Gary Burton is one of the most important jazz musicians of the 20th century. With his technique using four mallets, he revolutionized vibraphone playing – and he changed jazz. He was 17 when he released his first album, now the American is 80 years old.
With his enthusiasm for the vibraphone, Gary Burton was isolated in Andersen, Indiana, where he was born and raised – a blessing and a curse at the same time. Because on the one hand he had to teach himself the instrument – in the absence of a teacher. On the other hand, there was no competition.
Word of the young talent spread as far away as Nashville, where country guitar star Hank Garland was planning a jazz album that absolutely had to include a vibraphone – Gary Burton’s first big opportunity. And he used them. The album “Jazz Winds From a New Direction” was a hit and everyone wanted to know who the young man on the vibraphone was.
Swing and Bossa nova
The first record deal was not long in coming. Gary Burton was 17 and still in high school when he went to New York to record his first album. A murmur went through the jazz scene, not only because of his skillful improvisation and virtuosity, but also because of his technique with four mallets, with which he could play harmonies like a pianist.
He became a sought-after player, among others, with saxophonist Stan Getz, who at the time was filling the big halls with his mixture of swing and bossa nova. Gary Burton was by far the youngest in the band.
The audience was also significantly older than himself. That made him thoughtful: “I realized that the audience that knew me was between 40 and 50 years old,” Burton said in an interview with YouTuber Rick Beato. “If I were 40, they would be 80. So I thought about how to reach out to people of my generation. Jazz was in a kind of straight jacket, we all played the same 150 standards with harmonies based on Broadway show melodies.”
Along with bassist Steve Swallow, who had a similar mindset and had also played with Stan Getz, he planned a line-up that, like the pop bands of the mid-’60s, included all kinds of styles and musical forms.
With guitarist Larry Coryell, who came out of a rock band, and drummer Roy Haynes, the venture was complete: the Gary Burton Quartet.
Jazz history in a duet with Chick Corea
Then another new idea emerged: Manfred Eicher, operator of the newly founded jazz label ECM, had the vision of a duet album with Gary Burton and Chick Corea. Performing in a duet without a rhythm section was still quite unusual in jazz in the early 1970s. Burton and Corea were unsure but went for it. The result made jazz history:
Editorially recommended external content.
Gary Burton said: “We only played one track twice, all the others were first takes. At the end of the afternoon we decided that we didn’t need the remaining two or three days that the studio was booked and flew home.”
The album “Crystal Silence” was the beginning of a long musical liaison, the two performed together again and again.
Parallel to all activities, Gary Burton was also a sought-after lecturer at the renowned Berkeley College Of Music. He started there at the age of 28. In 2004, at the age of 61, he retired.
“Someone who’s young should do that,” he explained. “You’re dealing with hotheads between the ages of 18 and 20. I found it increasingly difficult to empathize with her.”
He recorded his last album “Guided Tour” again with a quartet – now it was he who was more than 20 years older than the other musicians.
A little later, in 2017, he announced that it was time for him to retire — with no fuss and with the dignity of a stable self-assessment.