A Storied Life in Jazz

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

The Gary Burton Quintet in 1975. From the left: Burton, Mick Goodrick, Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Pat Metheny
The Gary Burton Quintet in 1975. From the left: Burton, Mick Goodrick, Steve Swallow, Bob Moses, and Pat Metheny

The three of us sat through Anita’s first set, waiting for the road manager to pay us. We didn’t know if we would get the full amount or only part of it, but we had spent the afternoon rehearsing and were ready to play, so we assumed we would get something. Finally, the manager came over to offer us complimentary copies of Anita’s latest album—and that was it! No 50 bucks, not even 50 cents. I was furious but too shy to protest. We left the club and tossed the records into the first trash barrel we saw.

Years later, while reading Anita’s autobiography, I learned that during those years she was a hardcore heroin junkie, which explains her stinginess. (For a junkie, it’s mandatory to hang on to every dollar for the next score.) I also learned something else about her that explains why I never warmed to her singing.

There are two “instruments” one can play without any knowledge of music, using just intuition: drums and vocals. Any other instrument requires some knowledge of music fundamentals—such as chords, scales, how harmonies move— and most often—learning to read music. But there are quite a few drummers and singers that have had successful careers in the jazz field (and in pop and rock, certainly) simply performing by ear, without benefit of actually knowing these fundamentals. Anita was one of the ear vocalists, and finding this out helped me understand my lack of interest in her style.

Although renowned for her vocal improvising or scat singing, Anita didn’t know what was happening in the underlying compositions, and to me her choice of notes and phrases sounded like guesswork—as opposed to the great vocal scat singing of, say, Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, who knew the structure of the music inside out.

Also that winter, I organized my first recording session for RCA in New York. At a loss for which musicians to choose, I started by calling the only New York musicians I knew: drummer Joe Morello and bassist Joe Benjamin (both of whom I had met when we played together on Hank Garland’s album). I asked Herb Pomeroy to come down from Boston, and with Herb’s assistance I added two more New Yorkers, pianist Steve Kuhn and guitarist Jim Hall. In retrospect, it was an odd assortment of players, in terms of their different styles, but they were all excellent musicians. We gathered to record about a dozen tunes at RCA’s 23rd Street Studio in January, 1961, just one week before my eighteenth birthday.