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Burton Greene 1937–2021

The avant-garde and sometimes controversial piano innovator was 84

Burton Greene 2003
Burton Greene at the Vision Festival in 2003 (photo: Alan Nahigian)

Burton Greene, an innovative and experimental pianist who helped to reconceive his instrument in the era of the avant-garde, died June 28 at his home in Amsterdam. He was two weeks past his 84th birthday.

His death was announced on social media by ESP-Disk’, the record label that issued most of Greene’s earliest recordings. Cause of death was not disclosed.

Greene’s conception of the piano included its use as a “piano-harp,” for which he would reach inside the instrument’s chamber to play the strings with his hands—a carryover from composer Henry Cowell, but a first in jazz. Taking further inspiration from John Cage, he also “prepared” the piano’s innards with golf balls and other found objects, extending its sonic palette.

The piano-harp accompaniment that Greene provided for singer Patty Waters on 1966’s “Black Is the Color of My True Love’s Hair” remains singular, and it proved influential in the burgeoning realm of psychedelic rock. (Greene himself took a page out of the 1960s counterculture, devoting himself to the teachings of Hindu and yoga spiritualist Swami Satchidananda and sometimes using the name Narada Burton Greene.) 

However, Greene also had a signature style on the piano’s keys, chordally oriented with a heavy touch, but without the stark percussive tack of Cecil Taylor (one of Greene’s admitted influences). That style could, in a slower context, be attenuated into a delicate, lyrical sound mindful of Erik Satie. His approach was a determinedly spontaneous one, unbeholden to any orthodoxy. “[I]t’s good to learn the rules,” Greene told Paris Transatlantic magazine in 2003, “because once you know them it’s fun to break them!”

Greene was probably best known as the subject of an incendiary 1966 column by poet and critic Amiri Baraka. In “The Burton Greene Affair,” Baraka portrayed him as a sort of poster child for white jazz musicians who receive critical acclaim despite their inauthenticity. Greene, Baraka suggested, was too white to play properly, “pushed by forces he could not use or properly assimilate.” This criticism added to an increasing disaffection for Greene, culminating in his move to Europe in 1969. He lived out the rest of his life there, experimenting with European classical, Eastern, and klezmer idioms as well as jazz.

Burton G. Greene was born June 14, 1937 in Chicago, Illinois to Harry M. Greene, an eyeglasses wholesaler (who had shortened his family name of Greenburg to avoid anti-Semitism), and Yvette Bolner Greene, a music teacher. His mother kept a baby grand piano in their small house in the Avondale neighborhood on the north side of Chicago, and at about five years old Burton started picking out the boogie-woogie tunes he’d heard on the radio. His mother enrolled him in classical piano lessons, but he fared badly in them because he insisted on trying to improvise over the classical pieces.

Greene studied at the University of Illinois at Chicago, but left after two years to become a full-time musician (doing odd jobs on the side). He worked heavily on the city’s South Side bebop scene, collaborating frequently with Ira Sullivan and taking lessons with pianist Dick Marx. In 1960 he moved to San Francisco—where he first heard the pioneering sounds of Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Cecil Taylor in radio broadcasts from New York. He relocated to New York himself in 1962.

Shortly after arriving, Greene met bassist Alan Silva, with whom he formed the Free Form Improvisation Ensemble. (They recorded one album in 1964, which was finally released on the Cadence label in 1998.) He also joined the short-lived Jazz Composers Guild, and began working with Archie Shepp, Albert Ayler, Marion Brown, and Rashied Ali, as well as Waters. His own first album, Burton Greene Quartet, came out on ESP-Disk’ in 1966; a second, live album followed in 1967.

Baraka’s 1966 column was just one in a series of discouragements. (Greene had intended to write a rebuttal, but his friends encouraged him to let his music do the talking. He later recounted a pleasant day spent with Baraka in Amsterdam.) He was also struggling to make money, having bad encounters with drug addicts, and was embittered by the lack of collective spirit that had destroyed the Jazz Composers Guild. In the summer of 1969 he decamped for Paris, and in the following year settled in Amsterdam.

Greene found Europe to be both more accepting and a more lucrative market for his own music. He toured the continent frequently, while still returning regularly to New York to work. He also started experimenting with new ideas, including European classical music, Indian and Turkish music, and electronics (Presenting Burton Greene, his lone album for Columbia Records, produced by John Hammond and released in 1968, might have been the first to incorporate Moog synthesizer into jazz). In the 1990s, he began fusing avant-garde jazz with klezmer in a band he called Klezmokum.

In recent years, Greene had been working in various contexts with vocalist Silke Röllig and drummer Roberto Haliffi. He performed and toured again with Patty Waters during 2018 and 2019. In 2020, he stated that he had spent quarantine recording solo material on the grand piano he kept in his Amsterdam houseboat; none of these recordings have thus far been heard.

Greene is survived by a brother, Dr. Ronald L. Greene of Oakland, California, and several nieces and nephews. A funeral will be held July 2 in Amsterdam.

Read a 2010 JazzTimes feature on Burton Greene.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.