Gary Burton: Forging Ahead
Burton spent only two years at Berklee before deciding "the moment felt right to move to New York and see if I could get my career started. I was there only a month or so when Marian McPartland, who I had met through Joe Morello, recommended me to George Shearing, her fellow British pianist friend. I got a call from Shearing's manager saying he'd like to meet me and play with me. We had a little audition and played a few tunes together." Shearing was going on the road later and the year and Burton got the gig, working for a year with the pianist.
"It was a great experience. It was a very polished band with excellent players and it was my first road touring experience. It was a very well-organized operation and a great way for me to get introduced to things. I was still only 19 at that point. Still a little green around the ears. After that came Stan [Getz]. When the year with Shearing finished, George said he was going to take some time off from traveling. I came back to New York wondering what to do next and within two weeks I started playing with Stan. I did that for three years before I then started my own."
Burton knew he was ready to lead a band, but didn't want the music to sound too simi8lar to the situation he had left with Getz. He didn't want comparisons. He preferred to looking in new directions, and there was plenty of new music out there in the 1960s to take into consideration.
"I decided to play it safe at first," he notes. "I booked my first gig as a trio. I hired Bill Evans' rhythm section. Bill was on one of his occasional long times off to get over his heroin problem. Eddie Gomez and Joe Hunt were available. I hired them to play a week in Boston. As the gig got closer, I was kind of keeping my eyes open to see if there was a horn player or a pianist or whomever, who would be a good fit for the lineup. I ended up at a jam session in New York City and there was this guitarist who played an interesting mix of jazz and rock and roll influences. It was Larry Coryell. On the spot, I asked him if he wanted to go to Boston and play this gig. We did. And that began the group.
"Immediately, it gave me that thing I'd been looking for, which was: How do I mix some of these elements outside of jazz into my music. The guitar was the perfect vehicle for that because it was sort of the voice of rock and roll. As soon as we continued working, it was time for Eddie and Joe to go back with Bill. I hired Steve Swallow, who I'd been playing with, with Getz, to come and join the band. Then Roy Haynes as well. That became the band for the first record we made in '67 [Duster (RCA)]."
The guitar became the voice he was looking to add to his musical vision. "It was kind of happenstance. I came across the right kind of guitarist. And it clicked in my mind: Now I'm hearing a sound and direction that fulfills my interest in this sort of thing. That got us going. I went though quite a few guitar players over the years. Some that have had very major careers. John Scofield was in the band for a year. He followed Pat (Metheny) in the band."
Another important thing for Burton was the emergence of The Beatles.
"Up until that point, rock and roll was pretty uninteresting to any kind of trained musician," says Burton. "Elvis Presley and so on. There wasn't much there. But here came the Beatles who were making records with much more sophisticated songs, some of which have become standards now, they're so well-composed. Their records, also, had this wonderful eclectic things. One piece would be with a string quartet. The next would be some kind of Indian raga thing, and the next one was some kind of a shuffle. Then there would be some kind of a blues thing ands so on.
I loved that. Nobody made records like that. You went into a studio and made a record with more or less the same group, same instrumentation and same type of music. Things didn't jump around like that. I was very intrigued by the fact that they would mix all these things together. I was attracted to that. I became a huge Beatles fan, along with being a fan of Bob Dylan and some other rock groups as well. Here was music that was exciting to me and also sufficiently sophisticated that I could appreciate it and enjoy it. I wanted to bring some of that in."
His Nashville connection was still there too. In fact, before leaving Getz he returned to the Tennessee city with Roy Haynes, Swallow and saxophonist Steve Marcus and brought together about a dozen country musicians for a recording, Tennessee Firebird. "We made this jazz-meets-country record," he notes. "Chet [Atkins] helped me put it together. He lined up all the players and helped pick the tunes. I would re-harmonize these country songs and turn them into jazz pieces. We would improvise and the country guys would strum along with us.
"I thought it was a daring project and was very proud of it at the time. No one liked it. It was the least-selling record I ever put out. No one understood it. People ask me about it now all the time, who have stumbled on it and say it's a fascinating thing. In '66, people weren't yet used to genres crossing over like that. I was a little ahead of my time, I guess."
He adds, "The biggest surprise to me was Roy Haynes, the jazz drummer's drummer. One of the legends. He was twice as old as the rest of us. He was in his 40s and we were in our 20s. Yet, he threw himself right into it. Here we are playing these tunes with straight-eighth rhythms and rock-time feels and he didn't bat an eye. He had a ball with it. I always appreciated the fact that Roy was willing to risk a little bit of his dignity to play with us kids and this new music. And there we were. In those days we had the rock-and-roll long hair and clothes and so on."
In fact, he notes, his band also broke barriers in the way they dressed. "Until my band came along, every jazz group in the business would perform in suits and ties or tuxedoes. In fact, the rule with Stan's band was that if it was a concert, it was tuxedoes. If it was a club, it was suits and ties. The same with George Shearing, when I toured with him. Every bandMiles Davis, you name itevery band was dressed up. You were expected to show up and work looking appropriately attired. When I saw what the rock musicians were doing, with their colorful wild clothes and everything, I wanted to be like that. I wanted to be more expressive instead of wearing matching dark suits.
We started doing it by sort of cheating a little bit. We were wearing suits, but the jackets were purple and the ties were gold lamé. Once we broke the ice and started performing like this, the word went out that we were doing a new thing. The people who hired us didn't care. Those were our costumes that we played in. Within the next year or two, the entire jazz world had gone casual. Mostly these days, everybody is much more casual. It allows you to express your own individual personality and look, which wasn't really an option [years earlier]."