Gary Burton and Berklee

Bob Blumenthal
April 20, 2010
Gary Burton
Burton's quartet, in the mid-1970s, featuring, from left, guitarist Mick Goodrick, bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Ted Siebs, and Burton.
Pat Metheny, left, and Burton, after a duo show at the Berklee Performance Center in 2003.
The Next Generation Band, featuring, from left, guitarist Julian Lage, Burton, drummer James Williams, bassist Luques Curtis, and pianist Vadim Neselovskyi.

(The following is excerpted from the program for Gary Burton's Arrival: Celebrating 50 Years, held at the Berklee Perforomance Center on April 8, 2010.)

An artist as exceptional as Gary Burton is beyond both category, as Duke Ellington so famously put it, and vocabulary—truly too marvelous for our everyday words. If Burton's achievement could be reduced to a word, that word would be multi-innovator, a beyond-category category that is all his own. Who else has influenced the evolution of jazz as an instrumentalist and a bandleader and an educator?

Much of Burton's story is intertwined with that of Berklee, where he arrived as a student in 1960, returned as an instructor in 1971, became dean of curriculum in 1985, and served as executive vice president from 1996 until his retirement in 2004. Tonight's celebration of his golden anniversary as a "Berklee guy" is an ideal occasion to look back, albeit in summary form, at his achievements both on and off campus.

Rural Indiana, where Burton was born and raised, was an unlikely setting for nurturing jazz genius, but young Gary had the advantage of parents who made it a point to expose their son to a range of both recorded music and live performance. When he was 6, they took him to a marimba recital that made a particular impact. "Apparently I reacted to the visual aspect of the instrument," he recalled years later. "I suppose that if I had seen drums I would have picked that." He began studies with a vibes teacher at age seven, but when his family moved a year later he was thrown upon his own devices, which involved adapting piano music and developing the technique that would become part of his signature sound.

"I didn't have anybody else to play with," he has explained, "and that's what led to the four-mallet emphasis in my style. It was just too empty when I played a single line." Through trial and error he developed the interdependent, pianistic use of four mallets that would set him apart from other innovators on his instrument.

Jazz entered Burton's life when he was 13 and became a motivating if not an exclusive passion. In high school, he performed on piano in the orchestra and vibes when the music allowed, and spent one instructive summer in Nashville working with such giants of country and rockabilly as guitarist Hank Garland, saxophonist Boots Randolph, and pianist Floyd Cramer. Yet jazz was his passion, and he knew from years of reading Down Beat that his post-graduate choices came down to the only two schools that were hospitable to jazz at the time: Berklee and North Texas State University. A visit to the latter left the 17-year-old with the impression that the Denton, Texas campus was too rural and too much like home, so Burton chose Berklee, which was only a School of Music at the time, with no degree-granting authority, located in the brownstone that now houses the restaurant Charley's on the corner of Newbury and Gloucester streets.

Having performed and recorded at the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival with the Nashville All-Stars (an experience that led to his own RCA Victor contract), Burton was ahead of most of his classmates when he arrived in Boston, yet he is quick to cite the two years he spent studying at Berklee as pivotal to his musical growth. "To suddenly be in four different bands and play in at least one session a day was the greatest thing in life," he says, and the absence of anyone on the faculty who could teach him about his instrument was hardly a hindrance.

Offered the choice of majoring in piano or drums, he opted for piano, which further enhanced his four-mallet conception. "During those school years, I played more jobs on piano than I did on vibes," he remembers, but he also was encouraged to play his primary instrument in school ensembles and had a standing invitation to sit in with his teachers Herb Pomeroy and Ray Santisi at the Stables whenever he felt like bringing his instrument to their Huntington Avenue club.

After two years of study, Burton was ready to take on New York, where he paid typical no-union-card dues before landing a gig with George Shearing's quintet. Shearing's particular sonic preferences led the young musician away from the slow vibrato that virtually every vibist had adopted in the wake of Milt Jackson's innovations. "One of the oddities about George is that he always insisted that his vibes players use no vibrato," Burton has explained. "It blended better with the block-chord piano style. At the time they called it the 'dead vibes' sound." It did not take Burton long to see the greater control and expressiveness that he could obtain without vibrato, and the clarity he gained in his four-mallet episodes.

The year with Shearing was followed by three in tenor giant Stan Getz's quartet, a band completed for the bulk of Burton's tenure by bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Roy Haynes. He has called this "my real education, because I went from being a student of the music to a player of the music. It was the perfect environment for me to get it together." His growth can be tracked on his own RCA albums of the period, especially two classics from 1966, The Time Machine and Tennessee Firebird, among the first successful examples of jazz multi-tracking and jazz/country-western fusion, respectively.

Early in 1967, having just turned 24 and already well established among jazz listeners, Burton was ready to form his own group; but what kind of group to form? His best friend at the time, tenor saxophonist Steve Marcus, would have been a logical choice, but that would have invited comparisons to the Getz band, and his previous experience with Hank Garland suggested that guitar would provide a better complement to his four-mallet technique than piano. When Burton heard the Free Spirits, a heavily jazz-inflected rock band featuring guitarist Larry Coryell and drummer Bob Moses, he found the partners he had been looking for. Coryell became a charter member of the Gary Burton Quartet, along with Swallow and Haynes; Moses assumed the drum chair shortly thereafter, and a new epoch in jazz that came to be known as jazz-rock and later as fusion was announced in no uncertain terms. Miles Davis may get the bulk of the credit in jazz histories for plugging in and shedding the button-down look of jazz modernists, but Burton's band was there first, in terms of musical content as well as wardrobe. The new direction was predictably controversial, yet it quickly won over the majority of jazz fans and critics, while bringing exceptional improvisation to an entire new audience. In 1968, a year after his band's inception, Down Beat named Burton Musician of the Year, the youngest ever to win the honor.

"I think that both audiences are able to identify with us," Burton noted at the time in an analysis that says much about his values. "The jazz audience has remained because we have maintained a jazz format. Also, jazz listeners can tell that each member of the group is an excellent musician. The rock fans have come because they can sense that we are like them. Once they feel that rapport, young listeners find it quite easy to get involved in jazz. It hasn't been easy; we have had to go out and get this young audience. But we have not had to compromise our music."

One means of audience development that appealed to the new bandleader was the growing number of clinics and workshops that had started in music stores and band camps and quickly spread to high schools and colleges. Burton began working such events into his touring schedule, providing inspiration to countless young musicians (as Bill Frisell notes elsewhere in this program) while also proving surprisingly satisfying to the vibist. After realizing how much he enjoyed sharing his expertise in such settings, he contacted Berklee founder Lawrence Berk and administrator Robert Share about intensifying these efforts at what was now Berklee College of Music on Boylston Street.

The prodigal undergrad returned in 1971 and began teaching vibes students as well as improvisation for more advanced students on all instruments. Ultimately, he would also conduct classes in composition and scoring that dealt with rock and other contemporary idioms as well as jazz. In this last regard, he proved to be the pivotal figure in Berklee's adaptation to the new musical world that faced its students. The scene, as Burton well knew, was a far cry from his own student days when, as he once put it, "recording studios were two-track, stereo was in its infancy, and we didn't draw such rigid lines between jazz and commercial music." Thanks to a variety of new sounds, including those of Burton's own quartet, the goals and concepts of young musicians were rapidly changing, and a school that had been seen as a reliable training ground for big bands now found itself challenged to prepare students to perform in arena-filling amplified combos. Student aspirations had shifted from Buddy Rich to Billy Cobham, as it were—or beyond jazz entirely to success as singer/songwriters, proponents and contributors to ethnic traditions, and roles as nonperforming producers and orchestrators. Burton was attuned to these changes and fought the fights necessary to make Berklee aware of them as well.

While the demands of an active teaching career might have become the exclusive focal point for some musicians, Burton the performer continued growing in both artistry and popularity. An initial Grammy Award in 1972 was followed (to date) by five others, with at least one victory in each succeeding decade. His band performed as many as 200 gigs a year, evolving from its original vibes/guitar format (represented by the New Quartet that opens this evening), to a two-guitar interlude, to quartets in which trumpet or saxophone supplanted guitar, to the introduction of piano into a Gary Burton ensemble. As he formed what would grow into important relationships with other established artists such as Chick Corea, Astor Piazzolla, and Ralph Towner, Burton also became a star-maker on the order of Art Blakey, Betty Carter, and Miles Davis, introducing Pat Metheny, Makoto Ozone, and numerous others (many of whom are heard on tonight's program) to the wider world. "I've been credited with being a good talent scout," he has remarked, "but it's not that I'm such a clever man, I just know a good thing when I see it." So do composers such as Corea, Carla Bley, Mike Gibbs, Keith Jarrett, and Steve Swallow, whose contributions have made Burton's band book one of the most diverse, challenging, and substantial of any era.

Gauging his development in the early years of his teaching tenure, Burton commented, "My music has become more refined, subtle, varied, effective, communicative. That's been the general goal, that it's become easier to follow, clearer to understand." But Burton was also concerned about the extra-musical aspects of touring and performing, and shared his insights with the members of his working bands, as well as in his 1981 volume The Musician's Guide to the Road. His teaching had also expanded to include a focus on the business of music and the evolving options for those seeking a musical career. Recognizing both the comprehensive nature of Burton's vision and his gift for sharing knowledge with others, Berklee president Lee Eliot Berk asked Burton to assume the newly created position, dean of curriculum in 1985.

Predictably, Burton was undaunted by his new responsibility for overseeing more than 600 courses, developing new programs, supervising the school's library, and, as he put it, "pretty much whatever was left over that wasn't covered by anyone else." "To my surprise," he explains, "I discovered that creating programs and organizing people on a larger scale wasn't all that different from creating something on a sheet of music paper and leading jazz groups." He proceeded to establish domestic and worldwide connections for the school, touring and recording with the Berklee All-Stars and launching Berklee on the Road clinics and the Berklee International Network of music schools; reinstitute the undergraduate recording program of his own student days via the Berklee Studio Production Project; and develop and implement new majors in music synthesis, music business, and music therapy.

Burton's administrative mission, which he defined as "to constantly tweak the faculty, to update and improve," only intensified when he became the school's executive vice president in 1996, an appointment he has described as "one of the greatest honors of my professional life." The years leading to his 2004 retirement saw the development of for online instruction, the Berklee City Music outreach program for urban youth, the creation of the Stan Getz Media Center, an intensified focus on music technology, and an expansion of curriculum offerings, all of which reflect his musical values.

"Students who come here with a dream to play just like me, or just like one of their other teachers, had better dream further," he had observed on the occasion of Berklee's 50th anniversary in 1995. "They should be anticipating what they will need in the year 2020."

He was also clear regarding the role an institution such as Berklee could play in an artist's development. "You don't teach talent," he insisted. "You teach technique, interpretation, and content. As a kid, people advised me not to learn to read music—they thought it would destroy my creativity. Some people have the same attitude about going to school. But talent is not fragile. It will survive almost anything."

Berklee's affection for Gary Burton has been acknowledged in the past, when it awarded him an honorary doctorate of music in 1989 and created the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance (held by former Burton student Joe Lovano since its inception) in 2001. Tonight's performance will provide the most concrete display to date of what he has meant to both the school and the world of music. Our congratulations for a job magnificently done are enhanced by the knowledge that, for Gary Burton, the job is far from over.

Burton's Bandmates and Students Speak

"So many things I've done over the years have been influenced and inspired by Gary. If I'm playing a Bob Dylan song, or recording an album in Nashville, these are things he did decades ago. He showed me the possibilities. There are no limits. I can't imagine where I'd be or what I'd be doing right now if I hadn't heard Gary Burton. For more than 40 years he has been an inspiration."

—Bill Frisell '82

"Gary Burton has been one of the most important musical inspirations and my life. From the nuts and bolts of detailed harmony to the ins and outs of running a band, there is hardly a moment in my daily life as a musician where there isn't something that I am doing that comes directly from the time I spent around Gary and the many lessons I learned from him. Certainly being in his band for three years and having the kind of proximity to the astounding level of musicianship that he imparts at all times on the bandstand was central, and getting to play with him regularly to this day remains one of my proudest accomplishments."

—Pat Metheny

"I was terrified when I joined the band, but there were certain things that Gary said, not just to me but also to everyone in the band, about the connection between performer and audience that really helped me get over my fear. We called him 'the Chief,' and used to kid that 'the Chief runs a tight ship,' but he explained that he was just trying to correct the mistakes he noticed in bands he had worked in. And the musical integrity was very high. In retrospect, Gary set the tone for the values you need, in terms of both playing and dealing with people, to be a successful road musician."

—Mick Goodrick '67

"I so relished Gary's guiding and encouraging me into composing. He gave so much, especially the opportunity to make my professional writing debut on his first album, while I was still a student, in the illustrious company of Phil Woods, Tommy Flanagan, and Joe Morello. His generosity afforded me the invaluable confidence upon which to forge my own career, and this extraordinary trait has now benefited several generations of wonderful musicians. To this day, his inner voice continues to guide me in my choices. He's ever with me."

-Michael Gibbs '63


"In addition to literally launching my career, Gary taught me how to live well. He told me to get a credit card and establish my credit history (just get the card, he advised, don't buy anything with it), helped me buy my first condo, taught me how to renovate a kitchen . . . When I decided to buy my first brand new car and told him about it, he asked me to come by his house and pick up his vibes before I went to the dealership, so that I would be sure his boxes would fit in my trunk.

"As you can tell, I just loved every moment we spent together. I learned millions of things from Gary over the years. Playing with him has been so inspiring, and he still blows me away like the first time we played together. He has been my wonderful teacher, my best friend, and my family. I love him and thank him forever. If he weren't there in 1983, I wouldn't be here today."

—Makoto Ozone '83