"I got started in Nashville and knew a lot of the country musicians. I got my first record contract from Chet Atkins who saw me playing in a local club in Nashville and who decided to talk to RCA and get them to offer me a long-term contract," says this renowned musician born in a small Indiana town, less than 300 miles from the country music capital of the world.
The musician speaking isn't Crystal Gayle, the popular country singer who was raised in an Indiana small town, nor is it John Mellencamp, one of Indiana's favored songs who sang famously about "being born in a small town."
The musician, speaking earlier this year from his Massachusetts home, is Gary Burton, one of the giant names in jazz music and education for decades and winner this past February of his sixth Grammy award for his album of duets with Chick Corea
Burton, now 66, has led outstanding bands, played with a myriad of jazz greats, and churned out acclaimed albums over a career that started in the late 1950s when he was in his mid-teens. He's also been a major figure in jazz education, teaching at Berklee College of Music, eventually becoming its deal of curriculum and later advancing to become its chief operating officer, in the process touching the lives of hundreds of aspiring musicians. He has discovered some major talent and nurtured young musicians who have gone on to major success.
Burton, himself, started out on his instrumentthe vibraphonewith very little help. He is essentially self-taught. But he went on to get an education in musican academic pursuit that could just as easily led him into medicine or chemical engineeringand then forged a celebrated and successful career. He's still forging ahead.
That album done in Nashville, Tennessee Firebird (1966), began an eight-year association with RCA Records. His discography has been steady even since, and he's added to it this year with the superb Quartet Live, recorded during two days at Yoshi's nightclub in Oakland. It examines music from Burton's past, performed with other monster musicians: Pat Metheny
"I feel like I've come full circle," says Burton, who has stepped away from his distinguished career at Berklee. "I spent the first decade of my professional career, between age 20 and 30, just as a bandleader and performer. Now I'm back just performing. It feels good. I like having the time off between projects to sit around and muse and take stock of things. Relax and not feel like I constantly have all these responsibilities. I feel like it's been good."
A good ride it has been for Burton, who was trying to take in jazz as a youngster, listening to albums but getting more influence from pianist Bill Evans than from any vibes player. As he got older, he would travel to a bigger city, Evansville, Indiana, to play gigs. Boots Randolph, well-known in popular and county music, who had the hit record "Yakety Sax," lived near Evansville and gigged there at times.
"He would go down to Nashville once a month, or so, and do record dates, backing up Elvis Presley and different country records where they wanted some saxophone in the background, and making his own records as well," recalls Burton. "He happened to mention me to one of the Nashville musicians, Hank Garland
. Hank decided he wanted to make a jazz record and his record company had given him the green light. He was looking around for musicians to play with and was disappointed there were no vibraphone players around because he liked the sound of guitar and vibes together.
"Boots said, 'There's a kid in Indiana. You might want to hear him.' A few weeks later, we piled the vibes into Boots' car, and old Cadillac, and drove down about three hours in the car to Nashville. I set up the instrument before some country record date was supposed to happen. Some of the musicians had come in early to do this and we jammed a couple of tunes. Hank seemed to like it and asked what my plans were. I said I was going to finish high school in another month, and then I was going to Boston [Berklee] to go to school in the fall. He proposed that I come down to Nashville for the summer and we would work at a local club on weekends and we'd make this record he wanted to make [Jazz Winds from a New Direction (Columbia, 1961)]. I was thrilled. I said absolutely. I packed up, drove to Nashville in my Volkswagen, found an apartment for the summer. We started working weekends and that led to a lot of things."