Gary Burton: A Lifetime of Collaborations

Chris M. Slawecki By

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When you first make a record, you always think, 'This is the best thing I've done.' And that lasts for anywhere from three to six months, and then you begin to get into the next project and IT becomes your big focus.
This interview was first published at All About Jazz in April 1999.

Vibraphonist, composer and teacher, Gary Burton was among the first modern jazz musicians to come out of the fertile American Midwestern musical ground from which Pat Metheny and others later grew. Born in Anderson, Indiana, Burton began his professional career while still a teenager, supporting country guitarist Hank Garland. He began to blossom as a solo artist in the early 1960s as one of the first proponents of the four-mallet style, recording his own dates for RCA in 1963; he toured with George Shearing that same year, and with Stan Getz from 1964 through '66.

By that time, Burton was leading his first of several influential, stellar ensembles, a Quartet with bassist Steve Swallow (later a frequent duet partner), guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Roy Haynes (and later Bob Moses). Thanks greatly to Coryell's electric mayhem, but also due in no small part to Burton's Midwestern and country roots, this Quartet was in retrospect one of the first jazz fusion ensembles.

Burton signed to ECM in the early 1970s, and the label's trademark European, neo-classical, crisp style seemed to rekindle Burton's own bright sound and vision. He formed an acclaimed New Quartet with guitarist Mick Goodrick, drummer Harry Blazer and bassist Abe Laboriel; gorgeous duet albums with Swallow, Ralph Towner and Chick Corea for ECM continued a genre Burton earlier started with one album each in tandem with Keith Jarrett and Stephane Grappelli.

Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Burton recorded in a variety of settings and ensembles for ECM, JVC, GRP and Concord Jazz, consistently pushing the boundaries of his music and musicians. During this period he also released several duets with Argentine tango master Astor Piazzolla, and similar projects with Makoto Ozone and Corea; Burton's later ensembles included Metheny, Corea, Haynes, Dave Holland, John Scofield and John Patitucci.

In the early 1970s, Burton joined the faculty of Berklee College of Music, where he served from 1985 through 1995 as Dean of Curriculum, and remains as Executive Vice President. He spoke from his office at Berklee in tones as bright and conversational as his most sparkling vibraphone improvisation.

All About Jazz: How has being from the American Midwest impacted your music? Has it made you more sympathetic with other artists from the region, specifically Pat Metheny?

Gary Burton: Well, it certainly did in Pat's case. It was kind of a real identification; he reminded me so much of my own past. When I met him he was 19 years old and just ready to start his career, and that was just what I felt like and looked like and acted like when I was in my late teens getting my start, as well. And he has that same kind of Midwestern wholesomeness, that down to earth style that you get from growing up out there. It's a charming, refreshing thing. I wouldn't say that every Midwesterner that I've met connected that much with me, but Pat certainly did.

AAJ: What do you look for in a guitarist to play with?

GB: There's a wide range of styles, and it's true not only of guitar but of other instruments. There might be somebody who is a wonderful pianist, but not necessarily a good fit for my particular perspective and approach to the songs. One of the ways I judge this is by listening to what kind of material they are choosing to play, how they do it, how they interpret it, and that tells me whether it has similarities with my own. And I look for characteristics in their playing to see if it seems to reflect my own values as a player. What kinds of styles of playing, what kinds of interpretation —do they as a player indulge in cheap tricks? Or is it pretty consistently high quality? Are they able to play very consistently, or is it erratic—great moments followed by awkward moments followed by great moments and so on. Kind of weighing all those things, I will make an instinctive judgment of whether it would be a good match. But even then you don't know until you actually try it.

AAJ: What first attracted you to Larry Coryell's playing?

GB: That was an interesting choice, because in that case I had a radical vision in mind. This was 1966-67. I had this vision of a different kind of direction for my music. I had just left Stan Getz' band, playing traditional straight-ahead jazz, and was about to launch my own group, and I had this idea of using rock music as a major component, blending it in with jazz. To that point, rock and jazz were almost sort of enemies. Jazz people were very suspicious of rock music, looked down upon it, and also saw it as a threat to their own audience and their own survival.

I was 24 years old or so, and had discovered rock and was enjoying The Beatles and Bob Dylan and different groups and artists. I was increasingly attracted by this eclectic thing that rock had. If you put on a Beatles record, every tune was a different thing—one tune would be an Indian raga style thing, the next tune would be a shuffle, the next one would be a blues, the next one would be more of a straight-ahead rock thing, then it would be a string quartet, and I thought it was a wonderful range of options that they had open to them. So I wanted to break out of the bonds of the jazz world somewhat when I started my group, and I thought that going in this direction of trying to use rock music as an influence was the way I wanted to go.

I took my first booking for a week in a club, and was looking around for a band to put together to do it and ended up in a jam session where Larry Coryell was playing. He was there also, he was the friend of a drummer that I knew. Larry started playing and I said, "My gosh, here is the perfect guy." He came from a jazz background but he had arrived in New York and in order to get work had started taking gigs as the guitarist in rock bands. Just to have gigs, he really wanted to be a jazz musician. He ended up with this kind of strange blend of rock and jazz, it was pretty unusual for the time and it was exactly what I had in mind as well. So I asked him to do this first job with me, and that launched my band.

AAJ: Mick Goodrick was another one of your guitarists, in the New Quartet. Whatever became of him?

GB: I still see Mick regularly, he teaches here at Berklee now. Mick is kind of a recluse type of guy. He worked for my band for four years, and then announced to me that, despite the fact that he tried to get used to it, he found performing, especially for larger audiences, still difficult for him—uncomfortable, nervous, stage fright—and that he had decided that maybe performing wasn't the right thing for him. He was going to go back to teaching. He taught privately for the next ten, fifteen years here in Boston, and was kind of a legend among guitar students, and then a few years ago decided that he wanted to teach here at the school. So now he teaches, some privately and several days a week here at the college. He makes an occasional record date for people, but he's not very visible. I always thought he was one of the best guitarists I've ever come across. He was a big influence on Pat, as a matter of fact.

With most people, if they were that strong a player, and a unique player, there was no doubt that they would have had a very sustaining career as a performer—and he could have. But it just didn't turn out to be the right fit for him. He plays occasionally, locally around town. At one point, he quit playing completely for two years. In fact, he gave his guitar to Pat: "I'm not going to play again. Here—take it, give it away, whatever." Pat just took it and put it in a closet, and two years later Mick asked for it back and started teaching more and playing some locally. It's a different approach to a career than most of us take.

AAJ: What's your favorite "classic" pop song to play?

GB: Well, "My Funny Valentine" by Rodgers and Hart is one that I've recorded about four different times in different ways over the years and still play fairly often. There's a piece called "My Foolish Heart," written by Victor Young, that I've played off and on as a solo piece over the years, and still continue to play. There's a few standards that have had lasting attraction for me.

AAJ: What's your favorite "contemporary"—or rock era—pop song to play?

GB: Put it this way: There are some pieces that for some reason stay fresh and renew themselves in your mind, and you play them for years, decades even. And then there are pieces that you work up and play for awhile, or you play them once on a record project, and you enjoy them and they really serve their purpose and you're happy about them and everything, but it's not something that you feel drawn back to over and over again for years. In terms of "I Want You," we played that in that band at that time for several years, but once the band changed we didn't continue it. "Handbags And Glad Rags," I only did on that record. I think I also recorded "Norwegian Wood" on a record date, but never performed it. For the most part, I didn't take actual rock tunes; we tended to instead take the elements of rock tunes, some of the harmonic progressions and certainly the guitar stylings and rhythm feels.

AAJ: What tracks would have to go on a best-of collection spanning your entire catalog?

GB: I've made 52 records, you realize, so that's a big question. Some pieces certainly stand out, just as there are certain records that stand out as surviving and lasting and remaining important to me as the years go by. When you first make a record, you always think, "This is the best thing I've done." And that lasts for anywhere from three to six months, and then you begin to get into the next project and IT becomes your big focus. But when I look back over the years, certainly the records I made with Chick have been among my favorites and more enduring ones. He has a knack for spurring me to play at my very best. Sometimes I think he makes me play better than I can play, just a notch beyond what I think I'm capable of doing and I somehow manage to get there with him pushing me and prodding me with his playing. Certainly a lot of my best moments, on record and in live performances, have been the things I've done with him. I did a record with Carla Bley called A Genuine Tong Funeral which I think is one of my important projects.

It's easier for me to name records. Albums are more important in my mind than single tracks. Jazz musicians, we don't so much record tunes as we put together albums; they're sort of a collection in a certain order that all fits together with a certain symmetry, that makes a statement. There was a record that I made with Stephane Grappelli, which was an unusual project for me but one that I came to really admire as the years went by. He was this quite elderly jazz violin player from the 1930s and it seemed like an unlikely pairing; he was forty years older than me and yet we really hit it off and the music that we came up with was a very interesting combination of the traditional and the new. That was called Paris Encounter, released in 1972, something like that. Also, I should say that some of the things that I've done with Pat Metheny count high on my list as well, particularly my latest record (Like Minds), which has both Chick and Pat on it, the two most important musicians I've worked with in my career.

AAJ: Was Like Minds an extraordinarily satisfying session for you?

GB: It was one of those projects were everything clicked. Everything worked. I assumed it would be a good record—it was all hot players, we all knew each other, I said, "What could go wrong? It's gotta be at least a really good record." In fact, it was beyond our expectations, and it will be really hard for me to feel that I've risen to that level with any project in the future.

AAJ: If you could somehow go back in time, who is the first musical act you'd want to witness?

GB: Either Charlie Parker or Billie Holiday. I'm equally curious about both of them. I've heard their records over the years, and I got to hear and meet a lot of the early major jazz players from Duke Ellington and Count Basie and so on, I even became friends with a lot of them. But these two people died young and I just missed them. I would have loved to have seen them.

AAJ: Were they solos by other vibe players than you memorized note for note growing up?

GB: No, I never did that. Some players are very much drawn to that, some instinct inside them says, "If I learn this solo just the way they played it, I'll learn something important from it." I never had that urge.

In fact, my main influences weren't so much vibraphone players as they were piano players and horn players—Bill Evans was probably my most significant influence. I played very much in his style, although it was on vibes, during my twenties, and if I played on the piano that way people would have said, "Oh, you're doing a Bill Evans imitation." But I kind of got away with it on the vibes, because it was a different instrument doing it. It wasn't something that most people noticed. I never had that urge to memorize the solos and recreate them. Even from the beginning my concept of the vibes was, I heard it differently than the way the instrument was generally played.

I mean, Milt (Jackson) was my favorite player and the guy I admired most, and still do; in terms of the whole history of the instrument, I think he has made the most significant major contribution, which was to show us the lyrical, expressive capability of the instrument, which no one had figured out up until he came along.

AAJ: How does that differ from the impact that Lionel Hampton and Bobby Hutcherson had on you?

GB: In fact, my little "capsule" take on the history of the vibes is that there are five players who have made the most significant individual, unique contributions to its history. The first generation was Hampton and Red Norvo. Hampton, if it wasn't for him, the instrument would not have become established. He popularized it, introduced it to the mass audience and really got it onto its feet as an accepted instrument, and showed that it could be played in a variety of settings from big bands to small groups and so on. A marvelous impact on the history of the instrument.

Red, on the other hand, came from a xylophone background, and was a master of subtlety and complex music. He played some of the most interesting modern, contemporary music back in the '30s and '40s with Benny Goodman and other players. It was not as noticeable a contribution as Hamp's, but equally important from a musical standpoint for us vibraphone players.

Then the next significant player was Milt, who came along at the end of the '40s into the '50s and showed that the instrument could be played with a more mellow sound, more expressive, more vocal style. He slowed down the vibrato and started using softer mallets and phrasing more, because he wanted to sound like a singer, or a guitarist, what his background had been.

Then, the next generation is me and Bobby Hutcherson, we're about the same age. Bobby essentially followed in the Milt tradition of being a two mallet player, but took it to a more modern level of playing more avant-garde sometimes, or with more contemporary jazz performers on all the records he made on Blue Note. So he developed yet another realm of repertoire for the vibraphone in that area, and I went the other direction, treating the instrument as a keyboard instrument, more like a piano, and established an identity for the instrument in that style.

Those five. Even though Bobby and I are now in our fifties, we're still waiting for what players are yet to make other significant contributions. It's one thing to play the instrument well, but it's another to use the instrument in new ways or in new styles or to have a strong new identity with an instrument that has a big influence on other players. That's the mark of somebody who is an important figure on an instrument, and I haven't seen that happen with other vibraphone players. There have been some very good ones over the years, from Terry Gibbs to Victor Feldman to some of the younger players today. But in terms of being a really major influence on other players of the instrument, I think it's those five.

And it's interesting, you know—everyone's still alive. How many instruments can you say that about, everyone who pioneered it? Hamp is 92 and still has a band. Red is 90 or 91 I think, and doesn't play anymore but he's still active in his way out in California, still with us. No one has passed on yet among the major names on the instrument.

AAJ: Do you recognize the name Jack Emil—the tap-dancing vibe player for The Lawrence Welk Orchestra?

GB: I watched that show a lot when I was kid. Did you know I was a tap dancer? When I was a kid, my family had a vaudeville act: We all played instruments and did novelty numbers and I played and tap danced, and did both at the same time on some numbers, accompanied myself on the marimba, played stop-time choruses and danced. I absolutely remember; I didn't remember his name until you said it just then, but I remember seeing him on the Welk show.

AAJ: Is there one particular manufacturer you prefer?

GB: I play Musser. There's only a few companies that make vibraphones. For many years, it was just two companies, Musser and Deegan, and now it's primarily Musser and Yamaha. This is my fiftieth year of playing Musser instruments; I started on them when I was six years old, and I'm now 56. It's a company in Chicago started by a guy named Clair Musser, who was kind of an early advocate of playing the marimba and vibraphone, played it himself and wrote music for it, was kind of a big promoter of the instrument. He originally was the plant manager for Deegan and went off to start his own company in the '40s. Probably 90% of the mallet instrument business is dominated by Musser.

AAJ: Do you still have your original set?

GB: No, I don't. I'd had it for a number of years because they last a long time. I will say that the set of bars that I still use, I got in 1960, the year I graduated from high school. I keep replacing the frame, but the keys, which I've just gotten used to and kept all this time, I've had since then—next year, it'll be forty years. Amazing.

AAJ: Are vibes an unlimited instrument—can you play the notes in between the notes?

GB: You can, a little bit. There's a technique that I used for awhile, experimented with, which I didn't discover, someone else showed me how to do it: Using any kind of hard surface—it was shown to me first with a hard cigarette lighter, but I found I could do it with a hard xylophone mallet as well—you can press on the bar in a certain spot after you've hit it, and change the pitch, making it "slide downward" in the equivalent of "bending the note" on a wind instrument or a stringed guitar or something. Which at least gave you the option of getting away from this fixed keyboard, which we also share with the piano.

But the real thing is you can suggest that you're playing half-steps or quarter-tones by the way you play grace notes and play two notes at the same time, which pianists do all the time, too. They have the same challenge—they want to break away from the rigidity of the keyboard and they can make you think they're sliding around from one note into the next by the way they execute it. That's a lot of what I learned from listening to Bill Evans; if he could play that expressively and effectively on the piano, then surely I can do something similar on the vibraphone.

AAJ: If you had a child who wanted to become a vibraphonist, what course of study would you recommend?

GB: I would say, first of all, that if it's not one of, it may be perhaps the easiest instrument to learn to play, in terms of getting started. You don't have to develop an embouchure and a sound and a tone, which with wind instruments and string instruments can take a couple of years before you sound decent. With a vibraphone, you walk up to it, you take a stick and you hit it. And it sounds just as good as me, it terms of the actual tone of the note. There isn't a complicated fingering system, which you get into with horns or piano even, it's a very direct technique. It doesn't require a lot of development before you can get functional on the instrument; in fact, for many people it's been a popular second instrument because they can become functional on it pretty quickly if they actually know music. Anybody who was starting on the vibraphone, I would tell them, "Realize you've got some great advantages here that are going to get you off to a quick start."

The other advice is, play the instrument in whatever way feels the easiest and most natural and you'll almost surely be doing it right. With many instruments... I can't imagine that you'd ever correctly teach yourself how to play the clarinet or the violin or something, you'd never stumble onto the right fingerings and the right positions and formations of your mouth for blowing and all that sort of thing. But with vibraphone, it's one of those instruments that most people HAVE taught themselves how to play because there weren't many teachers around—particularly in my day, so we all taught ourselves how to play. There's not much you can do wrong on it if you use common sense.

AAJ: Why were you so drawn to the academic/instructional aspects of music?

GB: The thing about teaching is, some people have a natural affinity for it, for verbalizing what they're doing, for exploring what they're doing and wanting to examine it. Teachers will tell you this, that it gives a lot back to them. Because people ask you questions that you haven't thought to ask yourself, and that starts you thinking about it in new ways. I couldn't tell you how many things that students have raised in my mind, and how many times I've heard students do things that I wouldn't have thought of doing. But once I hear them do it, I start thinking, "Hey, that's an interesting possibility. I would never have thought of that, but I'm going to give that a try now."

Students also, in the case of musicians, challenge us to keep trying new things. There's a tendency as a musician if you're in your own world all the time, playing your own stuff with your own musicians, to get a little bit insulated. Students are always saying, "Haven't you heard that new such-and-such record yet? What do you think of this? Have you ever tried that?" And it kind of challenges you to keep your mind open and keep trying out new things.

That's one of the attractions for me. But the basic one is that I really get a big thrill out of watching students grow and develop. It's something that reminds me of myself, experiences that I had as a young musician, and it just feels real affirming and positive. People talk about it like, "I want to give something back to this thing that's been so good to me," and I think that's really what they're talking about.

AAJ: What's the biggest difference between young musicians in the late 1960s and young musicians in the late 1990s?

GB: Musicians in my day were not nearly as well-educated as the ones today. We didn't have the access to it that early in our lives. When I wanted to go to college to study music, and particularly jazz, there were only two places in the United States you could go to: North Texas, or Berklee in Boston. That was it. Access to this music was much less available. We had to learn a lot of stuff by trial and error, by experimentation on our own. We figured out what worked and what didn't work. Nowadays, the younger musician has a lot more access to information and expert guidance. Which means they can cover a lot more territory quicker, and get farther along in their development at an early age—what I might not have gotten to until I was in my late twenties, now you see kids sixteen or seventeen years old at that level of sophistication and capability. I think the standards of what we expect in a young musician have just skyrocketed. I'm amazed, and often say I'm grateful that I'm not starting out now, because I'm not sure I would be having as much success or getting as much notice as I did back when I was starting out.

Also I think that young musicians today know a lot more about the music business. We were all very naive, and that includes the established professional musicians as well, up until the '60s and '70s. That was when we began to get a little more aware of how the music business operated, how publishing operated, how record companies operate, and started taking more of the responsibilities ourselves. Instead of that older tradition of saying, "Hey, we just make the music and other people do the business part." Most musicians nowadays are pretty astute business people as well, and well-educated.

Mine was the first generation of jazz musicians that went to college. Almost no one before me that I actually knew in the business ever went to college. They went from high school, if they even finished school, straight into bands and went on the road, and that was their experience. I graduated high school in 1960, so that decade—all my friends, Keith Jarrett, Herbie Hancock, Chick, our first stop after we got out of high school was to go on to college somewhere. Whether we finished or not, we started in higher education and did that for awhile before we went on into the music world. So we had a head start on being better educated, as well.

AAJ: Does Gary Burton have a handy pocket definition of "jazz fusion"?

GB: I suppose jazz fusion, to me, is improvised music that draws on the traditions of jazz but with the influences and styles of rock. How's that?!

AAJ: Do you ever just sit back and listen to Good Vibes or other albums in your back catalog?

GB: No I don't, and most musicians don't. There's something odd about it. For me, I listen to a record up to about six months after it's been released, and then I never put it on again, or rarely do. I'll hear them occasionally, I'll go into someone's house and they'll have one on and I'll stop and listen to few tracks off something from the '70s and I'll say, "Wow, geez, sounds pretty good. Haven't heard that in years." But it never occurs to me to put it on myself. I don't listen to records a lot as it is; when I do, it's almost always either classical music or older jazz, or something that I have to listen to—a friend sent me their record and wants me to hear it, or I'm looking for versions of a certain tune to see how people have done it, that sort of thing. I don't do much leisure listening.

AAJ: Too bad—that's one record worth exploring again.

GB: Well, I had gone to Atlantic and they had this wonderful core of players who I had done studio dates with occasionally. I was friends with the guys from Atlantic and they would call me occasionally to be in the backup band for Wilson Pickett or Esther Phillips or R&B records where they would want a few vibraphone triads here and there. So I got to know (Bernard) Purdie the drummer and Eric Gale and these guys. So when I ended up on the label myself, one of my thoughts was, "These guys are really fun to play with. There must be a possibility of how to combine my jazz stuff with their rhythm feel." So I wanted to try a record with them, and that was the one we did.

AAJ: Will you ever make another solo record such as Alone At Last?

GB: You know, I don't think so. I did that one because I had gradually played a repertoire of solos one at a time in concerts; I always had one number in every show that was a solo piece, and I gradually ended up with enough of them to make a record. I thought someday I should do them all at once as a program, and I did. But I moved very soon after into doing duets, first with Chick and then with Ralph Towner and other people. I just never came back to much of an interest in solo pieces. Even today, when I do play a solo piece, it's one of the same original eight or ten that I worked up back in the '60s. I haven't had any real inspiration for finding and creating new ones, and doing a project. You never say never, so it could be that a year or two from now I'll suddenly get obsessed with wanting to do another solo project. People have asked me that for years now, and I must say, up to now, it's never gotten my attention again.

AAJ: Are you at the point where you can play pretty much anything you can imagine in your head?

GB: Yeah, I'd say that's kind of true. That state arrived ten years ago, something like that. All along, I always felt that I could play more now than I could a year or two ago, but there's still things that I'm hearing that I can't quite get to or pull off. That sort of went away, finally. I really have this feel when I'm playing, pretty much whatever comes into my mind, I can manage. It doesn't mean I don't make mistakes occasionally. But I feel like I'm finally at that stage of maturity where my facility matches my imagination.

AAJ: Here's the first sentence of the last paragraph of your personal notes to Like Minds: "To be considered truly great, in my opinion, a jazz musician must either redefine how an instrument is played or establish a new style that has broad influence on other musicians." According to your own definition, are you a truly great jazz musician?

GB: I do believe, even though this sounds lacking in humility, that I do meet those two criteria. I have no doubt about it as a vibraphonist, that I've created a new style and concept for the instrument that's influenced a lot of other players and will be an influence on the instrument into the future.

As far as styles musically, I just look back at my groups and I say, yes: I pioneered duet playing with Chick as well as solo playing on instruments other than piano with "Alone At Last," which inspired other people for what is now dozens and dozens of solo records and duet records that are out there. And I also pioneered the jazz fusion movement; I was really the first to start combining rock and jazz. Even though others took it further than me; within a few years, the instruments got louder and more electric, it went beyond the range that I had taken it to. But I feel like I was the one who got that launched. Yeah, I think I do.

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