Burton Greene, who forged a language for free improvisation on the piano in the 1960s and later brought in an avant-garde sensitivity for klezmer music, died on Monday. He was 84.
ESP-Disk, which released its groundbreaking debut, The Burton Greene Quartet, in 1966, announced his death on social media for no reason. Greene lived in Amsterdam for more than 50 years, mostly on a houseboat – and while he was creating new music at a constant pace, he only made occasional trips to the United States.
A creative ecstasy with proud resistance to any reflexive gesture, Greene was a key figure in the early articulation of free jazz, with collaborators like Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. Together with bassist Alan Silva, Greene founded the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble in the early 1960s – a project whose mission was perfectly expressed in the name. “It was risky,” Greene recalled in a 2003 interview with Dan Warburton. “We called it a group of buttons – if we hit it it was dynamite, if we didn’t it was buttons. We had to be in the right mood for that. “
The countercultural wind was blowing in the right direction, and Greene found himself navigating some intersecting scenes. In 1964 he joined the Jazz Composers Guild, founded by trumpeter Bill Dixon. Members of the organization included Greene’s colleagues Cecil Taylor and Paul Bley, along with Shepp, trombonist Roswell Rudd, and composer bandleader keyboardists Sun Ra and Carla Bley.
Greene’s energetic attack and omnidirectional flow are fully visible in the Burton Greene Quartet, which included Marion Brown on alto sax, Henry Grimes on bass, and either Dave Grant or Tom Price on drums. The opening track “Cluster Quartet” begins with a loosely swinging premise, but quickly opens up to abstract expressionism, with Greene taking the lead. After two minutes, he reaches into the piano to scratch and strike the strings – an advanced technique that he referred to as the “piano harp” and which he pioneered in the idiom.
Greene acknowledged that Henry Cowell and John Cage had already set a precedent for piano preparation and manual interaction with the strings. But he did not hesitate to raise a flag. “I was the first in free jazz to play the piano,” he told Warburton. “It was all random, I wanted to keep it spontaneous. I put golf balls in there, I scraped the strings off with the tuning hammer. I also had a garbage can cover that I found in an alley behind a deli on Houston Street. “
A celebrated rerun of Greene’s “piano harp” technique can be found in another ESP disc release: a 1966 Patty Waters album, simply called Sings. On a version of the folk ballad “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair”, which was obviously inspired by Nina Simone, Waters performs a ghostly deconstruction – decisively supported by Greene, whose play moves with careful precision and at the same time a form of simplicity conveyed.
“The New Thing,” as it was then called, came with heightened racial awareness, and as a white musician, Greene drew fire from at least one major critic. Amiri Baraka (then writing as LeRoi Jones) wrote an essay entitled “The Burton Greene Affair” and included it in his seminal book Black Music.
Staging – a performance in Newark, NJ with Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown – Baraka denigrates Greene as “a white, super-hip (MoDErN) pianist” on the verge of critical overvaluation by the jazz establishment. Given the ghost music of Brown and Sanders, Baraka argues, Greene used theatrical instruments “pushed by forces he could not use or properly assimilate”.
As a deliberate provocation that, like a case before the Supreme Court, invites far-reaching interpretation – reductive that black music can only be played authentically by black musicians – “The Burton Greene Affair” has a long and controversial legacy. The eminent cultural theorist Fred Moten put the essay on the examination table with his expanded scientific work In the Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition (“The Burton Greene Affair ‘bears a dialectical, dialectal stutterer”). Moten suggests, “It has a split articulation that recalibrates the rhythmic marking of racial differences.”
Greene endured the criticism, although it must have played a role in his decision to go to Europe. His only major label album – featuring Burton Greene, with Byard Lancaster on alto saxophone and trumpet, Steve Tintweiss on bass, and Shelly Rusten on drums – was produced by John Hammond for Columbia Records and released by Black Music in 1968. By the end of ’69, Greene had become an expatriate; Burton Greene presented was buried by the label and remains out of print. (According to Greene, it was the first appearance of a Moog synthesizer on a jazz album. He had met its inventor, Robert Moog, in 1963.)
Burton Greene was born in Chicago on June 14, 1937. He studied classical music with the Austrian piano teacher Isadore Buchalter at the Fine Arts Academy; He later connected with pianist and arranger Dick Marx and learned jazz harmony and theory.
As a teenager, Greene loved bebop and did his best to emulate Bud Powell. As he began to circulate on the Chicago scene, he realized it was a dead end. “The lesson, especially from black musicians in Chicago, was ‘Be yourself – don’t copy anyone,'” he recalled in a 2017 interview with Nashville Scene. “You were really angry. They didn’t care how many notes you played or how correct you were in shape or whatever. They really wanted you to be personal. “
Ironically, this compulsion drove Greene from Chicago to New York City, where he met Silva within his first six months. The only publicly available recording of their Free Form Improvisation Ensemble was made in 1964, largely at a Jazz Composers Guide concert at Judson Hall; it was not released in any form until Cadence released it on CD in the late 1990s.
Greene released about 100 albums, many of which were largely unannounced. But he cultivated a following with klez-edge, also known as klezmokum – a project that combined Jewish klezmer with the freedoms of free jazz. He liked to point out that his work in this area stood alongside the more famous works of Frank London (Klezmatics) and John Zorn (Masada). In 2008 Klez-Edge released an album on Zorn’s Tzadik label: Ancestors, Mindreles, Nagila Monsters, with a regular collaborator, clarinetist Perry Robinson.
Greene, a student of Indian religion teacher Sri Swami Satchidananda for over 40 years, brought spirituality to his practice and took the name Narada Burton Greene.
The Burton Greene Quartet at Atlas in Newburgh, NY on October 28, 2017: Tani Tabbal on drums, Adam Lane on bass, Joe Giardullo on soprano saxophone and Greene on piano.
In recent years, Greene has worked intensively with the German-born singer Silke Röllig, among others. And he made several productive returns to his country of origin, including a 2017 tour that took place in Newburgh, NY (for an Elysium Furnace Works concert at Atlas) and in Cambridge, Mass. (in the Lily Pad) stopped. The latter was a trio with Damon Smith on bass and Ra Kalam Bob Moses on drums, and the result was an album, Life’s Intense Mystery, which was released on Astral Spirits two years later.
A separate tour in 2019 included appearances with Patty Waters, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Igal Foni at the October Revolution Festival in Philadelphia. The deep bond between Greene and Waters was evident throughout the performance, even (or especially) when everything about the performance seemed to be up for negotiation.
Greene remained productive in a monastic fashion over the past year as well. “During the relative isolation by the corona, I was lucky enough to record a lot of new works on my houseboat in Amsterdam with a fine Yamaha grand piano,” it says on his website.
The most recent of these is an album entitled For Burty – 10 Etudes, with solo piano on all but three tracks, which are duos with flautist Tilo Baumheier. A separate concert DVD, Live at the Center for New Music, is expected to be released in October.