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Pianist Burton Greene


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I think so-called music-business people have a penchant for keeping artists dead while they’re alive and alive while they’re dead so they can make some money.
Pianist Burton Greene was born June 14, 1937 in Chicago. Following a brief stay in San Francisco he moved to New York in the early ‘60s and quickly became part of the nascent free jazz movement, playing with Alan Silva in the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. He was a member of the Jazz Composers’ Guild, worked with Marion Brown, Rashied Ali, Albert Ayler, Sam Rivers, and Patty Waters among others before moving to Europe in 1969. He currently resides on a houseboat in Amsterdam, the city where he has lived since 1970. Burton has recorded for no less than fifteen labels, including ESP-Disk’, Columbia, Button Nose, Cat Jazz, CIMP, and BVHaast, and his latest solo release, “Live at Grasland,” is available from Drimala Records.

All About Jazz: I know you started playing piano at a very young age, but how did you get involved with jazz?

Burton Greene: I started out playing classical music, but after listening to Brubeck, Konitz, and other players I just knew that improvised, personal music was the way to go. I had no desire to go back into that classical scene. These people were working like hell in an inbred scene and I just didn’t... as much as I loved classical music, it was the first music I heard; my mother used to play Rachmaninoff, Debussy and Ravel, Mussogorsky on an old 78 record player. That was my first music, you know I loved it, but I just felt the immediacy of improvising music from this time. Of course that brought me to jazz; I first heard what was available then; unfortunately I grew up way on the North Side of Chicago, and everything was happening on the South Side. One time I got hold of a Charlie Parker record and compared it to Lee Konitz, and I thought ‘why do they call [Parker] ‘The Bird?’ and I slowed it down and listened to a ballad, I think it was “Don’t Blame Me,” and you could hear Bird flying. As much as I like Lee Konitz, this is another thing. First it seems like you make the ethnic identification – you know, when you’re a kid – before you make an aesthetic one. Lee Konitz is Jewish, like I am, and he could have grown up next door. It took a jump to get to Bird, because I didn’t know that many black people [growing up]. There was like a Mason-Dixon Line in Chicago at that point; the lines were drawn. In those days, you didn’t have a buddy in school that was black, so you didn’t grow up with that experience. The Protestants and the Catholics and the Jews were still fighting; that kind of shit, you know. Everybody found everybody else strange, even within the so-called Caucasian group.

I think if you read my biography, you read that I met Sheila Porrett in Chicago, and she got me straightened out quick. I was talking about ‘jazz’ and I didn’t know shit from shinola, as we used to say.

AAJ: Right, she took you to the record store and you spent your lunch money on jazz records.

BG: ‘Thirty records? What am I gonna do with these?’ [She said] ‘Are you gonna feed your face, like you do all the time anyway, or you gonna feed your brain?’ She laid it all on me; in the rock-and-roll section there were Harold Land, Charlie Parker, MJQ records – it was all there. They didn’t know anything. If you look now, jazz didn’t sell worth a shit at that time, and the people didn’t get any money – in fact, nothing is new there – but now I guess everywhere the jazz records are at a premium. If you have the deep-groove Blue Notes, $50 a pop or something [one can dream...]. Here, I see all the best classical shit, three for a Euro. You could buy all the records you want in those days for four or five bucks a piece. Now good jazz records are fifteen or twenty bucks at least.

AAJ: And you wish some of that money went to the artists...

BG: I think so-called music-business people have a penchant for keeping artists dead while they’re alive and alive while they’re dead so they can make some money. Keep ‘em dead because they complain about the royalty situation (like with ESP, it’s all over the internet). If I’m gone and I have no estate, then they can make you famous. A lot of the popularity of the artists through history is because the record companies don’t have to pay royalties and so they make artists big. It’s much cheaper to produce a Beethoven record than a Bartok record because Bartok’s son took care of the estate, and it’s not in public domain (like Beethoven is) after 40-50 years.

AAJ: I always wondered about Albert Ayler in that regard, how big he was among the record-buying public at the time.

BG: We were all weird; we couldn’t sell out of a paper bag then. Albert hardly did either; now he’s a big cult hero, but then... the same with Henry Grimes; at that time, only the artists knew about Henry, and now at 67 he’s finally getting his due. But he was so obscure, look at what happened to him for thirty years. He’s got Margaret Davis as his girlfriend and she’s hustling all over the place [AAJ laughs]. He’s a sweet guy, he’s like a flower child, just kind of floating. He didn’t know what a CD was when I talked to him on the phone; I said ‘man, you gotta get out there and protect your shit, they’re reissuing it on CD’s.’ He said, ‘Burton, what’s that? What’s a CD?’

AAJ: You made that pilgrimage to San Francisco and then New York, right?

BG: Yeah, I wasn’t ready for New York at that time. I’d heard a lot about California, how laid back and easygoing it was, and I was still disturbed about being somebody’s Pavlov’s Dog in Chicago and having been in effect told what to do by society, growing up in a house under your parents’ wings, and I did the Army and said ‘enough of that shit, I’ve had enough of that,’ so I said I’d first check out California. The beatnik thing was on and the hippie thing was about to emerge, and I figured that would be the time to put it together, and it was. Then I realized that the real music I heard was being broadcast out of New York, Martin Williams’ program with Jaki Byard, Dolphy and Ornette, and I said ‘well, I gotta go to New York’. This was the beginning of the ‘60s; I was in the Army in ’59 and went to California in ’60.

AAJ: Did you get much involved with the players out there in San Francisco?

BG: I did my first little gig [out there]; I was kinda nervous, [bassist] Barre Phillips was on the gig, and it was pretty weird. I was trying to fly but I kept flapping my wings.

AAJ: When you got to New York, what did it feel like for you?

BG: Well, it was much more dynamic, you know. New York always has been and always will be the most dynamic city in America, if not the world. If you can stand the pace, that is – it’s a killer if you’re not on top of your game financially as well as creatively. It’s worse [now] because of the landlords; that’s why I left, I learned my lessons and got on top of a certain small creative heap, knew what I was about, but my nerves were frazzled. I came to Europe to have a quiet nervous breakdown. I love New York now, because I’m not dependent on its economy. When I go there and do my guerilla thing, do my gigs and get out – I mean, if somebody found me a nice, cheap pad I’d be tempted to go back because it’s more dynamic than here.

AAJ: Yeah, I always felt on top of it creatively when I was in New York, but the rent is one reason why I moved away.

BG: You’re a player too?

AAJ: Yeah, a bit of ‘cello, improvised stuff, you know...

BG: Have you met Joel Friedman?

AAJ: No, but I’ve always wanted to know what he was up to now.

BG: He’s a wonderful filmmaker; he’s done a lot of interesting stuff on the American Indians and the environment, he did a thing about how they were trying to force the Indians out of Nevada because they found Uranium or something. He got Robert Redford to narrate that one; now he’s out in Connecticut. Persimmon is the name of his company, I think.

AAJ: He was really a force on those Albert Ayler records.

BG: Yeah, I used to play with him some.

AAJ: Right, you had that trio with him and Perry Robinson.

BG: Yeah, we made a fantastic recording but it’s gone. The same shit happened with the Albert Ayler gig at Slug’s; I have to go through the boxes once more because Revenant is putting out that thing we did but I recorded at least 45 minutes on a 7 ½ speed tape from that gig in ’66.

AAJ: And your tape probably sounds better than that audience tape.

BG: Actually what turned up was 10 minutes on a cassette out of the 45 minutes or so I recorded on tape; it was not an audience recording. But when I left New York, anything you leave that weighs less than 2000 pounds, forget about it.

AAJ: Right, because all your tapes got ripped off, right?

BG: Yeah, a few tapes got ripped off but a lot of things... there was a guy named Bat staying up there who was a friend of [trumpeter] James DuBois and some of those guys were drugged out and they’d throw shit out the window, or they’d re-record over my tapes when they didn’t have any. It was Studio We [a jazz loft in the 70s] for a long time. A kid offered me a lot of money for that place, but I gave it to James because I knew he’d keep the music scene going (which he did with Studio We). Plus, I was going to India with Satchidananda and I thought, you know, ‘money is the root of all evil and I’m going to be enlightened in India,’ so to speak. But instead I got hepatitis! I didn’t even know what it was...

AAJ: I guess that could’ve been enlightening in a different way...

BG: [laughing] Well, Clarence Becton, a wonderful drummer whom I’m going to see this week, he’s 70 but he looks like 48 or something; he played with Monk and Dizzy and Bobby Hutcherson and Mal Waldron, and the way he tells it, ‘the Greene Man was green!’ I was a hippie going to India and I thought, ‘jeez, this must be like California. I’ll buy all my veggies and be pure.’ God knows what kind of bacteria was in them, some of those vegetables were weird-looking.

AAJ: Wash your veggies is the lesson...

As for New York, I know you met Alan Silva through an ad in the paper, but had you had any intimations of playing free before going to New York?

BG: Of course. I first moved to my aunt’s place in Kew Gardens, Queens. I used to stare across the street at these fantastic elm or oak trees, there would be a storm and they would be all over the place. I’d be listening to Vaughan Williams and I loved the polyphony and polymodality in those pieces, and I got all kinds of crazy ideas. I thought I could study a little Ornette – I didn’t know much about Cecil yet at that time – I said I could get it from the trunk, that’s like A-minor. I love A-minor, so that trunk, those roots are A-minor. And you get the branches going out everywhere, that’s like B going against A; you can modulate in different keys out of A and still come back to it. I developed a thing called the “tree system of tonality.”

AAJ: And so the Tree Theme came out of that, then.

BG: Yeah, that was ’62. That was before I met Alan. I’d worked a little bit with Jon Winter, the flautist, and he was writing polymodal stuff then. When we got the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble going, I called Jon to come out [from California]. It just was the right time, it was ripe. I met Alan and I saw them playing free in Brooklyn; there were a couple of drummers, three bass players, and I joined them. They had a big grand piano in this church basement, and I looked at them and said ‘hey, we don’t need a script, do we?’ and he said ‘no way.’ That’s just how it started. Most of us didn’t read that much and we didn’t see the point of reading.

AAJ: [The FFIE] was one of the first open-communications music ensembles, at least in New York, right?

BG: I don’t know anybody who preceded us; I think we were first. Everybody had experimented with it; Jimmy Giuffre had done it out on the West Coast with Shorty Rogers, “Number One-Number Two-Number Three” and all that, and of course we all know Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz. Mingus wrote one-chord pieces. The thing is, most everybody – they’d fly off on a spontaneous thing once in a great while, but mainly they would do it around compositions, you know. Guys like Cecil use compositional fragments in their stuff that would segue into the improvisational sections and back again.

AAJ: Rather than the reverse, where the composition arises out of spontaneous creation.

BG: Yeah, right. So I think we were the first band to really take spontaneous composition and develop it. What’s nice about that band was that everybody came out of different disciplines; Gary Friedman was with Vladimir Ussachevsky and avant-garde classical stuff, and Alan came out of action painting. Pollock did it first with paint, you know.

AAJ: That’s definitely true, and that process-oriented painting is really applicable to the music.

BG: Right, when I met Alan he still had paint all over himself and in his clothes. Sometimes it was hard for him to extricate himself from the canvas, and that’s why we were all implicated in the canvases we were creating, and we couldn’t extract [ourselves].

AAJ: I read something that said you were a painter too.

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.

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]

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.

BG: Maybe in the cosmic sense it’s payback time, and I have to forego the profit motive in this case. It’s natural to give of your gift to other people, but following the words of the great teacher Satchidananda, he always said ‘the root of all problems in this world is selfishness.’ The more generous you are, the more you can begin to realize what enlightenment is all about; without that dimension you’ll never achieve it. I’m the first to admit that, but I’m always careful. The Dutch have this expression ‘stank voor dank,’ which means ‘stink for thank.’ A lot of people in this world measure everything by material values, and if you give yourself away too cheap they’ll never respect you, they’ll stand back and make a joke out of you. When it’s a genuine charitable situation it’s great, where generosity can help out – maybe this is what it is, in spite of whatever greedy motives these guys have, in the end if it benefits a lot of people to get that music, then okay, why not? Maybe it’s the same with these kids doing that MP3 stuff. But I wish people would be more conscious of the fact that musicians are on the low end of the totem pole, and that we have our spiritual wealth that a lot of people don’t have, but we’ve got to eat too.

AAJ: Is it considerably better in Europe than it ever was in America for you?

BG: Well it has been easier. The right-wing governments are here as well as everywhere else, and they’re getting stricter and stricter. I just got busted for double-parking; I’d just stopped for a second to pick up a part I had in an electronics store, and the cop was on me immediately with a

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