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Gary Burton on Music (pt. 1)

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Gary Burton was born into a musical family and was exposed early to the marimba, which he took to quickly. His father soon bought him a full set of vibes but had to build a platform on which the young Gary could stand to reach the metal keys. At age 12, Gary came across an album of the Benny Goodman Sextet, and that's all he needed to develop his impeccable sense of swing. By listening to After You've Gone over and over and using a tape recorder to refine his sound, Gary figured out how to swing just about anything.

Gary's career runs like a thread through a range of jazz eras—from country-jazz fusion of 1960 to the coffee house jazz period of the early 1960s, the psychedelic jazz of San Francisco in the late '60s, jazz-rock fusion of the  '70s, the acoustic jazz revival of the '80s and beyond. Through Gary's mallets, you hear a jolly set of vibes that assumes slightly different personalities depending on the eras in which they were recorded. His playing can be poetic, engaging and even provocative.

Gary's memoir, Learning to Listen (Berklee Press), is out this week and it's filled with reflections and revelations about his life, the many groups he has played in, the evolution of his music and some choice dish on Stan Getz, Astrud Gilberto, George Shearing and many others. Like his music, Gary's writing is honest and straightforward.

Here's Part 1 of my Q&A with Gary, 70, on his new book and music in general...

JazzWax: Emotionally, your vibes capture the sound of different eras for me. Were you just being Gary Burton at different points in times—or were you consciously reflecting the times? Gary Burton: I came of age during the '60s and found my identity then as well. So in the early part of the decade, while I was playing for other leaders, I reflected the more traditional approach to jazz improvisation. But as I transitioned to leading my own bands, I intentionally looked for a new identity and a niche in the jazz world that I could make my own. For instance, since I was in my 20s during the late '60s, it was pretty natural for me to connect with the psychedelic influences predominant in the pop and rock scenes at the time.

JW: As a member of the George Shearing Quintet—one of jazz's most signature small-group sounds—what role exactly did the vibes play in Shearing's concept?

GB: George Shearing was looking for a mellow smooth sound when he formed his first band in the States the late 1940s. It was the complete opposite of the typical bebop horn-dominated bands that were the norm at the time. The famous Shearing sound featured the most mellow of instruments playing in unison: vibraphone, electric guitar and piano. I sometimes wonder if my experience playing with guitar in Shearing's group influenced my own choice in later years to have guitarists in my bands.

JW: Given all of your experience with Stan Getz in the early '60s, how could someone so emotionally tangled produce such beautiful music?

GB: Stan Getz was the classic example of what is now called bi-polar disorder. He rocketed back and forth between being the sweetest, nicest guy on the planet to being paranoid and suspicious and angry at everyone around him. There was no way to guess when his mood would abruptly shift, and he wasn't helped by his early years of heroin addiction followed by 20 years of heavy drinking, which was the era when I worked with him.

At heart, he was a very lyrical player who loved making music as beautiful as possible. Those were the times I remember fondly. He treated me like I was his son (he was 41 at the time and I was 21), and he was very protective toward me. But I often saw him be rude and even mean to others around him.

One of the oddest moments was during a week in Seattle, when he began obsessing about the time he was arrested there for trying to rob a drugstore. He couldn't stop thinking about it, so a few days into the gig he walked around downtown and found the drugstore. He went in and saw the same lady behind the counter he had tried to hold up years before. He went up to her and asked if she remembered him, which she did. They had a short chat and Stan invited her to come down to the club as his guest. He introduced her that night as an old friend, and asked her in front of the audience if she any requests. She asked if he knew any songs by Wayne King, a very commercial saxophonist popular with older listeners at the time. He didn't, but the important thing for Stan was that he had somehow made amends for his earlier mistake.

JW: You had two rather interesting encounters with John Coltrane, one involving Stan Getz and the other later at the Village Vanguard.

GB: Talk about opposite perspectives. The first time I met Coltrane was at Birdland, while playing with Stan Getz.  Stan saw Trane sitting at a front table with a friend, and made a heartfelt effort to introduce Coltrane and describe him to the audience as one of the giants of the saxophone. After which, Coltrane abruptly got up and stalked out of the club. I was stunned by that. Five years later I was leading my own band at the Village Vanguard and noticed that Coltrane had come in and was standing near the door. I finished the set and made an effort to avoid the side of the room where he was based on my last experience with him. But he kept coming through the audience that was leaving their tables until he confronted me. I didn't know what to expect. Then came what I least expected: he broke into a big smile and raved about how great the band was and how much he was enjoying the music. That was only a short time before word came that Coltrane had passed away, and I was very glad to have had that second chance to meet him.

JazzWax pages: You'll find Gary's new book, Learning to Listen, here.

JazzWax tracks: You'll find Gary Burton's latest album,  Guided Tour (Mack Ave.), here.


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This story appears courtesy of JazzWax by Marc Myers.
Copyright © 2014. All rights reserved.

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