I was looking through the credits for some Roy Eldridge recordings made in Paris in 1950. One name popped out at me: Barney Spieler, bass. I immediately called my Uncle Lenny in Albuquerque and asked if that could be his friend Bernie. Yes, he said, it was.

I haven’t been able to find any biographical information on Bernard Spieler, except for what Lenny remembered. Spieler was born in Brooklyn, studies bass, and played with Benny Goodman before World War II. He was drafted into the Army. After the War, he rejoined Goodman for at least one 1945 78. Then he used funds from the G.I. Bill to further his bass studies in Paris, which he selected because he preferred the French style of bass playing to the German style. While in Paris, during the half-decade after the War, Spieler played and recorded with numerous touring American musicians. Aside from Eldridge, I have found listings for sessions with Miles Davis (included in a gargantuan set of Davis live recordings), Django Reinhardt (with whom he played second guitar!), and someone named Sam Donahue. Lenny doesn’t know why Spieler used “Barney” as his first name for jazz, except perhaps that it sounded more hip than “Bernie.”

He also met a Dutch woman in Paris and married her. In 1951, while still in Paris, Spieler auditioned for a bass position in the mighty Concertgebouw Orchestra of Amsterdam. He won the job and relocated permanently to Amsterdam.

My Uncle Lenny is Leonard Felberg, now retired from his position as Professor of Violin at the University of New Mexico. Lenny studied violin at Yale University, where his main teacher was the legendary Joseph Fuchs. After he graduated from Yale, he was drafted by the Army. I remember our family visiting Lenny at Fort Dix, where he was going through basic training. He looked at his torn-up hands and said, only half-kidding, “I’ll never be able to play the violin again.”

But the Army had other ideas, At the time, it was supporting a professional quality symphony orchestra, the Seventh Army Symphony, based in Stuttgart, which toured Europe as some kind of prestige item for the Army. It was in existence from 1952 to 1962, founded as a propaganda tool for the U.S. by conductor and composer Samuel Adler. Many of its members went on to successful professional careers, and conductor John Canarina has written a history of the orchestra. Lenny was auditioned for the orchestra and was accepted. During his last tour with the orchestra, in 1956, he played as a soloist, the Tchaikovsky Violin Concerto. The conductor was Henry Lewis, who later went on to fame and notoriety as the conductor of the New Jersey Symphony who was dismissed after he was seen hanging out in a gay bar. We still have a tape of one of those performances, recorded in stereo! And Lenny played in 55th anniversary reunion concert of the orchestra. The late Kenneth Schermerhorn, long time music director of the Nashville Symphony; its new hall is named for him

Near the end of Lenny’s tenure with the Seventh Army Symphony, one of the members of the orchestra spotted an announcement that the Concertgebouw Orchestra was auditioning for a new violinist. Several of the members urged Lenny to go to Amsterdam for the audition but he thought it would be fruitless. So friends of his got together and bought him a round-trip ticket to Amsterdam. Much to his surprise, he won the audition–beating out, among others, the music director’s son–and he took the job as soon as he left the Army.

An American in the Concertgebouw Orchestra was a bit unusual, but Lenny met a fellow Brooklynite, Spieler. They became fast friends. Lenny remembers his friend Bernie as a “Falstaffian” figure, about 6’4″ tall and weighing about 300 pounds. Among their fellow orchestra members, Lenny and Bernie became known as the “Laugh Club” because they were always exchanging jokes.

Spieler loved the summer holidays the orchestra offered (as did all orchestras in those days, before summer festivals became so common). He took every opportunity to go on holiday with his wife. They would get on his motor scooter and drive to campgrounds in France and Spain for weeks.

Lenny left the Concertgebouw after three years, and returned to the U.S. He and Spieler vowed to remain in touch forever. But they never saw each other again. Spieler won another audition and became principal bass of the Concertgebouw. He used his raise in pay to buy his first car, a small Citroen. The following year, he was killed in an auto accident. His wife was also injured but survived.

There is a legend in the Concertgebouw Orchestra that, when the conductor first programmed Mahler’s First Symphony, the principal bass player became unnerved. The third movement of that symphony opens with a bass solo, a minor key version of “Frere Jacques.” It’s so simple that any second year student could play it, but the story goes that the man said, “I’ve never played a solo. I can’t do it.” He got through the rehearsals OK, but at the first performance, when the conductor gave the downbeat to begin the third movement, the bassist fainted and toppled off his high school with the bass on top of him. It may be true or an urban legend, but one thing is for certain: Bernard Spieler was not that player. A solo would never have fazed him.

In fact, Spieler recorded a solo, although not with the Concertgebouw. He played the bass part in a Symphonia Concertante for Viola and Bass by Dittersdorf, recorded for the Telefunken label (issued as SAWT 9429 and 6.41344) with the Amsterdam Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Andre Rieu, now best known as a waltz conductor.

It’s not all that unusual for jazz bass players to have classical music background and experience. Even the great Charles Mingus studied with the principal bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Bernie Spieler went the other way, from jazz to the classics, and never turned back. What a pity he didn’t live to share his memories with us. They would have been fascinating.

3 Responses to “Barney Spieler, the Falstaffian bassist”

  1. Dan R. VanLandingham Says:

    I knew of Barney Spieler by way of some recordings he made for Georgie Auld’s big band in the mid ’40s.As for Sam Donahue,he was a tenor sax player who had led his own band which was taken over by arranger Sonny Burke.He worked for Gene Krupa from 1938 until 1940 until he returned to his band.In the ’40s,he led a notable service band during World War II in the Pacific Theatre then was transferred to the European Theatre around the time Major Glenn Miller was in England.After the war,Donahue recorded for Capitol Records with just fair success.In the sixties,he played tenor sax for Stan Kenton then led the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra later on after Warren Covington led it.

  2. g. de Haas Says:

    Barney Spieler (bassist) was married with my nice: Anneke Elfferich. He died by a traffic incident on the road Amsterdam-Haarlem in the Netherlands in about 1964,His car was a Deux Chevaux, as he got from my father.
    Barney also played in the band of Tadd Dameron in Paris. Once I bought a record: Tadd Dameron-band with Barney as a bbass-player in France. ardi de Haas.

  3. Judith A Karpova Says:

    Bernard Spieler was my uncle. Gone now, almost 45 years. He was the youngest of three children; my grandparents immigrated from Riga and Kovno and met and married in Brooklyn. My mother was the oldest of their children, Bernard the youngest. My mother loved him dearly.
    When I was 9 or 10 years old, 1955(?), the Concertgebouw made a tour of the US and I met him for the first time I can remember. My family lived in Newark, NY, and when he wasn’t at our home we were in NY with him. He and my family and friends of his in the orchestra all had diner at the Russian Tea Room in NY. There he was, this larger-than-life persona my mother was always writing to and talking about, smiling, laughing, a huge, loving, benign presence with dark curly hair and a dark beard – who kicked me gently under the table when I got too effusive. Then lowered his head and raised his eyebrows, both stern and smiling to make sure I didn’t show it.
    My mother was devastated when he was killed. A few years later his wife and her close friend came to stay with my parents who were still in Newark, I was away at college, and Anna went to see his colleagues in the jazz scene in New York.
    Years later I went to Europe and had the chance to finally meet her. I stayed with her for a few weeks in Amsterdam in the apartment she and my uncled lived in, she never moved. His huge bass was there in a kind of alcove, an object of joy, grief and reverence. We went to a Concertgebouw performance, which was hard for her, and she shushed me for even breathing too loudly.
    “Ach, there was no-one like my Barrrney,” she exulted, sorrowfully, in her hoarse Dutch accent. “Never in one or twenty lifetimes can you find this man. Never could I marry again, never after my Barney.”
    They had met in Paris after the war in a jazz nightclub, he was playing there and they danced together between sets. “Schluff, schuff, we slid around on our feet together and we laughed. I was a governess, and he carried me away into his world.”
    She told me that his last years with the Concertgebouw he was tormented by anti-Semitism from some of the members of the orchestra, resentful that this “American Jew” lead the bass section of THEIR national orchestra. She said had been offered a position with the Cleveland Orchestra and was going to accept it, but was persuaded by the artistic director(?) – I don’t remember who she said the person was – to stay, and persevere.
    She wanted him to go to America, and I have to say, I wish they had! I would have seen him again. Perhaps he would not have died, so horribly and so young. Perhaps there would have been cousins. I have to embrace, to accept, the legacy he did create, the joy and beauty of his art and the dark underside as well of his success.
    I thank everyone who has written of him, it means so much to me.