Born in 1943 and raised in Indiana, Gary Burton taught himself to play the vibraphone and, at the age of 17, made his recording debut in Nashville, Tennessee, with guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. Two years later, Burton left his studies at Berklee College of Music to join George Shearing and subsequently Stan Getz, with whom he worked from 1964-1966.
As a member of Getz's quartet, Burton won Down Beat magazine's Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition award in 1965. By the time he left Getz to form his own quartet in 1967, Burton had also recorded three albums under his name for RCA. Borrowing rhythms and sonorities from rock music, while maintaining jazz's emphasis on improvisation and harmonic complexity, Burton's first quartet attracted large audiences from both sides of the jazz-rock spectrum. Such albums as Duster and Lofty Fake Anagram established Burton and his band as progenitors of the jazz fusion phenomenon. Burton's burgeoning popularity was quickly validated by Down Beat magazine, which awarded him its Jazzman of the Year award in 1968. During his subsequent association with the label (1973-1988) the Burton Quartet expanded to include the young Pat Metheny on guitar, and the band began to explore a repertoire of modern compositions. In the '70s, Burton also began to focus on more intimate contexts for his music. His 1971 album Alone at Last, a solo vibraphone concert recorded at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, was honored with a Grammy Award. Burton also turned to the rarely heard duo format, recording with bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist Ralph Towner, and most notably with pianist Chick Corea, thus cementing a long personal and professional relationship that has garnered an additional two Grammy Awards.
Also in the '70s, Burton began his career with Berklee College of Music in Boston. Burton began as a teacher of percussion and improvisation classes at Berklee in 1971. 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.
Burton began recording for GRP records in the '80s and '90s. In 1990, he paired up again with his former protege Metheny for Reunion, which landed him the top spot on Billboard magazine's jazz chart. Burton is now recording for Concord Records. Departure (Gary Burton & Friends) was released in 1997 by Concord Records as well as Native Sense, a new duet collaboration with Chick Corea, which garnered a Grammy Award in 1998. Also in 1997, Burton recorded his second collection of tango music, Astor Piazzolla Reunion, featuring the top tango musicians of Argentina, followed by Libertango in 2000, another collection of Piazzolla music. His 1998 Concord release, Like Minds, an all-star hit featuring his frequent collaborators Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, and Dave Holland, was honored with a Grammy win, Burton's fifth. Gary's vibraphone tribute CD, For Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, was released in March 2001 on Concord and garnered Gary's 12th Grammy nomination. His most recent release in 2002 is a unique project with Makoto Ozone, his pianist collaborator of the past twenty years. In Virtuosi the pair explore the improvisational possibilities of classical themes including works by Brahms, Scarlatti, Ravel, Barber and others. In an unusual move, the Recording Academy nominated Virtuosi in the classical category of the Grammy awards, a unique honor for Gary.