He played on hundreds of sessions and shows with artists like Neil Young, Linda Ronstadt, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, and Chuck Berry. In the mid-seventies, he worked at the Reunion Club on Union Street in San Francisco, which showcased many of the headliners from the Concord Jazz label, including Buddy Collette, Sweets Edison, Art Pepper, Herb Ellis, and Barney Kessel. Because of his club connections, he would often go on the road and play special concerts with many of the performers.
“I’m very much a singer’s bass player,” says Jeff. ”I know and love the Great American Song Book.” He doesn’t play tunes just from one source. He’ll know the show tune version, the Frank Sinatra version, and the Miles Davis version, which adds versatility to his style. During this time, Jeff played on many commercials with contractors, including Ed Bogas, and from the eighties to the present recorded on hundreds of recording sessions and at least twenty first run movies at Skywalker Studios.
About his time in the pit: “One of the joys of my life was to stroll through the green door of the Curran theater, say hello to Loren, the house manager, and then float into the pit to play this amazing music.” The vibe in the pit was always relaxed and playful, and whenever the tension got too high, someone would crack a joke. Over the years, the theater musicians hired by Wayne Allen became very tight friends. In the early-nineties,Jeff met his wife, Alicia, while working on The Sound Of Music.
The 49er parking lot band: Tim Devine, Terry Russell,
Glen Deardorff & Jeff Neighbor.
Other musical highlights for Jeff include:
• The 49er band during “The Catch”. With his amp turned to 11, he could hear nothing but the roar of the crowd.
• Playing bass in a trio with Rosemary Clooney and the San Francisco Symphony, specifically rendering the song “Hey There”.
• In the pit for My Fair Lady with Rex Harrison at the Curran Theater, specifically “I’ve Grown Accustomed To Her Face.”
• Two weeks on the road with The Four Freshman, highlighted by the song “Every time I Say Goodbye”.
• Playing Jerome Kern’s “Yesterdays” in the Guarneri Quartet with Mario Guarneri, Bob Scott, and Bill Swartz.
The Guarneri Quartet: Bill Swartz, Mario Guarneri,
Jeff Neighbor & Bob Scott.
“The union has provided me with all of these wonderful experiences,” says Jeff. ”I’ve subbed with the SF Symphony, Opera, Ballet, and the Freeway Philharmonic. But my favorite work of all time is to play a wedding—with just a trio. I love to get Uncle Gus to dance with Aunt Harriett, to get the room moving. There’s something both magical and bitter sweet about celebrating with the family, knowing you may never see them again.” For Jeff, music goes beyond language.
Currently, Jeff continues to play bass with several jazz groups and singers, including Jonathan Poritz and Maye Cavallaro. He has been singing and playing uke with the Trader Vic Survivor Band with Steve Hanson, Shota Osabe and Bobby Black, an experience that Jeff describes as pure musical bliss. Jeff has one daughter, Jessica, who is a singer. And he is now a proud grandfather. When he’s not playing or working on arrangements, Jeff loves to go running in Tilden Park with his wife and their two dogs, Ipo and Gizmo.