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Burton Greene, Pioneering Free Jazz Pianist, Dies at 84

Peter Gannushkin

Burton Greene, who forged a language for free improvisation on piano in the 1960s, later bringing an avant-garde sensibility to klezmer music, died on Monday. He was 84.

ESP-Disk, which released his groundbreaking 1966 debut, Burton Greene Quartet, announced his death on social media without giving a cause. Greene had been living in Amsterdam, mainly on a houseboat, for more than 50 years — and while he created new music at a steady clip, he made only occasional return visits to the United States.

A creative ecstatic with a proud resistance to any reflexive gesture, Greene was a key figure in the early articulation of free jazz, with collaborators including Archie Shepp and Marion Brown. With bassist Alan Silva, Greene created the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble — a project whose mission was perfectly stated in the name — in the early '60s. “It was risky,” Greene recalled in a 2003 interview with Dan Warburton. “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.”

The countercultural wind was blowing in the right direction, and Greene found himself navigating a few overlapping scenes. In 1964 he joined the Jazz Composers Guild, founded by trumpeter Bill Dixon. The organization’s membership included Greene’s fellow piano firebrands 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 apparent on Burton Greene Quartet, which featured Marion Brown on alto saxophone, Henry Grimes on bass, and either Dave Grant or Tom Price on drums. The opening track, “Cluster Quartet,” opens with a loose-swinging premise but quickly opens up to abstract expressionism, with Greene leading the charge. By two minutes in, he is reaching into the piano to scrape and strum the strings — an extended technique he referred to as “piano harp,” and one 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 didn’t hesitate to plant a flag. “I was the first one in free jazz to play inside the piano,” he told Warburton. “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.”

For a celebrated iteration of Greene’s “piano harp” technique, look to another ESP-Disk release: a 1966 album by Patty Waters, simply titled Sings. On a version of the folk ballad “Black is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” obviously inspired by Nina Simone, Waters enacts a haunted deconstruction — crucially abetted by Greene, whose playing stirs with careful precision even as it communicates a form of artlessness.

“The New Thing,” as it was branded at the time, came with a heightened race consciousness, and as a white musician, Greene drew the fire of at least one major detractor. Amiri Baraka (then still writing as LeRoi Jones) wrote an essay titled “The Burton Greene Affair,” and included it in his landmark book Black Music.

Setting the scene — a performance in Newark, N.J. with Pharoah Sanders and Marion Brown — Baraka disparages Greene as “a white, super-hip (MoDErN) pianist” on the verge of critical overvaluation by the jazz establishment. In the face of Brown and Sanders’ spirit music, argues Baraka, Greene deployed histrionics, “pushed by forces he could not use or properly assimilate.”

As a willful provocation that, like a case before the Supreme Court, invites expansive interpretation — reductively, that Black music can only be played authentically by Black musicians — “The Burton Greene Affair” has had a long and disputatious legacy. The eminent cultural theorist Fred Moten laid the essay on the examining table with his extended scholarly work In the Break: The Aesthetics Of The Black Radical Tradition, published in 2003. (“‘The Burton Greene Affair’ bears a dialectical, dialectal stammer,” Moten suggests. “It has a divided articulacy that recalibrates the rhythmic marking of racial difference.”)

Greene endured the criticism, though it must have played some role in his decision to decamp to Europe. His lone album on a major label — Presenting 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 in 1968. That same year saw the publication of Black Music. By the end of ’69, Greene had become an expatriate; Presenting Burton Greene was buried by the label and remains out of print. (According to Greene, it was the first appearance by a Moog synthesizer on a jazz album. He'd met its inventor, Robert Moog, in '63.)

Burton Greene was born in Chicago on June 14, 1937. He studied classical music with an Austrian piano teacher, Isadore Buchalter, at the Fine Arts Academy; he later connected with pianist-arranger Dick Marx, learning jazz harmony and theory.

As a teenager Greene was enamored of bebop, doing his best to emulate Bud Powell. As he began to circulate on the Chicago scene, he realized that was a dead end. “The lesson, especially from black musicians in Chicago, was ‘Be yourself — don’t copy nobody,’” he recalled in 2017, in an interview withNashville Scene. “They were really irate. They didn’t care how many notes you played or how correct you were in the form or whatever. They really wanted you to be personal.”

That compulsion, ironically enough, 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 didn’t see release in any form until Cadence issued it on CD in the late ‘90s.

Greene released some 100 albums, many of them largely unheralded. But he cultivated a following with Klez-Edge, otherwise known as Klezmokum — a project that fused Jewish klezmer with the liberties of free jazz. He liked to point out that his work in this area stood alongside more famous efforts by Frank London (Klezmatics) and John Zorn (Masada). In 2008, Klez-Edge released an album on Zorn’s Tzadik label: Ancestors, Mindreles, Nagila Monsters, featuring a regular collaborator, clarinetist Perry Robinson.

A disciple of Indian religious teacher Sri Swami Satchidananda for over 40 years, Greene brought spirituality into his practice, adopting the name Narada Burton Greene.

The Burton Greene Quartet at Atlas in Newburgh, NY, on Oct. 28, 2017: Tani Tabbal on drums, Adam Lane on bass, Joe Giardullo on soprano saxophone and Greene on piano.
Susanna Ronner
The Burton Greene Quartet at Atlas in Newburgh, NY, on Oct. 28, 2017: Tani Tabbal on drums, Adam Lane on bass, Joe Giardullo on soprano saxophone and Greene on piano.

In recent years, Greene worked extensively with German-born singer Silke Röllig, among others. And he made several productive returns to his country of origin, including a 2017 tour that stopped in Newburgh, NY (for an Elysium Furnace Works concert at Atlas) and in Cambridge, Mass. (at the Lily Pad). The latter of these was a trio performance with Damon Smith on bass and Ra Kalam Bob Moses on drums, and it yielded an album, Life’s Intense Mystery, released two years later on Astral Spirits.

A separate tour in 2019 included a performance with Patty Waters, bassist Adam Lane and drummer Igal Foni, on 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 also kept productive over the last year, in a cloistered way. “During the relative isolation caused by the corona I have been fortunate to record many new works with a fine Yamaha grand piano on my houseboat in Amsterdam,” reads a note on his website.

The most recent of those is an album titled For Burty — 10 Etudes, featuring solo piano on all but three tracks, which are duos with flutist Tilo Baumheier. A separate concert DVD, Live at the Center for New Music, is scheduled for released in October.

Nate Chinen