Pianist Burton Greene


Sign in to view read count
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.

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...


Jazz Near New York City
Events Guide | Venue Guide | Get App | More...

Shop for Music

Start your music shopping from All About Jazz and you'll support us in the process. Learn how.

Related Articles