A Storied Life in Jazz

Gary Burton's new autobiography shares life lessons learned on the bandstand, in the classroom, and around the world.
Burton teaching at Berklee 1975
Burton teaching at Berklee 1975

Things went wrong from the start. A major blizzard on the first day caused Morello, driving by car from New Jersey, to arrive four hours late. When he finally got there, he didn’t have any drums with him, so we got almost nothing done. The next day, Benjamin was the problem. I was going to record several familiar standards but hadn’t written out individual parts for the musicians. I assumed they would already know the tunes or could use a standard lead sheet. But Benjamin refused to play anything without a written bass part, so I had to waste valuable time scribbling bass lines for each song. When we finally did start recording, we all tried our best, but it just never came together. I was so disappointed that I asked the company to shelve it, and I’ve always been glad this was not the first record released under my name.

In the next few months, as I got more entrenched at Berklee, I began playing with an assortment of student groups that worked at clubs around town. At one of the regular places, Connolly’s—a dingy bar in Boston’s Roxbury section, a mostly black neighborhood. There I heard drummer Roy Haynes’s New York band for the first time. Roy exemplified cool. When he performed at the club, he parked his yellow convertible by the front door. He was terrific, and if you had told me then that I would be playing with him just a few years later, I’d have said you were crazy. Connolly’s often brought in solo acts and hired a local rhythm section to accompany them, and one weekend, I got a call to play with trombonist Matthew Gee. Gee wasn’t that big a name in jazz, but he had worked in the Duke Ellington band for a while, and trading on that, he had gotten a booking at Connolly’s.

Our local group (vibes, bass, and drums) arrived and set up, but when Gee got there, I could see we were in for a rough night. He was already pretty drunk before playing a note. I had worried about what tunes he would call. Would I know enough songs for him? Would he want to play standards or originals? As it turned out, my concerns were misplaced. To start the first set, Gee called for a blues in F—basic and easy. Then he suggested “Poor Butterfly,” a song so simple tha

t, although I barely knew it, we played it without a hitch. Curiously, Gee followed this with another blues in F; after that, he paused a bit and then just launched into “Poor Butterfly” again. I found this a little bizarre, but we were just getting started. For the rest of the night, he went back and forth between those same two songs, the blues in F and “Poor Butterfly,” over and over. Normally, a set would run no longer than maybe 45 or 50 minutes. After an hour and a half, as it became clear that Gee would ntinue playing these two songs indefinitely, the club owner came up and stopped us. I thought Gee might try some thing different when we began the second set, but it was right back to blues in F and “Poor Butterfly.” As the evening wore on, he got more and more wasted until he was having trouble just standing.

Burton and Roy Haynes after receiving Grammy Awards for Burton’s Like Minds album.
Burton and Roy Haynes after receiving Grammy Awards for Burton’s Like Minds album.

For my part, I was fascinated by the audience reaction to this spectacle. I was especially surprised that no one seemed to notice we were repeating the same two songs all night. I didn’t know what to make of that.

Fortunately, the crowd had thinned out by the end of the second set, when Gee finally fell completely apart. Extending his arm, he lost his grip on the trombone slide, which went sailing into the audience. Gee stared at what was now half a trombone as if he’d he had never seen such a thing, and then began to weave precariously. As he fell, he reached out to grab the vibraphone for support, managing to take my entire instrument with him

into the front row of chairs. I looked down on a tangle of resonator tubes, trombone parts, wooden folding chairs, and two customers buried in the pileup. No one was hurt and the vibes survived without major damage, but the trombone was totaled. This didn’t really matter, however, because the club owner came up to announce that we were finished for the night—and for the remainder of the weekend as well.

Despite a few of these less-than-inspiring experiences, my first year in Boston was incredibly productive. Thanks to Berklee and the Boston music scene, I was learning music as fast as I could take it in. And after I got established around Boston, I started getting occasional calls to work at a couple of local recording studios, for $10 per session. Usually these involved advertising jingles for local businesses, or background music for local singers. One time, a radio station hired me to play sound effects simulating different atmospheric conditions for the weather reports. But one session sticks out as an object lesson in jazz economics. I got a call early one Sunday morning to come right over to the studio for a session.

It was odd for a session to be scheduled early on a Sunday, and even odder to get the call only minutes in advance. In addition, this particular studio was a nuisance: it was situated up two flights of stairs, and I had to make several trips to transport my vibraphone. But $10 was a week’s rent, so I loaded up the vibes and went over. The session had already begun, and I noticed immediately that it was some kind of jazz project instead of the usual jingle session. Through the control-room window I could see my teacher Alan Dawson, the best drummer in town, along with a few other musicians I didn’t recognize. I watched for a while as I caught my breath after climbing the stairs, and I began to notice that it sounded exceptionally good.

They were playing in a less familiar key, one not so common for jazz groups of the day, which the tenor saxophonist negotiated with impressive fluency. When the tune ended, I went in to set up the vibes, and that’s when I recognized the tenor player as Paul Gonsalves, the star sax soloist with Duke Ellington’s band! I was amazed. Here was a jazz legend, recording with local players early on a Sunday morning, in a little jingle studio in Boston.

We played about a half-dozen songs that morning. I never got a copy of it, I don’t even know if it was ever released. This was the first (but hardly the last) time I would witness a major musician taking an unimportant, low-paying gig to make some needed cash. It always saddens me to think of how often it happens, how often it has to happen. In this case, the Ellington band had played a concert in town the previous night, and someone had approached Gonsalves with an offer to stay over and record the next morning, probably for a very modest payment. He had no idea which other musicians would take part or what would happen to the recording after they finished, it was just some extra spending money.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton in 2007
Chick Corea and Gary Burton in 2007

Sometimes, we play because we really want to play, sometimes we play as a favor for another musician, and sometimes, it’s just because we need the money. Despite countless hours of practice and concentration to elevate our art, we all too often have to put that aside because of circumstances.

Jazz has always occupied a curious middle ground between high art—the world of classical music, museums, and theater— and popular culture, which appeals to the masses. Classical music, which tastemakers hold in very high esteem, benefits from considerable financial subsidies. Pop music often fails to achieve artistic respect but makes up for that with greater commercial success. Jazz musicians live somewhere in the middle. We survive with fewer subsidies than classical musicians and less commercial success than pop stars. In the earlier days of jazz in particular, even the best-known jazz stars often lived rather modestly. The situation had improved quite a lot by the 1970s and 80s. But for many jazz musicians, life remains a daily struggle between what they believe in and what they must do to survive.