Gary Burton's Jazz Journey

In an exclusive interview, seven-time GRAMMY winner details the major themes addressed in his autobiography, learning from collaborations and coming to terms with his sexuality
  • Gary Burton
September 05, 2013 -- 5:08 pm PDT
By Fernando Gonzalez / GRAMMY.com

In his newly published autobiography, Learning To Listen: The Jazz Journey Of Gary Burton, the seven-time GRAMMY-winning vibraphonist, bandleader and educator not only examines his remarkable career, but also tells the touching story of a child who felt "somehow different from the other boys" but grew up living as a straight man before coming to terms with his sexuality and starting a new life as a gay man in the '80s.

Burton, 70, started playing music at 6, taking lessons from a local vibraphone and marimba teacher. He learned fast, ultimately pursuing his education at Berklee College of Music in Boston and on the bandstands and in the recording studios with artists such as country guitarist Hank Garland, jazz pianist George Shearing and saxist Stan Getz.

By the mid-'60s, Burton formed his own group. A curious, restless artist, along the way Burton helped pioneer what would become jazz-rock fusion and explored smooth jazz and country, all while nurturing the talents of luminary musicians such as Pat Metheny, John Scofield and Larry Coryell. Burton also developed a parallel career as an educator at Berklee, beginning as a teacher and eventually retiring as executive vice president in 2004.

With a new album, Guided Tour, a tour with his quartet kicking off Sept. 12 in Washington, D.C., and having just married his longtime partner, Jonathan Chong, Burton is not slowing down anytime soon.

In an exclusive interview with GRAMMY.com, the jazz staple discusses the themes addressed in his autobiography, what he has learned from his many musical collaborations and coming to terms with his sexuality, among other topics.

Beyond telling your story, what were the issues you wanted to address in your book?
I decided I had three things to tell. First, my life in jazz, that's the obvious. Then, how I figured out I was gay and how I adjusted to it in my career and with my family and relationships. And the third theme is how creativity works. I've been teaching this for three decades and people who are not musicians are always asking, "How do you do what you do? How do you know what notes to play? How do you know what he's going to play?" I realize that there's a lot of mystery in music for people, and I've always wanted to dispel it.

How did you pick the vibraphone? That's not exactly the first instrument a kid starting in music has in mind, probably much less in a rural town in Indiana.
I didn't pick the vibraphone. My parents picked it for me because there was a teacher nearby. I assumed there were vibraphones everywhere. It was later on that I found out that nobody had ever heard of the thing. And I did have doubts about [playing the vibraphone] by the time I moved to New York. When I lived in Boston I played more gigs on piano because there were no gigs for vibes.

You have worked with many great artists, from pianist George Shearing and saxophonist Stan Getz to tango composer Astor Piazzolla and classical composer Samuel Barber. What did you take away from those experiences?
I learned about harmony from George and about melody from Stan because they were really terrific, especially on those two aspects. With Astor there were two things that were different from my usual jazz experience. One was he wanted more drama, more expression in the melody lines than I was used to playing. At first, I felt I was overdoing it, but when I went back to playing jazz I found my playing more expressive. The other thing was I was used to soloing jazz style. In [Piazzolla's] case, he wanted me to improvise in spots: play something there; try something there; fill a little something here. So I learned to go back and forth between the written and the improvised. It was different. It changed the way I play jazz. My 10-year friendship with Samuel Barber meant a lot to me. At the time, well, it was something that didn't quite pan out. But now 30, 40 years later, I realize that here is one of the major classical musicians of my era and I got to see his personal life and got to know how he wrote and how he worked.

Many of your fans will be surprised when they read that you have "a kind of love/hate relationship with music" and "haven't practiced the vibraphone since high school." How did you get to this point?
When I talk about the love/hate [relationship], it's because I have the sensation that if I don't keep my distance, music would otherwise overwhelm me or drown me. When I get away from music, don't play for a month and come back to start the next tour, I feel fresh. Everybody thinks that if you are a musician you live and breathe music every waking moment. I used to listen to records pretty continuously in my late teens and early 20s, absorbing what everybody else was doing. And I played constantly. I practiced, I had lessons to prepare for — I was a very active young musician. But things changed. The first change was going on the road with George Shearing. I was 19 years old and that year I was on the road 312 days. I only saw the vibraphone at the gig. Otherwise it was on the truck or at the next town. My practicing became playing on the gig.

You write about realizing, around high school, that you "first sensed confusion about sex" and that you were "somehow different from the other boys." What was that experience like?
I didn't know what was going on with my sexuality once I became a teenager. We are talking about the mid-'50s in a farm town and there was no source of information or anybody to talk to. It was just scary. I knew it wasn't accepted, yet I had these feelings so I was terrified, and I spent the next several decades burying them.

When you figured out how to deal with your sexuality, you wrote that "anything but heterosexual in the jazz world was out of the question." What was the reaction when you finally did come out?
Well, it certainly appeared that way to me then. When I did finally come out, in the late-'80s, I wondered, "Will the phone not ring as much now? Will Chick [Corea] give me the cold shoulder? What about Pat?" So I sort of held my breath, but I never had a problem. I'm sure there are people who would say things when I wasn't around, but even back in the late-'80s, early-'90s when I was coming out it was becoming less of an issue in … the jazz world I was in. The other big concern was what Berklee would think. I remember going to an event with [then-boyfriend] Earl and the next day, [then-president] Lee [Berk] called me to his office and said, "I just want you to know Earl is welcome at any event, any meeting, anytime, anywhere." And I thought, "Well, I don't have to worry about Berklee."

(Fernando Gonzalez, an independent writer and editor, is a regular contributor to the International Review of Music, JazzTimes and Miami Herald. He is based in Miami.)

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