"I will freely admit that I have a kind of love/hate relationship with music." Gary Burton.
"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.