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Pianist Burton Greene

Clifford Allen By

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I think so-called music-business people have a penchant for keeping artists dead while they
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.

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