Gary Burton: Interview 1
Gary Burton: Interview 2

Gary Burton (born 1943)

Born and raised in Anderson, Indiana, Gary Burton is a jazz vibraphone player, also a bandleader, composer and educator. He is known as a pioneer of jazz fusion and for his pianistic-style four-mallet technique.

Self-taught Burton made his recording debut aged just 17 with guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. Two years later he left Berklee College of Music to join pianist George Shearing and then Stan Getz’s quartet, with whom he worked with from 1964 to 1966. He returned to Berklee in the 1970s to teach percussion and improvisation.

Burton formed his own quartet in 1967 and attracted large audiences from the jazz-rock spectrum. The quartet latterly included Pat Metheny on guitar after Larry Coryell left the band in the late 1960s.

During the 1970s Burton recorded a number of solo albums, including his concert at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, which won him his first Grammy Award the following year. He also recorded as a duo with various artists including bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist Ralph Towner and keyboard player Chick Corea. In 1997 Burton recorded an album of tango music with Astor Piazzolla.

Burton’s long relationship with Corea resulted in two Grammy Awards and in total he has received seven Grammys.

In 1994 Burton came out publicly in a radio interview, making him one of relatively few openly gay jazz musicians of prominence.

Biography by John Rosie


British musicians

In Les Tomkins second interview with Gary Burton recorded in 1971, Burton chats about working with British musicians and the challenges to a vibraphonist of playing with the piano. He also talks about his increasing role as a musical educator.


Gary Burton: Interview 3

Gary Burton: Interview 2

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1971
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Gary
Surname Burton
Quantity 2

Interview Transcription

Working with British musicians recently was very enjoyable for me. I hadn’t been in a ‘pick-up group’ situation for a long time: so I didn’t really know what to expect.

I’ve got very used to playing with my own guys all the time. I knew they wouldbe good musicians over here. but I didn’t know how well it would fit together.

In fact, they played the material even better than I would have expected. There were the minimum of difficulties and it worked out very well. The group was particularly interesting to me, because of guitarist Chris Spedding’s tendency to try a lot of different things. So that the tunes took new directions frequently, from night to night. It didn’t always come off, but a lot of the time it did; it’s very good for me, to have someone in a group doing that.

I don’t know what Chris’s background is, but it seems that he has less jazz experience than the guys I’ve had on guitar with me; jazz had been their primary field. Therefore, he’s at his weakest when it comes to playing complex chord patterns and things, which are very standard for the jazz player, but not so much for other types of. music. However, we don’t play much of that kind of music any more I’ve tended to move away from it, in the last year or two. Particularly on a job where I knew I would be with musicians who were new to me; I picked the material that was least complicated structurally.

The contributions of drummer John Marshall and bassist Roy Babbington were equally pleasurable. As a rhythm section they functioned well, because of playing together elsewhere. They respond very sensitively to everything that goes on. The importance of Chris was that his instrument and mine exchanged ideas more often, our being the two lead voices.

What amazed me mostly was that they performed my music as if they were really familiar with it. Either they’d heard it enough to know what to do, or just naturally felt that way, or are very adaptable. Or a combination of all three. To some extent, they’ve probably played things in my musical area. But still it was a surprise to me. It was almost like they were guys who used to work for me; getting the things together was that easy.

In most any large city in the States—if I went to L.A., Chicago, Boston, New York, say, and had to get a rhythm section suddenly I’d know there would be good people there. Whether I could get them or not would be another thing. I was fortunate in London that they were able to get the players I would have chosen, anyway.

It was through Mike Gibbs that I met a lot of the British guys. We did one project last year in Belfast with a large band and my group, that Mike wrote. There were two guitars in the instrumentation, one of whom was Chris; and John Marshall was the drummer. That’s where I first played with them. And I’ve been aware very much of Mike’s records, of course,. and he uses these same guys. I didn’t happen to know Roy, but he was an ideal choice.

Last summer, pianist Keith Jarrett and I did a series of concerts and a recording together. We had known each other a long time, and we met up again in Europe the last time I was here, in the Fall of ‘69. He was living over here at that time, and working with a trio; we kept running into him as we travelled around.

I liked a lot of his tunes, that I heard him play with his trio, and I asked him to send me some. Then he decided that he wanted to write some things for us, but he couldn’t make up his mind what to do. Through talking about it back and forth, the idea came about to do a record together, as we were on the same label. He finally came back to the States, and things were set up.

It worked out very nicely, because the concerts went well, and the recording went especially well. We were very happy about it. He was working with Miles at the time: on days off we’d work on it. I hope we do another one together eventually.

I’ve joined forces with a piano before, but not recently, except for six weeks when I had Chick Corea instead of guitar. With Chick, as with almost any piano player I’ve ever worked with, there was always this feeling of having to hold back, to stay out of his way. And the pianist always admitted that he had to hold back, to stay out of my way.

Our instruments were very similar, we were both capable of playing chords and multi-note lines, and it was very easy to get in each other’s way and get too thick and busy.

Both Chick and I agreed that it was okay to play together for a short duration, but that over the long stretch it would get restricting. We’d be treading on each other’s territory all the time, or having to take turns to play.

But then with Keith it was an entirely different situation. What we played always fitted together perfectly. Our harmonic sense was very similar, apparently, and a lot of our lines were similar; so it seemed to fit quite naturally. I could play with him at greater ease than I could with most guitarists, I found.

Our being so comfortable in this way had a lot to do with the music on the album. It had originally been an idea of doing an album with a guest star, but it actually featured he and I playing together, and against each other. At the time, it was intended as just one record. He had just returned after a year’s absence, and wanted to do something to get re-established.

He got the job with Miles; then he wanted to make an album with somebody else, to give him more exposure than he’d been getting, making his own. And I liked the idea, because we’d had it in mind, anyway.

The record has only just come put recently. The reactions have been excellent the reviews, radio plays and all the things you go by. So the chances are we will do another one; but the record company pays the bills, and it’s up to them to say whether or not we do.

As for the quartet, the personnel is different since we were here last. It’s the same drummer, Bill Goodwin, but a new guitarist, Sam Brown he’s been with me a year and a half now and a new bass player, Tony Levin.

Steve Swallow, of course, had been on bass with me from the time I formed my group. Unfortunately, or however you want to look at it, he moved to California and he now works for Jack Jones, the vocalist. This happened in July 1970; he did it for a variety of personal and family needs and reasons. It’s a shame that Steve left, because he was a major contributor of ideas, material and inspiration to the group.

Also, on the Keith Jarrett record, which was the last thing he did before leaving, he’d perfected his electric bass playing to the point where it was really together and coming into its own. He’s a loss to jazz in general, as well as to me personally.

On the other hand, Tony has worked out very well; I haven’t missed Steve on the job that much. He still writes for us, and I see him pretty regularly. I expect he’ll stay with that for a year or two, until he’s made some money; then he’ll probably venture into the jazz world again. We keep asking him how he’s holding up under it, and he says it’s getting harder all the time. It’s just a matter of how long he can stand being away from jazz playing.

His departure brought about a couple of changes in direction for me. For one thing, I decided to have less attachment to the group; that’s why I did the concert in Montreux and the job here. With the group changing as much as it has been, I can’t feel tied to it the way I used to. I mean, good players will always be available in New York, who can play the material well. There aren’t many clubs left; so it’s almost all concerts that we do, which means we’re off for long periods of time. The other guys do studio work, and have things of their own going locally; and I’m occupied with projects away from the group.

It’s just not the same kind of thing as when we were playing every night, and the music was changing and growing and evolving, on a working band basis. No one is as personally involved in the group ideas as it used to be. New material is brought in every time we do a new record, but it’s not a night-to-night thing where the music gets a chance to become highly personalised.

Therefore I haven’t minded coming over here alone. In fact, I’m doing some more solo dates in the Fall, in Germany and France. Two years ago I wouldn’t have even considered this. It was very reassuring that the job at Ronnie’s went so well; this was going to be my sample, to see how it would go.

When I come back, I’ll probably be recording with Mike Gibbs, also. We were going to do it on his first album, in fact, but I was here and gone again before they were ready to do it; then they had to do it before a certain deadline, and I wasn’t back by then. So they went ahead, without us; Steve was supposed to be on it with me, as well. We’ve been trying for it now for several years, as a matter of fact; I hope this is the year we make it.

I’ve started doing more teaching now. I have some private students; I also travel around to universities and colleges and do lecture workshop projects, sometimes combined with concerts. Usually just alone, however. I’ve become more and more involved in it, in that jazz is becoming very big in education in the States. I haven’t seen it anywhere else in the world yet, but there it’s incredible.

There are fifty thousand jazz bands in the schools. So they all have these get-togethers and festivals, where they need lecturers and clinicians and so forth.

More interest in vibes? Yes and no; I mean, there are more vibes players now than there ever were before. Because they insist on teaching most percussionists mallets as well as drums; so a lot of drummers now get interested in vibes, and switch over. Twenty years ago, they would never have even tried. Therefore, there are a lot more musicians who are at least part-time vibes players. And most of the schools keep good instruments on hand.

But my field is as much that of just a musician in general, as that of a vibes player. Because most of what I talk about is improvisation. That’s what most of the questions are always about; it’s the hardest thing to get information on.

You can explain the facts of how improvisation works. I can remember what it felt like to be able to play by ear a little bit, and. to get a tune worked out on the piano, yet still not know what all the chords were called, even though they sounded good; and why this little passage worked this time. but didn’t on another situation. All those kind of facts, about the basic harmony and theory, and the relationships of things, are hard to find out.

In classical training, it’s all so theoretical and complicated, that it doesn’t apply directly to common usage. And most of the books on the subject are difficult to read. So there is a big interest in it. Very few people can explain it in a simple straight-forward manner.

Most jazz players, if they’re good players, are so wrapped up in just playing that if you ask them about something technical that they did, they’ll say: “Oh. man . . .” Not only do they not want to think about it, they don’t want to talk about it. And that’s okay, if that’s how they feel comfortable. With me, it doesn’t matter.

Most of the younger players, I notice, are more into having an educated concept. I think that those classic older players who refused to talk about the facts of the music were natural, self-taught people. And most of them had always felt a little guilty about their lack of education.

The jazzmen in the old days wanted to get legitimatised and respected, and had never got the schooling that they felt they should have had that’s the story you always hear from the old guys.

So I think that’s one of the reasons they didn’t try to answer intelligently when they were asked: “What are you doing in that bar there, or this key signature?” and so on. Rather than start discussing something they didn’t know quite enough about, they would shrug it off and say: “Well, you know, I just play what I feel” and “If you have to ask about it, you’ll never know,” and all that foolishness.

Because there are things to be learned. They learned them, just like everybody else, by listening around, asking people questions and gradually putting it together. Which takes years. That’s how I learned, too. Hit and miss, trial and error, and asking things all the time.

Berklee helped a lot, because I got a large amount of information there, which straightened out a lot of my questions. But still, for most people it’s inaccessible. At the average music school, there’s no one to ask those kind of questions. Nor can most kids afford to go to Berklee, or it’s too far away from where they live, or whatever.

It’s a good thing to explain to them the alliance of technique with creativity. You’d be amazed at how many young musicians there are who get out there and play all around their instruments, but don’t really know the concept of how it’s supposed to work; how you have certain physical ability coupled with mental knowledge, inspired by emotions and reactions to things. You know, the real in-depth awareness of what happens between your mind and your hands, how to prepare for it with study and practice. Once you get that figured out, you can usually face any situation’ and know at least the right direction to proceed, to find out what you want to know, or resolve the situation.

Every mature musician knows these things, having found them out. That’s really what a lot of kids are asking : “Tell me what to do. How do I play jazz?” They can hear the music: and they can feel that this is the kind of thing they want to take part in. To me,” it’s enough that they get enough out of it to want to know more about it. Except that there’s always the exception : the guy who’s in it for what glamour he sees or something.

For most of them, if they’re interested at all, it means they’ve got some sympathy for it and deserve to be given as much information as they can get their hands on. Also, the better a musician can get early, the more he can find out and the further along he can get, the sooner he’ll be able to make that decision as to whether or not he wants to make music his career.

At Berklee, the first year there was always a huge group of people who found out after that semester that they didn’t want to do it. They only thought they did, because it looked like an easy way to go to school and get out of the army, or to get popularity; there’s a lot of reasons for music being appealing to the student, of course. In music it can be particularly hard to be aware of your true identity. Everything is so abstract that it’s pretty much every man for himself. And if you believe hard enough in what you’re doing, then that in itself is enough justification.

Copyright © 1971, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.