Pianist Burton Greene
AAJ: I guess that could’ve been enlightening in a different way...
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.