Gary Burton led a double life for 33 years---educator and administrator at Berklee College of Music in Boston on one hand; the best known jazz vibraphonist of his generation on the other. Along the way he became a living legend in his chosen musical field.
“It’s hard to think of yourself in those terms when it’s you,” he told me last month from his home in Florida, where he moved after retiring from Berklee last year. “I will admit that I’ve now reached the stage where I can say that I’ve got longevity. I made my first records when I was 17; I’m 62 now and I feel like I’m still going strong. At this point I’ve stopped worrying whether my career is going to fade out at some point. I’ve always felt that if you lasted a certain length, you eventually sort of become a venerable and are always someone who can get work. I count myself one of the lucky people in this business.”
The past year has been a busy one. When we spoke, he had just come back from Switzerland, and he and his Generations band have a heavy tour schedule booked through the summer. Thursday, they come to Norfolk as part of the Port Folio Weekly series of the Virginia Arts Festival.
“It really caught me by surprise,” he said of the demand that arose after he left academia. “I wasn’t expecting there to be as much work as came forward. We’re actually going to Europe four times this year. We’re going to Japan in August. It’s turned out to be a great time.”
Burton has had a great time playing the vibes since he was a youngster in Indiana:
“I didn’t pick it, it was coincidence. My parents wanted all three kids in the family to take music lessons. My older sister already played piano and I was starting to show interest in her piano lessons when I was six and she was eight. My mother said, ‘OK, it’s time to get Gary an instrument of some kind.’ And they looked around to see what was available. It happened that there was a lady in the neighborhood that gave lessons on the marimba and the vibraphone. So that’s how I started.
“I thought there was probably a marimba teacher in every town. I didn’t realize how rare it was that there happened to be someone with this particular instrument right near me.
“Then, two years later we moved to another town in Indiana and that’s where I did the rest of my growing up. From then on I didn’t have a teacher, or even anyone around that played the instrument, so I just kept playing and sort of teaching myself. When I got interested in jazz, when I was about 12 or 13, I found a piano player in Evansville, that’s about an hour away from my hometown which was Princeton, and I took jazz lessons on how to reharmonize songs and improvise and that sort of thing. I could apply what he was showing me to the vibraphone, and that seemed to work for me.”
Burton spent the early ‘60s working in the bands of George Shearing and Stan Getz, and also began recording under his own name. He quickly caught the attention of jazz critics and listeners for his virtuosic four-mallet technique, creating complex chord structures instead of the single note lines of his predecessors. He formed his own quartet in 1967 featuring another young hotshot, guitarist Larry Coryell. Their first record, Duster, combined rock rhythms with jazz sensibilities to produce what would later be called “fusion.”
“I had been very much in the traditional jazz mold up to that point,” he remembers. “I was 24 years old and feeling like I was trapped in an older jazz world. I wanted to find a new voice. At the time I also was a big fan of what was the new rock-n-roll: The Beatles had arrived, Bob Dylan; suddenly rock had become pretty sophisticated compared to the Elvis years. And I was very intrigued with it. I especially liked the fact that they were very eclectic. One track would be a shuffle, the next track was something with Indian raga music, the next one had a string quartet. We never did that in jazz recording. Everything was one group for a whole record doing the same kind of tunes one after the other. I had this idea that my group would use a wide variety of musical influences—classical, rock, country, jazz---and look for unusual settings to bring in.
“That turned out to be the next big thing that jazz would encounter, freeing up the rhythm section to no longer have to play just syncopated time on every tune. And different kinds of harmony structures, so that it wasn’t always just based on the American showtunes kind of repertoire. It took a period of about five years for the whole jazz scene to ramp up into that. There was a big turning point when Miles finally made his first electric, Bitches Brew.
“Eventually it caught on, and I got a lot of credit for being one of the pioneers. But I think we were just the next generation of young players coming up and finding our own voice, and moving on to what seemed like the next logical areas to explore.”
In 1971, Burton started teaching at Berklee, and over the years he was offered more and more responsibility. He became a dean of the school in the ‘80s, and spent his last ten years there as executive vice president. He continued to perform though, often in duo settings with old friend Chick Corea, and compiled a lengthy discography. When he retired, he again surrounded himself with young musicians, forming his current band, Generations.
“This started because of Julian [Lage], the guitar player, who I met when he was twelve. I said Julian is the kind of guy that I would love to play with on a regular basis, but by the time he’s ready to go out and tour, gets out of college and everything else, I’m going to be 70. It’s not going to happen, I’ll be too old for it.
“But, interestingly enough, things came along sooner than expected, and we made the first record with Julian when he was 15, two years ago. This year, when it came time to make this record, he had already managed to get out of high school and into college. He’s one of these precocious kids who, not only musically but academically as well, got into this accelerated program and got out of high school and into junior college at the age of 16. That gave him a pretty flexible schedule, and the school seems to think it’s great that he’s having this career.”
Adding 27-year old Ukrainian pianist Vadim Neselovskyi and a pair of 21-year olds, bassist Luques Curtis and drummer James Williams, Burton has put together one of the hottest bands of his career. Their new CD, Next Generation, just came out on Concord Records.
“I find young players appealing in two ways,” he told me. “One is they’re inspiring to watch. Their enthusiasm for the music is really genuine, and they’re growing and changing right before your eyes. Also, they’re not cynical yet. Being surrounded by people who can’t wait to get to the gig---I remember what that was like. The fact that they are that way certainly pumps me up and keeps me going.”
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