Gary Burton: Interview 2
Gary Burton: Interview 3

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


You don’t have to follow the crowd

In Les Tomkins’ third and final interview with Gary Burton in 1973, Burton contrasts working as part of an ensemble and as a solo artist. He shares his experience of recording with various artists including Stéphane Grappelli, and Chick Corea and how he’s struggled to get into free-form jazz.

Lennie Bush: Interview 1

Gary Burton: Interview 3

Image Details

Interview date 1st January 1973
Interview source Jazz Professional
Image source credit
Image source URL
Reference number
Forename Gary
Surname Burton
Quantity 3

Interview Transcription

Most of the time, I do still have a group. These last two London engagements, using British musicians to make up a quartet, are the exceptions. I don’t worry about doing that here, because I know that I can get good players. In both cases, I’ve been coming over alone to do a concert somewhere on the Continent, and they have me in at Ronnie’s while I’m at it. This time I’m going to Berlin to do a duet concert with Chick Corea.

No, at home normally I work mostly with my regular group—not the same people since the last time I brought a group over, but the same format.

No one you would know, I don’t imagine; because they?re all young players. Mick Goodrick is the guitarist, Harry Blazer is the drummer and Abe Laboriel is the bass player—he’s from Mexico. I’ve been in the process of changing the book over, to some extent. In the last few months, we’ve gotten a lot of new material in, including quite a few by Chick and some by Keith Jarrett.

I started working off and on with electric piano instead of, or in addition to, guitar after I did the record with Keith. Some of the material was really designed for piano and vibes, and it worked well, especially with the fender blend. So in the States I have sometimes used a pianist from New York named Pat Rebelow. And when I was coming over this time they asked me who I wanted; I knew that Chris Spedding wasn’t available, and I didn’t really know any other guitar players, but I did know a couple of piano players. I figured I’d rather have a piano player that I knew than a guitarist that I didn’t know. The music seems to work with either combination. In fact, it’s a nice change for me. Keyboard players think differently than guitarists; so it’s a different type of rapport that I get.

As for the recently-released album “Paris Encounter” with Stephane Grappelli, that came about mostly because of Stephane. He saw my group at Newport three years ago, and commented to George Wein: why didn’t people put him with groups like that, instead of always with old groups? He’d like to play with somebody younger; people that were doing something different.

That was ‘69, and I was coming to Europe that year, anyway, on a tour with my group. So George went ahead and set up a tentative plan for us to do a record together, even though I didn’t even know Stephane. I’d only heard him on some rare old recordings occasionally, and wasn’t over-familiar with his playing. We weren’t sure if it would work or not; we thought it might just be a plain-old-ordinary-nothing jam session that didn’t get off the ground. We had no idea what to expect.

But there was no big investment in it, and he seemed to want to do it; we all got interested in it finally, and decided to give it a try. Particularly since it was something different from our usual type of music, that we’ve been evolving for the past few years. Steve Swallow and I had grown up with that kind of straight-ahead jazz playing, anyway; so it was a nice, nostalgic trip for us.

It’s funny—they’ve waited two years to release the album, because of its unusual nature; they didn’t know quite what to do with it. I’ve had a string of albums which were supposedly building up a certain image and following. They were hesitant to even put it out at all; then they finally decided to, when there was a lull in the release schedule. So out it came, and it’s gone real well, as a matter of fact. The very people I thought would probably tend to criticise it, or not take it too seriously—the ones who were following our newer stuff—have, to my surprise, taken to it pretty well. I still have had a few people saying: “What are you doing that old stuff for?” But that’s bound to happen.

Anyway, we had a great time making it. And it’s nice that Stephane seems to be really coming into his own again, right now. Apparently, he did great business at Ronnie’s, and he’s got a couple of new records doing nicely. In the States, because of my record and the one he did with Paul Simon, just one track of background, he seems to have become a sort of underground folk hero to a lot of people. That’s good to see, because three years ago at Newport no one even knew who he was, which was kind of a shame.

My solo LP, “Alone At Last” was started when I was here the last time. I had come over for the Montreux Festival which, as a first experiment, I did as a solo concert. So that was the basis of the record-one side of it.

And for the other side I decided to keep essentially the same format, with some additions. One of them is a solo, one a duet with piano, another has electric piano on it. I overdubbed another part or two, to make it a little more interesting.

This is something I’d been wanting to do for a long time, ever since I started playing the occasional solos at concerts. The thought of doing a whole album, a whole concert of them or something has always been at the back of my mind; it just took that long to work up to trying it. We wouldn’t have even had it recorded, except that they record everything at Montreux; so the tapes were there to be used. That was another situation where I didn’t know if it was going to work or not, till we did it; but it came together okay.

Recording with an orchestra? Yes, I’ve thought about it a lot, but it’s just never come up. I would be ripe to do anything along that line. In fact, I am planning to work up a solo marimba concert of legit music over the next year or so. Because there isn’t much repertoire available for the instrument, and there’s a need for some new technical advances in it; so I thought I’d like to do that. Which also might open the door to some symphonies having me as a guest soloist—this is popular in the States these days. I feel like I would be well suited to that sort of thing. I would probably never do it on my own. The thought of getting a whole orchestra together, commissioning something to be written and all that—that’s a lot to take on. I would rather wait until somebody who was used to working in that particular area, a writer probably, would be in charge of it. I don’t think I’d have the necessary experience just to handle all the people, if nothing else.

The collaboration with Mike Gibbs is going to happen, though. It’s now planned for us to do an album together in the States in January. We were supposed to do one in April, live at Ronnie’s, but it got to the last minute and there were too many problems involved in me coming over; so we had to put it off. But this time it’s definitely on, and it should be his next release, after the one that’s coming out now. This’ll be a big band-in the States, however, with U.S. musicians.

He thought he’d like to try a different group of players, to see what else happened. Of course, he works very much with the players, and their particular individualistic sounds, styles or whatever. So now he’s looking to experiment with some other personalities in his music.

About Chick Corea being more in accord with me nowadays—we have talked about that, and I think the main thing he’s referring to is the certain feeling you get when you have your own group. Power isn’t the word, because that implies some sort of political status to it; but that certain amount of energy when you’ve got four or five people all working for one common end, and you’re responsible for it, is a very invigorating, exciting thing.

I mean, when I first started a group, it was so strong that I couldn’t wait to go to work each night. I enjoyed all of it, even the travelling and the long hours. That cools off after a while, but nonetheless there’s a very powerful drive that you get from having this whole thing working around you. I’m sure somebody who owns his own company must feel that sort of thing as well. A strong sense of identity comes forth when it’s your own project.

That’s happening to Chick now, and what it does: it heightens your desire for communication with the audience. Sidemen often fall into just playing for themselves or for each other, but when you become a leader you no longer want to play for your sidemen. You want very much to reach the people with what you have to say; it becomes much more important to do so.

He’s strongly aware of this at the moment, and working very hard not to change his music to fit the audience or anything like that, but to ensure that whatever it is he does communicates something to somebody. And the type of music he’s into just happens to reflect the type of life-style he’s in right now, which is very organised, positive and direct; there’s very little vagueness or mystery to it. My playing has gone through various changes, and I think it always stems from the state of mind I’m in at a given time; it’s very much that way in Chick’s case, I believe.

No, I haven’t ever really got into free form. In a way, I think I’ve been driven away from it because it’s been so popular. Almost all of my contemporaries, the musicians in my age-group, are hard into it—more in than out, to one degree or another. Yet some of my friends are not as entirely into it. Keith Jarrett, for instance, writes a lot of very straight tunes and does a lot of straight playing, as well as some free things—the same with Chick.

I have dabbled in it from time to time; it has depended a lot on what kind of groups I’ve had, whether or not they’ve been good at it. The group with Bobby Moses and Larry Coryell, for instance, was very inventive in free things, I found. So we had two or three pieces of that nature that we would do in live performances. We would never do a whole record of it, but we would usually have one or two tunes on each record that were some sort of experiment.

One was a tape-edited piece that Steve Swallow did. Then, of course, the “Tong Funeral” album that Carla Bley wrote for us was, I would say, semi-avant garde in a lot of places, and had some free playing. But I just couldn’t see myself doing that only. In fact, I’ve always played a certain range of types of music; the variety is a necessity for me. I get bored very easily, with other people’s playing and with my own, if, in fact, it becomes repetitive. It’s like listening to somebody give the same speech over and over. Even if they change the words, if the ideas are the same and you’ve heard it, eventually it loses its vigour.

I’ll say this: I’m glad to see Chick getting away from free playing, simply because I have felt alone a lot of the time. At times, I feel like I’m the only young musician that’s not playing that sort of thing. In fact, I’ve often wondered why I haven’t been considered unhip or commercial more than I have, because of this. I think it just goes to prove that you don’t have to follow the crowd to be accepted as a valid artist; you can do whatever you want.

Refreshing If anybody would be able to set an example that people can follow their own beliefs and not be too subject to criticism, it would be Chick.

His following was from Miles’ group and from all that experience he’s had; to suddenly come up with a group that plays mostly bossa novas was a big switch for him. Yet the only people who really questioned it were a few musicians. Which is typical enough. But the public and most of my friends enjoyed it immensely. I found it refreshing to see a group that seriously enjoyed playing something else, other than free music, knowing that they can all play that as well.

Not that you can ever go through any big alteration in what you want to play. They have to come to your level eventually, but you have to make it a strong, clear communication, whatever mode of thought you’re working within. In Chick’s case, this style that he’s in right now is probably temporary; it’ll change to something else as he changes. Because he has passed through several distinct periods in his playing, and I daresay there’ll be another one or two to follow this one. But he always throws himself one hundred per cent into whatever he’s doing. So it’s easy to sell it to people when you believe in it that strongly yourself, and can project it as much as he can.

When I was here last, I was soon to start teaching at Berklee—where I was once a student. That’s worked out quite well. When I’m home, I teach, and I’ve enjoyed it a lot. I’ve learned a lot about my own playing, more than I used to; so it has improved consistently since I’ve been teaching. Then there’s the extra advantage of being able to get together any kind of project I want to. Right now I’ve got a twenty-eight-piece orchestra; at the last semester I had a large percussion ensemble. These are things that I’d never do professionally, for monetary reasons or whatever. Anything I want is available; so each year I’m going to take on something different that I’ve always wanted to do, experiment with it, and see what happens.

There are already some up-and-coming vibes players; as a matter of fact, they’ve got me worried! It’s inevitable; the instrument is becoming a lot more popular, particularly in the States. I’m almost thirty now, but the generation that are in their early twenties now will bear watching. The biggest change is going to be one of technical proficiency. It’s going to be expected of every player now to be able to play with four mallets, and to have more freedom of independence on the instrument than there used to be. Already the younger people all play that way. So there’s going to be some big changes.

Copyright © 1973, Les Tomkins. All Rights Reserved.