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Gary Burton's Jazz Journey
Gary Burton

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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

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

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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GRAMMYs On The Road With Gary Burton And Fred Hersch

GRAMMY.com conducts interviews backstage at the Detroit Jazz Festival

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

The Recording Academy played host to GRAMMYs On The Road at the Detroit Jazz Festival on Aug. 31 – Sept. 3 in downtown Detroit. GRAMMY.com conducted exclusive backstage interviews with artists performing at the festival, including six-time GRAMMY-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton and GRAMMY-nominated pianist Fred Hersch.

Burton discussed his introduction to the vibraphone, his career trajectory, combining elements of jazz and rock, and his collaborations with Chick Corea, among other topics.   

"[Chick Corea and I] played a short segment on the Berlin Jazz Festival and then went into a studio to record [our] first record," said Burton."That's when we discovered we had a real easy rapport playing together."

Burton formed his own quartet in 1967, recording albums that fused rock elements with jazz improvisation and sophisticated harmonies. That same year Burton received his first of 19 career GRAMMY nominations for Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Small Group Or for Duster. In 1972 he won his first GRAMMY for Best Jazz Performance By A Soloist for the album Alone At Last. Burton has earned his renown in performing in a duo format with musicians such as Corea, with whom he has won five GRAMMY Awards. The duo most recently won for Best Jazz Instrumental Album, Individual Or Group for The New Crystal Silence in 2008. His most recent recording is 2012's Hot House, another collaboration with Corea.

Hersch discussed his love for the piano, the influence of poetry and visual art on his music, the music J.S. Bach, among other topics.

"[Today] people listen [to music] while they're doing email, they listen in their car, they listen on the treadmill," said Hersch. "People don't sit and listen to [music] and I think that's an absolute tragedy because the experience of concentrating on music … is really good for your soul."

Hersch, who started playing piano at age 4, has recorded more than 45 albums as a performer, bandleader or duo partner since 1991. He has played as a sideman with artists such as Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Charlie Haden, and Bill Frisell. Hersch released his debut solo album, As One, in 1984. As the leader of the Fred Hersch Trio, Hersch has received five GRAMMY nominations, his first coming in 1993 for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance, Individual Or Group for "Dancing In The Dark." His most recent nomination was for Best Jazz Instrumental Album for Alone At The Vanguard in 2011.          

In addition to artist interviews, The Recording Academy also presented GRAMMY SoundTables featuring Detroit Jazz Festival performers discussing their music and careers. Participants included GRAMMY winners Terence Blanchard, Gary Burton and Joe Lovano.

Come back Monday for more GRAMMYs On The Road at Detroit Jazz Festival coverage.

And The GRAMMY Went To ... Chick Corea
Chick Corea

Photo: Rick Diamond/WireImage.com

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And The GRAMMY Went To ... Chick Corea

More on the jazz pianist's wins at the 55th GRAMMY Awards

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 05:06 am

(In the coming weeks GRAMMY.com will feature information and video highlights on winners from the 55th Annual GRAMMY Awards, held Feb. 10 in Los Angeles. Each installment will offer the winning or related video, and some pertinent, and not so pertinent, information about the track and the artists.)

Song: "Hot House" (iTunes>)

Artist: Gary Burton & Chick Corea

Won for: Best Improvised Jazz Solo

Previous wins: Corea has 18 prior GRAMMY wins. Burton has six prior wins.

Did you know?: Corea was nominated in five categories and won two GRAMMYs for Best Improvised Jazz Solo and Best Instrumental Composition. In addition to his win for "Hot House," Corea took Best Instrumental Composition for "Mozart Goes Dancing" from his Best Instrumental Jazz-nominated album, Hot House, which he made with Gary Burton. Corea's GRAMMY for "Mozart Goes Dancing" is his first as a composer. He has picked up other GRAMMYs for projects recorded with his Return To Forever, Akoustic, Elektric, and Origin bands. Corea teamed with bassist Stanley Clarke and sax player Kenny Garrett to pay tribute to the late Dave Brubeck on the 55th GRAMMY telecast.

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Set List Bonus: 35th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Lisa Goich-Andreadis
Detroit

If you asked my feet today how much they enjoyed the 35th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival, they would probably be in disagreement with my heart. Though I wasn't wearing a pedometer, I'm certain I walked no less than 10 miles from Aug. 29–Sept. 1, bouncing from stage to stage not wanting to miss a single note coming from the four stages of this year's festival.

With the Detroit River and Motor City skyline as a backdrop, the grittiness and soulful pride of a city that has seen its share of trouble over the past few years came alive over Labor Day weekend. The Detroit Jazz Festival is considered worldwide by audience members and artists as one of the best jazz festivals in the world, and this year's lineup did not disappoint.

Among the jazz luminaries in attendance — with numerous GRAMMY wins and nominations between them — were: Phil Woods, Pharoah Sanders, Freda Payne, Joshua Redman, Regina Carter, Ramsey Lewis, Dave Holland, Wallace Roney, Stanley Clarke, Christian McBride, and Esperanza Spalding, among others. Though it was virtually impossible to catch every act without cloning myself, I tried my best to hit not only the big names, but also the college bands and lesser-known artists. After all, they are the stars of tomorrow.

Here are some of my highlights:

  • With my college roommates in attendance — celebrating the life of one of our roommates we lost this past month — the five of us spent Aug. 30 watching our alma mater's band — Central Michigan University Big Band perform before a full house on the main stage. The talent the students possessed was mind-blowing.
  • Payne was a crowd favorite. She performed along with the United States Air Force's the Airmen Of Note and delivered her Top 3 hit "Band Of Gold."
  • Redman, the 2014 Detroit Jazz Festival Artist in Residence, performed with his quartet on Aug. 31. His closing number, "Let It Be," drew a standing ovation from the packed crowd.
  • GRAMMY winner Gary Burton performed with his quintet on Detroit's waterfront on Aug. 31. With the night settling in, their cool version of "My Funny Valentine" was exactly what was needed on an otherwise sweltering afternoon.
  • GRAMMY-winning bassist Dave Holland performed Aug. 31 with his band Prism, featuring Kevin Eubanks, Craig Taborn and Eric Harland. It was clear the band had been touring extensively for the past year as their playing was air-tight. Eubanks' solo on his composition "Dancing Sea" was visceral and flawless. 
  • There can't be a jazz festival without some good New Orleans music. This year the Dirty Dozen Brass Band had the crowd on their feet. Even my 92-year-old dad was on his feet, yelling, "Who dat?" in a call-and-response with the band.
  • GRAMMY-winning pianist Ramsey Lewis performed a tribute to Nat "King" Cole with jazz vocalist/guitarist John Pizzarelli. They covered "Route 66," "Smile" and a beautiful version of "Nature Boy."

The weekend wrapped with a Recording Academy-sponsored talk tent event featuring an intimate conversation with Clarke, who discussed winning his first GRAMMY for Chick Corea And Return To Forever's 1975 album No Mystery. He recalled learning about the win while watching the ceremony on TV when Ella Fitzgerald and Mel Tormé presented the award and Tormé referred to Chick Corea as "Chuck."

Clarke also discussed his career beginnings in Philadelphia — a city he refers to as one of two places in the world swarming with bass players (the other being Cameroon, Africa).

"Maybe it's the cheesesteaks," Clarke confessed.

Clarke also revealed it was Corea who enticed him and Herbie Hancock to move to the West Coast. "They got fresh orange juice out there" Clarke recalled Corea announcing after a visit, to which Hancock and Clarke enthusiastically responded, "Let's move there!"

Another highlight of the talk tent came during the question-and-answer session when an audience member asked, "I heard a story about you playing the EB3 bass using your thumb. Could you tell me a little bit about that?"

As Clarke began telling the story of "a drummer" who gave him that tip, the crowd — catching on before Clarke could see the audience member who asked the question — began laughing as Return To Forever bandmate Lenny White removed his baseball cap and sunglasses to reveal his identity. The audience members cheered as White joined Clarke onstage for a few minutes. It truly was a great moment in Detroit Jazz Festival history. 

(Lisa Goich-Andreadis, a Detroit native living in Los Angeles, manages the Jazz & Comedy Fields for The Recording Academy. She's currently working on a memoir titled 14 Days and can be heard as a special guest on "The Mitch Albom Show" on WJR-AM in Detroit. For more information on Lisa and her projects, visit her website at www.lisagoich.com.)  

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Set List Bonus: 34th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival

GRAMMYs/Dec 3, 2014 - 04:22 am

Welcome to The Set List. Here you'll find the latest concert recaps for many of your favorite, or maybe not so favorite, artists. Our bloggers will do their best to provide you with every detail of the show, from which songs were on the set list to what the artist was wearing to which out-of-control fan made a scene. Hey, it'll be like you were there. And if you like what you read, we'll even let you know where you can catch the artist on tour. Feel free to drop us a comment and let us know your concert experience. Oh, and rock on.

By Lisa Goich-Andreadis
Detroit

"I'm proud to say I'm from Detroit." Trombonist George Bohanon echoed my sentiments during his "Jazz In The Motor City: Past, Present And Future " Jazz Talk Tent event on Sept. 2 during the final day of the 34th Annual Detroit Jazz Festival. Bohanon was one of four panelists who was born and raised on jazz in Detroit, along with saxists James Carter and J.D. Allen and pianist Geri Allen. The panel, which was moderated by jazz writer Kim Heron, marked one of nearly 100 presentations and performances taking place from Aug. 30–Sept. 2 in Detroit's Campus Martius Park and Hart Plaza.

As the largest free jazz festival in the world, the event attracted more than 2 million people and took over several city blocks from the Detroit River to downtown with live jazz blowing, swinging and blasting across five stages. Ravi Coltrane, Joe Lovano, the Yellowjackets, and John Scofield were just a few of the giants who graced the stages of the 2013 installment.

GRAMMY winner and Detroit Jazz Festival artist-in-residence Danilo Pérez kicked off the festivities on Aug. 30. The Panamanian-born pianist brought his blend of Pan-American jazz to the main stage with sophisticated pieces, including "Rediscovering The Pacific Ocean." The David Murray Big Band featuring GRAMMY winner Macy Gray followed with songs such as "Stressology" and "Relating To A Psychopath." Her set was shortened due to monsoon rains that washed spectators out of their seats and sent them running for cover into local restaurants and bars. By the time Gray, who was decked out in a purple dress and red boa, sashayed into "Be My Monster Love," the raindrops were making their own rhythms on the steaming pavement. 

Similar to jazz itself, attending a festival of this magnitude requires a lot of improvisation. Even though I tried to plan the acts I wanted to see, sounds coming from various stages often drew me in other directions. For example, while GRAMMY-winning guitarist Bill Frisell was exploring the music of the Beatles and John Lennon on the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage with his breezy arrangements of "Across The Universe," "Come Together," "In My Life," and "Give Peace A Chance," the Terell Stafford Quintet and Freddy Cole Quartet were simultaneously filling the air with sounds of trumpets and the Great American Songbook on stages bordering the riverfront.

Noteworthy highlights were performances by two-time GRAMMY nominees Gregory Porter and Ahmad Jamal, and the Mack Avenue Superband, who packed the Carhartt Amphitheater Stage on Aug. 31 with jazz luminaries Kirk Whalum, Carl Allen, Gary Burton, Sean Jones, Warren Wolf, Evan Perri, Aaron Diehl, and Pérez. The Mack Avenue Superband drew a standing ovation during a duet performance of Chick Corea's "Señor Mouse" featuring vibraphonists Wolf and Burton. The following day, Porter made the crowd forget about the sticky temperatures with his cool renditions of "Painted On Canvas," "On My Way To Harlem," Nat Adderley's "Work Song," and his own nod to the 1967 Detroit riots with "1960 What?" It's no surprise that the Huffington Post calls Porter the "brilliant new voice of jazz." Jamal wowed a breathing room-only crowd with his closing performance.

As I passed GRAMMY winner Robert Glasper in the taxi line (he on his way to his performance and I on my way out of town), I wanted to hitch a ride with him instead of leaving my beloved city behind. This festival is unmatched and a testament to the healthy state of music in Detroit.

(Lisa Goich-Andreadis, a Detroit native living in Los Angeles, manages the Jazz & Comedy Fields for The Recording Academy. She's currently working on a memoir titled 14 Days and can be heard as a special guest on "The Mitch Albom Show" on WJR-AM in Detroit. For more information on Lisa and her projects, visit her website at www.lisagoich.com.)