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Pianist Burton Greene

By Published: June 11, 2004
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?

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