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Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton: An Autobiography Paperback – August 1, 2013
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Jazz musician Burton came out as a gay man on Terry Gross’s National Public Radio program, Fresh Air, in 1994, although he did not intend it that way. In fact, he was surprised that she brought it up given that, as he notes in his introduction, he had only started telling a few friends and colleagues “that I had finally figured out I was gay.” By that time, he was well into his forties, had been married several times, and had children. Learning to Listen is a fascinating exploration of one man, who happens to be a world-class musician, and his journey of self-discovery. He discusses his childhood in Indiana; his first music lessons at the age of six, primarily on the marimba and vibraphone; his college days at the Berklee School of Music in Boston; his early days playing the clubs in New York; his work with George Shearing and Stan Getz; forming his own quartet; and going solo. The book has plenty of anecdotes, too, such as when Duke Ellington and his band played at Burton’s high school (“I still can hardly believe they came to our little town in southern Indiana for a gig”). Burton also includes miniportraits of famous musicians he has worked with over the years, including Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Miles Davis, Samuel Barber, Thelonious Monk, Red Norvo, Pat Metheny, and Chick Corea. --June Sawyers
Great musicians are no respecters of borders; they cross them at will, and in doing so define their own territory. Gary Burton's career has spanned that porous borderland between jazz and rock music, between the strictures of academia and the spontaneity of live performance. It has been a fascinating journey through the great plains of music towards the high plateaux of the realized self. Bravo! --Sting
Gary Burton's life and works have paralleled the twists and turns of a wild half-century of cultural upheaval and transition from a vantage point that is singularly fascinating and unique. Always one of the most fluent and articulate communicators of complexity and nuance as a musician, in this captivating autobiography, Gary takes us through a lifetime lived on the front lines of a shifting and evolving world with a clarity and focus that is worthy of his narrative skills as one of the greatest jazz soloists of his time. --Pat Metheny
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"I haven't practiced the vibraphone since high school. I can go for hours, and sometimes days at a time without thinking that much about music." Gary Burton.
I first heard Gary Burton many years (decades!) ago when I happened to stumble across his early album "Lofty Fake Anagram". From then on I was hooked on his sound. Burton is certainly one of the best vibes players in not just jazz, but music in general. He's absorbed and then gone beyond fine players like Lionel Hampton and Red Norvo to create his own sound, and champion a number of other players and/or composers. This great book goes a long way in explaining Burton and his music. There's 32 pages of b&w and color photographs , a Discography, and an Index. The book is broken into sections that chronologically tell Burton's personal and musical life--"Early Years", "On My Own", "Moving On", etc. The book was started about 12 years ago and finished in one long week in an L.A. hotel. But nothing sounds rushed or forced. Burton's writing style is simple and straightforward, which makes for engaging reading. Occasionally throughout the book you'll see highlighted sidebars that Burton has used to describe something or someone in particular ("Lionel Hampton: Father of the Vibes", "Vibraphone or Vibraharp?", "Stan Getz", "Miles Davis", "Thelonious Monk", "Pat Metheny", etc.), which add both interest and depth to his book.
The book roughly begins with Burton talking about his beat up trophy for his first place win at the 1951 National Marimba Camp when Burton was 8 years old. He talks about his first vibraphone--"In order for me to play, my father had to build a platform the length of the instrument for me to stand on." He goes on to describe what it was like hearing jazz for the first time--Benny Goodman's "After You've Gone", and his subsequent search for jazz albums by Mingus, Brubeck, Blakey, and other jazz giants. This was the music that was the foundation of his early jazz "education". He goes on to talk about the local music scene and his earliest gigs. As Burton describes some of them--"Not all my gigs were in up scale surroundings. Sometimes, I played on a bandstand enclosed in chicken wire so the crowd couldn't throw anything at the musicians." But Burton persevered and continued to learn his instrument--eventually enrolling in the Berklee School of Music, and playing in "the big city." Plus he talks about recording his first album, "After The Riot", a jam session (unreleased) after the 1960 Newport Jazz Festival was cancelled, and playing on Floyd Cramer's record "Last Date", which was Burton's first "gold" record he played on.
Burton goes on to talk about his "on the job training", working with various jazz musicians (George Shearing, Stan Getz, Red Norvo are a few mentioned), and his experiences on the West Coast, his early albums like "Out Of The Woods", "Something's Coming", and "Getz au GoGo" (sic). Also included is playing with guitarist Hank Garland in Nashville on the album "Jazz Winds From A New Direction", and his debut album as a leader, "New Vibe Man In Town". Something that made an early impression was seeing the well known Paul Gonsalves playing early on a Sunday morning with local players, just for a few extra dollars. It's when Burton talks about playing with other musicians like Stan Getz and the influences and ideas these people had on Burton and his growth as an artist that make the book even more interesting.
The book is filled with stories of how Burton advanced his jazz knowledge with the help and influence of various jazz performers he met and/or played with, absorbing ideas he could use in his own music. He also goes into some detail concerning his move to the ECM label and the effects that had ("...among the best decisions I ever made.") on his playing. Burton goes into some detail about various albums for that label (with Chick Corea and others) and the members of his group (Steve Swallow for instance) that played an important part in his music. He describes in some detail his meeting (and early on as a mentor) and subsequent playing with guitarist Pat Metheny (the beautiful album of Carla Bley's compositoins "Dreams So Real" is where I first heard Metheny back in the days of vinyl), and how that affected and shaped both Metheny's and Burton's music.
Plus Burton talks at length about his on going involvement with the Berklee School of Music--as a student (who dropped out to play with Shearing), a teacher, an innovator of new music departments, his eventually becoming head of day to day operations for a school that has grown to 4,000 students in a variety of fields, and beginning an on-line department of music--all of which most fans don't know anything about. This is a side of Burton that's especially interesting--his life in academia as opposed to being an "on the road" musician--and how he found time to do both jobs admirably.
But there's many personal asides throughout this book--his marriages (one to Catherine Goldwyn of the Hollywood Goldwyns) and family, his divorces and his realization (with the help of therapy) that he was (is) gay, and his eventual meeting of his long time partner. Burton also discusses his major health problems and overcoming them as best he could. The book ends with Burton meeting his life partner and talking in depth about his role at Berklee, and the creative muse.
As a jazz fan and long time listener of Burton's music, I've sometimes wondered why there's never been a book on Burton and his music--music that has influenced jazz over many years and given all of us many hours of enjoyment. While this is an autobiography, and Burton can pick and choose what to put in and what to leave out, he by and large does a pretty fair job at delineating his personal and professional life in jazz. This is a very readable book filled with interesting information about both Burton and jazz in general. As with many other books like this I wish Burton would've written more about recording the many albums in his discography--more in depth information about the players, the compositions, and being in the studio--only he could write about. Even so, for Burton fans it's something you might want to consider adding to your jazz library. Burton has continued releasing albums of merit over the years, so it's nice to read a book about this fine musician.
It's great that the albums "New Vibe Man In Town" and "Gary Burton Quartet In Concert" are now back on the shelves. Now if someone would reissue the albums "Duster", "Country Roads And Other Places", "Live Concert" (only issued in Canada), and other early albums, jazz fans (like me) would be much happier.
As you might expect of an artist who has also been a success as music educator, first dean and then executive vice president at Berklee College of Music in Boston, Burton explains things well. His anecdotes –often presented in sidebars—about Shearing, Swallow, Getz, Corea, Piazzolla—and others (Carla Bley, Miles, Mingus, Ellington, Milt Jackson [who for a long time nursed an irrational dislike of Burton], Bill Evans, and Burton’s antecedents on vibes, Red Norvo and Lionel Hampton) make this a near irresistible book for a jazz nut like me. I liked also Burton’s account of his early years –when he started playing vibes, his father had to build a platform for him to stand on so he could reach the keys; in his early years as a performer, he played wherever he could and with whomever he could get a gig with. He idolized pianist Bill Evans (who didn’t?) but when they finally got together for a session, nothing worked: there was a discontinuity in the flow of their two separate musics, and the tapes had to be deep-sixed. Much later, someone –was it Eddie Gomez?—told him that the same thing had happened when other outside musicians had played with Evans’s trio. There was something about the way Evans and his cohorts phrased music that threw them off.
A sizeable portion of the book is dedicated to describing Burton’s slow path to outing: he realized early that he was probably gay but jazz was not a career that supported a gay life so he buried his feelings, married twice, had kids, and only belatedly made public his inner feelings. Burton’s account of his emotional journey is heartfelt but it’s not what I was reading this book for, which was jazz. What he wrote was good, but what I was interested in reading about was his interactions with other musicians, his thoughts on music he plays, and the back story of his many recording sessions. In that respect, I was disappointed by one omission: there is no mention of his collaborations with German bassist-cellist Eberhard Weber. That’s my problem, not Burton’s: there are only so many things you can pack into a book, even a near-four hundred page one, but I would dearly have loved to read of Burton’s collaboration with this fabulously gifted and utterly unique artist.
This is a good book, even a very good book, about jazz but it’s not a great book. But with one exception, Art Pepper’s account of his drug-ridden life, I don’t know of any jazz autobiography I would call great. It’s the books written about jazz masters by others that make it best –John Szwed on Sun Ra, Terry Teachout on Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington, Robin Kelly’s masterful biography of Thelonious Monk. That’s what I’d like to see now: an empathetic and insightful biography of Gary Burton, master artist and, for a while in the late 60s and early 670s, cultural weathervane, and along with it, a study of the largely ignored question of what it was like to navigate an aggressively macho culture like performed jazz in the 50s through 7os (80S? … 90s?). It could make a heck of a book so why not do it before Burton leaves us?