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Interviews

Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
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]


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