Gary Burton: Forging Ahead


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Pat Metheny talks about me being a big influence for him and all that. But it's also turned around now. I learn all kinds of things every time we do a project now.
"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, The New Crystal Silence (Concord, 2008).

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 instrument—the vibraphone—with very little help. He is essentially self-taught. But he went on to get an education in music—an academic pursuit that could just as easily led him into medicine or chemical engineering—and 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 on guitar, Steve Swallow on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums.

"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."

He first met George Wein that summer, and eventually played his Newport Jazz Festival. "George became one of my big supporters and mentors during the early years of my career," adds Burton. I met Joe Morello, Dave Brubeck's drummer, because Hank [Garland] brought him in to be on this record. So when I first got to the east coast, I already knew at least one established player. Through Joe I met a lot of other guys like Phil Woods.

"An awful lot happened during that summer in Nashville. I look back on it now and I think what a bizarre thing to start your jazz career in Nashville, of all places. But it was a great piece of fortune for me. Due to meeting all those people and getting that experience, when I arrived on the east coast at age 17, starting school, it was a much different picture than it might have been. I already had a record contract. I knew people in the business. My career was already underway."

The New Recording

And what a career. If it ended tomorrow, Burton stands tall among the assemblage of superb jazz musicians. But he's still going strong, and is now touring with one of his more popular bands, reuniting with guitar wizard Metheny and the extraordinary electric bassist Steve Swallow.

"Steve and I played for 21 years, starting in the mid-'60s," says Burton. "We had played a couple times more on record dates. But we hadn't played on a stage. 1988 was the last record I made with Steve and the last time he was in the band. Pat and I did have a history of getting together every now and then to have another reunion. We did a record called Reunion (GRP, 1990), then we did another called Like Minds (Concord, 1998). So we had a history of playing occasionally together, but not in my old group setting.

Burton says the reunion started out as a single concert "for the fun of it" at the Montreal Jazz Festival, with no intention of continuing. But, "The minute we finished we wanted to figure out how soon we could go on tour with this. It keeps leading to more gigs. We're having a blast playing the music and playing with each other."

He notes, "I've never been much for reviving the old stuff. I've always tended to want to move on to something new and what's coming next. Maybe because I'm getting older, I've done it twice now in the last few years. A reunion project with Chick Corea was my last record [The New Crystal Silence], and now this thing with Pat and Steve. But I think that's it. I don't think I'll be doing any more retrospectives.

"This particular one, one of the reasons it succeeds for us when we go play concert after concert is because it's not like we're just playing the old tunes again. They've taken on a new life for us. They feel fresh and reconceived. We haven't drastically rearranged them, but somehow they feel different. Partly because it's been decades since we were playing. We've all grown some and evolved some in the meantime. But we're definitely having a great time."

In forming the group, there was discussion over who would play the drums. "I had several different drummers over those years. Roy Haynes was the first drummer in my group and also was back with me for four or five years midway during my group's history. I had a few other drummers as well. Bob Moses for a while. Roy wasn't available. Thinking it over, more and more we got interested in the idea not being tied to somebody that used to play in the band, but choosing somebody who we thought would be most ideal. Antonio Sanchez stood out as a likely choice. Pat was already working with him and I knew him quite well. I met him when he was at Berklee College of Music while I was there. I was very familiar with his playing."

Sanchez is a strong addition, one of the very talented group of young traps masters.

"The idea was to recapture the era of my quartet. I had a band, non-stop, for 27 years. It was mostly a quartet and mostly with the guitar as the main instrument with the vibes. It started in '67 and Pat Metheny came along in the early '70s; '72 to '76, something like that," says Burton.

"It was [Metheny's] idea to play the music we used to play. There were certain composers who were regular contributors in that era. Chick Corea wrote a lot of music for the band. So did Keith Jarrett, so did Carla Bley, so did Steve Swallow. So did Pat when he was in the band. A few other people as well. I was trying to include some of the more noteworthy composers. At that point in time, people like Keith and Chick were just getting their own careers started. They were new up-and-coming musicians and I was quite pleased they made an effort to send me tunes for the group. We played a lot of their music during that first decade or so of my band."

The disk is 11 compositions, all done live, and contains some 80 minutes of music, longer than most CDs. Metheny, Swallow, Bley, Jarrett and Corea are among the composers whose work is covered. There's even an obscure Duke Ellington tune, "Fleurette Africaine (Little African Flower)."

The music follows fairly faithfully what people will hear at a nightclub or festival this year when the band is out on tour. "The only thing missing is about five more songs. We debated whether to make it a double album, but there wasn't quite enough music to stretch it that far. In fact, there's one more track that will be part of the download release that we tried to squeeze (on the CD format), but couldn't. When people buy it online they can get this one extra tune. As it is, it runs almost a full 80 minutes. We even had to sign a waiver from the CD manufacturing company in case there were complaints about the disc not playing on some older CD players. Pat said he's had that happen before a couple of times and there was never any problem. So we went a head with it, because we liked the order of it and we didn't want to cut out another song."

The band is strong. Burton is dreamy and ethereal on slower tempos and hot as hell when needed. Metheny, of course, eats up the music, showing his ever-fertile imagination. Swallow is driven, as always, and Sanchez adds the right fire and textures all throughout.

In the past, "I wrote some for my group, but I'm not a major composer, in terms of quantity output, in that I don't get that much enjoyment out of writing," says Burton. "I've always felt my pieces really don't compare strongly to those of my favorite composers among my friends. So when I say, 'Should I play my tune or should I play theirs,' I end up playing theirs. A lot of the songs that I wrote during the years I had a band often were to fill out the project. We'd get to the end of a project and we'd need one more ballad, or one more blues tune or something. I'd go home at night and make something up and we'd put it on the record. But it rarely was one of the standout tunes.

"The inclusion of 'Walter L' [Burton's only composition on the recording] was because it's a big favorite of Pat's. That was Pat's favorite record of mine when he was in high school learning to play. It was dedicated to Hank Garland, the guitarist that I started my career with when I was 17. His real name is Walter L. Garland. I named the song in his honor. It's just a blues head. That was Pat's first request when we started to do this. So we included it for that reason."

The CD has various musical flavors from mellow to scintillating. Bluesy to intricate. "I always strive for a range with my band," Burton says. "I like bringing in different stylistic influences. My band was the first to start mixing the genres. That is now pretty common. But I was bringing in tunes that were rock-and-roll influenced, country influenced, even classical influenced, into our jazz band. I was hot on that idea. I was 24 or 25 when I started my band and that was my concept.

"I got the idea partly from Stan Getz, when I played with him previously. I noticed he had found this great combination of Brazilian music and jazz. I said: 'OK, You can blend other kinds of music into a jazz situation and have something come out nice.' I came up surrounded by country musicians. I got my start in Nashville. I was very influenced at that age by the Beatles and Bob Dylan, who were brand new on the scene at that time in the mid-'60s. I was drawn to bringing that kind of music into my group's repertoire. That's why [the new CD] bounces around a lot from one piece to the next."

Music and Metheny

Speaking of his preference for a wide range of musical styles and influences, Burton notes "I had kind of a confrontation once with (record producer) Creed Taylor, who approached me about doing a record for his label back in the '60s. He had listened to two or three of my records. He picked out two or three songs he felt had the right combination of what would be most commercial. His concept, as he presented it to me, was: 'We want to do album that sounds just like those songs.' I just couldn't figure out how to deal with that. It was so opposite of my approach to making music.

"My main performing situation was playing in front of audiences and the challenge with that is to keep the audience's attention. You don't do that by playing one after the other that all sound the same. You had to change things up constantly. Change the volume level and the pace and the type of song. Some are energetic, some are beautiful, some are melancholy. You have to constantly change the moods and what's going on onstage to hold an audience. I continue to make my records that way, unless it's a really unusual special project. My instinct is to program it like a performance."

He jokes that in today's music scene, such careful planning of presentation on a recording may all be for naught.

"It's becoming less of an issue now that people don't even buy the whole album any more. They go in and buy two or three tracks. And they put it on 'shuffle' when they do get it. [chuckles] All that work I go through to make sure they're sequenced in a nice program order and everything sometimes goes to waste. Pat [Metheny] and I sat around talking about it when we were mixing this record. We put all this effort into getting the sound the way we think is best; the balance of the bass, the order of the songs and all that sort of thing. Then people go home and the first thing they do is change the settings. Boost the bass. Turn this down. Turn that up. Then rearrange the order. We get a chuckle out of it."

In the album notes, Metheny is very complimentary and erudite about how he enjoyed playing with Burton as a young and growing musician. As for Burton, he knew there was something about Metheny, one of today's most highly regarded guitarists, that was special.

Says Burton, "There's that expression, 'a diamond in the rough.' And even that is almost not fair to him. His talent, to me, was instantly obvious. I heard him first at a college jazz festival out in Kansas. He came up to me and asked if he could sit in. I was there by myself to play with the college band. I didn't have my band or anything. I first told him it's not possible, I'm just a guest here myself. But he was persistent. We worked out a plan to do one song together. It was 'Walter L.' I stayed around that afternoon to hear him play in the student combo that he was in. I think he would have been 18 years old around that time. I saw then he was a talented player. It was just a matter of getting more experience and smoother execution and so on. He asked me for advice. I said move to a city with a very active jazz scene. That pretty much meant New York or Boston.

"A few months later he called me and said he was coming to Boston. He didn't know anyone in New York. He arrived and immediately became pretty active playing locally. We played a lot together at my house. Within the year, I decided to add him to my band. I already had a guitarist. I didn't want to get rid of him He was one of the best players I ever had, Mick Goodrick. It worked out perfectly, because Pat was the second guitarist. We had two guitars for about a year. Pat grew as a player probably even faster, because Mick was a natural teacher and mentor for him. To me, it was obvious all along that (Metheny) was going to be a big success ... He's been amazingly able to straddle commercial success with artistic success probably better than anybody I've ever seen in the jazz field. It's a pleasure to work with him, take on these projects—side-by-side decide what to play, how to do them and how to make the record and so on. "

"I learn tons from him now," muses Burton. "He talks about me being a big influence for him and all that. But it's also turned around now. I learn all kinds of things every time we do a project now. He's so good knowing how to record, how to produce things. Even his concert programming and presentation experience is something I'm always learning from."

strong>Starting Out

Burton has always been learning, curious and eager as a youngster. Even as a child, he became focused on the vibraphone, somewhat unusual because many of the famous vibes players started out on other instruments before gravitating toward the melodic vibes.

"Until my generation, I don't think there are any vibes players that started on the vibes. The vibes was only invented in 1930. I came along 20 years later and started playing in 1949. Up to that point there was Hamp (Lionel Hampton, Red Norvo, and Milt (Milt Jackson) and Terry Gibbs. But Milt was a guitarist first. Red was a xylophonist first, which is at least close to the vibes. Hamp was a drummer. I think me and Bobby Hutcherson were the first guys who started on the vibes and went ahead to become established players."

Burton's parents wanted their children to take music lessons. His sister was playing piano and Burton enjoyed watching her play. "They looked around and found out there was a woman in the neighborhood that played the marimba and the vibraphone. They took me there to start taking lessons, which I did. But we moved about a year later to an even smaller town in Indiana. From then on, I was on my own.

"So when people ask me how I learned, I say I'm self-taught, because from age seven on, I was. I got a start from a teacher, but as far as learning my concept of how to play the vibraphone—playing with four mallets, playing my jazz approach—that was something I put together myself."

Burton received a solid music education in grade school and high school, participating in the band program. But, "jazz wasn't included in that experience. That was something I stumbled into. How, I don't know. I came across a record player. I must have been 12 years old, roughly. I was finding records and happened to pick up a Benny Goodman record and I was mesmerized. Here was this exciting energetic music with all this improvising going on. I could see myself playing this. How do I do this? So I immediately began finding jazz records however I could ... that's really how I got into jazz."

In his senior year of high school, he studied jazz harmony with a piano teacher. "I could hear what was going on, on the records, but I didn't know what to call things. It was getting hard to figure out and catalog in my mind. I needed to know how it was organized and what you called this chord and that chord. He was great. He filled in my basic information and put me in good shape for going on to college the next year at Berklee. Even there, I was a piano major because there was no vibraphone teacher. It turned out to be an advantage, actually, because I learned a lot from studying piano music for a couple years. It affected my thoughts and vision of how to play the vibes and introduced me to classical music, as well."

Vibes players were not much of an influence on the young Burton. "There weren't many records I could find with vibes players. The only records I could find easily were Milt Jackson's. He was very popular in the '50s with the Modern jazz Quartet. Meanwhile, I was listening more to piano players and horn players.

"Probably the single most influential jazz musician that I ever credit is Bill Evans, who I discovered when I was finishing high school, going on to college. He started to emerge and was influential. I was very struck by the classical style of his playing and how expressive he was on the piano. I felt I could translate a lot of what he was doing to my playing on the vibraphone. He became a very major influence for me during my formative years, where you sort of synthesize your own style and approach tom your instrument.

Later on it tends to be more of a refinement process of what you have founded. It was that formative period that Bill was such an influence, along with some of the great horn players, in terms of being inspired by the great soloing ability of Miles, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane. They were all important to me, as well."

Years later he came to the early records of Red Norvo, Jackson's recordings, those of Bobby Hutcherson, and some of Hampton's earlier releases.

Before he could get any band experience, Burton would record himself comping piano chords on a reel-to-reel recorder, then play it back and play vibes over the chords. "I did that for a year or two as a way of getting to play," he says. When his family moved closer to Evansville, he found a record store and also other high school kids who into jazz. "Once a month we would try to get together at somebody's house and have a jam session and that sort of thing. Things picked up when I got a driver's license. Then I could go on my own, drive down in the evenings and go to the two or three places that actually had live bands. They played jazzy type of stuff. It was lounge music, but they were playing standards, improvising."

"I managed to get myself a job playing at a restaurant with a trio. It was the drummer's band. I impressed him enough to get hired. I kind of doubled on piano and vibes. We played jazzy sounding standards. People danced sometimes. I did that job for my last year of high school. It was a great experience because it was a steady job every night, I got playing experience, learned more songs, became more polished as a performer and so on. If there's a will, there's a way. You'll find a chance to play, one way or another."

But Burton wasn't sure about following music as a career. "Music was something that was easy for me and fun. I knew I learned stuff quickly and was good at it compared to other kids who didn't seem to have a talent for it. But I was a straight-A student in school. My father was a chemical engineer. I figured I would either go to medical school or engineering school, one or the other, when I went to college. Because I had the grades for it. Following in my father's footsteps.

"I changed my plans the summer before my senior year in high school. I went to the first-ever jazz band camp, which happened to be at Indiana University. It was called the Stan Kenton Band Camp. He was the host. It was 1958. That week I met 150 other kids that were talented and enthusiastic, just like me. And all these great teachers, as well. Shelly Manne was the drum teacher.

They brought in a lot of players from California, New York, Boston and Chicago to organize bands and rehearse during the week. I came back so excited from this that I announced to my parents I'd changed my mind and was going to try to make it in music. To their credit, they didn't panic. They said OK. From that point on, it was all about music for me. That's when I started working at the restaurant at night and started thinking about what music school to go to. There were really only two choices at that time. Two schools in the country welcomed a jazz musician, particularly a jazz vibes player. One was North Texas and the other was Berklee."

Metheny decided on Berklee after a trip to North Texas State showed the area was nearly as isolated at the time as his home in Indiana. "Sight unseen, I signed up for Berklee and that's where I went to go to school and get my foot in the door."

Berklee and Beyond

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 band—Miles Davis, you name it—every 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]."


In the jazz world, music that would come to be called fusion was coming to the forefront. Bands like Tony Williams Lifetime, Return to Forever and Weather Report were on the scene and Miles had plugged in and was even distorting his distinctive trumpet sound with the use of wah-wah pedals. Burton was also a part of the movement, though he feels under-credited in that section of history.

"When I first started playing this way in '67, the press first named it jazz-rock. About 1970, the word fusion appeared," he says. "Then it became jazz fusion from then on. It didn't really seem to get the stamp of approval until '69-'70, when Miles put out Bitches Brew (Columbia, 1969). That was deemed to be not only a fusion record, but it was by Miles, so it must be alright to play this way because Miles has decided to do it. That put the stamp of approval on this style of music. But it had been around for a few years already by that time.

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