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.”
“Let’s face it, every band needs a drummer, a bass player, a guitar, but nobody thinks of a vibraphone player. So I figured I had to make myself desirable. I was good player, but as I discovered at Berklee, there were many talented kids — but nobody had a car, nobody knew how to get a gig or how to get the band to the gig, and I was very good at this.”
Learning to Listen is about large, important themes— and how to get to the gig.
It’s also a story populated by larger-than-life characters in all their glory and folly, smartly told in Burton’s understated style.
And so you meet “a bunch of guys named Stan Getz,” as the saxophone legend was once described by Zoot Sims, a colleague in the famous Four Brothers sax section of Woody Herman’s band. Getz is a phenomenal artist, and Burton’s admiration is clear. But you also witness Getz stumbling through a messy affair with Astrud Gilberto, the voice of The Girl From Ipanema. And you get a stage-eye view of a Marx Brothers-worthy scene at Carnegie Hall involving a blind organist, a wheelchair-bound Getz and Dionne Warwick taking tiny, geisha-like steps because she’s wearing borrowed, oversized shoes.
Along the way, Burton befriends composer Samuel Barber and composer-inventor Harry Partch, and shares the road with such artists as George Shearing, Chick Corea and Astor Piazzolla.
He also offers an intriguing perspective on the great composer and bandleader Duke Ellington and his longtime collaborator and friend Billy Strayhorn, an openly gay pianist and composer.
“If Duke wasn’t gay, he was uncommonly gay-friendly, a rare attribute during his era,” writes Burton. “Their arrangement was both mysterious and very personal; for instance Strayhorn didn’t draw a salary like the other musicians, but simply sent the bill for whatever he needed to Duke.”
Burton, who met Ellington several times and was invited to the recording of the Far East Suite in 1967, notes that “his son, Mercer, even said in an interview back in the day that he always assumed that Duke was gay. But the jazz community protects Duke’s reputation fiercely because, after all, he’s one of the fathers of jazz. If he became known as a gay person, some people think it would undermine thousands of people’s image of the great Duke Ellington.”
Part of Burton’s struggle addressing his own sexuality was the thought that “anything but heterosexual in the jazz world was out of the question.” Strayhorn was the exception, not the rule. So when Burton finally came out, in the late ’80s, he says, he wondered: “Will the phone not ring as much?”
As it turned out, he didn’t receive a single negative reaction.
“Even back in ’80s and early ’90s, it was becoming less and less of an issue in the level of the jazz world I was in.”
Perhaps the most surprising revelations in the book are Burton’s frank admissions of having “a kind of love-hate relationship with music,” almost never listening to recordings and not practicing the vibraphone “since high school.”
“Everybody thinks that if you are a musician you live and breathe music every waking moment, and that your idea of a great night out is going to a club and hear some players,” he says. “But I need my distance. I have this sense that I would feel suffocated.”
As for practicing, “when I get away from music, don’t play for awhile and then I come back to start the next tour, I feel fresh.”
With his autobiography hitting the stores, a new album ( Guided Tour with the New Gary Burton Quartet) already out and a tour starting in September, Burton’s “second life” is in full swing. A few weeks ago he married his partner of 8 1/2 years, Jonathan Chong.
As Ellington himself once said: “Retiring to what?”
If anything, says Burton, “as I was finishing this book I felt I don’t have to prove anything anymore. I’ve successfully completed one career [at Berklee] and successfully done enough in this career so that everything I do from now on is extra and fun.”