James Gary Burton was 6, growing up in a small town in Indiana, when his father decided he should have music lessons. Looking for the appropriate instrument, the family attended several music performances, including one by a marimba and vibraphone teacher.
“I don’t really remember this experience, or even the fact that I apparently showed sufficient interest to convince my parents this was the instrument I wanted to play,” Burton says in his autobiography, Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton, to be published in September by Berklee Press.
But vibraphone it was. And just like that, the improbable path of one of the great jazz musicians of his generation was set. Burton, 70, grew up to be a master vibraphonist and bandleader, the winner of seven Grammy Awards and an influential educator at one of his field’s leading schools, the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
“I didn’t pick the vibraphone,” deadpans Burton in an interview at his home in Fort Lauderdale’s Poinsettia Park neighborhood. “My parents picked it for me because there was a teacher nearby, and what did I know? I assumed there were vibraphones everywhere. It was later on that I found out that nobody had ever heard of the thing.”
By turns funny and poignant, graceful and down to earth, Learning to Listen brings the reader along on Burton’s early scrambling and the bandstand lessons learned from artists such as Hank Garland, George Shearing and Stan Getz, all the way to the global success of leading his own bands, pioneering jazz-rock fusion and nurturing the talent of musicians including Pat Metheny, Larry Coryell and John Scofield.
And that is only part of the story. There’s also the tale of the kid who “around high school age … first sensed confusion about sex,” and felt he was “somehow different from the other boys.” With no one to confide in, he writes, “I coped with the confusion as best I could, given I was growing up in ’50s rural Indiana.”
“It was just scary,” he says now. “I had these feelings and I knew they weren’t accepted, so I was terrified about them. I spent the next several decades burying those feelings.”
And so Burton would go on to live, as he puts it, two lives: the first one as a twice-married man, father of two; the second, beginning in the 1980s, as an openly gay man.
“When I made a list of the things I wanted to talk about in this book, I decided I had three things to tell: one was my life in jazz. That’s the obvious one. Then how I figured out I was gay and how I adjusted to it in my career and with my family and relationships. I’m a gay guy in the jazz world, and a gay guy who made it all the way to the top of my profession.
“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.
“The title has to do with the fact that all three of my stories involve becoming a better listener.”
Perhaps it’s his Midwestern roots, but with Burton, the creative and the poetic sit side-by-side with the practical nuts-and-bolts. He can discuss his musical growth almost lyrically, and then offer that one of the secrets of his early success was that he “could get gigs for the band.”