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Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
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.

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