Pianist Burton Greene
“ I think so-called music-business people have a penchant for keeping artists dead while they ”
Pianist Burton Greene was born June 14, 1937 in Chicago. Following a brief stay in San Francisco he moved to New York in the early ‘60s and quickly became part of the nascent free jazz movement, playing with Alan Silva in the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. He was a member of the Jazz Composers’ Guild, worked with Marion Brown, Rashied Ali, Albert Ayler, Sam Rivers, and Patty Waters among others before moving to Europe in 1969. He currently resides on a houseboat in Amsterdam, the city where he has lived since 1970. Burton has recorded for no less than fifteen labels, including ESP-Disk’, Columbia, Button Nose, Cat Jazz, CIMP, and BVHaast, and his latest solo release, “Live at Grasland,” is available from Drimala Records.
All About Jazz: I know you started playing piano at a very young age, but how did you get involved with jazz?
Burton Greene: I started out playing classical music, but after listening to Brubeck, Konitz, and other players I just knew that improvised, personal music was the way to go. I had no desire to go back into that classical scene. These people were working like hell in an inbred scene and I just didn’t... as much as I loved classical music, it was the first music I heard; my mother used to play Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel, Mussogorsky on an old 78 record player. That was my first music, you know I loved it, but I just felt the immediacy of improvising music from this time. Of course that brought me to jazz; I first heard what was available then; unfortunately I grew up way on the North Side of Chicago, and everything was happening on the South Side. One time I got hold of a Charlie Parker record and compared it to Lee Konitz, and I thought ‘why do they call [Parker] ‘The Bird?’ and I slowed it down and listened to a ballad, I think it was “Don’t Blame Me,” and you could hear Bird flying. As much as I like Lee Konitz, this is another thing. First it seems like you make the ethnic identification – you know, when you’re a kid – before you make an aesthetic one. Lee Konitz is Jewish, like I am, and he could have grown up next door. It took a jump to get to Bird, because I didn’t know that many black people [growing up]. There was like a Mason-Dixon Line in Chicago at that point; the lines were drawn. In those days, you didn’t have a buddy in school that was black, so you didn’t grow up with that experience. The Protestants and the Catholics and the Jews were still fighting; that kind of shit, you know. Everybody found everybody else strange, even within the so-called Caucasian group.
I think if you read my biography, you read that I met Sheila Porrett in Chicago, and she got me straightened out quick. I was talking about ‘jazz’ and I didn’t know shit from shinola, as we used to say.
AAJ: Right, she took you to the record store and you spent your lunch money on jazz records.
BG: ‘Thirty records? What am I gonna do with these?’ [She said] ‘Are you gonna feed your face, like you do all the time anyway, or you gonna feed your brain?’ She laid it all on me; in the rock-and-roll section there were Harold Land, Charlie Parker, MJQ records – it was all there. They didn’t know anything. If you look now, jazz didn’t sell worth a shit at that time, and the people didn’t get any money – in fact, nothing is new there – but now I guess everywhere the jazz records are at a premium. If you have the deep-groove Blue Notes, $50 a pop or something [one can dream...]. Here, I see all the best classical shit, three for a Euro. You could buy all the records you want in those days for four or five bucks a piece. Now good jazz records are fifteen or twenty bucks at least.
AAJ: And you wish some of that money went to the artists...
BG: I think so-called music-business people have a penchant for keeping artists dead while they’re alive and alive while they’re dead so they can make some money. Keep ‘em dead because they complain about the royalty situation (like with ESP, it’s all over the internet). If I’m gone and I have no estate, then they can make you famous. A lot of the popularity of the artists through history is because the record companies don’t have to pay royalties and so they make artists big. It’s much cheaper to produce a Beethoven record than a Bartok record because Bartok’s son took care of the estate, and it’s not in public domain (like Beethoven is) after 40-50 years.
AAJ: I always wondered about Albert Ayler in that regard, how big he was among the record-buying public at the time.
BG: We were all weird; we couldn’t sell out of a paper bag then. Albert hardly did either; now he’s a big cult hero, but then... the same with Henry Grimes; at that time, only the artists knew about Henry, and now at 67 he’s finally getting his due. But he was so obscure, look at what happened to him for thirty years. He’s got Margaret Davis as his girlfriend and she’s hustling all over the place [AAJ laughs]. He’s a sweet guy, he’s like a flower child, just kind of floating. He didn’t know what a CD was when I talked to him on the phone; I said ‘man, you gotta get out there and protect your shit, they’re reissuing it on CD’s.’ He said, ‘Burton, what’s that? What’s a CD?’
AAJ: You made that pilgrimage to San Francisco and then New York, right?
BG: Yeah, I wasn’t ready for New York at that time. I’d heard a lot about California, how laid back and easygoing it was, and I was still disturbed about being somebody’s Pavlov’s Dog in Chicago and having been in effect told what to do by society, growing up in a house under your parents’ wings, and I did the Army and said ‘enough of that shit, I’ve had enough of that,’ so I said I’d first check out California. The beatnik thing was on and the hippie thing was about to emerge, and I figured that would be the time to put it together, and it was. Then I realized that the real music I heard was being broadcast out of New York, Martin Williams’ program with Jaki Byard, Dolphy and Ornette, and I said ‘well, I gotta go to New York’. This was the beginning of the ‘60s; I was in the Army in ’59 and went to California in ’60.
AAJ: Did you get much involved with the players out there in San Francisco?
BG: I did my first little gig [out there]; I was kinda nervous, [bassist] Barre Phillips was on the gig, and it was pretty weird. I was trying to fly but I kept flapping my wings.
AAJ: When you got to New York, what did it feel like for you?
BG: Well, it was much more dynamic, you know. New York always has been and always will be the most dynamic city in America, if not the world. If you can stand the pace, that is – it’s a killer if you’re not on top of your game financially as well as creatively. It’s worse [now] because of the landlords; that’s why I left, I learned my lessons and got on top of a certain small creative heap, knew what I was about, but my nerves were frazzled. I came to Europe to have a quiet nervous breakdown. I love New York now, because I’m not dependent on its economy. When I go there and do my guerilla thing, do my gigs and get out – I mean, if somebody found me a nice, cheap pad I’d be tempted to go back because it’s more dynamic than here.
AAJ: Yeah, I always felt on top of it creatively when I was in New York, but the rent is one reason why I moved away.
BG: You’re a player too?
AAJ: Yeah, a bit of ‘cello, improvised stuff, you know...
BG: Have you met Joel Friedman?
AAJ: No, but I’ve always wanted to know what he was up to now.
BG: He’s a wonderful filmmaker; he’s done a lot of interesting stuff on the American Indians and the environment, he did a thing about how they were trying to force the Indians out of Nevada because they found Uranium or something. He got Robert Redford to narrate that one; now he’s out in Connecticut. Persimmon is the name of his company, I think.
AAJ: He was really a force on those Albert Ayler records.
BG: Yeah, I used to play with him some.
AAJ: Right, you had that trio with him and Perry Robinson.
BG: Yeah, we made a fantastic recording but it’s gone. The same shit happened with the Albert Ayler gig at Slug’s; I have to go through the boxes once more because Revenant is putting out that thing we did but I recorded at least 45 minutes on a 7 ½ speed tape from that gig in ’66.
AAJ: And your tape probably sounds better than that audience tape.
BG: Actually what turned up was 10 minutes on a cassette out of the 45 minutes or so I recorded on tape; it was not an audience recording. But when I left New York, anything you leave that weighs less than 2000 pounds, forget about it.
AAJ: Right, because all your tapes got ripped off, right?
BG: Yeah, a few tapes got ripped off but a lot of things... there was a guy named Bat staying up there who was a friend of [trumpeter] James DuBois and some of those guys were drugged out and they’d throw shit out the window, or they’d re-record over my tapes when they didn’t have any. It was Studio We [a jazz loft in the 70s] for a long time. A kid offered me a lot of money for that place, but I gave it to James because I knew he’d keep the music scene going (which he did with Studio We). Plus, I was going to India with Satchidananda and I thought, you know, ‘money is the root of all evil and I’m going to be enlightened in India,’ so to speak. But instead I got hepatitis! I didn’t even know what it was...
AAJ: I guess that could’ve been enlightening in a different way...
BG: [laughing] Well, Clarence Becton, a wonderful drummer whom I’m going to see this week, he’s 70 but he looks like 48 or something; he played with Monk and Dizzy and Bobby Hutcherson and Mal Waldron, and the way he tells it, ‘the Greene Man was green!’ I was a hippie going to India and I thought, ‘jeez, this must be like California. I’ll buy all my veggies and be pure.’ God knows what kind of bacteria was in them, some of those vegetables were weird-looking.
AAJ: Wash your veggies is the lesson...
As for New York, I know you met Alan Silva through an ad in the paper, but had you had any intimations of playing free before going to New York?
BG: Of course. I first moved to my aunt’s place in Kew Gardens, Queens. I used to stare across the street at these fantastic elm or oak trees, there would be a storm and they would be all over the place. I’d be listening to Vaughan Williams and I loved the polyphony and polymodality in those pieces, and I got all kinds of crazy ideas. I thought I could study a little Ornette – I didn’t know much about Cecil yet at that time – I said I could get it from the trunk, that’s like A-minor. I love A-minor, so that trunk, those roots are A-minor. And you get the branches going out everywhere, that’s like B going against A; you can modulate in different keys out of A and still come back to it. I developed a thing called the “tree system of tonality.”
AAJ: And so the Tree Theme came out of that, then.
BG: Yeah, that was ’62. That was before I met Alan. I’d worked a little bit with Jon Winter, the flautist, and he was writing polymodal stuff then. When we got the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble going, I called Jon to come out [from California]. It just was the right time, it was ripe. I met Alan and I saw them playing free in Brooklyn; there were a couple of drummers, three bass players, and I joined them. They had a big grand piano in this church basement, and I looked at them and said ‘hey, we don’t need a script, do we?’ and he said ‘no way.’ That’s just how it started. Most of us didn’t read that much and we didn’t see the point of reading.
AAJ: [The FFIE] was one of the first open-communications music ensembles, at least in New York, right?
BG: I don’t know anybody who preceded us; I think we were first. Everybody had experimented with it; Jimmy Giuffre had done it out on the West Coast with Shorty Rogers, “Number One-Number Two-Number Three” and all that, and of course we all know Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. Mingus wrote one-chord pieces. The thing is, most everybody – they’d fly off on a spontaneous thing once in a great while, but mainly they would do it around compositions, you know. Guys like Cecil use compositional fragments in their stuff that would segue into the improvisational sections and back again.
AAJ: Rather than the reverse, where the composition arises out of spontaneous creation.
BG: Yeah, right. So I think we were the first band to really take spontaneous composition and develop it. What’s nice about that band was that everybody came out of different disciplines; Gary Friedman was with Vladimir Ussachevsky and avant-garde classical stuff, and Alan came out of action painting. Pollock did it first with paint, you know.
AAJ: That’s definitely true, and that process-oriented painting is really applicable to the music.
BG: Right, when I met Alan he still had paint all over himself and in his clothes. Sometimes it was hard for him to extricate himself from the canvas, and that’s why we were all implicated in the canvases we were creating, and we couldn’t extract [ourselves].
AAJ: I read something that said you were a painter too.
BG: Oh yeah, I did watercolors mainly, abstract Kandinsky-esque things. Most of them are gone from when I got all my shit ripped off, but I’d given Roswell [Rudd] one of them and he still had it, so I copied it and it’s on the wall here. I was doing a lot of that, I was writing poetry; it was Renaissance time. No bread, but when you’re 28 and burning up with the music, who cares? If you really want to relax with no bread, you have to be out in the sticks nowadays. People need time to dream; the Indians knew that, it was too much hustle then, even in the main clearing where the teepees were, you know: ‘this kid’s never going to get a vision here; send him out with some jerky to eat under a tree and have his vision.’
AAJ: What was the reason for the dissolution of the FFIE?
BG: Well, we had done everything we had set out to do. Gary [Friedman, saxophonist] was very compositionally oriented, and he said ‘you want something different, what about this twelve-bar thing or this eight-bar thing?’ We started doing that; there’s something like that on the CD. By the way, those titles got switched. The first long improvisation, which is my favorite, is not “Eat, Eat” by Gary Friedman – that’s the third track.
I think it was when Alan went with Cecil, and I was thinking about a quartet for some time and I got a hold of [saxophonist] Marion Brown and Rashied Ali and formed the quartet with Henry [Grimes]. Alan and I learned a lot in two-and-a-half years, it was very intense and we were practicing and playing a lot together whether we had gigs or not – we had maybe ten or twelve gigs in a few years – that’s all. Sub-underground shit, but we got known with that band – Bill Dixon and Cecil asked us to join the Guild.
AAJ: But weren’t you presented in the Guild as new music or avant-garde classical?
BG: It wasn’t so verbal; we were just doing contemporary improvisation, so they thought ‘why not include them.’ Cecil and Dixon are pretty sophisticated guys, and they know a lot of classical music, so what I liked about the FFIE was that it could be jazz, classical, aleatoric, anything – there was no ‘ism’ so there was nothing to take out of it. The glue of that music was just listening to each other.
AAJ: And if some point Silva starts sounding like Mingus halfway through, go with it.
How did you meet [saxophonist] Frank Smith? He’s a character that has interested me ever since hearing that record [ Burton Greene Quartet , ESP 1024. Smith appears on one track, “Taking it Out of the Ground”]
AAJ: It’s unfortunate what happened to Frank; he’s still around, out in California playing flute. He sold his saxophone years ago, I guess, and that’s a drag. He got a bum rap and he was too sensitive. He was a Renaissance guy too, and his whole apartment on the Lower East Side was full of paintings, walls, ceilings – it was playful stuff, something like de Kooning. He did beautiful abstract stuff; he was in a retrospective about ten years ago of contemporary artists, and they included some of his work. He came on the scene, and was very free with the paint and the music. He came to audition at the Jazz Composers’ Guild, and we said ‘Audition? Who is this strange guy in a business suit?’ He said ‘man, I’d like to play for you people.’ Everybody was busy with something, so I said, ‘you want to play, play.’ I took a chair and sat down like I was the director and said, ‘okay, here’s your audition, if it makes you happy [laughing].’ He played his ass off, I had a couple of gigs for him, and we played the School of Visual Arts on 23rd Street. The music was great, it was “Crucifixion Music” (and this is the right time to think about that), I felt like I was Jesus on the cross with Frank Smith playing! I dragged this 150-200 pound cross across the stage on my back, hit against the wall and got bloody [laughing]. Frank and the rhythm section just played this incredible Crucifixion Music; you know you just go with the flow at that time. It was great, whatever it was! When Frank would walk into Slugs dressed in his suit, he looked something like a plain-clothed Irish cop. Cats sitting around in Slugs would say ‘put your shit away (grass), the Man is here!’ Then when Frank took out his saxophone and started playing from the heels, balls and all, it would screw people up; it didn't fit their image of him.
He just had a spurt of bad luck; the black writers who were on the scene at that time attacked us and whoever was playing with balls and with energy [that was white] they wanted to quickly eliminate and get that element out of the picture. They wanted to say ‘this is a totally black creation and these white motherfuckers aren’t contributing anything,’ you know, that kind of attitude. He got flak and he didn’t like it, and who would? I got flak from LeRoi Jones and he got it from A.B. Spellman and one or two other black writers jumped on him, and then he played that gig at Slug’s with Paul Bley. The story goes that Richard Williams, the trumpet player [in the audience], got incensed with that music (and I almost got knifed in Slug’s, so I know what that was like), and he came up and told Frank to shut up and he kept playing. So Richard started hitting, and Frank and his saxophone fell down and the saxophone broke. People got really irate over the music in those days.
AAJ: You would think that by that time [c. 1965-66] it would’ve been less an issue [to play that music].
BG: It was so volatile; it was atomic energy music. We said, ‘listen, we created the bomb and now we’ve got to be bombs too to get over that.’ We’ve got to be stronger than that, ‘balms not bombs,’ and we’ve got to be as strong as that shit or else the generals are going to take it out. It’s imperative to explode.
AAJ: And most people don’t want to feel that much emotion at once.
BG: No, people implode, they don’t explode. Organized religion puts the screws to so many people. Northern Europe, there’s so much retentiveness here you can cut it with a butter knife it’s so thick. It’s that Calvinist thing; John Calvin and Martin Luther thought that Europe was too Bacchanalian and the Barbarian trip was still around, and the only way to civilize them was to cut some of the vitality out of it. “Emotions are the work of the devil,” you know, and what they didn’t do the cold northern climate did to ‘em.
AAJ: In ’68 you got sort of involved with the Moog for that record [Presenting Burton Greene, Columbia CS9784, with Byard Lancaster, Steve Tintweiss, and Shelly Rusten]. How did that come about?
BG: I met Bob Moog at an electronics show in ’63 or thereabouts, and I was just a poor kid on the Lower East Side. He was running around the show, saying ‘doesn’t anyone want to try my keyboard and play some nice abstract electronic music?’ I said, ‘oh, I could use some of that! Abstract? Where is it?’ He said ‘what kind of sounds do you like? Bong, bong, bing, bing...’ I said ‘pile it on’ and I was making all kinds of gobbledygook with it. He said, ‘oh, I can’t offer you any money [to play it] but my wife is a great cook, and if you want to get out of New York for a weekend and enjoy some good home cooking...’, and I said ‘say no more, when am I coming?’ I went up there a couple of weekends and I still didn’t know sine from sawtooth. It got announced that I would do an improv concert on the Moog at Town Hall, and it fell through. Norman Seamen would sell a package deal for all these little old ladies out in Jersey to come into New York and go to a concert, and he’d get people to play for free who just wanted some exposure. So he was going to unleash me on those little old ladies with the bird hats from New Jersey at Town Hall. We would play every chance we get, money or not. He was hurting financially so he didn’t put on the concert, but it got announced on my first record. That made me the synthesizer expert – there was nobody else.
AAJ: And you’d only played it a little bit.
BG: Yeah, of course. I didn’t know anything. So I did the record with Byard Lancaster for Columbia with Steve and Shelly, and then John Hammond comes up to me (I’d got my bread out of Hammond and I was happy, though I still had some debts; I was poor as a church mouse) and said, ‘well now, Burton, you’ve got to overdub some electronics.’ I thought the record was done, and John said ‘Burton, we’ve got $300,000 worth of synthesizers up here, and somebody has to use them.’ He’d just had them installed, and he had these Walter Sears engineers at $80 an hour in 1968 running around and waiting to patch in, but nobody with any information on what to patch. He said ‘Burton, we will pay you to do this.’ And I said ‘ohhhh... the magic word!’ Then Shelly heard that gwang-gwang shit and he said ‘don’t put that shit on my solo, man!’ I said ‘we’re on the cracks man, this drum solo sounds like a prison break. I’ll just augment it. Weeeoww...’ [laughing]
AAJ: Well, it’s placed well enough that it drives the music, even if it’s overdubbed.
BG: I always did it where the guys wouldn’t come too heavy down on me, and I paid them as much as I could so they’d shut up anyway [laughing]. What happened is that I did five hours of gobbledygook, and I was being paid by the hour you know, so of course [Hammond] was sweating. I said to myself, ‘oh, I just paid my rent.’ He came out of the booth and I went toward him and said ‘John, for you – free editing.’ I edited the shit out of it, put about eight minutes on that record. It was the first jazz synthesizer record.
AAJ: So did Paul Bley get the Moog idea from you?
BG: Well, he did it after I did, but he got into it more seriously. It was a rich man’s plaything, so I couldn’t think about it.
AAJ: And it certainly wasn’t going in the suitcase over to France.
BG: No way, schlepping all that around? I saw those Hammond Organ guys like Lou Bennett with plates in his hips from schlepping organs. Who the hell wants those big, heavy keyboards anyway?
AAJ: So how did the record with Columbia come about and how do you feel about it?
BG: It was the one-time tokenism thing that they allowed John Hammond to do, and I found out that he was sniffing around the avant-garde and he might be a likely guy to hit on [for a record date]. Trane had already gone with it, and [Hammond] thought ‘man, we gotta do something with this music.’ I had him come up – he paid an audition in Midtown – and I had the band there with Shelly and Steve and Byard Lancaster. I said ‘he’s coming up in the elevator; let’s hit him with that avalanche beginning.’ So he comes out of the elevator and we hit him with the avalanche, and he got blown back in the elevator. ‘Wow, this is some strong shit,’ so he loved it and was puzzled and, well maybe he didn’t love it, but at least he felt the dynamism and the energy, and he scratched his head and said ‘man, if this is what’s in and the kids are going for it, fuck it.’ I must’ve called him 101 times in that period; everybody calls 99 times and you have to call 100 or 101 times to get something. You’ve got to be insufferable. But the bosses put him off for a long time and I gave up on it after the audition. Then a year later I was walking down the street and bumped into Sunny Murray. He said 'Now's the time, Burton; Hammond is ready for you, man.'
AAJ: And Sunny recorded for him, too, but it didn’t come out.
BG: Oh, it certainly did not. I don’t know if Sunny wants me to tell the story, but... The sweet thing about Sunny is that with innovators like Sunny, Cecil and Ornette, with all that black/white shit going around, I never got that from the music’s creators. They’re working on a higher level than that, but the FAL (Fringe Area Lunatics) would attack us. These people were the game-players, not music geniuses. They’re like politicians, they mutter up the scene just to get their power trips and their names out there.
AAJ: Well, you were playing with Archie Shepp at the time, and people have this image of him being only into politics, but he was really just a musician.
BG: Pity he lost some chops and couldn’t bite the reed for a long time and had to play more conservatively through the 70s and 80s, but in the 60s he was blowing up like the rest of us. We did some beautiful playing together.
AAJ: Right, at Woodstock [212 Artists’ Colony] and on the BYG record.
BG: Well, I didn’t get to really play on that date [Poem for Malcolm, Actuel 11]; we had a misunderstanding and I thought he was confining me to one chord change, and didn’t want me to stretch it. But maybe that was my own projection and I could’ve gone further with it and he wouldn’t have said anything, but he was laying down the rules and I felt boxed in.
AAJ: What was your experience of the BYG label?
BG: They did the new music like Bernard [Stollman] and ESP, but again it was the bandito shit. We got some token money and that was it; they’re still burning people, whoever leased that, Abraxas or whatever, all these labels are just releasing stuff left and right and nobody gets a break. At the time it was my calling card and got my name on the map.
AAJ: Well, and those reissues are also exposing young kids who don’t want to pay collectors’ prices to hear the music.
BG: Maybe in the cosmic sense it’s payback time, and I have to forego the profit motive in this case. It’s natural to give of your gift to other people, but following the words of the great teacher Satchidananda, he always said ‘the root of all problems in this world is selfishness.’ The more generous you are, the more you can begin to realize what enlightenment is all about; without that dimension you’ll never achieve it. I’m the first to admit that, but I’m always careful. The Dutch have this expression ‘stank voor dank,’ which means ‘stink for thank.’ A lot of people in this world measure everything by material values, and if you give yourself away too cheap they’ll never respect you, they’ll stand back and make a joke out of you. When it’s a genuine charitable situation it’s great, where generosity can help out – maybe this is what it is, in spite of whatever greedy motives these guys have, in the end if it benefits a lot of people to get that music, then okay, why not? Maybe it’s the same with these kids doing that MP3 stuff. But I wish people would be more conscious of the fact that musicians are on the low end of the totem pole, and that we have our spiritual wealth that a lot of people don’t have, but we’ve got to eat too.
AAJ: Is it considerably better in Europe than it ever was in America for you?
BG: Well it has been easier. The right-wing governments are here as well as everywhere else, and they’re getting stricter and stricter. I just got busted for double-parking; I’d just stopped for a second to pick up a part I had in an electronics store, and the cop was on me immediately with a €50 ticket. Zero tolerance; twenty years ago I could drive into Central Station, which was a totally non-driveable zone, to drop off a friend who was trying to make an airplane. The cop was looking at me, and I said ‘the guy’s got to catch a plane. I’m sorry.’ And the cop said ‘OK, don’t do it again,’ and just pulled away. That’s gone; it’s all about money, and they’ve discovered how to get wealthy on all these tickets and everything.
AAJ: Obviously, with the regime change, creative things are drying up too.
BG: Yeah, of course, it already started changing in the 80s because Reaganomics went all over the world. You could really feel that the bite from big business pushing the political arm started with Reaganomics. It really got strong with that, and it came here too, with the governments swinging progressively to the right and with big business and money. I could buy this boat for $13,000 in ’86 and now I couldn’t buy a closet here either for that kind of money. Older cats like myself had a chance to get established in the meantime, before this enormous difference between the actual goods and what you have to pay for them. Young guys today are under enormous pressure; most people need to teach or have a day job, which doesn't leave them enough time to create. I thank the Lord that since I was 30 years old, I’ve just done the music. I went on weeks in the ‘60s with a handful of rice, but as long as I had my strength... and you know, if you had friends, somebody would always invite you for dinner. There’s always a way to get by; I really feel that you can get what you want in this life if you’re dedicated and serious enough, just be careful that’s not all you get (I’m referencing Satchidananda, by the way). For me, what he was saying was that you get your vision, but make sure it’s a large vision, not just some penny-ante stuff and then you’re stuck. You want a bigger goal in life, but you can’t get it because you’re wallowing in this narrow thing you’ve wished for. You should strive not just to be a great artist but a great human being; then your life takes on a greater dimension. For me, to be kind and generous and loving in your music means that the person behind the music is that way too – you have a bigger goal in your life, not just that you can play faster than everybody else.
AAJ: Hardship is an inspiring thing for creativity.
BG: As long as you have enough sustenance, but I guess dues – we need dues to appreciate shit; we get it too easy and we’re lazy. Look at the lion, he’s a big pussycat – twenty-two hours a day he sleeps. His old lady forages for him and he doesn’t have to do anything. So what about the rest of us? I guess that’s what it’s about, being the low end of the totem pole, you’re motivated. The people on top, they know they’ve got to hold onto it regardless of what happens and they’re not willing to go down or really come up the right way. The people on the bottom, it’s easy to get away from the shit, because they’ve had their noses rubbed in it. You don’t have to tell them twice to get them away from that.
AAJ: The problem is that they have to support the rest of the totem pole.
BG: Well, not if they’re clever. You have to work for yourself, not for the system. What does your soul need? I don’t have a Mercedes-Benz, so what? I haven’t had a new car since 1960, and I wrecked that, so what? I’m driving a seventeen-year old car right now, so what?
AAJ: Having stuff really encumbers you; you’re not able to pick up and move and go new places.
BG: Right, how many rich people do you know who are on top of their game as creative artists?
AAJ: And in Europe, you probably had an easier time of it being able to just ‘pick up’ and go from place to place for work.
BG: At least the first ten or fifteen years were great here; Socialism was wonderful, there were always gigs and you hardly had to pick up the phone to get them. I had seventy-five gigs in a year, and it’s all way gone. Now it’s the politics of friends, not what you know but who you know.
AAJ: How exactly did you come to choose Holland?
BG: Well, first a bunch of us were in Paris. You know, the whole wave went over at the end of the 60s; the landlords jacked up the rents in New York and there was some music happening over here. Socialism took over in France, but they were in their fathers’ swimming pools afraid to make a move. For a while it was in the air; there would be a lot of gendarmes at the concerts, we all did festivals but there was very little money as always. I got tired of fifteen-franc hotels on the Left Bank, my back was going out, and I said ‘what’s Paris but a dressed-up 18th or 19th-century scene.’ They were still talking about the great masters and the only masters there were people doing what we were. I didn’t hear any French stuff that was knocking my socks off, and it was like a nervous version of New York without the creative dynamics. My nerves were continually getting more and more frazzled, and I wanted a place to relax, so I found this garden house in Holland after I did some gigs with Willem Breuker, Han Bennink and Arjen Gorter, for $50 a month. It was a big property with a primitive garden house, and that’s where I had my “turtle-nervous-breakdown.” It came on slowly and finally I got it in that garden house; I could work it out, I had a month to sort things out before I could function.
AAJ: And you had your tree there, too...
BG: Oh yeah, the tree helped me a lot. I wrote a piece on that huge old tree [next to Burton’s garden studio, the oldest tree in that part of Holland] called ‘Chestnuts for Consort.’ It never got on a record, unfortunately.
AAJ: As far as free music being beholden to the idea of open communication between players, and a lot of your recordings being about that, how do your solo performances fit in?
BG: I just did some spontaneous playing with some guys over here, a Canadian tenor player named Rob Armus; a young guy about 25-26, the American trumpet player Adrain Longo, and Tony Wilson, a guitarist from Vancouver. I love to do it with other players because for me it’s an intimate conversation. I don’t need to converse with myself as much; I enjoy doing it with other people. With me it’s more interesting to work off of compositional frameworks or fragments at least. I rarely do a total improv from A to Z, though I did one on that record with Mark Dresser for CIMP. On the next solo record I might throw one in, just a very basic graphic idea or something. I find that for me to be free, the more chops and the more of an understanding of different types of music you have, the greater the palette and the more colors you can work with. For me, free means that at one point, my muse tells me chord changes, funk-bucket, etc., I’m going to do that. I would approach that whole thing free anyway. I might jump out of the bar lines solo, and it’s great because... the thing that’s so boring about the bebop imitators is that the giants created that music and they cleaned it out. Few people could clean it out today like they did, because that was free at the time. That’s the way Dizzy, Bird or Mingus played that shit in the ‘50s. Being free is following your muse at the moment, and if you feel like playing a Mozart cadenza, do that too. How high is up? There are so many forms you can use, but I just try to follow my muse. For me it’s like breathing in and breathing out; if I really exploded through some real free combustion playing, then I need to charge my battery again and I might take a very strict form to do that.
AAJ: You’ve explored all these different avenues for improvisation; not just freedom, but also ragas, East European music, klezmer, and it’s almost like you’re freer now than you were in the ‘60s, because you’ve extended that palette.
BG: Of course, the more you have the more you can say.
AAJ: So how do you view your early work?
BG: I hadn’t meditated yet. I’ve been a meditator for many years too, and that has let me focus and milk the cow longer. Savor the milk; take the essence and take it to another level. Work with it, nurture it and go with it. At the time I was exploding in a lot of different directions, and I’ve taken my earlier stuff as a sort of collage, and now I try to tie up the loose ends. I had fifteen different bits of information in one piece, whereas now I have three or four and take it deeper and further. I don’t need to work with so many colors in one piece; I’d choke it and then get lost. I’m more into nuance and subtlety now than I was then, I guess.
AAJ: I would agree; for example, listening to your new Drimala release, it’s worlds away from anything you did in the ‘60s. It sounds more fully-formed to me.
BG: Well, it wasn’t preconceived; it was still spontaneous, but in a compositional framework. There was an audience there, of course; I’m going to do another one in ten days at the same place. It’s going to be a CD presentation concert, but I’m going to do as much new material as I can because there’s a great engineer there and I’ve got to get him on the case again.
AAJ: Where do you see your music taking you next? Are there avenues you haven’t explored that you’d like to get involved with?
BG: As long as I live, there will always be new dimensions in music. How high is up? If you’re tired of using the forms in the park, what about the forms in the jungle? How are you going to run out of those? There’s always something you can learn; on some levels I’m a total beginner and on some levels some people would call me a master because I’ve been doing it so long. But on some levels, I’m a novice. There are guys that will always kick me in the butt. For example, there’s Mark Dresser. Guys of his generation... he’s already 50, and that’s still fifteen, sixteen years younger than I am. That’s still a generation gap, and our generation was still exploding and we didn’t have time to read a lot of fly shit on the paper. But he grew up with that stuff, and guys like him and Denman Maroney, Dave Douglas, they have a natural inclination to work with a lot of complex forms, so they’re versatile with classical music and have that kind of chops and knowledge. Yet they still bust it up and improvise right in the middle of that. Gunther Schuller started that third-stream thing way back when, with Lukas Foss and those guys, but there were still classical players on one side of the fence and jazz players on the other side. Once in a while they’d combine and make some interesting stuff, but mostly they were on different sides of the fence. What is obvious with Mark and Marty Ehrlich and these guys, they just walk down the both paths very easily.
AAJ: And free music walks a line between so many different concepts, it is like the third stream.
BG: Yeah, and Mark made me work on my reading chops, which was good. I’m a better reader than I used to be, but I’ve got a ways to go. I just heard Mark with his trio and they were doing some cross-rhythm shit that was all written out, really complex stuff, and it all came out. That was a composition, none of it was improvised. Essentially they’d open it up, but the stuff they were playing on the page I couldn’t believe. There are always people who can kick your butt and teach you something new if you’re open to that.
AAJ: Well, I was talking recently with someone about this, that the ‘young lion’ players aren’t really that young, so where are the serious twenty-one year old players?
BG: Well, that’s another reason I miss New York. When I’m in New York, I go hang out at the Knitting Factory or something, down in the lounge there’s some young cats playing some of the most ridiculous shit you’ve ever heard, and you’ve never heard of any of these kids. They’re like twenty-one years old, and where the hell did they come from? The bowels of Brooklyn or something, I guess... There isn’t much young blood around here that’s kicking my ass like there is in New York. Maybe it’s just because a lot of the stuff I hear around here is too intellectual for me; it doesn’t have that ballsy, raw energy quality that I like so much.
AAJ: So the days of the prime Dutch ‘happening’ approach to the music are long gone?
BG: Well, I don’t want to generalize. Maybe there are a few people doing stuff here that I don’t hear, maybe it’s in another arena, maybe it’s happening in the IJSbreker rather than the BIMHuis (the IJSbreker does contemporary classical stuff). I can’t cover all the bases; for me, Holland is just a quiet place to live. I’m on the computer all day or working on music, and I travel from here because there are so few venues. The key is that you’ve got to find cheap travel. It’s all one-nighters, so you can’t just stay in one place. You’ve got to move. Now there are younger kids and you don’t hear what they’re doing. I’ve got this whiz-kid who upgraded my website, he’s twenty-one years old and he’s been on the computer since eight or nine. The way he does the website in a couple hours... he developed a hand-held thing to create his music, he notates through this thing in his hand, and he sells them over the internet for $200 a pop. He’s set up a corporation already. He travels all over the place, sending his shit out to people, and it’s all done through the internet. He says ‘fuck the record companies, I just sell my stuff myself through the internet.’ He’s going on a whole other ball game; nobody’s heard him in a live concert, he’s doing all his shit through the internet, electronic stuff. Funny, the theatre has changed. They’re working with noise today, and maybe they’re making something out of it besides noise.
AAJ: It’s almost something you have to hear in hindsight after it’s done to get where it’s really coming from. I sometimes wonder if I was the age I am now in the ‘60s, whether I would have even been following the channels of free jazz, especially where I’m at geographically, to have even heard that music. Now there’s the computer and you can get exposed to stuff you wouldn’t have heard of otherwise. I have that to thank in part for getting exposed to the music.
BG: It’s the information highway. That’s what I’m saying, how high is up? I think that, like Leon Thomas used to say, “The Creator Has a Master Plan.” I think that there’s a high energy that you can’t even imagine. You can get to higher and higher energy if you’re self-motivated. But the thing that screws up a lot of people is that they’re too much exteriorized. That’s the basic thing I want to say: the discovery I made not just intellectually but soulfully is that whatever comes and goes on the outside – this gig or that gig, this girlfriend or that girlfriend, no girlfriend, money or no money – there’s a tremendous wellspring of resources within your own interior or your own soul. If you come from the wellspring within, or you understand yourself (that’s Satchidananda again: “to understand means to stand under where you’re already standing”), you really get down into the depths of what it’s all about from within yourself and you let go and dive in, through meditation or whatever you have to do. You get such a wellspring that your life is not predicated by the win and loss situation on the outside. Once you get that wellspring, then you can connect with kindred souls to share in that wellspring. How high is up, or how high is down? The magnificent tree, people look up at it reaching for the sky, but they don’t see how it’s reaching through the earth. Without that it would never grow. When I meditate well, I’m rooted and I’m out there.
AAJ: And who says your head can’t be in the ground and feet in the clouds, too?
BG: I slipped when I got that ticket; I was dreaming and forgot how the police were just sitting there trying to make some bread – and that’s nothing new. I was thinking about something Ahmad Jamal once told me, “vigilance is the eternal price of freedom.” That comes back to me a lot when I’m not grounded and I’m floating into a wall because I forgot about vigilance. The kite can go as far and hard and free as possible, but only if someone is standing there holding it on the ground. You’ve got to remember the guy with the string. All this is coming from within, and then you’re motivated – energy creates energy. It’s the law of things in motion to stay in motion and things stopped to stay stopped. If you want to get in that creative flow, no problem – things will happen. Who cares what form they take, as long as they happen. Don’t look the gift horse in the mouth, because we all like surprises. That’s the blueprint for living right there. That’s much more important than how many times your name comes up in Down Beat or how many times your girlfriend tells you how great you are. It’s nice to get accolades from people, but it’s much better to be happy with yourself.
The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble (Cadence, 1964)
Patty Waters Sings (ESP-Disk’, 1966)
Burton Greene Quartet (ESP-Disk’, 1966)
Presenting Burton Greene (Columbia, 1968)
Burton Greene - Aquariana (BYG Actuel, 1969)
Burton Greene & Daoud Amin - Trees (Button Nose, 1974)
Burton Greene - Throptics (CIMP, 1995)
Burton Greene - Live at Grasland (Drimala, 2004)