Jazz Legend Gary Burton Reflects on Seven Decades in Music and Education

The jazz fusion pioneer, LGBTQ+ advocate, and Berklee superstar is celebrating the 40th and 50th anniversaries of two Grammy-winning albums this year.

June 23, 2022

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Few individuals have had as meaningful an impact on music and music education as jazz fusion pioneer and decorated Berklee alumnus Gary Burton ’62 ’89H. The vibraphonist made his presence felt early in his career, becoming the youngest winner of DownBeat’s Jazzman of the Year in 1968, and his star never seemed to stop rising. He has performed on the world’s biggest stages with legends including Thelonious Monk, Chick Corea, Stan Getz, Chet Atkins, and Eric Clapton, and his inventive four-mallet approach to vibraphone revolutionized the way the instrument was played. With over 60 albums as a bandleader to his name and seven Grammys in his trophy case, there isn't much that Burton has not achieved in his illustrious career.

Burton has had significant influence on countless up-and-coming musicians, many of whom he mentored while at Berklee. Beginning as a percussion teacher in 1971, Burton eventually became the college's dean of curriculum before taking over the daily operations of the institution as executive vice president. He is credited with giving many current jazz stars their big breaks, including Berklee graduates Julian Lage ’08, Tommy Smith ’85, Vadim Neselovskyi ’04, and Luques Curtis B.M. ’04.

Beyond his music and accolades, Burton is also a strong champion of gay rights. While he did not come out publicly until the middle of his life, he has been an important advocate for the cause, even canceling shows in states to protest laws that he felt discriminated against the LGBTQ+ community.

This year marks the 50th and 40th anniversaries of Burton’s Grammy Award–winning records Alone at Last, released in 1972, and In Concert, Zürich, October 28, 1979, the iconic live album with Chick Corea released in 1982, in addition to it being his 60th Berklee reunion year. The Media Relations team was fortunate enough to catch up with Burton during Pride Month as he looked back on his life in jazz, music, and higher education.

When you reflect on the multitude of incredible experiences in your seven decades in jazz, what moments stand out to you?

A lot of those moments happened earlier in my career because that’s when things impress you the most, such as the first time I played Carnegie Hall with Stan Getz in 1964. Just being in the place, the most famous concert hall in America. And here I am, a 19-year-old. How could this happen?

Gary Burton performs at the Berklee Performance Center

Image by Phil Farnsworth

Another performance that stands out was a 1968 jazz festival in Paris at the Salle Pleyel. My new quartet was kind of radical for the time. We were mixing rock influences with jazz and really starting the whole “fusion” thing. We opened the concert for Sarah Vaughn. We noticed that the audience was getting very restless between songs, talking loudly and even standing up and arguing with each. We found out later that half the audience thought we were the next great thing, and the other half thought we were blasphemy to jazz. As we finished the set, our drummer Bob Moses was playing a solo and one of his tom-toms fell off and hit the stage. A hush came over the audience…Moses went with it and purposefully knocked over his cymbal, which crashed to the floor. At this point, the audience went crazy. The police actually had to come and make everyone leave the hall. For years that resonated with me as one of the wildest nights of my career.

You studied at Berklee in the early ’60s during the incipient stages of your professional journey. How did music become your chosen life path and how did your early career goals compare to where you ended up?

Well, I never planned to study music. My plan was to either study medicine or engineering. What changed everything for me was the very first jazz band camp that ever took place in the nation, which happened to come to my home state of Indiana the summer after my junior year of high school. The camp was amazing. There were a hundred kids like me playing music day and night. In fact, several of the teachers were from Berklee. I came home with a new plan to become a professional musician, and my parents, to their credit, said "okay."

My goal originally after the camp was to get into Berklee, learn about jazz, and then go on to New York where, if I was lucky, I might one day get to play on a record. I wanted to be successful enough to make a living, feel secure, and make the kind of music that I wanted to make. That was it. It was never to become any kind of star or win awards. So everything on top of playing the music I wanted to play has felt like a gift, and I think that’s really kept me grounded. I was fortunate enough to connect with the right people after graduating high school and ended up with a record deal before I even attended Berklee at 17!

As an educator at Berklee for 33 years, your impact on the next generation of jazz artists is immeasurable. Did you have an aspiration to teach or did you fall into it more organically after you became an established artist?

I had never thought of becoming a teacher. At the time I graduated high school, there were only two jazz programs in the entire country: [University of] North Texas and Berklee. By 1970, there was an explosion of jazz offerings across the country and I was being asked to teach a lot of clinics. I found that explaining concepts in music came easy to me, which isn’t always the case for a lot of jazz musicians. I loved teaching. I actually contacted Berklee about teaching there and ended up moving to Boston after landing the job. I learned as much from the teaching experience as I think the students learned from me. And it became a trade secret of mine, as I found so many young talented musicians from teaching at Berklee. At one point, I had hired an all-Berklee student band and we recorded two records together.

Your place in the landscape of jazz goes well beyond the music, as you have been an important advocate for the LGBTQ+ community. How did your personal life fit into the professional world of jazz, a community historically dominated by straight men?

I didn’t learn I was gay until midway through my life in my early forties. I had been married and had kids. When I found myself single again, I went to therapy, and fairly soon I understood that I was gay. The advantage I had was that I had already built up a reputation professionally with dozens of albums out, Grammys, and so forth. My concern was whether my coming out would cause problems for me landing gigs or hiring musicians, how might it affect my friendships with people like Chick Corea and Pat Metheny, or even what would happen with my career at Berklee, where by now I was highly visible as a dean. But Berklee was 100 percent supportive, and all my musician friends and collaborators were extremely supportive as well. If anything, my career reached new levels of success in the decades that followed. I consider myself extremely fortunate in that regard because I know other LGBTQ+ musicians have been discriminated against, particularly those who are not as well established. For that reason, it’s important to me to be an ally and an advocate for the community wherever I can and help artists who are struggling with that aspect of their life.

A good deal of mainstream music seems to focus on succinct song structure, minimal instrumentation, and predictable formulas for melodies and chord progressions. Do you think jazz can still appeal to younger audiences, and is there room for it to evolve into something more translatable to the modern era?

Popular music has always tended to be simplistic and limited in terms of harmony and melody, and tends to stick to a narrow range of tempo. Even more so now, there’s an emphasis on drum machines, synthesizers, and sampling—even my records have been sampled over 30 times for rap songs! Meanwhile, the smaller number of fans of jazz, like classical—the so-called “art musics”—are very loyal, and tend to stay fans for their entire lives. An old friend and one of my early mentors, festival impresario George Wein told me once, “Jazz is an art form, not just a genre or a style. Art forms don’t die out, they just keep evolving.” I’ve always hung on to that.

Watch Gary Burton's solo performance of "Sweet Rain" from a 2018 concert at Berklee:

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