Conversations with…Gary Burton

November 1, 2006

Renowned for his extraordinary four-mallet technique, Gary Burton has been one of the world’s preeminent vibraphonists since his emergence in the early ’60s.Signed to RCA at the age of 17, Burton quickly garnered acclaim as an inspired virtuoso and became one of the most sought-after musical collaborators, working with the likes of Stan Getz and George Shearing.

A five-time Grammy Award winner, Burton also made a name for himself as a jazz educator, first as a teacher at his alma mater, Berklee College of Music, and ultimately as executive vice president of the school.Since stepping down from his duties at Berklee, Burton has maintained a rigorous performance and recording schedule.

JAZZed was honored when Gary agreed to be the subject of our inaugural issue’s cover story and found his comments
(not surprisingly) to be rich with insight, wisdom, and humor.

JAZZed: Let’s talk about how your early development as a musician – your experiences as a student.
Gary Burton: My entry into the field of music education, in fact, my own personal music education, followed an unconventional path. Because I played mallet instruments as a child (I started marimba at age 6 and, soon after, also vibraphone), there wasn’t exactly a ready place for me in the school music program in the small Indiana town where I grew up.

JE: That’s a tough hurdle to have to overcome.
GB: Yes, but, you know what? There was a thriving music education program in virtually every town in America in the 1950s, and the local Band directors in Princeton, Indiana went out of their way to include me. There weren’t written parts available for mallet instruments in the band library, but the director personally added some parts for me, and then showed me how to write basic arrangements, myself.

JE: That’s great – and exactly the type of involvement that good music teachers bring to the job.
GB: I don’t know if that kind of opportunity is as readily available today. I really regret that music education in the public schools in this country is so much less available now than it was in my youth.

JE: Can you discuss in greater detail these early educators of yours?
GB: Sure. In spite of Princeton being a small town, the Band director, Joe Hary, was a pretty modern guy for the mid-’50s, and he encouraged me to use my talents within the school program.Later he settled in Canada and was a Band director there for many years.As I say, he helped me add mallet parts to some of the concert band music and taught me basic arranging, so I could write easy pieces for the band. He also encouraged some of us students to form a small combo -ararity in the 1950s, I can tell you. Our music program was extremely popular.A hundred kids were in the marching band, out of a total school enrollment of 400. I also found a local musician, a pianist, to help me with jazz harmony when I was about 16. I had become keenly interested in jazz, but didn’t know much about it. He got me going with a good basic understanding of jazz harmony, which served me well through the years.

JE: How did you begin focusing more on jazz, in particular?
GB: As I finished high school, I was very much into jazz music, having discovered it in my early teens. So, I looked around to see what my options were for studying both the vibraphone in college and for studying jazz.The year was 1960 and, at the time, there were only two schools in the country that welcomed jazz: North Texas State College and Berklee School of Music in Boston. I visited the Texas school, but ultimately chose Berklee because it was located in a major city, where I figured there would be more opportunity for jazz.

JE: How was your experience as a student at Berklee?
GB: Although Berklee didn’t have a vibraphone teacher at that time, they accepted me and went out of their way to let me follow my dream of being a jazz vibist. I was at Berklee for just two years and it was a fantastic educational experience for me.I didn’t complete the program because my career was already starting to take off, what with a recording contract starting at age 17 and increasing offers to perform.So, when I was 19, I moved to New York and started working full time – first with pianist George Shearing and for three years with saxophonist Stan Getz, before starting my own band in 1967.

JE: Talk about hitting the ground running! At what point did teaching begin to become a bigger part of your professional life?
GB: I never imagined I would eventually become a teacher.But in the late ’60s I began to have “teaching moments” when I was asked to do clinics at music stores or schools occasionally. I realized then that I seemed to be a natural when it came to explaining and demonstrating music. At the age of 28, I did something unprecedented for an established jazz musician up to that time.I decided to try balancing my performing career with teaching at a college. I called up my alma mater, Berklee, and asked if they would want me to teach at the college (it had become accredited as a college during the decade I had worked as a touring jazz musician), while I continued my performing career, as well.They were game to
try it and I returned to Boston. I thought I would give it a shot for a year and see if it worked out.

JE: Can you describe your early years teaching?
GB: I learned to listen to the students, and find out what they wanted to learn. My first experience teaching an ensemble at Berklee was a real lesson for me.

JE: How so?
GB: Well, I was told that the best students in the college would be assigned to a small combo group for me to rehearse.
I wanted to make a good impression on the first day, and I labored over what song to bring in for them to play. If I picked something too easy, they would think I wasn’t cool;If I brought in something too hard, they would struggle and perhaps become discouraged. I really wanted the first day to go well for them and for me.

So, I picked a piece I was sure they wouldn’t already know, and that I knew to be popular with many musician friends of mine. I brought in the parts and we started to rehearse it.Well, they couldn’t play it at all!I had drastically over-estimated their abilities.So, the next week I came in with something more at their level. That first rehearsal was awkward for all of us.Now, that same song is considered a piece that practically everyone at Berklee plays. Times have changed over 30 years.

JE: Were you surprised how well the arrangement with Berklee worked out?
GB: It wasn’t a surprise that I liked teaching or that I found Berklee to be the ideal place for me.The real surprise came later when, after a decade at Berklee, the college asked me to join the administration as dean of Curriculum.I laughed
at the idea at first.I was already a teacher with no formal train ing in education, and I certainly had no preparation for overseeing major areas of the largest music college in the world. Once again, I expected I would try it for a year and probably return to teaching. But I found the new job to be exciting and a great learning experience. There was one more phase remaining in my education career. In 1996 I was appointed executive vice president at Berklee College of Music, responsible for the day-to-day operations of the college as chief operating officer. Once again, it was a job I had no official training for, but it was a role I greatly enjoyed.

JE: But you recently stepped down.
GB: Yes. After a decade as executive vice president, I decided it was time for another change in my life. So culminating
33 years in music education, I decided to retire from the field and devote myself 100 percent to performing.I had always toured and recorded to some extent through all the years at Berklee, but now I am able to do it more continually.

JE: Jazz as a subject is perhaps more prevalent in jr. high and high school music programs than it once was, but for many music teachers it’s still “mysterious” or challenging.How would you advise a music director to introduce jazz education into their overall curriculum?
GB: This is a tough one.It’s almost impossible to teach something you don’t know yourself and I feel sorry for the music teacher who is asked to start a jazz ensemble if they have never played jazz, themselves. Jazz is an important American music, it’s here to stay, and it would be nice if music education students were exposed to jazz as part of their training.
They don’t have to become experts, but they should learn some jazz history, and learn basics of jazz ensemble and improvisation.

JE: Specifically as it pertains to vibraphone, can you describe some of the common snags facing a young vibist and offer some tips for teachers to help their students overcome these hurdles?
GB: The greatest hurdle for the young vibraphone player is that there is often no music written for the instrument.The band charts usually don’t have a vibraphone part, for instance. So, the vibist often has to come up with parts based on piano, guitar, or horn parts. The other challenge is finding a teacher. It is still a rare enough instrument, that there often isn’t an experienced teacher available.Many of the best vibists are mostly self-taught on vibes for this reason.

JE: From a professional standpoint, what do you consider to have been the highlights of your career?
GB: Musical highlights include working with Stan Getz, Astor Piazzolla, Chick Corea, and Pat Metheny.They are the four musicians I have personally collaborated with who I consider to be true musical geniuses. Memorable concerts include playing at Carnegie Hall numerous times – probably my favorite place to play.I was thrilled each of the five times I have won a Grammy, too. The musicians and creative people in the record industry vote on hose awards, so it’s really recognition by your peers.

JE: Same question, but this time: what are the highlights as an educator?
GB: As an educator, it was a thrill to see my college, Berklee, double in size during the years I was one of its leaders. I launched the Music Therapy major, the Music Business major, the Music Synthesis major, Berklee’s online music school, and Berklee’s International Network of 14 music schools around the world.When the trustees voted to establish the Gary Burton Chair in Jazz Performance, I was especially honored.That faculty position is currently held by tenor saxophonist Joe Lovano, who was a student at Berklee during my first year of teaching in 1971.

JE: How did your experiences as an educator and administrator affect your approach to performance?
GB: I am a better musician because of my career in education.Just as every teacher will say, I learned as much from my students as I have from any other source.My experiences with music as a young musician, as a college student, as a young teacher, and even as a middle-aged college administrator, were all important to making me the musician that I am today.Playing a less common instrument, pursuing a career in jazz, and not having a formal education did not stand in my way because I was welcomed every step along the path by talented teachers, administrators, and fellow musicians who went out of their way to welcome me into the world of music. If I have been able to pass on this tradition to the students I have met during my years at Berklee and the musicians I have performed with over the years, then I am fulfilling my responsibility to the future of music.

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