In conversation with gary burton

By Patrick Spurling

Recorded live at a concert in Zurich, Switzerland, Gary Burton and Chick Corea's 1979 album Duet won a Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Performance by a Group. Earlier this year the celebrated duo played Zurich once more, and contributor Patrick Spurling was there. The always frank and articulate Burton sat down with Patrick before the concert and spoke of his career, his mentoring of young musicians, the jazz/classical divide, and other music-related subjects.

                   Gary Burton, by Jos L. Knaepen

You once said, 'There have always been those artists who work borders.' How would you define the borders you're working?

Some jazz musicians by nature stay true to one identity. For example Wes Montgomery—he did one thing and did it well. Milt Jackson, one of my heroes, is another. But there is another type of jazz musician—an inveterate explorer who wanders into other musical landscapes. Chick Corea is definitely in that category, and so am I. The areas I’ve wandered into include tango music, and occasional projects with symphonies reinterpreting classical music [from a jazz perspective]. Also, interpreting different types of jazz from the 1930’s and 40’s.

Have you been attracted to recent trends in African American music?

I haven’t. I know a few jazz musicians who’ve been experimenting with hip-hop—Robert Glasper, for instance, who's really a dual personality. He plays in a jazz piano trio, and also works with some of the major hip-hop people. His latest record has a song by Radiohead and a song by Herbie Hancock merged into a kind of medley of two disparate genres.

You've said that you're always drawn to finding new talent, that there's something about younger players that inspires you. Do you see mentoring as a responsibility?

I picked up the mentoring gene from Stan Getz, who had a long history of finding young players and helping them get their careers started. He certainly did that for Chick and me. And it was a natural continuation once I started teaching [at the Berklee College of Music]. I’d see them first, and then offer them a job before someone else discovered them. It made me look like I had some insight into how to find those great players.

Is that how you discovered [pianist] Vadim Nevelovskyi and [guitarist] Julian Lage?

That was true with Vadim, who came to Berklee from the Ukraine. I immediately saw what a talent he was, and decided to put a group together built around him, another young talent, Julian Lage, and myself. I first saw Julian on a television show when he was twelve years old. I had an event coming up that happened to be in California near where he lived, so I called the TV people and got his name and phone number. He turned out to be even better than I thought. On the strength of that experience, I started coming up with times I could invite him to play—once or twice a year. He’s just now graduating form Berklee, at 20. He’s got a wonderful future ahead of him.

It's interesting how those first contacts are made. Pat Metheny is probably the best known of your 'discoveries.' How did that happen?

I was performing as a guest with a college big band at a jazz festival in Wichita, Kansas. Pat was 18 years old. He walked up to me and said he wanted to sit in. I told him I was sorry but he couldn’t, since it wasn’t my gig. But I promised to stay around and hear him play with his group. Of course, he played quite well. At the end, he asked my advice and I suggested going somewhere where there was an active jazz scene—to New York or Boston. Three months later he called me and said he'd decided to move to Boston because he didn’t know anyone in New York. He found an apartment about two blocks from my house, and I eventually added him to my band.

Boston seems to be a fertile ground for classical/jazz collaborations. Any thoughts about why that is?

It could be because the scene in Boston is very connected to the educational institutions there. The New England Conservatory is practically across the street from Symphony Hall. Berklee is two blocks away. The Boston Conservatory is next door to Berklee, and four of the five other schools in town have major music programs.

Players from the orchestras teach in the schools, as in New York with the Juilliard School and the Manhattan School of Music. But a key factor in Boston was—and is—Gunther Schuller, former president of the NEC. He had the drive to bring jazz into the classical world, and he set up a jazz department at the NEC. He did open things up in Boston, but it wasn’t that welcome initially.

Would you agree that Schuller’s concept of 'Third Stream' jazz/classical collaborations are now gaining acceptance, albeit in a somewhat different form than he had envisioned?

He would be the first to agree. I know Gunther pretty well, and I miss him being more active. I think his vision was that music was going to become a middle ground of classical and jazz. Instead, what has happened is that people go back and forth between the two. We have musicians like Chick, Makoto [Ozone], Keith Jarrett and others doing credible classical performances, and jazz players are welcome playing with symphony orchestras. There is interest in doing projects with us now, but that wasn’t the case when we proposed these things 20 or 30 years ago. The styles overlap but they seem to retain their boundaries.

In the 1960’s, Schuller was working toward an amalgam of styles?

One of his first projects in New York City was to combine his Orchestra USA with the Modern Jazz Quartet. I kept getting hired to play the vibe part with this chamber orchestra performing jazz/classical projects, primarily because Milt Jackson couldn’t read music. Composers would write concertos and suites for the MJQ combined with orchestra but they would often bail out after the first rehearsal. One of my joys was actually getting to be the vibist with the rest of the MJQ - John Lewis, Connie Kay and Percy Heath. I was probably the only vibe player ever to sub for Milt in the history of the quartet, but at age 19 I didn’t make the most of it. Often John wouldn’t be there and eventually even Percy would bow out. That was what Gunther was trying to do then, and it was fun.

As early as the '20s, many European composers were influenced by jazz—Stravinsky, Ibert, and Ravel among them—yet there was resistance among classical instrumentalists. Why was that, do you think?

In one way, composers were freer to explore than the instrumentalists—finding their inspiration in many places. Composers have often used folk music. Jazz was certainly a new folk music, and a popular music of the 1930’s and 40’s. Samuel Barber, for example, wrote pieces that he called his 'jazz' pieces but today we wouldn’t recognize the jazz elements. The classical players were the problem, having had a rigid kind of music education that made it difficult for them to change styles, and to learn how to swing or to phrase syncopated rhythms. It's much easier for modern jazz musicians to adapt to classical styles now, because we generally have some classical training.

Classical musician friends and some of the best classical players will say, 'I don’t know where to begin. I’d love to be able to do some improvising'. Unfortunately, I don’t know any classical player who has done it successfully.

Recently, when speaking of some recording he'd done with a group that consisted of Itzhak Perlman, Red Mitchell, André Previn, and Shelley Manne, Jim Hall said it was a lot of fun, but the music wasn't particularly good.

André Previn of course is an exception, because he didn’t start out as a classical player. His early career was spent writing charts for Woody Herman’s band and composing Hollywood scores. In the end he became one of the top ten conductors in the world. I was pleased to see recently that he just came out with a solo jazz piano recording. André and Itzhak are very close friends and do things together frequently. But trying to help Perlman fit into a jazz setting would be a challenge, even given his phenomenal talent as a player.

Why do some jazz players project coldness, instead of embracing the audience in the way Chick Corea does?

Miles was, of course, legendary for the persona he created: the 'dark prince of jazz,’ we used to call him. Jazz players had always been very polite to audiences until Miles discovered that you could be rude to them, and it would enhance your aura. That was something new—not speaking to audiences. And he built this charisma, this persona and this identity for himself that he used effectively. It made him a lot more money and gave him more clout in his business dealings.

Someone else who saw how this worked was Keith Jarrett. He's also well known for his difficult behavior to audiences and promoters. I knew Keith from the time we were both students, and it started with him after touring with Miles for a year or two. It connected with something in his personal nature and worked for him. We’re all passionate about the music, and the intensity is unmistakable when you listen to Keith or Miles. The way people conduct themselves on stage, however, runs a wide range of performance styles.

You've said that you expect sidemen to be comfortable with the personal dynamic of the group they’re joining. Were you comfortable when you first joined Astor Piazzola’s band? Was it difficult to prepare, and wasn't it something of stretch?

It was. It was a case of me being very naive and untrained in playing tango music. It wasn't an attempt to jazz up tango. An example of that is a recording by Paquito D’Rivera [Funk Tango], which is a mixture of jazz and tango. In the case of Piazzola’s project, he wanted authentic tango.

I met Piazzola originally when I was in my early 20’s, when I was touring with Stan Getz during a swing through Argentina. His band was the opening act for Stan, and we shared the stage a few nights. I was amazed at this fantastic music and became a big fan. I never imagined that I would end up playing it 20 years later. He walked up to me at a concert in Paris once, and asked if I would ever want to do something together. Two or three years later I was leaving the office at Berklee, and the phone operator in the lobby stopped me on the way out. There was a telephone call for me from Paris. It was Astor asking me if I still wanted to do something. He was heading home to Argentina for Christmas, and I happened to be touring Argentina [around that time], so we agreed to meet.

By the time I arrived, he'd already written the music, which scared me a bit. Composers sometimes write for vibraphone thinking it's like the piano. So I was a little nervous, but excited nonetheless, being such a fan. We met in New York City to rehearse. I was struggling…but Astor was very patient and very good at explaining. He had a way of showing you how to make the music more dramatic and how to make the melody leap out at you.

We met again in Italy, rehearsed for three days, and started touring. The fourth concert was the live recording and I didn’t think we would be ready. I told him that night before the concert that we would probably need to record again later in the tour or in the studio. Getting a good version of all the songs in one night was a long shot. But I listened to the tapes and they were terrific.

After the recording and the first tour in 1985, we planned another project, but a year later he had a stroke. Friends from Argentina later suggested that I reunite with the band, so we found two of the best bandoneon players and we made another album in 1997. So I’ve actually done three recordings of Piazzola’s music: the first with Piazzola, and two with his band. One more recording is planned for the end of this year. It will include a live DVD concert performance.

You’ve mentioned Stan Getz a couple of times. Jim Hall recently called him 'a great bunch of guys.'

Yeah, that was a familiar line about Stan. In fact, I think it was Zoot Sims who's credited with coming up with that line. Stan was a classic bipolar schizophrenic. He would swing back and forth from being the happiest, nicest guy, to going through a period a week later when he believed everybody was out to get him. You never knew which Stan he was going to be. And he would use the smallest pretext of some imagined slight to turn into the angry Stan.

Apparently Ted Gioia, editor of, worked alongside Getz during his teaching gig at Stanford University.

That was a nice thing for Stan. It came along at the perfect time. The last ten years of his life were much better than so many of his earlier years. He was a terrible drunk during the years Chick and I worked for him. He constantly fought his addictions.

Tell us a little bit about your radio show. And what's next for you and Chick?

Artist’s Choice, on SIRIUS Satellite Radio has been something I do for fun. I've been doing it for three years now. I do 24 announcement breaks that take a couple of hours to record, and I work with the station manager on which songs will be played each week. Two things musicians seem to fantasize about are having a recording studio in their house, and being on the other side of the microphone. I'm on every Sunday for six hours [10:00am-4:00pm, US eastern standard time].

As for the duo, Chick and I are listening to some of Miles’s and Gil’s [Evans] recordings to choose some new pieces to arrange for our duet.

Many thanks to Gary Burton for generously giving of his time just before a concert; to Roland Fischer of Universal Music Europe, and to Johannes Vogal of


November 07, 2008 · 0 comments

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