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Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
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?

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