50 minutes with . . .
One can count the 20th Century's major vibraphonists on two hands full of mallets. Currently, the three grand practitioners are Bobby Hutcherson, a Bay Area native associated with the West Coast, and Gary Burton, who grew up in Indiana and was based on the East Coast. Burton is a dominant figure, emerging around the time of Miles Davis Kind of Blue, playing with Stan Getz at the height of the Bossa Nova era, being part of the "fusion" movement, and maintaining a longtime relationship with pianist Chick Corea. Prior to their April 2010 concert at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts, I interviewed Burton for two feature articles. He was so affable and happy to tell stories, that our chat went nearly an hour. Here is about 50 minutes worth. I called Gary at his Florida home. It was 7 a.m. on the West Coast, which sparked a quick conversation about early risers.
GARY BURTON I generally get up at 6:30 or 7. Most of my gigs nowadays are concerts, so I’m back at the hotel by 11:30. Something happens when you get older. I’m in my late 60s now. You don’t sleep as much. I sleep about four or five hours and then kind of lie there half awake listening to the radio, thinking, dozing for another couple hours and then finally I say, well forget it I may as well get up. And that seems to be my normal pattern now. So, unless I’m really working late nights at the occasional club . . .
CRISTOFER GROSS How are you at remembering things, say a musical idea that may comes to you when you're lying there and you think, Oh, I'll remember that in the morning?
BURTON Oh, it’s not good at all. And I used to pride myself on having a real quick and thorough memory. For the first decade or so I was on the road, I could tell you every hotel and every room number that I stayed in. I didn’t need a phonebook directory, I knew every phone number of everybody – 100 or 200 people you keep a phone number of – I knew them all by heart. Now I can’t even remember one long enough to walk across the room before I write it out again. I mix up whether it's 52 or 25 and have to go back to the computer to make sure I haven't gotten confused.
GROSS Yes, technology keeps us all in touch. Especially with our kids. Are either of yours in music?
BURTON No, my daughter's 31. She's a floral arranger. And my son is 29 and he works at a non-profit and has a website business. My son played guitar in a rock band in high school for a couple of years, but as soon as he finished high school the guitar went in the closet and never came out again.
I didn't push them to go into music; I didn't discourage it. I just sort of sat back . . . My ex-wife, she was a musician also. She played piano and composed, so they were certainly surrounded by musicians and the music scene, but . . .
GROSS And you married into film royalty.
BURTON I met Katherine? because she was a music student, and that's how we got acquainted. But yes, she's from the Goldwyn family.
GROSS So, with that film legacy, I'm wondering how you felt when you first saw yourself in Get Yourself a College Girl ?
BURTON [Laughter.] Well that was my second movie. The first movie was – and I only found out recently – was only the second made-for-TV feature movie. It was called The Hanged Man. It starred Edmund O'Brien and Vera Miles. Robert Culp was in it.
GROSS And there was music in it?
BURTON And there was a nightclub scene in New Orleans where the movie was set. It was a murder mystery of some kind, during Mardi Gras, And there was a nightclub scene with Stan Getz' quartet and Astrud Gilberto performing on the stage while there was some talking amongst the major characters about the murder plot. And Benny Carter wrote a song for us to play, called "Only Trust Your Heart," that went ahead to be something of a minor standard as well. A famous lyricist also was involved in writing the lyrics. But that was the first movie I made with Stan, and then a couple of months later we did "Get Yourself a College Girl," which was kind of hilarious. It was one of Elvis Presley's movie sets and there was artificial snow falling in the background. We were in a ski lodge. We were supposed to be rehearsing for our show and those were the dancers in the show. And as we finished our show, Mary Ann Mobley and, who was the male star . . .
GROSS Chad Everett.
BURTON Chad Everett! They walked in and had a conversation. He was one of the dancers as well and he was hitting on her. That's why they were all dressed in dancewear. In fact Stan and I went to see that at a drive-in in Denver. We were curious to see it. It finally came out and I saw in the paper it was showing in some drive-in in Denver and on our night off we took the rent-a-car and drove out there and watched the movie up until our portion was over. Then we went back home. And it lives on late night TV. It keeps surfacing.
GROSS Jimmy Smith was also in there.
BURTON There were like a dozen different MGM artists. It was really an excuse to promote a bunch of records.
GROSS That's right, The Animals were MGM.
BURTON Right. The plot was almost non-existent, but they took about a dozen musicians and managed to fit them into scene after scene.
GROSS Well they hit the motherlode with " Ipanema." I remember that was a huge hit back then.
BURTON That was gigantic, and that was a lucky break for me, 'cause I joined Stan about three or four months before that record came out. So I was there, during the three years I was with him, during the peak of his career, really, in terms of commercial success. We played every concert hall in the . . . well, on the planet, to sold-out audiences and were on TV and were in movies, I really got to see first-hand the music business at full strength. And, learned a lot. And Stan was very generous. Not with money, as it turns out, but with featuring the musicians in the band.
It was kind of typical in those days if you had a band for there to be the leader with a back-up band. Essentially. I worked with George Shearing, I think my name got announced maybe once a night, if at all.
GROSS Well you're credited in a lot of jazz writing as being that way. Of course, you had a lot of great players, but you also didn't hog the limelight.
BURTON That's true. We'll I always believe that if you had strong players, then you should feature them and let the audience know you're proud of them and so on. And Stan had that same ethic. He constantly was announcing me, and featuring me on numbers and telling everybody what a talent I was and so on. So when the three years came to an end, I was really well-positioned to start my own group. And a lot of that was because of how nicely Stan had featured me during those years. I was very appreciative of that.
GROSS Yeah. I thought it was kinda cool that you had Joe Morello on your first album, 'cause he had a lot of notoriety at that time, didn't he?
BURTON Oh, yeah. In fact I met Joe through . . . he was the first big-name musician I ever met. And it was because . . . you know I started my career in Nashville of all places, due to this guitar player Hank Garland, who was a country star, and he had actually done a country music tour in his late teens with Joe Morello, in New England, who was in his late teens at the time as well. And Hank had gotten into jazz, and was a pretty good jazz player, and he convinced his record label, which was CBS or Columbia at the time, to let him make a jazz record. And he wanted me to be on it because he liked the idea of vibes, and I had met him through Boots Randolph who I was acquainted with because he lived up in Indiana, where I lived. So Hank said, I'm going to call Joe Morello because I used to know him and he managed to track him down and talk him into flying down to Nashville to make this record.
That was how I met Joe. So when I moved east he was the only musician that I knew. And I stayed in touch with him, and he was very nice about it. He said 'Call me when you get to town.' So for the first three or four records I made, he was the drummer. And through him I managed to meet Phil Woods, and Tommy Flannagan, and the other players that I wouldn't have known otherwise. In fact I considered him a really great friend. And I had high hopes for him to have a strong career on his own after he left Brubeck's band. But he didn't seem to be cut out to be a leader. He just didn't want to have the responsibility, to take it on and he just kept procrastinating and procrastinating and never really did much else. He would go out and teach clinics and that sort of thing, but never did really work professionally much again, which was a disappointment to a lot of people who thought so highly of him.
GROSS Well, he's on one of the landmark albums everybody listens to.
BURTON Yeah. That is right.
GROSS So, let's talk about this long, long relationship you have Chick Corea. According to research, you have won six Grammys, one for your solo album, Alone at Last, and all the other five recordings have Corea on them.
BURTON And he's won 15, but yes, on those five he's been involved – either our duet records or our kind of all-star group that I put together with Pat [Metheny] and others [Roy Haynes and ]. So that's been true.
GROSS So there's obviously magic in that connection.
BURTON Yeah well we've been playing together for 38 years now and we've never skipped a year, even though we don't really work full-time together. We have our own projects and activities and so on. But we set aside some time period every year, whether it's just a couple of weeks, or a couple of months, or whatever. This year coming up it will be a couple of months, 'cause we're going to make a new record, as well, after we finish the tour that includes the California swing. That's when we start out. We start in San Diego for a whole week of California dates, and after we do about three weeks of gigs and then we'll go into record the next record and then we have another couple of weeks of gigs after we record – in Europe, primarily. So that'll be our stint for 2011.
Normally we wait anywhere from five to 10 years between each record and we just did one two or three years ago. But then we got to talking and we had some ideas and we both said, well let's just go and make this record while we've got it on our minds and get it done. So this will be a little sooner than usual. I think this will be only a four-year gap.
GROSS On the Rendezvous notes you say "You discovered an immediate connection with him, two people who speak the same obscure language." Has that language evolved over the years?
BURTON In truth, we have evolved. We started playing together in '72, so what is that 38 years, how old were we then, I was 29 and he was two years older. So, obviously we have both grown as players and matured. In fact one of the surprise for us on the last record we did we realized that, numerically, we'd hit the 35-year mark. And we thought, well, that's kind of significant. How many people play together for 35 years? So we decided to do some touring and a new record based on our 35th Anniversary and we called it The New Crystal Silence because that was our first record. So, we went back and played some of the older songs again in new versions. And the first thing we noticed was that wow, we sounded like we were just going back and rehashing the old stuff and playing them the same way we used they've taken on new interpretation and we realized it's because over those years we've each expanded as musicians and broadened our range of playing and still have the same rapport with each other as improvisers but we've become more mature as musicians overall. So in that sense, yes there has been a continuing evolution and in fact he's even now talking to me about our next project, after this next duo record, which is going to be with a string quartet.
GROSS You both emerged in the '60s, both played with Getz, and both were cited for fundamental roles in the fusion movement. Duster was cited as one of the groundbreaking records. As you look back on that period, does it still seem as explosive and innovative as it did then?
BURTON I'll confirm what you say about the '60s. We both were coming of age as players. We didn’t' know each other, although we both had these Boston roots. He grew up there and I went to school there, we had a lot of the same influences and teachers and musicans we played with and so on, but we didn’t meet until we both ended up in New York. But that was an era when jazz had become kind of narrow and stagnant. We were coming out of the bebop era, and the only new thing that had happened at the end of the bebop era was Kind of Blue, which introduced this modal, simple structure that after bebop with all the busy chord changes, and running eighth-note lines was the style of the day. But in truth the music was still pretty limited to top tunes that were like show tunes, in terms of the harmony structures and melodic structures, and everything was in swing time: syncopated, four-four time, and so forth. Even something like a jazz waltz was a very rare thing. I remember – and musicians can hardly believe it when I say it now – some saying to me I just play in ¾, it just doesn't feel comfortable. It's too strange. So, when I left Stan and was starting my own band, I was asking myself a couple questions, and suppose Chick was at some point soon doing the same thing, was I looked at the audiences I'd been playing for with Shearing and Getz and they were all people in their 40s. I was 20. And I was thinking of this and I'm saying, well if tis is my audience, by the time I'm 40 they're going to be 80. This isn't going to work. How do I relate to people my own age? And, at the same time, because I was young, I was open to things going on out side of jazz, one of which was the arrival of the new rock and roll. The Beatles and Bob Dylan, and so on where the music suddenly was much more sophisticated than in the old days when it was just three chords and the guitar. And I loved the eclecticism of The Beatles' records. One track would be with a string quartet, the next would be with an Indian ragas going on, and the next one would have psychedelic effects happening. Instead of making an album that was all the same thing, they could pile in all this different stuff and I said, this is terrific, all this diversity. So that really appealed to me and so there I was looking around, starting a new band and I'm thinking I want to break out of the boundaries of current jazz and do something different. So, for one thing, it was bringing in pop and rock influences – song structures. That we didn’t' so much play The Beatles' songs, as we took harmony structures were that were not typical in jazz and also playing it straight 8 time, which was not typical in jazz either. And writing originals that were using these elements.
I also was influenced a lot by country music 'cause I grew up around it, and also classical music which I was a big listening fan, and those influences don't come through as obviously as the rock influences in the '60s, but the whole point of what I was doing was to get beyond the jazz stereotype that had gotten started. And a whole lot of others bought into it from Miles to John McLaughlin and his Mahavishnu Band and so on. So by the beginning of the '70s, about two or three years after Duster the fusion began to have that name instead of jazz. Instead of jazz-rock.
And Chick and I, it isn't as much talked about, but you know Chick and I actually tried to play together in '68. Larry Coryell was leaving my band and Roy Haynes and Steve Swallow were my other band musicians and they both recommended, I had asked well what should we do next and they both said, Ah, this piano player Chick Corea, he's the perfect guy for this band. So I call Chick up . I barely knew him. . .
GROSS So this was the first time you talked to him. . .
BURTON Right, I had met him once in an airport. So I got his phone number and called him up and found out that he was working for Sarah Vaughn at the time. And he said I love playing for Sarah but I don't get too much room to be featured. I don't get to play my tunes and I don't get to solo. So, I'm ready for a change. So he joined my band and we played over a few months together, probably eight or ten gigs. I still remember some of them. A festival here or there, a college date in New Jersey. And we came to a gig at the Village Gate in New York and then there was going to be a break in the schedule. And Chick and I sat down during that week and both agreed that it wasn't working out. We couldn't seem to lock into each other's style of playing, which seems ridiculous now because our rapport is so in tune, but it was like, if I just let myself play and he also, we kept clashing with each other, bumping into each other, voicing the same chord changes and that sort of thing, and if I really restricted my playing, and he also, then we could play together alright, but we didn't feel we could really play. So we both agreed that Gee this should have been the dream band, and yet it just isn't clicking. So, we went our separate ways and he called me about two weeks later to say that Miles had just called him so he was excited to join Miles' band and I hired Jerry Hahn to come back in as the guitarist to come back in the band and so I went on with guitarists for the next decade or so.
So, Chick and I really never expected to play together again because it hadn't worked out. And then we were on the same night of the Munich Jazz Festival in '72, celebrating the Olympics. Our concert fortunately happened before the shootout that brought it to a close. The promoter went around to each of the musicians who were on that night and asked everybody if they would be in a jam session at the end of the concert. And it turned out that only two people had agreed. Me and Chick. So, we laughed about it and said, what the hell we'll play a tune. After all, we used to play together, how hard can it be. So he taught me "La Fiesta," one of his new pieces, during the sound check, and we came out at the end of the concert just the two of us and played that song. The crowd went wild because it was something different and we came off the stage and, ah, Chick had just started recording for ECM at that point, and Manfred Eicher, the company president, was there, and he came up to us and introduced himself to me and said, "Oh this was fantastic you guys have to make a record together like this." And we thought, Oh, you're crazy, who would want to listen to a whole hour of just piano and vibes? I can't see it. But he kept calling and writing us and after a few months convinced us to do it. And we figured, oh well, probably ten people will buy the record, but we'll have fun doing it. What the heck. How bad can it be?
So he arranged for us to play a set at a concert in Berlin, at a Festival, and then from there we flew to one of the Saber Studios in Oslo, and we spent what was supposed to be the next three or four days recording, but we did the whole thing in about three hours. It's just one of those things. We'd make a take and we'd think wow that went pretty well, do we need to do another one – I guess not, what's the next song? Only one song was recorded twice. Everything else was a first take. So we sat around the rest of the afternoon listening to the playback and then finally said, well we might as well go home: that's it. And even when the record came out I didn't really expect it to get that much notice, 'cause it wasn't even for sale in U.S., except as an import, so it was pretty invisible and pretty esoteric as records go – no rhythm section or anything. But it sort of caught on and people started calling, wanting to book concerts.
And the very first concert was the University of Michigan and Pat Metheny was in my band at the time and he said, Oh Gosh, I love that record you guys made, this is probably the only chance I'll get to see you guys play together. We all assumed this was going to be a short-lived thing. And he said I'm coming along. I'll help carry the vibes, whatever, I don't want to miss this.
So we flew out there and then my first shock was I walked out on the stage of the hall and it was huge – 4000 seats. And I thought oh my gosh there's just two of us and there's gonna be about 100 people down front and it's going to be like playing in an empty bowling alley. And then as the concert approached, I looked out and saw that it was full. And then I was worried because of that! I thought how are we going to reach 4000 people with a puny little duo up here. But, the concert was a huge success, and that was just the beginning. We went on to, gosh, I wish I knew the total number of concerts we've done, I mean it's two or three thousand at this point.
GROSS Hadn't you won your Grammy for Alone at Last by this point?
GROSS So you were promotable by this point.
BURTON Oh yeah. And Chick hadn't won any Grammys yet, but he was starting to get pretty established. He'd been had his own . . .
GROSS And he'd been on Bitches Brew . . .
BURTON And he'd formed Return to Forever, the first version.
GROSS And having been a college student then I can say you guys were pretty major figures.
BURTON We were at the forefront of what was new in jazz at that point, so in that sense it was good timing for us career-wise. We were both kind of equals. Yes, the first Grammy was in '71.
GROSS And you say it was audacious to have just piano and vibes. It was even more audacious to have recorded a solo vibe album.
BURTON I know. And that came about because I was supposed to play at Montreaux with the University of Illinois Big Band, a really excellent college big band. And I'd done several workshops with them over a couple years ad the idea came forward we're going to go to Montreaux, will you be the guest soloist with us? And I said, oh sure, that would be fun. And I thought the band was very high quality and all of that. And then about two or three weeks before the Festival I got word that the band had failed to raise the money they needed to pay all their travel and everything and had canceled. So Claude Nobs called me up and said listen we're already advertising you and so come on ahead of course we'll pay you and everything and find some musicians for you to play with. And I was touring in Japan at the time and I kept thinking about this and I said I just can't see myself coming into a major jazz festival and playing with some kind of pick up rhythm section. I just wouldn't be able to play my music and it wouldn't be rehearsed and it would be an embarrassing thing. I had always wanted to try playing an entire solo set. I'd always done a solo piece on every gig I'd played. And it was one of my trademarks.
GROSS Speaking of trademarks, talk about the four-mallet technique you're credited with.
BURTON Well, people played with four mallets before I came along. If you hear records of the early xylophone players – Red Norville playing xylophone in the '30s played very well with four mallets. But it had kind of gone out of style by the time I came along 20 years later. And, what's more, the four-mallet playing that had been done tended to be more all four mallets making block chords, the idea of using the mallets independently and treating the instrument more like a keyboard instrument was my innovation. And I didn't sit there and decide one day, hey this is a great idea, I'm going to start practicing and learning how to do this, I grew up in a farm town in Indiana and I played alone most of the time and it was too empty, it didn't sound complete. I wanted harmony. I needed other lines and more notes, so I started playing more and more with four mallets and gradually [developed] independence with them, if I wanted it to sound more like a piano, and by the time I got to the East Coast and became a professional player, it was my way of playing. And then I was sort of surprised to find out that I was the only guy playing with four-mallet playing. So that's why I've sort of gotten the credit for being the four-mallet guy.
GROSS Well, thank you for all your time. It's been a real treat.
BURTON Okay, sure. See you in March.