Interview by Dan Warburton
Amsterdam, December 22nd 2003
Burton Greene at home on his houseboat. ( Photo Arjen Veldt)
In your book "Memoirs of a Pesty Mystic" you mention your early experiences playing bebop in Chicago. What did that teach you?
That it's good
to learn the rules because once you know them it's fun to break them!
I came out of a very strong bebop school in Chicago; I must have known
about three hundred bebop standards before I played a note of free jazz.
I was into Horace Silver and Bud Powell. Lennie Tristano, too. I love
his left hand stuff; I'm left-handed myself. The black cats in Chicago
would get on me for copying those guys. In Chicago they didn't care if
you fucked up the form, they cared about how personal you were. What kept
the music alive was personality; if you did a Blindfold test for Downbeat
you knew immediately who was playing. No question that Sonny Rollins sounded
different from Dexter Gordon. What's killing jazz today is we have a whole
generation of copycats. It started before Wynton Marsalis too. We don't
have Dizzy Gillespie but we got a lot of Digitalespie. Perfect quadrophonic
hi-tech sound, who cares?
A few years back I was in the BIMhuis listening to a concert of John Zorn doing his Ornette Coleman covers, and Cecil Taylor showed up. After a while Cecil turns to me and says, "Burton, why are all these young cats trying to recreate the museum?" That's been a kind of calling card for me since, why are these cats trying to recreate the museum. I think Zorn playing Zorn is much better. Put your stamp on it and don't try to copy anyone else. Those Chicago guys would nail you, man: I came off the stand one time after a jam session, I was strutting like a peacock, wow, I nailed it, and a cat came up to me and said: "What is that shit you playing, Jack? You from the North side, right? I suggest you go home and practice. I don't wanna see yo ass in here unless you play who you are." With love, right? No hatred - there was no black white war going on, this cat was putting me straight. He said "Horace is my buddy. He live around the corner from me. Anytime I wanna go hear the man, I go hear the man. Not only that, he makes fine cornbread and black-eyed peas and chitlins. Who are you kid? I wanna hear who you are!" I was reluctant to go back, I realised I hadn't found my voice. I realised I was never going to be more than a second-rate Bud Powell, I had to find another way.
Were you influenced by Cecil's playing too?
You couldn't help but use Cecil's bag, because he'd got there first, he'd created a language, but maybe in a sense Don Pullen and I preceded Cecil, because he was using compositional fragments, and when I started in 1962 with Alan Silva and the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble we were totally free. I don't think Cecil was at the beginning.
Burton Greene and Alan Silva, early 1970s (Photo AC Wieringa)
How did you hook up with Silva in the first place?
It was toward the end of 1962, and I was uptown staying with some irate ex-Marine, and then I got another pad further downtown on 72nd Street. This cute guy rented to me and it was all right until he started making advances on me, so I was looking how to get out of there and I was reading the paper one day and I saw an ad asking for someone to rent a room "preferably with artistic interests", or some such typical Alan text. Within a week I'd moved in. 419 Cumberland, off Atlantic avenue in Brooklyn. I used to call the place the Leaning Tower of Brooklyn. That building was condemned! The glass was gone from the window of my room. I had a piece of wood there instead, and when that fell out I had to stuff newspaper in there to keep from freezing to death. But there was a piano. Alan was there with two other bass players and two drummers. We rehearsed in a nearby church, and before we started we looked at each other and said "I guess we don't need a script, do we?"
You had already started exploring free playing before you moved to New York, though.
Yes, in California with flutist Jon Winter. He eventually came to Brooklyn too. I also invited alto saxophonist Gary Friedman and it eventually became a quintet, with Clarence Walker on drums. The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. Nobody was the leader. It was a communal band. We didn't write a note of music for two and a half years - it was just about spontaneous combustion. Gunther Schuller never understood that - he kept asking: "Where's the conductor? Who's the director?" I said "you're from New England, right? You ever read Emerson? The oversoul, that's who's running it, the oversoul!" (laughs) It was risky: we called it a grope group - when we hit it was dynamite, when we didn't it was groping. We had to be really in the right mood for it to happen.
You were the first jazz pianist to play inside the piano, weren't you?
Well, as Sun Ra said, "give credit where credit's due, and the same thing comes back to you": John Cage wrote his prepared piano pieces in the 1940s, and before him there was Henry Cowell, "The Aeolian Harp" and "The Banshee". I was the first one in free jazz to play inside the piano. It was all random, I wanted to keep it spontaneous. I would put golf balls in there, I used to scrape the strings with the tuning hammer. I also had a garbage can cover that I found in an alley behind a delicatessen in Houston Street. I did a duo concert with poet Vincent Gaeta as part of a contemporary music series organized in Town Hall by violinist Max Pollikoff. Vincent was reading "The Apocalypse" with that great stentorian voice - (imitates) "and the sand slides to the feet of kings" and bang! I dropped the garbage can cover in the New York Town Hall Steinway! (laughs) I have a tape of that if anyone's interested. Those were great days.
How was the FFIE's music received at the time?
we got a fantastic review in the Village Voice at the time, just before
we joined the Jazz Composers Guild. It was a gig typical FFIE gig, five
people including the waitress in a coffee shop up in Harlem, and Leighton
Kerner, who was the contemporary classical reviewer for the Voice got
intrigued and went all the way up there. He wrote a long review about
The Jazz Composers Guild, 1964 (back row: L to R: Bill Dixon, Paul Bley, Michael Mantler, Archie Shepp; middle row L to R: Jon Winter, Sun Ra, Carla Bley, Cecil Taylor; front row L to R: Burton Greene, Roswell Rudd, John Tchicai)
I knew it wouldn't last, though. We did it for two and a half years. Gary was into heavy composing. He was studying with Vladimir Ussachevsky, and so it was "Why don't we use this little theme..?" and that was the beginning of the end, in a way. Alan was ready to go with Cecil, and his stuff was composed too. When we started working with compositions we weren't a free form improvisation ensemble anymore. For some reason someone at Cadence screwed up: Gary Friedman's piece "Eat eat" is the third track on the FFIE album, not the first. The first track wasn't a composition. It was an improvisation.
That Cadence album [The Free Form Improvisation Ensemble, Cadence CJR 1094] was a revelation. Where did those recordings come from?
We did some night time recordings in a studio that's gone now. I was able to copy one of them just after we did it - that long first track, in fact - and had it in my loft for a long time. I sent it to [Cadence's] Bob Rusch, who called me in Amsterdam and said "Great stuff Burton, sounds like the stuff people are doing now.. did you guys do something recently and put it in an old box?" I said "Thanks for the compliment!" There's still forty hours of FFIE stuff in cans somewhere. A lot of my tapes have disappeared. Maybe they got recorded over. I we played a gig with Albert Ayler and Rashied Ali, and a tape of that's still floating around. I recorded more than 45 minutes of music.
How did you hook up with ESP's Bernard Stollman?
Bernard was a New York lawyer so everybody thought he was smart, but he was a foolish idealist like the rest of us. The only reason that label survived at all was because of his parents' money. They were in the clothing business or something. Anyway, we all jumped on ESP. The first thing I did for them was with Patty Waters, in 1965. I pushed her over the edge, man. I dropped the garbage can cover on the piano on that date! (laughs) I think Patty's really talented, but she was too reticent for her own good. She was waiting for Bernard to take care of her business and well, you know the story with Bernard.. Patty ended up working as a cashier in a movie theatre or something in California. She had a child with Clifford Jarvis, and he was always on the road, and didn't have time for the daddy stuff. We got back together with Patty recently at the Visions Festival in New York with Mark Dresser, and then played David Keenan's festival Le Weekend in Scotland with [Dutch bassist] Tjitze Vogel. That was very nice.
What about your own ESP debut, Burton Greene Quartet [ESP 1024]?
Originally I proposed a quartet with Marion Brown and Henry Grimes and Rashied Ali, but Rashied couldn't commit himself to the recording because he was going with Trane, so Dave Grant and Tom Price did two tracks each on the album, and Frank Smith guested on tenor on "Taking it Out of the Ground". Who knows where Dave is now? I know Frank's out in California. The only thing that worked against Frank was that he looked like an Irish cop (laughs). When he walked into Slugs the cats used to say "Put your shit away, the Man's here!" Yeah, Rashied was already with Trane.. Trane was a train, man. He had an immense profile, I mean he wasn't a big guy but you always pictured him about seven feet tall. Modest, unassuming cat, diligent, worked all the time on his shit. Everybody knew that whatever he would do he would master it. Even though he came on the free scene later he came on as a master.
Now that Henry Grimes is back on the scene, do you have any plans to play together?
I'm waiting for the right moment to hook up with Henry again. We had a big hug at the Vision Festival last year. It's great to see him back. Best pizzicato player in history. He's so busy now! He's coming here in March. I'd love to get a trio together with Rashied and Henry.
I suppose you've seen as little payment from those ESP albums as the other artists on the label..
Nobody's seen nothing. As far as material compensation goes, forget it. And now a whole bunch of other hustlers and gangsters are ripping us off, ZYX, Get Back, Base and now Abraxas. They say "you want money, go see Bernard.." But Bernard put the company in his ex-wife's name. All the flak goes that way, and Bernard keeps the masters and keeps reissuing them, like Beethoven going to three different publishers with the "one and only" copy of the Third Symphony (laughs). Actually, it's not funny anymore. I think that after forty years it's time we got compensated. Same with BYG Actuel. I got $100 for that Actuel album and $64 from ESP. I've got broadband internet now and I browse and see 14 pages of listings of my ESP shit reissued from here to Timbuktu and nobody's getting a dime. I've heard Bernard's hard luck story too often, how he claims he got ripped off by Base or ZYX. He's got to wake up sometime, and if people are up for it I'm ready to instigate a class action lawsuit. I already wrote to most of the group leaders but I've had very few replies. Apathy or indifference. And maybe if it went to a class action suit there'd no money in the coffers anyway. You know what lawyers charge..
Burton Greene, 1969 (Photo Pieter Boersma)
At least you got paid correctly for the Columbia album. [Presenting Burton Greene (CBS S63719, 1968)] How did that come about?
Free jazz had been around for three or four years, and everyone was pressuring John Hammond to release some. I think he wanted to be hip. He was supposed to do one with me and one with Sunny Murray. I did mine; the story of Sunny's is in my book.. I'm not going into that one now! (laughs)
It's about time Presenting Burton Greene was reissued!
Yes, it's enjoyed much more creative life in the cut-out bins than it ever did on the shelves! You know, that was the first time a Moog was used on a jazz record. I first met Robert Moog in 1963 at an electronics show in New York where he was running around saying "does anybody want to try my instrument?" I went up and introduced myself: "I'm a piano player, I can use that.." He said, "I can't offer you any money, but my wife is a great cook and if you feel like coming up to Ithaca, you're welcome to stay." Well, man, I hadn't eaten in a month so I said, "Erm, yeah I think I have a little free time at the moment..!" (laughs) and I went up to Ithaca and had a ball. And after that I was the synthesizer expert..! I tried to work a deal with Norman Seaman to do a solo Moog concert - that was even announced on my first quartet record - but he was losing money and it didn't happen. Anyway, John Hammond at Columbia had heard about that. "You're the cat who plays the synthesizer. Burton, you've got to add the synthesizer to that record." The record was already done, but he said, "we'll pay you to work on the synthesizer." The magic word. Five hours at $100 an hour. Normally I don't drink, but I remember that day when I went to the studio to get that extra $500 out of Hammond, I drank a quarter bottle of Scotch. I rolled in the studio like Napoleon (laughs). There were wall-to-wall Moogs in the studio and five assistant Walter Sears engineers each getting $80 an hour to help me create. They said: "What will it be sir?" I said, "I'd like a Sine Generator 17 to start with, please. 17B." "OK, sir, yes.." (imitates the noises of a Moog) I said, "Hmm it's a little thin.." They said "what about a BX.." I didn't know sine from sawtooth! Hammond was like, "that's my boy!" We ended up with all this weird shit and had to find a place to put it. I said to [drummer] Shelly [Rusten]: "There's a little part of your solo there that we can.. enhance." He said "don't you put that shit on top of my solo, man!" (laughs)
You didn't pursue your work with synthesizers after that until the 1980s.
No. Back in 1968 there was no way for me to continue working with electronics seriously. The Moog installations were still enormous and cost megabucks (that one at Columbia cost something like $300,000!) and they needed all kinds of patching in. Not only that but it was in mono, not stereo! By the late 1980s digital synthesizers had appeared, and for me they had a much greater sound potential. I got the first Roland digital synth (D50) and a U110 module to augment it with more authentic piano sounds. By the early 90s I'd written something like 400 programs for that combination, many of which I'm still using. With many programs I'd make four detunings on each key, and with the aftertouch function even more sounds would come out, so if you hold down, say, an 8 note chord in both hands you get between 32 and 64 voices coming at you! Not only that but if I put it in the chase mode, the voices pile up at random in canon, stretto or fugal combinations.. dense, aleatoric stuff! Maybe that's why Alan [Silva] prefers to work much more with a synth these days than with the bass. For me, it's an extension of my earlier experiments inside the piano, but more interesting and complex. [cf. Narada Burton Greene Solo Orchestra in Real Time (Nimbus NS5504C, 1990), and the recent Burton Greene Meets Sacred Baboons available directly from greene email@example.com, or from firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Burton Greene, Eindhoven 1970 (Photo Pieter Boersma)
There's a great bit in your book where you describe a concert by your band at Slugs in 1968. By then free jazz was increasingly associated with Black Power. Was that a problem for you?
No, I never got the racism from the innovators. Ornette Coleman, Albert Ayler, Giuseppi Logan, Cecil and Sunny Murray never laid that vibe on me. Neither did Archie [Shepp] who said in Downbeat I was one of the top piano players on the scene. It was Leroi Jones who divorced his white Jewish wife and left her with the kids, put on his dashiki and shades and moved to the Newark ghetto. Leroi apparently had a nice middle class background and was the black man in the white university. Then suddenly everything white was creepy, and Leroi had his shades on so everything was black.
He attacked you quite openly in his Apple Cores column in Downbeat in 1966.
Yes, "The Burton Greene Affair." The story there was that Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown invited me to play with them in Newark on a fucked-up piano with 25 keys missing (in the middle of the piano too!), and in order to get any sound out of it at all I had to take off the top, front, and bottom and play inside with mallets and scraping sounds on the strings. Leroi wrote to the effect that "Burton Greene doesn't play the piano, he pummels it, he beats it. And he's the hip young white piano player on the scene." Like I was another Bix Beiderbecke or Benny Goodman stealing the shit. I got angry at that, and started writing a rebuttal until I bumped into Byard [Lancaster] and Sunny [Murray] who said: "Fight with your music, man instead."
That's rich coming from Sunny, who tried to burn down their offices once!
Is that right? (laughs) Man, we had the short fuse and the long explosion. You gotta remember that Sunny, Milford [Graves] and Rashied realised that it was all in the vibrations. Sunny had it so fierce he used to tell me "see that wall over there, Burton? I'm working on that wall. One day that motherfucker's going to come down." He meant it! Anyway, what would I have I written to Downbeat anyway? That white people have balls too? I was pissed off and I was tired of these box mentalities. That's one of the reasons why I left America too. All the tension of the lower East Side was starting to tell on my nerves, I got ripped off by junkies three times, and the landlords were jacking up the rents. When rigor mortis sets in you'd better move on, as singer Babs Gonzalez used to say! So a whole bunch of us went over to Paris in 1969.
Burton Greene conducting in Annecy, 1971
What are your recollections of that experience?
Paris was busy
but it didn't have the creative dynamic. I missed the real energy of New
York where every day was like the Fourth of July. I felt the Parisians
were still living off another Golden Age of Impressionism or something;
they didn't have that contemporary thing until we brought it. We played
the Amougies festival, and there was some work but no money. I was in
some 15-franc hotel room and my back was going out all the time, and I
couldn't order a baguette because my "prononciation" was "pas juste".
I wanted to get out of there and go somewhere where people would accept
me as a human being, even though my foreign language skills were terrible.
Then I discovered that flower power was still happening in Holland, and within three days I was here in a houseboat having a sauna with a lot of beautiful girls! They go: "High rent, what's that? That's for the business people." Here you could rent a pad for $50. The first wave of artists who came here got beautiful pads. I hung around and found a cheap hotel, and one day I was in a macrobiotic restaurant with a lawyer I knew, Jan Duvekot, who told me about a little garden house for rent. I jumped on it. $50 a month for many years, until the day some yuppies took over the building and decided to get rid of the crazy free jazz guy in the garden. I got 12000 guilders and I fought them for 2000 more to get out of there, and that was the down payment on the houseboat.
Who did you play with when you got here?
Willem Breuker - and I'm still recording for his label today! He set up a little tour with Han Bennink and seventeen-year-old Arjen Gorter on bass. We had a quartet thing going for a while.
What did you make of the European free improvised scene at the time, Brötzmann in Germany, the ICP here in Holland?
I was never
part of ICP because that was Misha [Mengelberg]'s thing, and he's a pianist
too. I've played with a lot of guys involved with ICP but have never been
directly involved with it. I did finally do a duo concert with Misha in
Belgium though, about ten years ago, which I may have a tape of somewhere.
I did a few crazy things, including a theatre piece with Willem and the
Futura album with Maarten Altena [Célésphere, Futura Ger 17, 1970]:
we had to record that one at 7am in an empty club in Paris because the
engineer had fucked up the recording in the club the night before, which
was much better. I also have a tape somewhere of the things I did with
Han [Bennink] for French radio. That was so heavy they wouldn't broadcast
Yeah, I liked the energy of Brötzmann's stuff but I realised I'd already done that. A lot of what I heard in Europe was a kind of replay for me. I'd already played with a lot of masters. We played atomic energy music twenty-four hours a day man, and we exploded like the Fourth of July - a lot of people couldn't put the pieces back. Archie lost his chops: for a long time, he couldn't bite the reed; Marion Brown ended up in a nursing home, a lot of people died on the street, or disappeared like Henry [Grimes], Giuseppi [Logan]. There was a heavy mortality rate in that music. I didn't need to scramble myself again. I wanted something else.
I ended up having what I call my "Turtle Nervous Breakdown". It came on slowly! My girlfriend at the time, Joke, had driven me to a solo gig in Nijmegen. She opened the car door for me and I fell out on the ground. I couldn't move. She helped me into the club and I fell off the piano bench. Then she took me home and shoved me up the ladder to my bed platform in my little garden house where I couldn't move for about ten days. (That must be the only gig I ever missed because of illness!) When I finally got out of bed I sat at the piano and a little voice inside said: "You wanna do your back in again? You wanna do the same thing or something else?" So I started just.. noodling.. playing some Eastern European or Indian raga kind of stuff.. I was searching for something else. A short time later I met Jamaluddin Bhartiya [see photo below], a great Indian sitarist who became my music guru for a long period, he taught me a lot about Indian music. By 73 that's where I was at: I wanted to find a way to balance that shit out, make it a balm instead of a bomb. I needed yoga to do that. I realised Satchidananda was the way to go.
With the East West Trio, Utrecht 1973
You'd already discovered Turkish music by then, too.
I met [Turkish percussionist] Okay Temiz at a jazz festival in Baden Baden in 1971. He was walking around saying: "What are you guys doing playing in three and four time? Why don't you play in seven?" We were all Okay clones back then. He taught all those guys up in Sweden too. (That's also how I got back to Monk - he wrote things in seven bar units, like dropping the last bar out of "Brilliant Corners". "Criss Cross" is strange too.) By the end of the 70s I'd gone full cycle and I could now do a free jazz solo, go far out and then come right back in. The early 1980s records are like that; there's inside and outside stuff. Free for me means being free to play a classical cadenza too.
On your album European Heritage [Circle RK 16, 1978]on Circle, you also recorded music by Bartók.
I was always fascinated by Bartók's music. The first time I heard "Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta", I had to pull my car off the road. In my pad in New York I had a picture of Van Gogh's "Starry Night" and an angel suspended from the ceiling and I used to put that record on and the angel started rocking back and forth. That was all I needed, I'd be out for hours. It was like being on LSD. I've still got that record of it with Rafael Kubelik conducting, scratches and all. Anyway the guy at Circle, Rudolf Kreiss, liked the idea of some older European music in a new form. I'm a slow reader but I got down with "The Romanian Folk Dances of Bela Bartok" which I arranged to include long cadenzas of open improvisational sections based in those wonderful Romanian gypsy folklore scales. I also arranged for the recording and subsequent concerts pieces by 12th and 13th century troubador composers Jaufré Rudel and Raimbaut de Vaquerias. In 1980 I did some music in the play "Nagalm" (Reverberations) by New York theater director Jenn ben Yakov, who's lived in Amsterdam a long time. I also had some acting bits in the play. With the violinist and painter Ies Jacobs we were improvising on the same sort of Bartókian gypsy scales. We were on tour five or six nights a week with that play for three months - it was certainly the longest steady gig I ever had! - and I realised that was the way I had to go. I felt it was time to pay back my ancestors. Guys like Randy Weston put his money where his mouth was and moved to Africa in the 60s. This was my way of dealing with it. In 1993 I went back to Romania, right up to the little village in the north of the country where my grandparents came from. I had also been there earlier for a month in 1975 and was involved with a trumped up car accident, and had to deal with the paranoia that poor Romanians had faced all their lives under Ceausescu. Even though it was a bit scary, I still needed to go back there and trace my roots. I sat in there in the old burial grounds and the synagogue and I could hear their old voices: "Good boy, he came home.."
Burton Greene, 1980 (Photo F. Schellekens)
Your own take on klezmer is more experimental than some of the better-known bands.
We did a beautiful thing for BVHaast in 1998, ReJew-Venation with Klezmokum [at the time Greene, Patricia Beysens (vocals, flugelhorn), Perry Robinson (clarinet), Hans Mekel (clarinet, tarogato), Roberto Haliffi (percussion) and Larry Fishkind (tuba)]. There's all kind of strange stuff in there, things in 22 time, with klezmer and Sephardic music. Yes, what we did was pretty innovative - we were the first group to combine free jazz techniques with this music. All due respect to Klezmatics' Frank London, who was in there pretty early. He's from the younger generation, and he's listened to the ESP records and it's in his craw. Nobody else in the original Klezmatics had anything to do with free music - they've always been folky, and that's their charm. But we took a radical left turn on that whole thing. That's probably why we haven't reached the European Jewish community here with this stuff. They're still back in the War, they want to go back to 1933. An older Jewish person here explained it to me: "You grew up in America, you didn't have the war in your face. You can experiment, but these people's culture was cut off. They need to put the fragments of their lives back together. They want that joyful 'Fiddler On The Roof' thing, even though for you it's kitsch." It's always the same story; you do something new, you might get some credit from your contemporaries but you don't make any money. It's as if it's not politically correct to play this kind of music, as if being Jewish now means we have something to do with Sharon and his politics. Thinking back to what that guy did in Chatila and Sabra in 1982, I dissociated myself from it then and I dissociate myself from it now.
Can't you interest John Zorn with your work for the Tzadik Radical Jewish Culture series?
I gave him a demo of ReJew-Venation, and one of the tracks on that CD is "Nevala" from the Masada Vav album. When they recorded it, they didn't blow on it: even Dave Douglas played the chart. But we stretched on it. Well, John sent me a little postcard, very nice Burton, but it's not really for my label. He's a funny bird. Maybe he felt we were trying to compete. Jason Bivins reviewed Calistrophy [BVHaast 0802] and said we'd shown the whole NY bunch what can be done with jazz and klezmer. Thank you Mr Bivins for saying we deserve a lot more recognition. It's funny, in the past I always had gigs but no bread - now it's the opposite situation, I got a little bread but no gigs! I've never been in this situation before. I've only got a handful of local dates lined up for next year; I can't bring a cat like Perry Robinson over here just for that.
If it's any consolation, things are about as bad in Paris.
People don't go to concerts. It's like that old grafitti I saw in a NY bathroom: EmpTV. Kids grow up and they don't go to hear live music. But like the Beatles said, I get by with some help from my friends. Paul Bley told me that years ago: if you want the gig that bad, go to the guy in person, hang out, get on a first name basis. It's about friendship. Nobody's gonna do this on a business basis, as Mark Dresser pointed out to me.
I take it the situation in the Netherlands today isn't as favourable as it was when you first came.
No. At the end of the 1970s the Workers Party got pushed out, Reaganomics came in and it's been going more and more to the right ever since. There's one difference though which explains why I've been here for so long: the Dutch are smart, they've had capitalism a lot longer than the Americans. They understand that you've got to give a little of the bread if you don't want people screaming down your neck. Give them a little taste. Keep the lid on, or it'll explode. I like that attitude. There's a human rights thing which is strong but there's also that reticent Calvinist Northern European thing, so if you're in the street somebody's going to feed you and put you in a home, but you might not get invited in for tea for twenty years (laughs). Here you have to be a total putz not to get some money. When you reach 65 you get some bread. I also have my BUMA STEMRA pension now.
What do you listen to these days? Do you still enjoy listening to the old stuff?
Sure, for me it's all continuation. If you're into astrology, I'm a Gemini. Braxton's a Gemini, Archie's a Gemini, Sunny Murray's a Gemini. Keep it all going. There are only two kinds of music; it's either quality or bullshit; I don't care if it's by Kurt Cobain or Bach if it's good music. My girlfriend Syl plays Bach's St John Passion a lot these days, and I love it. What I'm really into lately is radio streaming, there's so much stuff out there. That's how I find about things, the Web's my grapevine. I heard Vijay Iyer and a whole bunch of impressive cats that way. I can't go out and buy a bunch of CDs at $15 a pop - there's no place to put them here anyway, as you can see!
Is that a photograph of you and [your guru] Satchidananda?
Yes, that's Swamiji. He's out of the body now, he went out last year at 87, but he's still a big force in my life, maybe even more now than before. I met Satchidananda in 1967. He came at the right moment. "When the student's ready, the teacher appears." Sat is truth, chid is primal substance, the earth. If you can bring down the light into the prism, you get bliss, ananda. I remember once complaining to him that I had no money and no gigs, kvetching as we say, and he stared at me and said: "The candle isn't lit." I said, "what are you talking about?" He replied: "When the candle is lit, they'll come to you. Do you know how much darkness there is down here, and how much people need light?" He embodied ecumenism; his Lotus temple in Virginia is an embodiment of all religions: inside you have altars for all the known religions. He invited Buddhists, rabbis, Catholic priests, agnostics and atheists too - we all have something to share. Truth is one and paths are many; you can climb Everest from five different sides and you still get to the same summit. It was Satchidananda who gave me the name Narada in 1974. Narada wrote devotional Bhakhti sutras, and also played the vina, which he also apparently invented. He was a very spiritual guy, but also a kind of vagabond. He used to stir it all up and get out before the shit hit the fan.
How did you square Satchidananda's teachings with your Jewish origins?
Being Jewish for me was more a cultural background than a religious one. Growing up in a liberal Jewish community in Chicago, you're open to all kinds of universal ideas. I read the Beatitudes when I was 12, while the local Christian and Jewish kids were fighting after basketball games. (The box mentality.. borders are boring. Christ was even Jewish in the first place!) Then I read Kalil Gibran, and books about yoga, and I realised that we're all one, that if I hurt my brother I hurt myself. We're all part of the same organic connection. Our existence is dependent on co-existence; the destruction of any other element is tantamount to our destruction. Until now there's been a cycle of animals surviving by eating other animals - maybe now we can change some of that, move towards a holistic universe which can allow for all elements to survive. But we have to do more than just interface. We have to communicate.
What advice would you give to young artists just starting out?
I'd quote Satchidananda: "If you're serious or dedicated in life you can get what you want, but be careful that's not all you get!" Which means you have to have a creative vision which encompasses a lot more than narrow ego gratification. Satchidananda also told me once: "You are an instrument. Make your whole life the grand music. Tune yourself well."
above: Burton Greene and Satchidananda, early 1970s (Photo KIPPA)
|Interview 2003 by Dan Warburton. Thanks to Pete Gershon for commissioning the interview and Burton Greene for the photos from his personal collection. "Memoirs of a 'Pesty Mystic' Or From the Ashcan to the Ashram and Back Again.." is published by Cadence Jazz Books .For further info on Burton Greene or Klezmokum: www.burton.burtongreene.com and www.klezmokum.burtongreene.com See other interviews with Sunny Murray , Misha Mengelberg and Alan Silva|