Gary Burton: Intergenerational Vibe
After spending more than 30 years at Berklee as a music educator, five-time Grammy winner Gary Burton is back on the road with a brand-new album and an amazing band of young musicians.
|Photo by Laurie Swope|
It's a cool, fogged-in November day outside Fantasy Recording studios in Berkeley, California, but inside, Gary Burton and his Generations Band are fully warmed up and laying down tracks for Burton's new Concord Records CD, Next Generation. There is an ironic symmetry to the new group. Burton, now 61 and recently retired from Berklee, is leading a quartet of gifted young musicians with its youngest member, Julian Lage, being a mere 16 years old. Burton and Lage are sort of like bookends to the band. Lage and the other members are just launching their careers; Burton is a time-tested veteran of the road, studio, and classroom. Burton was once the wunderkind himself, signing his first recording contract with RCA Records the summer after graduating from high school. Now the seasoned pro, he deftly leads his young charges through extended compositions with shifting meters, angular melodic lines, and complex chord progressions. They play without hesitation, and no one appears even close to breaking a sweat.
By virtue of his placement on the jazz history time line, Burton has been able to capitalize on advances in his art that were unavailable to musicians of an earlier age. The sophistication of young jazz musicians like those in his current lineup can be attributed to the spread of jazz education that has taken place worldwide since the 1960s. Burton, who dedicated three decades of his life to jazz education at Berklee, is seeing the pay-off. Three of his young sidemen (pianist Vadim Neselovskyi, drummer James Williams, and bassist Luques Curtis) are products of Berklee and possess musical facility, stylistic range, and depth that Burton says was extremely rare when he was their age. Jazz guitar prodigy Julian Lage hasn't attended Berklee.
Burton knows a bit about musical prodigies having been one himself and having nurtured the career of 19-year-old guitarist Pat Metheny in the mid-1970s. Burton hit his stride as a bandleader in the late 1960s as a front-runner in the jazz-rock movement. For a time, that musical path put him on the bill with rock acts such as Cream at Bill Graham's historic Fillmore West in San Francisco and other venues. A ticket featuring jazz and rock artists would be an anomaly in today's music industry.
While other jazz musicians such as Red Norvo had played the vibes with four mallets before Burton did, it was Burton who took the technique to new heights, influencing the way subsequent generations approached his instrument. Burton has won five Grammy Awards over a 27-year span, validating him as an artist with remarkable longevity. His first Grammy came in 1972 for his Alone at Last album and he earned his latest in 1999 for the Like Minds recording. In a wide-ranging conversation at the end of the first day of the Next Generation recording sessions, Burton spoke about the entirety of his career and his plans for the future.
How did your new group Gary Burton and the Generations Band come together?
During the spring  semester when I was preparing for Pat Metheny to come for a residency at Berklee, I rehearsed a student ensemble for a project that Pat would produce. Vadim Neselovskyi was the pianist and James Williams was the drummer. Vadim had come to my office with a demo of his music. He had written a lot of elaborate and very original music and was a great player. I wasn't thinking of putting a band together with these young students, but I got excited about working with Vadim, James, and a bass player named Luques Curtis with whom James liked to work. I had Julian Lage in the back of my mind, as I have worked with him over the past four years. I didn't have a clear plan about what I would do when I left Berklee. Then, suddenly, it all came into focus, and at the end of the semester I asked the guys if they wanted to form this group. Of course they all said yes.
You are a mentor to these young players. Didn't you have some important mentors when you started out?
Absolutely. This is a well-established tradition among jazz musicians. I've found that some older musicians gravitate toward younger players. When I was 17, I met Hank Garland, who was the top session guitarist in Nashville at the time. He helped me get started. When I got to Boston, Herb Pomeroy and Ray Santisi, who were older than me, invited me to play on their gigs. When I moved to New York in 1962, I got to work with George Shearing and, later, Stan Getz. I found that a lot of older players were willing to nurture and give a platform to an up-and-coming player.
I understand that you were a vibes prodigy in your early years, but you weren't aware of jazz until you were a teenager.
I started playing in 1949, beginning with classical pieces and popular songs of the day on marimba and vibraphone. When I was eight or nine, I began playing gigs with a local woman accompanying me on piano. Four or five times a month we would play a half-hour program at churches, Kiwanis clubs, or company parties. Later, my older sister took over on piano, and my brother joined us playing clarinet and bass. Our repertoire included a few classical pieces, some dixieland tunes, and some novelty numbers. I used to play the "Flight of the Bumblebee" blindfolded. I would tap-dance and play at the same time. We did songs for every season and mixed in some comedy too. It was kind of a vaudeville act at the tail end of the vaudeville era. My mother made our stage clothes and my father drove us to the gigs. At our peak, we were playing about 100 gigs a year.
Everything changed when I turned 13 and discovered jazz. I lost interest in the family group and became serious about being a musician. I always thought I'd be a doctor or a chemical engineer like my father and music would be something to do on the side. Then I went to the first Stan Kenton summer band camp at Indiana University in Bloomington. Some of the teachers there-including John LaPorta and Ray Santisi-also taught at Berklee. We played music day and night and I thought I was in heaven. I came home and told my parents that I was going to try being a musician. They didn't flinch; they told me that was fine.
Burton's Generations Band
Burton met Williams, Curtis, and Neselovskyi while they were Berklee students. Pianist Vadim Neselovskyi lived in Ukraine and Germany before coming to Berklee in 2001. According to Burton, Neselovskyi "is a real find" owing to his classical training, jazz sensibilities, and his gifts for composing and arranging. Neselovskyi contributed two extended compositions and arranged two other pieces for the new CD.
Drummer James Williams was recommended to Burton for a tribute concert he was organizing to honor pioneers of the vibraphone. He did a great job, and Burton kept him in mind for future projects. The vibist was impressed by Williams's great time feel, reading abilities, and familiarity with a range of musical styles.
Bassist Luques Curtis, who hails from Hartford, Connecticut, has worked frequently with Williams, and Burton saw their unity as a rhythm section as a big plus for the group. Curtis also works with the Donald Harrison Quintet, and wrote one tune for the Next Generation CD.
Guitarist Julian Lage is 16 and a college student from California. Burton was impressed when he saw Lage for the first time, when Lage was only 12-years-old, playing for the 2000 Grammy Awards telecast. Burton later tapped Lage for a few gigs and featured him on his 2004 CD Generations. Burton predicts that Lage will be a major success in the jazz world. Lage penned three tunes appearing on the CD.
"These guys are really easy to work with," says Burton. "Sometimes I forget how young they are because they handle themselves so well. They were not the least bit intimidated about being in the studio making a record and playing very complex music. Remembering what the level of musicians was when I was a student 40 years ago, I can tell you that these guys are way above it."
How did you meet Hank Garland and get your first break in Nashville?
I met him through saxophonist Boots Randolph, who had a hit song called "Yackety Sax." Boots was living in Evansville, Indiana, and played at a club where I would go and sit in. Boots also played on Nashville sessions. Hank Garland, a guitarist, was the major country instrumentalist back then and wanted to make a jazz record. He had asked Boots if he knew any vibes players and Boots told him about me. So I put my vibes into Boots's Cadillac and we drove from Indiana to Nashville. After I played a couple of tunes with Hank, he asked me what my plans were. I told him that after I finished high school I was going to go to college in Boston. He helped me find a place to live in Nashville for the summer and I tagged along to his sessions, played clubs with him, and played on his jazz record [Jazz Winds from a New Direction].
It turned out that a lot of people involved in country music then were jazz fans. I had ignored country music when I was surrounded by it growing up in Indiana. When I got to Nashville, I found that it was pretty interesting music. I'm still a fan of the old country music-Bill Monroe's bluegrass and George Jones's songs still get to me. The three months I spent in Nashville were amazing. I met big names such as [guitarist] Chet Atkins and [singer] Jim Reeves. I played on [country pianist] Floyd Kramer's first album Last Date. It was a huge hit for Floyd and the first gold record I played on.
At the end of the summer, Chet Atkins told me that he had talked to RCA executives in New York about signing me to a contract. I signed with RCA before I left Indiana for college. While I was attending Berklee, I would go down to New York periodically and make a record for RCA. The curriculum at Berklee wasn't very large back then and after two years, I had taken almost every course I wanted. I decided to move to New York because I was getting calls for gigs, had a few records out, and was starting to show up in the Down Beat magazine polls.
How did you come to work with George Shearing?
During the spring of 1962, after I'd moved to New York, George called me on the recommendation of [pianist] Marian McPartland. I auditioned for him, and he offered me the job. Two years later, George decided to stop traveling and do a radio show. So I was in New York wondering what I would do next.
A friend of mine, Chuck Israels, played bass for Stan Getz and told me they were looking for a guitar player, but were also thinking about vibes. My audition didn't go very well, though. I didn't know Stan's arrangements or the tunes he had me sit in on. I was fumbling around, and Stan started thinking that vibes wouldn't work very well. About a week later, though, Chuck called me and asked if I could just fill in for three weeks on some upcoming gigs until they found a permanent player. It wasn't a real vote of confidence, but I did it. By the end of the three weeks, the group had gelled. Stan asked me to stay on a little longer, and that turned into three years.
I learned a ton of stuff from Stan about music and business. He was at the peak of his career during those years. He had his biggest hit records and we were playing big halls, making records and movies, and I saw how everything worked and how deals were put together. Unfortunately, Stan was a heavy alcoholic during the time I worked with him. He seemed to do everything wrong in his business dealings with promoters and record companies. I used to joke with him that I learned everything not to do from him.
A decade later, I got to see Pat Metheny do the same thing when he was in my band at 19. Most sidemen don't pay any attention to the business, but you can always tell the future leaders because they are interested in all of the business aspects. Pat was at my house when Manfred Eicher came over to negotiate a record deal with me for his label ECM. Pat soaked it all in and later watched me deal with promoters and saw how I structured my sets. He said later that he had an idea of how it all worked when he went to form his own band. He's gone on to be far more sophisticated as a bandleader and recording artist than I have been. He learned how to be a major commercial success as a serious jazz figure. It is a delicate balance, and he has done it more successfully than anyone else I know. He is a mega-record seller and has a huge popular following, yet his integrity as a player is absolutely solid. Usually it is one or the other.
What prompted you to leave the Stan Getz band and go start your own group?
Stan was very generous to all of his players. He constantly announced my name throughout the sets, featured me on pieces, and gave me so much exposure that after three years with him I was receiving lots of audience recognition.
During the last year I was with him, I felt that my style began to emerge. I knew it was time to leave and start my own band. I had to find something different that I could call my own. I had two major influences. One was Stan Getz and the Brazilian music he was playing; the other was the Beatles. I was a huge Beatles fan. I was fascinated by the variety of the music on their records. There would be a track with a string quartet, another with a sitar, and the next might be a shuffle or something psychedelic. I thought it would be nice to take these influences and move beyond the jazz realm.
At that time in jazz, entire records would feature one concept, theme, and instrumentation. I was intrigued with eclecticism and wanted my band to break out of the one-concept tradition. Instead of having every cut be a swing-time tune, we would incorporate elements of classical, rock, or whatever. As it turned out, the rock tunes were the ones audiences noticed. Critics coined the term jazz-rock and applied it to us. Many people assume that the whole jazz-rock or fusion thing started with Miles Davis and his Bitches Brew album. In truth, there were others including myself who were experimenting with rock before Miles did. I was among the pioneers of the style. I didn't see it as a trend others would follow; I was just trying to find something to identify as my own.
How did you move from that style to the more European-flavored jazz you recorded for the ECM label?
As time went on, I started feeling less a part of the fusion movement. Things were getting louder and more electric and there started to be no place for me there because I played a quiet instrument. I wanted a different but similar path. I wanted to continue the straight-eighth-note rhythms and the harmonic structures I was exploring, but I wanted my group to sound more like a jazz band than a rock band. I was doing what would become the ECM sound. When I met Manfred Eicher, he had launched the ECM label with a few artists-Chick Corea being one of the first. I was about to renew my contract with Atlantic Records, a major label. It was unheard of to go from a big label to a smaller one, but I decided to do it and let the chips fall as they might. I signed with ECM and it was the right move. I took [drummer] Harry Blazer, [bassist] Abe Laboriel, and [guitarist] Mick Goodrick into the studio to record the New Quartet album. That was the first of 16 records I made over a 16-year period with ECM.
Your performing career was really blossoming when you went into education. What motivated you to go in that direction?
I got interested in teaching after giving some clinics at music stores and colleges. Clinics were becoming a burgeoning new area for musicians, and I was doing 10 or 15 a year. I found that I had an ability to put my ideas about jazz into words. I was offered a job on the faculty at the University of Illinois, but I couldn't imagine basing myself in Champaign, Illinois, and keeping my performing career going. I could, however, imagine basing my career in Boston. So I set up a meeting with Bob Share and Larry Berk at Berklee. They hadn't had good experiences up to that point hiring musicians with established performing careers, but they decided to give me a shot. I moved to Boston and started teaching in the fall of 1971.
My fear was that I would lose my credibility as a player if people thought I was teaching and not playing anymore. I killed myself for the first few years taking every gig I could squeeze into the schedule to keep my visibility. It seemed to work. I got more gigs and even won my first Grammy in 1972 for the Alone at Last album. My career was going great and I found teaching inspiring. Since then, it has become fairly common for active jazz players to have jobs teaching at colleges. It's good for the colleges, the students, and the players; everybody wins.
When you became Berklee's dean of curriculum and then executive vice president, your performing took a backseat for a while.
The truth is, I was going to quit Berklee before I became a dean. I had been teaching there for 14 years and found that I was saying the same things over and over to different batches of kids. I was starting to experience burnout. After Bob Share passed away, Lee Berk reorganized the school and asked me to be on the search committee to find a new dean of curriculum. We had interviewed several people without finding the right candidate. One morning Lee called and asked me to meet him for breakfast. He told me he wanted me to take the job. I kind of laughed and told him I was just a teacher and a player. I told him not only had I never had a desk job, I'd never had a desk. He was really persistent though, so I told him I'd try it for one year, and if it didn't work out, it would give us time to find someone else. After a year, I was loving it. I did that job for 10 years, from 1985 to 1995. Interestingly, by 1995, I was starting to feel burnout again.
I am the type of person who has to feel energized by what I'm doing. I've never been one to stick with a job because it paid well or was prestigious. If it doesn't energize me, I almost can't do it - whether it is music or business.
It was around that time that Lee told me he wanted me to take a new position as executive vice president. I knew the educational side of the college, but I had no training or knowledge of how the business side operated. For the first few years, I felt like I didn't know what was going on when people started discussing things like the pension plan. But I threw myself into the job and learned what would be expected of me. After a while, it all felt very familiar.
I never set out with a goal to be successful. For me, success meant getting to the stage where you could play your music your own way and make a living at it. I reached that point when I was in my early twenties, and it messed with my head a little bit. My original plan for my life was to go to school, try to get good gigs, and if I got lucky, make a record. Well, all that had happened before I even got to Berklee. After I was making a living playing the music I wanted, the challenge was to keep it all going throughout my life so I wouldn't have to find something completely different to do.
It seems that things have come full circle. You are performing a lot as the established player leading a band of young musicians. What do you see happening for yourself down the road?
Well, for the first 10 years of my career, I was just a player. Then I devoted 30 years to education. Now I'm back to being just a performer. It feels good to return to my main focus. I don't know how long I will keep doing it. I was talking with Chick Corea about when a person should decide to stop performing publicly. We both agreed that when the body stops functioning well, it's time to stop. There is something a little sad about seeing an older musician who is a shadow of his or her former vigorous self due to health issues. I want to be aware of when I am not functioning as well I used to and announce my retirement. Singers have it easy, because at some point the voice goes and they know it. An instrumentalist can fake it longer. I like the idea of quitting while I'm ahead. I won't stretch it out.
For some older players, all they knew in life was the gig. I have other interests like sailing, creative writing, and anthropology. I think I could see myself later in life with three or four hobbies or avocations and feeling that if I wasn't performing, I'd still have reasons to get up each morning, get dressed, and go out for the day to do something. I can even imagine myself going back to college.