The music scene

Vibraphonist Gary Burton: A gay guy who plays music

Grammy-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton in his Fort Lauderdale home, Sept. 4, 2013. Burton, who has written an autobiography, has won seven Grammys and lives with his husband, Jonathan Chong.
Grammy-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton in his Fort Lauderdale home, Sept. 4, 2013. Burton, who has written an autobiography, has won seven Grammys and lives with his husband, Jonathan Chong.
Charles Trainor Jr. / Miami Herald Staff

Seven-time Grammy winner Gary Burton is one of the world’s best-known jazz vibraphonists. But until late middle age, even Burton didn’t know something crucial to his being: He’s gay.

"I was gay all along," says the one-time prodigy, now 70 and a Fort Lauderdale resident since 2003. “I just couldn’t allow myself to accept it. I think I said I was so busy keeping it a secret from everyone else that I kept it a secret from me, too.”

Burton recently released a new CD, Guided Tour, and a memoir, Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton ($28, Berklee Press).

The new autobiography is as much about Burton’s musicianship as it is about his being comfortable as a gay man.

"When I came out publicly, officially in 1994 in an interview with Terry Gross on NPR, she asked me what it was like being a gay jazz musician," Burton recalls.

"I gave this statement that I was a musician who happened to be gay. I’ve been now a more fully out gay person in all these years since then, and it’s safe to say I feel it’s the opposite: I’m a gay guy who happens to be a jazz musician," he says. "I describe it that way because I don’t think about music every waking moment. I do lots of things during the day and some days I hardly think about the music at all, if I’m not working that day or playing that day."

Burton grew up in small-town Indiana, teaching himself music. He recalls experimenting with other boys in high school but not identifying as gay. At a military draft office in 1963, he answered honestly to the question, "Have you ever had any homosexual tendencies?" Yes.

A short time later, he and several other gay draftees were dismissed. "Okay, all you faggots get out of here," a uniformed man shouted at them.

The same year, Burton began touring the world with pianist George Shearing. He joined saxophonist Stan Getz’s band in 1964, months after they recorded the monster hit, The Girl From Ipanema.

Getz frequently called Burton "faggot" and Ipanema vocalist Astrud Gilberto assumed he was gay "since I was the only man she knew who hadn’t come on to her," Burton writes. "But my real reason for disliking Astrud was that she just didn’t sing well."

In the late 1960s, Burton started his own quartet and found huge success. DownBeat magazine named him its youngest Jazzman of the Year in 1968. He has had a 40-year musical collaboration with pianist Chick Corea, and played with modern jazz luminaries including Pat Metheny, Keith Jarrett and tango legend Astor Piazzolla.

Burton twice married women, in the ’60s and ’70s. He and second wife Catherine, granddaughter of famed Hollywood producer Samuel Goldwyn, have two grown children together, Stephanie and Sam. Two years ago, Burton became a grandfather.

In July, Burton married his longtime partner, Jonathan Chong, 32, in Provincetown, Mass.

Burton, a retired professor and executive vice president at Berklee College of Music in Boston, says coming out has enhanced his musicianship.

"Naturally, your state of mind and your emotional state is reflected somewhat in what you play," he says. "When I go back and listen to early records I made, I don’t hear them as being cold and unemotional. But I can say that after I came out, I felt a greater sense of freedom when I was playing."


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