A Storied Life in Jazz

Gary Burton's new autobiography shares life lessons learned on the bandstand, in the classroom, and around the world.

I drove into Boston during the Friday evening rush hour. I had no idea how to find Newbury Street, where the Berklee School of Music was located. In addition, this was my first encounter with big-city driving. But with a helping of beginner’s luck, I somehow ended up at the right address.

At first glance, Berklee wasn’t very impressive, and even less so after a prolonged look. It was much smaller than I expected; the entire college occupied a single brownstone. I had only seen two other colleges, each with a large sprawling campus:

The Burton Family Band (from the left): Gary, Ann, and Phil Burton circa 1955.
The Burton Family Band (from the left): Gary, Ann, and Phil Burton circa 1955.

Indiana University in Bloomington, where I had gone to jazz camp, and North Texas State College in Denton, which my father and I had visited because it had the only other college jazz program in the country (besides Berklee). But Denton, with the occasional tumbleweed rolling down the street, was even more forlorn than Bloomington. So I chose Berklee, sight unseen, mostly out of confidence that a large city held the best opportunities. I met up with my summer jazz-camp friends from Toledo, and we found an apartment down the block from the school. The rent was $9 a week for each of us. Boston was somewhat quaint in 1960. The Back Bay area was still essentially residential, and Newbury Street—which is now the most upscale shopping area in town—consisted mostly of rooming houses. In them lived a hundred or so Berklee students, who practiced and had jam sessions at all hours. I was in heaven: it was like jazz camp, only going on year-round.

Whatever Berklee lacked in appearances, it made up for in substance. Then as now, the school hired first-rate teachers, and the small student body included wonderful musicians, many of whom went on to successful careers as players and educators. And it was all about the music—every day, as much as I could find time for. I soon realized that, being mostly self-taught, I suffered from a music-information shortage. While I could play plenty of things on my instrument I usually couldn’t explain what I was doing. But Berklee’s faculty got me caught up in short order, teaching me counterpoint, composition, harmony, arranging, the fundamentals of other instruments, and so on. I was in three different rehearsal bands, so I rarely lacked an opportunity to play.

I was disappointed at first to learn that Berklee had no vibes instructor. (The drum teacher, AlanDawson, had only recently gotten a set of vibes himself and had just started to play.) I had to choose either piano or drums as my primary instrument, though I could play vibes in the various ensembles. For one year, I took both piano and drum lessons, but soon realized I had little interest in drums. From then on, I studied piano exclusively, which proved immensely helpful to my vibraphone playing.

I studied jazz piano but also gained a great deal from a classical piano teacher, Alfred Lee. Just as I had earlier opened my ears to country music, I now found classical music to be a new source of inspiration. Alfred also taught me ear training and sight-reading. Because I had perfect pitch, I could easily play back or write down anything I heard, but he gave me exercises that raised my skills to another level. Thanks to him, I became an excellent sight-reader, which has served me well in my career.

Gary Burton in Boston 1967
Gary Burton in Boston 1967

My favorite teacher was trumpeter Herb Pomeroy, a Boston legend and a hero at Berklee for more than forty years. I studied improvisation with Herb and also played in the ensemble he directed. But just as important, I got to work regularly with him at The Stables, the club he operated in partnership with some other local musicians. (Its actual name was the Jazz Workshop, but since it occupied the basement room of a bar called The Stables, that’s what everyone called it.) Herb played there six nights a week. The audience comprised mostly music students and serious jazz fans, especially on the two nights a week when Herb led his big band. A lot of innovative writing and playing took place at The Stables, and I was fortunate to enjoy it on a regular basis both as a listener and as a performer.

The Stables had a relaxed and almost comical air about it, thanks to the fact that musicians ran the place. There was none of the tension that often exists between club owners and musicians. The occasional intrusion of a drunk from the upstairs bar contributed to the atmosphere. To get to the jazz club down stairs, customers had to walk through the bar and down a steep ramp to the swinging doors marking the club entrance. Unfortunately, the men’s room was halfway down that same ramp. About once a week, some lush would start down the ramp, find himself unable to negotiate the turn into the men’s room, and hurtle to the bottom, crashing through the double doors and landing in the first row of seats. It happened so frequently that after a while, the musicians barely noticed the commotion.

Those first months at Berklee were so exciting that I practically forgot everything else. I had not even bothered to call or write home to let my folks know I was okay. They didn’t want to be interfering parents, so they waited a couple of months before finally telephoning the college—just to ask if I was still there! I was called into the office and told that I ought to phone home occasionally. I felt so guilty that I started calling every week.

One night during that first winter, I got a call to rush down to Storyville, the jazz club in Boston owned by George Wein. Singer Anita O’Day was opening that night, but her band had missed their plane, and she needed a trio to back her up. I met two other students at the club and we rehearsed with her for a couple of hours to learn her music. Anita’s road manager promised us $50 each and told us to get some dinner and be back in time for the first set. We returned to discover that her musicians had managed to arrive and we wouldn’t be needed after all.