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Pianist Burton Greene

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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.

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