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Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
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.

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