Gary Burton: Forging Ahead

R.J. DeLuke By

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"Ironically, I didn't really stay with it a whole lot longer. There's a limit to how loud the vibraphone can be. As more and more amplification entered the picture, with synthesizers and more electric guitars, it was an area that I couldn't go into. My music has stayed somewhere on a mellower side of where fusion ended up. I still continued playing songs that were not in swing time, but the kind of rhythms that were familiar in rock music. And harmonic structures that were not jazz-like, but more pop music or rock-like. But without the same sounds as, say, the Mahavishnu Orchestra or Return to Forever, where synthesizers became one of the dominant sound characteristics of the bands."

He adds, "I've been told that by people who have come up to me. It bugs them when they read fusion started with Miles' record or something and they say, 'You started that three years earlier.' I didn't get the credit for it the way some people tell the history, but I'm not complaining about it. I don't feel I was cheated or anything. I think some people just didn't connect to it until it got that big, then they started listening to it and didn't notice it happened to have begun with my band. But often it gets mentioned, even sometimes in historical things, writing about my group it'll say I was the forerunner of this style of jazz but often haven't been credited for it, for whatever reasons. That's just the way it happened, I guess."

There are a couple things that Burton hopes he is known for.

"I feel like if I wanted to give a capsule, summation, of what I'd like to take credit for in my career, one would be my contributions to how to play the vibraphone, my four-mallet technique that kind of changed the role of the vibes. The next thing would be that I popularized this thing of playing in duets. We weren't the first to play, just two musicians in jazz. But it was rarely done. There's a fairly limited history of this until Chick Corea and I started doing it. Now it's become a much more established format for jazz musicians. The fact that we stuck with it has played a role in establishing that," he says.

That long and fruitful association, which resulted in album gems like Crystal Silence (ECM, 1972), came about in an off-hand way. Burton says he jammed with Corea at a festival in Germany. Manfred Eicher, founder of ECM, was there and thought it would be good to record the two musicians together. "I said, 'Come on. Who wants to listen to a whole hour of just piano and vibes?'" Burton recalls. "But he was persistent. We made that first record and all of a sudden we were getting all kinds of calls from people who wanted to book a concert, they wanted us to come and play. That was 35 years ago. Six records later and five Grammys later we're still doing it."

Over those 35 years, Burton has always felt a special spirit with Corea. The result is evidenced in the recordings.

"You have some level of rapport with any musician that you sit down to play with. On a scale of 1 to 10, it might be minimal with some musicians who never felt settled, managed to get through some tunes, but no great sparks were happening. You might rate it as a 2. Then there are players who are great to play with, an 8 or a 9. The thing that happened with Chick is that it was a 10 or off the chart. Almost from the beginning, we had an ability to kind of mind-read each other. We had a sense of where we were going next and what was going to happen next. That results in an awful lot of that spontaneous music that you always hope for in improvised music when you're playing with other players. With us, it seemed to be a natural, easy thing to do.

"And it's continued all this time. We thought for years that one of these days we were going to start to feel bored with this. We'll feel like we've done it and it's time to move on. But it still seems fun to play. We're going out this July for some more concerts and we're talking about our next record project. So it seems to go on."

He notes that "rapport-wise, I've been lucky to have some long relationships with a few players. [Steve] Swallow was certainly one of them. We played together for over two decades. And Pat [Metheny], who, although we haven't played constantly over this past 30 years, we've continued doing projects off and on and stayed in touch, musically. We're very good friends. I feel very lucky and honored to have had these long-running relationships in my music. There are things that develop over the years when you play with people that much that you just aren't going to get with new players."

Burton has received numerous awards from the jazz industry over his career. Of his Grammys with Corea, Burton says he is always appreciative. "I had sort of a streak going. I've won Grammys in the '70s, the '80s, the '90s and this was my last year to get one in this decade. So I was glad that we won again. Also, it makes me feel that I'm still in the game," says the vibraphonist. "It's funny, you win polls and get awards all the time in this business, and after a while it doesn't mean much. But for some reason, the Grammy seems to. Even though it's hardly a true test of musicianship or anything. It gets to you."


It was in the '70s that Burton began teaching at Berklee as a teacher of percussion and improvisation. In 1985, he was named dean of curriculum. In 1989, he received an honorary doctorate of music from the college, and in 1996, he was appointed executive vice president, responsible for overseeing the daily operation of the college.

"When I was in school and just starting my career, if you'd asked me if I'd ever be interested in teaching, the answer would have been: Emphatically no," he says. But then he started doing clinics and workshops around the country. Musicians were able to supplement their income in such a manner. "I found it kind of enjoyable. I seemed to be pretty good at being able to talk about the techniques involved and how playing is done. I got an offer from a school out in Illinois. I'd done some workshops there. They asked me to join the faculty. I said I'm sorry, I live in New York and I have a band that tours. I couldn't picture myself moving to Illinois, but I did like the idea of trying Boston and Berklee. So I called them up and we decided to try it for a year to see if it works for me and them, as well. It turned out to be fascinating and interesting and fun.

"I didn't think I'd be doing it for years and years and years. It ended up I was there 33 years. First as a teacher. It sort of divided up in three decades. The first 10 years as a teacher, the next 10 years I was dean of curriculum. I oversaw the programs and the library and that sort of thing. And the last 10 years I ran the school. I was the chief operating officer and worked my way as close to the top as I wanted to get. When that came to a transition point, I was 61 and I decided it was time for me to move on and go back to just playing. But I'd always kept my career going. I'd always toured some. Kept making records. A lot of times, people in the jazz field didn't even know I was in education. At the same time, I knew people in the education field who didn't know that I played concerts. It kind of cracked me up that I was in these two worlds and often neither knew about the other."

Burton has a lot to look back on and be proud of at the school.

"I was there as a student, there were only about 100 or so students in school. When I came back to join the faculty, there were about 1,000 students. Over the years that I was there, taking part in helping to build the school up, they are now the largest music college in the world, 4,000 students and 600 faculty, 22 buildings. It's a huge, wonderful music city, in a way. It's still a marvel to me when I go up and visit occasionally and see all the things that are going on. I take a lot of pride in the fact that I was a part of that growth and development. I helped to guide and put my two cents in along the way.

"I've always gotten a lot of credit for discovering young talented players. In some cases I did discover them out there in the world somewhere, like Pat Metheny in Kansas, or Julian Lage, a guitarist I came across in California. But a lot of them came to Berklee, and I just happen to see them before anyone else was aware of them and I'd invite them to join my band when they finished school."

The Jazz Scene

As a veteran of the performing scene, and a key educator for decades, Burton has a distinctive view of the music industry as it relates to jazz. He says people's opinions of the state of the business vary, depending on who is speaking. Those that are faring better, naturally, have a less pessimistic view than those who aren't.

"My take, trying to be unbiased, looking at the industry in general, is that jazz is suffering the incidence of the whole record industry going through this major transition of not knowing what kind of business model is going to work. The companies are so reluctant to try new things, invest any money in anything. They feel like they're on the edge of being forced out of business. That makes it hard for a lot of musicians, particularly new ones starting out. And now the whole economy is collapsing for a while, and that's going to make it hard for clubs and concert promoters and festival to do well.

"One thing I can say that has changed since I started in this business. In the early '60s, when I came on the scene, we played mostly clubs. Even big names. I toured with Stan Getz at the peak of his popularity and we still played more clubs than we played concerts. You're playing to an audience of 150-200 people a night. In the course of a week you might play for 1,500 people. Now, we tend to play more concerts and 1,500 is one night's work. Often more people come to concerts. We're playing for more people now than we were 50 years ago. It's also more worldwide. I was around when it was a new thing to go to Japan. I went with George Shearing and Stan Getz. Now everybody goes there constantly. It's a big market for jazz. So there's a world audience and it's a bigger audience than it used to be.

He adds, "In my early days, if you sold 10,000-15,000 records, you were a pretty good success as a jazz artist. If you sold 50,000 records, you were a hit; that was big. Now, at least until the last couple of years, you would expect to sell 25,000-30,000 records if you were a typical jazz artist and a hit is 100,000 or 200,000 records. Those numbers have dropped off in the last few years as a result of the changes in the business. But it's a bigger audience and a bigger pie from which we're all dividing it up. In general, the business side of things, it's probably better than people a ready to admit."

Stylistically, he says, "you never know where the next trend is going to come from or when it will show up. People ask what's the next big thing in jazz. I say I have no idea. It may be here in the next six months or in the next three years. But there will always be new things come along and new players come along. The field is more diverse now than it used to be.

"There used to be one dominant style at a time. There was bebop. Or it was swing. Or it was big bands. Now, it's a big enough umbrella to include everything from ECM-type jazz to fusion to revival—Wynton Marsalis reviving the music of the '50s. There seems to room for dozen or more genres of jazz, each with their audience and room for the players to find their careers. I think that's probably healthy for the music."

As for Burton, his journey continues. He's soon to touch on his love for tango music again with a trip to South America. "I have my toe in the tango world. I started this back in the '80s with Astor Piazzolla, doing a tour with him. Since then, I get together with his musicians every now and then and do a little touring. The last time was about 10 years ago. I sort of thought that might be the need of it. We did three CDs over the years. But the organizer in Argentina has put it together and we're getting all the musicians back again. I'm going to go do that for the first half of June."

In the fall, he hopes to tour Europe with guitarist Lage, another of his protégés. "We're waiting to see if the schedule fits in with gigs he already has planned. If it does, he'll be part of this all-star group that I'm organizing for about 20 days worth of concerts in Europe. We're waiting for the dates to be confirmed so we can see who's available. Next year, I'm planning a tour of Japan with Makoto Ozone [piano], a reunion for the two of us. We haven't played together for a few years. We're going to revive that. Maybe one last go-around with him before we move on to many other things."

So for Burton, things are well. And well deserved. He's as busy as he wants to be, making the music that he loves. "It's not a real full schedule, but it's working out just fine for me. I'm 66 now and I'm enjoying my time off as much as I'm enjoying the gigs. It's working out pretty well. I can't complain."

Neither can his fans. In fact, they have much to cheer about.

Selected Discography

Gary Burton, Quartet Live (Concord, 2009)
Gary Burton/Chick Corea, The New Crystal Silence (Concord, 2008)
Gary Burton, Next Generation (Concord, 2004)
Gary Burton, Generations (Concord, 2003)
Gary Burton, For Hamp, Red, Bags, and Cal (Concord, 2002)
Gary Burton, Libertango: The Music of Astor Piazzolla (Concord, 2000)
Gary Burton, Like Minds (Concord, 1998)
Gary Burton, Gary Burton and Friends (Concord, 1997)
Gary Burton, Six Pack (GRP, 1992)
Gary Burton, Times Like These (GRP, 1988)
Gary Burton, Real Life Hits (ECM, 1985)
Gary Burton/Chick Corea, Duet (ECM, 1978)
Gary Burton, Passengers (ECM, 1977)
Gary Burton/Chick Corea, Crystal Silence (ECM, 1972)
Gary Burton, Alone At Last (Atlantic, 1971)
Gary Burton, Tennessee Firebird (RCA, 1966)
Gary Burton, The Time Machine (RCA, 1965)
Stan Getz, Getz au GoGo (Verve, 1964)
George Shearing, Out of the Woods (Capitol, 1963)
Gary Burton, Who is Gary Burton (RCA, 1962)
Gary Burton, New Man in Town (1961 RCA, 1961)

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