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Pianist Burton Greene

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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 €50 ticket. Zero tolerance; twenty years ago I could drive into Central Station, which was a totally non-driveable zone, to drop off a friend who was trying to make an airplane. The cop was looking at me, and I said ‘the guy’s got to catch a plane. I’m sorry.’ And the cop said ‘OK, don’t do it again,’ and just pulled away. That’s gone; it’s all about money, and they’ve discovered how to get wealthy on all these tickets and everything.

AAJ: Obviously, with the regime change, creative things are drying up too.

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