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Burton Greene: From Bomb To Balm

Burton Greene: From Bomb To Balm

Courtesy Johan Janssen


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If I have tried anything in the music – it was always about trying to contribute to the universal consciousness. So that’s what I’m working on. I’m trying not to get disturbed by the so-called ups and downs. I try to bring that quality out in music wherever I can.
—Burton Greene
Chicago-born pianist Narada Burton Greene (b.1937) can be called a veteran of the 1960s jazz avant-garde—the starting point of his universal musical life. In 1962, he moved to New York and founded, together with bassist Alan Silva, the Free Form Improvisational Ensemble, which played improvised music without preconceived compositional elements. In 1965, he became a member of the Jazz Composers Guild, founded by Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor. The Jazz Composers Guild resonated with the community spirit that Greene had grown up with through his father's social-democratic family tradition. But the communal project lasted only six months. Disgusted with the materialistic "American dream," that lacked an understanding of community and experimental art and quickly turned a free artist's life into a precarious existence, he moved to Europe in 1969, where he worked with John Tchicai and Willem Breuker, among many others. Since 1986 he has been living on his own houseboat in Amsterdam. Greene's free improvisational approach is open to eminently heterogenous musical languages that he touches on with his different band projects, and also when he plays solo piano—from jazz to the bitonal music of a Béla Bartók, Igor Stravinsky and Charles Ives, the music of Karl-Heinz Stockhausen and right up to Indian ragas, klezmer, Sephardic, and Hasidic music.

All About Jazz: Can you describe the atmosphere you grew up in, also in terms of music?

Burton Greene: My mother was a classical music teacher. During The Great Depression she was teaching in New York, where she met my father in the late '20s. They got married just at the time of the beginning depression. She was teaching piano at that time. She had studied with Walter Damrosch, who was a famous conductor, at Columbia University. My father was selling eyeglasses from Europe and New York. They moved to Chicago in the early 1930s. My father's people were Greenbergs, not Greene. My father had shortened his name, to sell the eyeglasses to the optical trade. People loved the eyeglasses but didn't like his long nose. There was lots of antisemitism at the time, especially in small towns in the Midwest. My parents had a small attic flat without hot water and my mother was pregnant with my older brother. My father was getting desperate to sell his glasses. When he told one optometrist his name was Greene, the optometrist said: 'Oh, then you could be related to the English Greenes?' He got his first order and more to come. So, then he could afford a real apartment, and finally, in 1941, they had a small house built on Drake Avenue on the North side of Chicago, where I grew up. My mother had a small baby grand piano in the living room. At five years old, I was hearing all this great boogie-woogie—this was early '40s.

AAJ: Did you hear it on the radio?

BG: Yeah, on the radio. I was hearing wonderful stride, swing-era stuff, boogie-woogie and all that—it fascinated me. At five years old, I was trying to learn boogie-woogie lines with my left hand at the piano. So, that was my first musical fascination. My mother heard me doing that: 'Oh, he's always trying to play this jazz music, so we got to get him a classical teacher.' She brought me downtown to this Prussian guy—Isadore Buchhalter—who was great about music disciplines. He was teaching me something like the "Raindrop Prelude" of Chopin, but I wanted to improvise over this. I didn't want just to play Chopin, I wanted to see what I could do with it. I was slow to read because I wanted to try to make it personal. Most classical people can learn to read fairly fast, because they have no intention of improvising. I was a very slow reader. Isadore Buchhalter got angry, he got out a meter stick and hit me on the knuckles or the fingers. That happened to other piano players of my generation too [laughs]. We were a different breed, we wanted to make personal music. I had that instinct even at five or six years old. I studied the classics from seven to fourteen years old, sometimes under this torture. I stopped in the first year of high school. I wanted to play jazz of course.

AAJ: How do you remember the social atmosphere in Chicago, when you grew up? Was there any communication between black and white people despite the segregation?

BG: On the North Side most people were white. The first time I saw a black person I was eight or nine years old. A black kid came up on his big brother's bicycle from the South Side to the North Side of Chicago, a hip black kid who already had an earring in his ear, and already with some hip language. And he came up to Drake Avenue. We lined the street, we thought he was from Mars. When I first started identifying with jazz, I was listening to Lee Konitz for example, he was Jewish. So, you make a culture-like identification before you make a universal-like identification. Then somebody said to me: 'You hear Lee Konitz? Listen to Charlie Parker.' I said: 'Who is Charlie Parker?' So, I tried to compare them. The stuff I heard from Charlie Parker was too fast—I couldn't get it. Then I found out that he was doing similar ballads that Konitz was doing, "Don't Blame Me" for instance. And I said: 'Oh, yeah. Now I get it.' I liked Lee Konitz, but Bird was a different story, and I felt it. I could transcend my own cultural limitations by understanding what Parker was doing. I had to start with something slow and work into something faster. When I was going to jam sessions, before I finished high school, it was these amazing fifteen year-old black kids I learned from. I was already eighteen and had this music background, but I couldn't play half as good as these kids. They got it from their parents. They knew all the basic stuff, like the minor second to the five to the one-chord changes, the two five one thing, which is very prominent in all kinds of standard music. But we had nobody to instruct us for that. We had to find it piece by piece, by one detail at a time. A good influence on me at the time was some lessons downtown with a great pianist—Dick Marx. He taught me all kinds of possibilities of working with chord changes. Around 1957, I was nineteen or twenty and had composed a couple of bebop tunes, I was under the influence of Bud Powell.

AAJ: When did you decide to become a professional musician?

BG: I was always into music. And I had to do odd jobs to stay alive. After a couple of years in college I had enough. I wanted to get out and learn about music. But I had to do odd jobs. I sold insurances, stupid things. At 25 I decided, whatever happens to me, whatever stupid jobs I'm gonna have to do, I want to be a professional musician. I don't care about having not a penny, I love music. In the middle of 1960 I went to San Francisco, I was 23. After a year and a half, I went back to Chicago for some months and then I went to New York.

AAJ: In San Francisco there was nothing you found interesting in terms of music and art?

BG: San Francisco was still a total bebop scene. Chicago for me was the gigs and the jam sessions, a lot of them downtown or on the South Side. We were listening a lot to Ira Sullivan. Ira is Irish and Jewish, he played with Charlie Parker and played with everybody. He was a real figure for me. I went to sessions and gigs, heard Rahsaan Roland Kirk and all kinds of greats. Horace Silver was there, Billy Green, oh my god, I heard Ahmad Jamal, I heard Max Roach and Clifford Brown on the South Side. The point I want to bring up about Chicago, I was trying to stretch out on the forms, again the same thing like my classical days. Mostly other white kids would get on me, because I screwed up the form—for example on a 32-bar standard, I got so much into the A section, that I sometimes forgot to play it just twice, I'd play it the three times. When I came off the band stand, especially the white musicians jumped on me and said: 'You screwed up the form, you're rushing the time,' or whatever. The black guys were much more nonchalant. They didn't give me shit about form; their big thing was personality and individuality, and don't copy nobody.

AAJ: How did you learn about the new, freer approaches in jazz?

BG: I was in San Francisco. I heard Cecil Taylor, Ornette [Coleman] and Jaki Byard, of course Eric Dolphy on radio broadcasts by Martin Williams, coming out of New York.

AAJ: This made you want to go to New York?

BG: Yeah. I realized that San Francisco was a strong bebop scene, no experimental free stuff going on. Bop City was a prominent venue there, everybody played bebop. In spite of that, I learned so much in San Francisco—I was listening to Charles Mingus for example. He always had a free approach. He could make the bass sound like matchsticks or as big as a house. And what also impressed me about Mingus was that he didn't tolerate noise from the audience. This is 1961. Mingus and Bird and all these guys—they produced art. Before that, even the great Louis Armstrong considered himself an entertainer. The great thing about bebop is that people started to realize that this is art music. So, it has to be treated that way. Nobody would be talking, making noise in a classical concert.

AAJ: Did your parents support your decision to be a jazz musician?

BG: I had a fight with them. I know they meant well, but they wanted to scare me to getting a normal job, a more "secure" life. I got to make this music, you know, it's my soul, I don't care how much money I make. So, I didn't get support there. I had to do it on my own. My family did not support me with the music. My mother encouraged me; she even gave me pictures of great black artists of the day. She had a universal outlook. But she had migraine headaches all the time, she couldn't keep up her music. In my family all were following the American Dream. The American Dream will kill you. It never stops. Oh, we have two nice cars, let's have five nice cars. Three or four houses. It never stops.

AAJ: In early 1962, you moved to New York and developed The Tree System of Tonality, as you called it.

BG: Yes, exactly. I composed this piece "Tree Theme," which has the trunk and the roots in A minor, then you get into the branches, which are already bitonal. So, if you start in A minor, maybe you modulate, go to A flat and then to B flat with A flat on the bottom, and further, more freely, intuitively. So, you're getting into bitonality, of which I heard so much beautiful music like Bartók, Stravinsky, Charles Ives. I was very much influenced by that stuff.

AAJ: Going from Bartók and Stravinsky for instance, you developed your own system of tonality?

BG: Yeah. You develop that and by the time you get to the small branches and leaves, you get into so much abstraction, pantonality. Afterwards I recapitulate the theme in A minor, bring it back home.

AAJ: But you wouldn't say this is a compositional "platform" that you can use for improvisation?

BG: Actually, it is a composition, out of that I developed a theory. You can use that on any music, you can use any song like that.

AAJ: In New York, bassist Alan Silva and you founded the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble.

BG: Yeah. That was probably the first band in the world that only played totally free music. No composition. We all learned from Ornette, Cecil, and Eric Dolphy for example. But they all used composition, they improvised with and between that. Alan and I met at a church basement in Brooklyn in 1962. He advertised his art and culture perception thing that he wanted to create in his house. He was living in an almost condemned building in Brooklyn for almost no rent. I wanted to get out of Manhattan. Then Alan advertised his thing: 'If you are interested in art and culture perception and creativity, please contact Alan Silva, living in Brooklyn.' There we met in the church basement. He played free, three bass players and two drummers. I joined them, there was a grand piano in the basement. Alan and I looked at each other, we smiled and I said: 'We don't need a script, do we? We just play.' There was no preconception. We were just listening to each other and made some musical conversation. A totally intuitive experience. That's probably like all the way back to the cavemen and -women. That's how they must have made music together too. Very simple. You grow. With each comment on whatever the other person is saying, somebody comes up with a new idea. We comment on that and it often gets really complex by going our own ways but listening to each other all the time. If you don't listen, you break it! True socialism, democratic socialism.

For me, music is part of the universality. Through music I can link everything up to yoga, meditation. The whole universal thing is all connected. It's called sanity versus insanity. We need to live by basic holistic methods of living, having real food on your table, a nice place to live, that's it: one car or whatever, basic needs, taking care and making room for our brothers and sisters. Otherwise it's all a big show: ego power games, excess money, manipulations, selfishness, insanity! I have always made no more than about 20.000 [dollars] a year. So, I'm so-called "below the poverty line." But indeed, over the years I got a nice houseboat, a 25-year-old car that runs like a train, what more can I want? Now I have a recent model grand piano. It's possible living on even low money. And yet I even have to throw stuff out all the time, give it to charity, so I have room to live!

AAJ: When Alan Silva went with Cecil Taylor you founded a quartet with Marion Brown and Henry Grimes among others.

BG: The Free Form group broke up after two and a half years. It was like 12 concerts in two and a half years and never more than five or six people at a gig. But we loved what we were doing. Leighton Kerner, the Village Voice music critic, came to a concert we gave in a coffee house in Harlem. We had like five people in the audience, including Leighton Kerner. He took us seriously and did a nice almost half page review. He was the classical music critic of the Village Voice. Cecil and Bill Dixon saw that and invited us to join the Jazz Composers Guild. After two and a half years we were looking for something else to do, because we had used that formula a lot and subconsciously looked for another format. Gary Friedman, the saxophonist, brought in a simple piece of music he composed. We started working with that. Through that I guess we realized that the basic purpose of the free improvisational ensemble was over. We started to work with prepared music. We all somehow were interested in it at that point. Then I created my first Quartet, and Alan went with Cecil.

AAJ: And this Quartet used compositional elements?

BG: Yeah, compositions with free improvisations on the themes. My first recording for ESP had compositions; I worked with Marion Brown, Henry Grimes, [drummer] Dave Grant and [percussionist] Tom Price, Frank Smith on the last long track. I had played a lot with Rashied Ali but by the time of the recording he had gone to play with John Coltrane.

AAJ: Can you share some thoughts about the Jazz Composers Guild?

BG: The Jazz Composers Guild is basically the reason why I got some serious recognition at that point. It was also one of the reasons why I had to leave America. This is symbolic. America was not ready for community. And I was raised with community. My grandparents were fighting against the bosses in the garment district in Manhattan, NYC, for 50 years, to get Jewish workers from 12, 14, 16 hours a day down to 8 or 10 hours a day. My grandparents were socialists from Russia—my father's people. They were strong social democrats, not communist; they were fighting the bosses. Well, back to the Jazz Composers Guild. I was happy to find a community in America.

AAJ: Is there any connection of the Guild to the socio-economical concept of the guilds in medieval European towns?

BG: Yeah. That would be the idea that Bill Dixon and Cecil Taylor tried to create. They wanted a social organization, one with our own buildings, our own recordings, our own gigs and places to practice. And the Guild would decide what music would be played, not the promoters and the businesspeople. All in our own hands. That was their idea.

AAJ: And solidarity between the musicians.

BG: Yeah, exactly. And I was all for that: 'That's it, I'm happy to be here.' Guess what, it lasted six months. It was disbanded because Bill and Cecil felt that some of us kept too much in their own individual paths, contrary to Guild ideas. In America it's all about "I get mine, you get yours." No community. So, it broke up. At the meetings there was talk about all kind of nonsense, what the meaning of jazz was, or who took $25 out of the treasury, this kind of stuff, instead of focusing on the real thing. Meanwhile I talked to Ornette, I saw him on the street: 'What are you guys doing in those Guild meetings?' And I told him what was going on. Ornette: 'If you stop screwing around, I talked to John Coltrane, he said, that he and Trane would also come in; we could take all the important music off the market and really make a community. You guys have to stop screwing around.' At the Guild, we were having a phalanx—for example against the Village Vanguard which would only give a few Guild members a Monday night with low bread, or the record companies. Archie Shepp signed a contract with Impulse Records on his own. He had to eat, he had kids. But these kinds of things broke up the collective meaning of the Guild. Solidarity was threatened by actions of different Guild members, I don't have to go into details. Sorry that I mentioned Archie's name, because he did a lot of good stuff of course. But without the community principles the Guild had no basis of continuing. Bill and Cecil, very highly talented guys, very perceptive, and serious. They were highly educated. They didn't come in with a street language which perhaps more or even everybody in the Guild would have better understood and got. People didn't get the message. Instead of communalizing gain, the Guild was destroyed. That's what happened.

AAJ: Your consequence was leaving the scene.

BG: Yeah. But first of all, I did that record for Columbia [Presenting Burton Greene, Columbia, 1968] with Byard Lancaster, Steve Tintweiss, and [drummer] Shelly Rusten}}. That was the biggest recording company in the world. I thought I was on the top. The businesspeople, John Hammond recognized our talents, that we were doing something different. We got an audition with the producer, John Hammond, after I had called him a hundred times. He arranged an audition, we blasted him with the music, and he loved it. He had discovered the likes of Count Basie, Benny Goodman, Aretha Franklin, Bob Dylan, before. You know, so many people. That was his thing, discovering new talent. But he was on floor 31 of Columbia Records. I thought I got to the top of Columbia Records. No, I did not, because on floor 32 or 33, they had the money people with the final say. And they just washed it out. 'Okay, we humored John Hammond with one record of this crazy free jazz. That's it.' One day I looked in the New York Times, I saw on the bottom of page 98 a little one-line advertising for the Burton Greene Quartet record. They took it off the market within about 4 months and put it in the cut-out bins in record stores. I heard from some music publishers we enjoyed a great life there for a long time. Then it became a collector's item. And even with the Columbia record, I didn't have any gigs for a year and a half. I did four or five Saturdays at the Huntington Hartford Museum, a modern art and design museum in NYC. I finally found this gig, but the organizer wouldn't even pay us, he gave the musicians no money. There were pretty good crowds most of the Saturdays. In the end I went to his office with all my gear—amplifiers, mics and stands, etc.—and asked at least for some cab money to get home. He said: 'You're a strong, healthy young man. Take the subway.' I couldn't even get a cab out of this guy. He said: 'Nobody really paid. That's it.' I had enough here—in America.

AAJ: What do you think about categories such as "free jazz," "avant-garde," "free music," etc. today?

BG: I am an instrument, a creator of music, I don't care about all these names and whether it's "old" or "new." Because music that is real, is timeless. So, if anybody tells me that Bach is old fashioned, I say: 'You don't know the first thing about music, do you?' Great Bach is great Bach, and always will be. Great Van Gogh is great Van Gogh, and always will be. I don't care about what label you give it. I played two-thousand years old ragas with sitarist Jamaluddin Bhartiya in our group East West Trio, they were fantastic, they are timeless. I've heard fifth century Syrian music played, it knocked me out. It's either, yes, this is real music from the soul of real musicians, or else it's producer muzak, commercial bullshit. Anybody who is just into labels, into profiling, is in a box and it becomes fascistic because it doesn't let in anything or anybody else. Link these things to personal life. I think they are important to be linked together. When I'm talking about one item, I'm talking about one item as part of a universal whole and only this holistic thing really exists. It's diversity within the deeper level and awareness of oneness. Anything that is contra to that, is destroying it, killing the fabric. In the music, it's these boxes—the free jazz box, bebop box, the swing era box, the New Orleans box, the pop and rock boxes, etc. People who are just into these boxes are missing a lot. I know if I go to a jam session, for example a free music jam session in a few places that are a bastion for free music, if I go there and play something really tonal and pretty, they will probably never hire me again. When I go there and just play the weirdest shit, put newspapers in the piano, or beat the piano with thousands of notes, then they say, he's cool. It's not cool, it's a joke.

AAJ: What do you remember about the early times of the free music, the late '50s and the '60s?

BG: Explosion. Explosion of consciousness. It came through the music also. So, of course we all know the original channels—Ornette, Cecil, Eric Dolphy, Jaki Byard. Those guys were the pioneers. Everyone did it in their own way. And then there was Albert Ayler. I heard Albert when he came to New York. We were knocked out. Cecil was playing on stage at the New York Philharmonic. He was playing for a while in trio without Albert. Suddenly we heard this towering saxophone sound offstage. We were spellbound. Albert walks calmly from the dressing room onstage and continued his unbelievable, original, towering sound! New York had a grapevine, we were all into the free music, free expression, free art, the painters, avant people, we were all connected at that time. Not so discriminated—you play rock and I play jazz. No, there was a much more communal atmosphere. And the rents were cheap. You could get a floor through, even a forty or fifty-meter pad, on the Lower East Side for fifty bucks a month. Anyway, I heard the gunshots on the street—where I was. The Lower East side was a hell hole at that time, the junkies, and the shootings and everything else on the street. 'Oh, another car backfired'—I rationalized the noise from the street. The landlord of that loft on Eldridge Street lived in Brooklyn and he didn't want to go to the neighborhood or the building anymore. He gave me the fourth floor for free and said: 'Just try to protect the building, keep the junkies out and the bums if you can, and fix the roof if it leaks, etc.' The Bowery so-called "bums" got in when they could, just to get warm. I got robbed two or three times by junkies and everything was gone before I left New York. When I walked outside my loft I walked into insanity, which really affected my psyche.

AAJ: You decided to move to Europe.

BG: I was in Paris first of all. That was great. A whole lot of musicians came over and we met each other. I didn't know some of them until I was in Paris—like the AACM who were also from Chicago. A lot of gigs, a lot of stuff happening, it was wonderful. I came to Europe with forty dollars. I was able to hitchhike to Paris, went to an Arab bar on the right bank of Paris, where you get the cheapest coffee. Then I ran out of money after two days, I had my last café crème and I passed out on the floor at the bar. Algerian workers felt sorry for me, they saw that there was somebody on the floor, they took me into their flat. I woke up two days later, they gave me tagine and couscous and I felt really good. When I hear about the problems between Arabs and Jews I say, don't tell me about this, the Arabs and the Jews have been together for five thousand years. It's the politicians, they are making this shit enmity.

AAJ: You must have been exhausted.

BG: I had no money. I had my last 20-centime piece for a cup of coffee. I had not connected yet with the musicians, who were arranging things: Dieter Gewissler and drummer Claude Delcloo. Dieter, a German bassist, had promised me maybe ten gigs or something. In the end there was one gig. Only one gig down in Heidelberg. I wrote to him saying: 'You're promising me money for the airplane and everything and in the end there's just this 25-dollar job in Heidelberg?!' I knew I just had to come over to Europe anyway. I hadn't found them yet. After I woke up in the Arab flat near Bastille, the word got around through the grapevine that there was this crazy jazz musician, a guy with a big beard, a pianist in an Arab flat. Dieter said: 'Oh, it must be Burton.' He came to the apartment and took me to Heidelberg.

AAJ: How long did you live in France?

BG: For six months. After that, I first was in Denmark to play with John Tchicai. I loved Denmark, I loved Copenhagen. So, I had to choose. I said, I'll not go back to Paris, it's too nervous and too expensive. But I enjoyed the contact with all the great musicians in Paris. So, after that I wrote a couple of pieces for the radio orchestra in Denmark. That was great. J.C. Moses was on the gig, John Tchicai, Niels-Henning Ørsted Pederson, a lot of great musicians. Then I came to Amsterdam. Willem Breuker became really my patron at that time, he supported me, a beautiful guy. That gig for the radio was with him and Han Bennink and young Arjen Gorter on bass—a quartet. I found a garden house to rent for 50 bucks a month. An 18th century several-story house—a monumental pad, with a beautiful stone garden-house in the back of the lovely 35-meter garden behind the building. A small house, only about 5 by 4 meters, but with high ceilings. I made a bed platform above it. I could live there and didn't bother anybody with the music. I got an old upright piano in there.

But all the crazy stuff that had happened came on me and I had a nervous breakdown, there in the garden house. It took me two or three months to get myself back together slowly. I couldn't walk for about 3 weeks. My lower back was frozen, the nerve ends. I gradually came back and then things started to happen. The '70s were great in Amsterdam—socialism. The Jazz Composers Guild only lasted for six months, whereas the guilds here in Europe lasted for centuries. European Renaissance has a guild history—they were communal. I was so happy to be in a place, where community lasted. Today, it's not there much anymore, it's gone. Today, the problem is that when you are 50 years old or more you are already suspect: 'oude rot in het vak.' In one way, people appreciate that you are old, but when you are old and still professional—they put you down: You are old, let's get some young people in here. Willem Breuker, who almost single-handed started the whole scene of free music and contemporary music in Holland, together with Misha Mengelberg, got disrespected by someone in the subsidizing wing of the government, they cut him off: 'This music is not relevant anymore, sorry Mr. Breuker.' Willem told me this. We need capitalism to some extent, but not without social democracy. Both need each other.

AAJ: Around that time, you went to India.

BG: Yeah. Obviously, this was part of my healing process. I took a 4-month trip as part of the yoga group traveling with our teacher Swami Satchidananda, a deep meditative yoga experience in India and Sri Lanka (1970-1971). The yoga was slowly beginning to get me more together. I had met my teacher in 1967 and started doing hatha yoga for some months before getting my meditation mantra initiation from him at the end of that year. Thanks to yoga over the years it helped me put back all the pieces into a more peaceful existence. We all exploded with such a dynamic music in the '60s, but unfortunately most of my contemporaries are gone, because they never found a way to put back the pieces. I gradually went from an atomic bomb to an atomic balm!

AAJ: Can you share some details about your musical connection to the Indian ragas?

BG: I met sitarist Jamaluddin Bhartiya from Jaipur, India in 1973. I knew his student here, sitarist Darshan Kumari. She organized a lot of Indian music concerts here in Holland. She brought Bhartiya here and I became his student. We were the East West Trio. I realized that the Indian tradition—great music that always existed and always continues to exist—has to be done with original flair and not by copying or imitating it. The idea of the East West Trio was to bring the jazz idea into the raga. And also, we had this great bongo player during that time, Daoud Amin. He is a Puerto Rican from New York and he brought his Latin rhythms into it. So, it's a fresh world music the way we did it. Daoud is not on the records we made, he already left town. Instead we got Glenn Hahn from Suriname. He brought that same idea with bongos and congas and other percussion things. He's gone unfortunately, died quite young.

AAJ: When did you start playing klezmer music?

BG: At the end of the Eighties. When I was about 52, I met this young Jewish kid named Yiftach Bar, a musician who came by and said: 'We heard about you and your music.' He brought along a friend, who was interested in what I was doing too, and they said, can you play us some of your music? I was already on my houseboat. I played them some of my music on records. And then Yiftach said: 'That's nice, jazzy, but what's your music?' He was a nineteen-year old kid. I got a bit peeved and said: 'Listen man, that's my music, what are you talking about?!' 'No, this is your music.' He played some beautiful stuff from clarinetist Giora Feidman. Giora is the guy who played so beautifully on the score of the movie Schindler's List, so poignant. John Williams, the guy who wrote it, worked with Steven Spielberg and the big Hollywood guys. He wasn't Jewish, but he really got it, the feel of that music. So, these cross references of different cultures are very interesting. People transcend their own cultures and get into other cultures. They really live it, you know.

AAJ: Do you have the feeling that you are closer now to yourself with the music you are playing today?

BG: Yeah, otherwise I wouldn't do it. It transcends descriptions, it has traditional blues and bebop elements, it has Indian elements, it has Jewish elements, it has Arab elements, all kind of stuff.

AAJ: Can one say that your Jewish background is just a part of your universal musical language.

BG: Again, going back to the Tree Theme. The roots might be anywhere but it grows and spreads out to everywhere, so we are all connected. You cannot diss anybody. If you do that you diss yourself.

AAJ: But it was and is important for you to go back to your family roots.

BG: You should know where you come from, know your ancestry, know your history. Without that you don't know where you are going. You have to be rooted somewhere before you can have branches and leaves. Trees live thousands of years because they have these wonderful roots and expansion. This is the way we come to universality too.

AAJ: Can we talk about your klezmer bands?

BG: This kid Yiftach, he came and played me the Giora Feidman music. And I thought: 'Wow, this is beautiful stuff.' Okay, I didn't agree with him when he told me the other stuff wasn't my music. It is my music too, but he taught me something new about Jewish music. Up until that point the old Jewish music, I'd really only heard the bands playing the old-fashioned way at Jewish weddings or Bar Mitzvahs. When I was a kid, I got bored with it: 'This is something from Russia in the nineteenth century, what does it have to do with me now?' But when I heard the more modern interpretation of this music—hearing Frank London's Klezmatics, the Klezmorim, and a couple of other original bands like that, I thought: 'Okay, these guys are folky, but Frank has also got a jazz background, that I can hear. So that's a way to go with this, finally. Then I started realizing that the Black and Jewish experience goes way back. At the time when Nubians and other Blacks became—for whatever reason—converted into Judaism, long before Islam. 1500-2000 years before Islam they were already into Judaism. And lately I found out about the Igbo people in Nigeria: 25 million people were Jewish 1500-2000 years before Islam. If it ever came out, that would be almost a triple of the Jewish population on this planet. I talked with a cultural attaché, a guy from the Igbo people. He was my neighbor when I was on vacation in Portugal. We started talking and he said he knew this history and was considering his roots in Judaism. So, what's the difference between Ibrahim and Abraham, Salaam Alaikum and Shalom Aleichem? It's ridiculous making such a big deal out of the difference. In music, the Arab maqams are exactly the same like the Jewish modes. The most popular Jewish mode Ahava Raba, is exactly the same like the Arab Hijaz.


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