Pioneering jazz vibraphonist and seven-time Grammywinner Gary Burton, 71, is an alumnus and the former executive vice president of Berklee College of Music, where he also taught as a professor. His recently released autobiography, Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton, chronicles his life performing and interacting with such musical legends as Chick Corea (his longtime collaborator), Pat Metheny, Chet Atkins, Eric Clapton, Astor Piazzola and Stan Getz, as well as his coming out as a gay man relatively late in life. A native of rural Indiana, he now lives in Florida with his husband.
Jonathan Soroff: You’ve got seven Grammys. Where do you keep them all?
Gary Burton: I have a shelf in the living room that they fit perfectly on. If I get an eighth one of these days, I’ll have to remodel.
That was my parents’ fault. My parents wanted all three of us children to take music lessons. It was something my father, growing up in the Depression, had wanted to do, but never could. My older sister had piano lessons, and I started showing interest. The story was that I was in the other room while she was practicing, and I shouted out, “No, that’s not an E-flat; it’s an E-natural.” My father looked around for an instrument in this town where we lived, and there was a lady who played the marimba and the vibraphone, and that was it.
My teacher showed me how to hold the four sticks, and I just kept on doing it. I was playing alone, and it didn’t sound complete. I was playing one melody line, and I wanted chords, harmony. So the four mallets was the way to do that. I had no idea that was rarely done or that I was pioneering something.
Well, where I lived was only a few hours’ drive from Nashville, so I managed to connect down there. There was a saxophone player named Boots Randolph. He had a novelty record called “Yakety Sax,” which, in fact, was used as the theme song to The Benny Hill Show. Anyway, I knew him from playing local clubs, and through him I connected with a guitarist. And the next thing I knew, I was 17, playing clubs and making a record. Chet Atkins heard me, and by the end of the summer, before I was supposed to be coming to school in Boston, I already had a record contract.
Carnegie Hall. If you stand in the middle of that stage and play, you sound like a million dollars to yourself. It’s really a sweet spot, acoustically. I have no idea what it’s like in the audience.
Probably a club, where I could be closer to the musicians. But personally, I prefer playing concert halls. The hours are shorter. You get home in time to watch some TV…
Best jazz festival?
My favorite is still the Newport Jazz Festival. Monterey is very good. And there are some good ones in Europe. But most of the big jazz festivals are too big. There’s too much chaos, too many shows going on at the same time. There’s something about Newport that’s just so special.
I guess the misconception that jazz musicians are these struggling artists. That may have been true back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, but today, jazz musicians who have a following are successful and lead very settled lives. There’s almost no drug use in the jazz world anymore. The old stereotype of the jazz musician living one gig to the next isn’t true anymore.
It seemed like it was, back in the ’40s and the ’50s. A lot of the top players were into heroin and cocaine and drinking. And because the big stars were doing it, the young players thought they should too. So there was a period when it was rampant. But something changed by the time my generation came along. I always thought maybe it was that rock music came along and took over the bad-boy image. But jazz kind of grew up. My generation came along, and we wanted nothing to do with it, because we’d seen what it had done to the guys who came before us.
Oh, no. I did. For about a decade, pretty steadily, in my 20s. But I never considered that in the same league as addictive drugs. Today, you never hear about hard drugs in the jazz world. No one will hire you. It’s too much of a risk.
Well, the thing about arena rock is that you generally have a short span of success. You turn 30, you’ve got another 50 years to live, and you’re no longer popular. Jazz musicians, once you’re established, you can work until you no longer function. The quickie pop success is very hard to manage. Especially for a 22-year-old.
My record collection is around five or six hundred. I’m pretty good about not keeping things I’ll never listen to.
I’ve been impressed with Lady Gaga. I think she’s very clever in the way she writes and produces her songs. She’s very talented. I’m not a big fan of pop music, though. Most rap music, I don’t get it at all. But the irony of that is that, to date, 19 rappers have sampled my music.
Miles Davis. He threatened to kill me. I did an interview with a jazz critic, and my band was kind of considered to have started a new genre: fusion jazz, melding jazz with rock and roll. Anyway, I told the writer that as young musicians, we wanted to find our own voice instead of copying the guys who came before us. I said something like, “Not every trumpet player can play like Miles Davis.” But what the critic wrote was “Miles Davis is old hat.” I was mortified. The next week, I was working at a club in San Francisco, and Miles came in and was talking to the owner, who mentioned that we were playing there. Miles said, “If he ever mentions my name again, I’ll kill him.” I wrote him a note apologizing and left it in his hotel. I have no idea if he got it.
Not really. Berklee’s always had a history of people coming and staying for as long as they need to. If you’re at a professional level, you’re being offered jobs. There are some students who are better players than their teachers.
I don’t know. I’ve always felt that’s a personal decision, just like deciding to give up. It was never my place to tell them that. Everyone comes to those decisions in their own time.
I expected it to be, but it wasn’t. I think it might have been less welcoming when I started out, but by 1985, or whenever it was that I came out, it wasn’t a big deal. I saw myself as a family guy. I was comfortable in both of my marriages, and they didn’t end because I was having a gay relationship. I was just very confused and didn’t really understand my sexuality. And when I did come out, I never had a negative experience. None of my musician friends or collaborators ever turned away. My career has reached new heights in the last 30 years.
I guess winning the Grammys, because the awards are chosen by your peers. It feels more important. The thing I’m particularly proud of is that my Grammys are spread out over the decades, so they sort of validate my consistency or excellence as a performer.
Crystal Silence. My first collaboration with Chick. It came out in ’73. It’s hard to choose when you have 60-some records, but if I had to, I’d say it was one of the most significant to me.
The hair. I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I had a pretty substantial handlebar mustache for years, until my boyfriend told me I’d look younger if I shaved it off.
Well, it’s been used for jingles. NPR uses jazz for interludes between segments. Not that it’s odd. And I guess people do say odd things to me, like one man who said, “Your music got me through Vietnam.” That was heavy.
With a groove.