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Gary Burton: Forging Ahead

R.J. DeLuke By

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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.

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