“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.”