Between 1960 and 1963, Gary Burton went from a kid who practiced the vibes with a tape recorder to a musician who recorded with established jazz artists. Gary came of age at just the right moment. Many of these artists were seeking a cooler, more contemporary sound, and Gary, in his late teens, represented the future.
After recording for RCA with Nashville guitarist Hank Garland in the summer of 1960, Gary was gearing up to start music school that fall. But before he left Nashville for Boston, RCA signed him to a multiyear record contract.
In Part 2 of my four-part series on Gary's 1960s rise, the vibraphonist talks about gigging in Boston, joining the George Shearing Quintet and what he learned while playing with the famed pianist:
JazzWax: So let me get this straight: you’re off to college with an RCA record deal? Did your professors hate you?JW: With whom did you play?
Gary Burton: [Laughs] Not at all. Boston’s Berklee College of Music was still in a brownstone on Newbury Street. You became friendly with the professors pretty quickly and worked gigs with them. There were a couple of hundred students there, and one in a dozen were advanced enough to gig with local jazz groups.
GB: Mostly with trumpeter Herb Pomeroy’s group. Herb and Ray Santisi owned a club called The Stables on Huntington Ave. They leased the back room and called it The Jazz Workshop.
JW: Was gigging key to the college experience?
GB: When you’re playing in a band in front of a live audience, it’s a whole different experience than listening to the music on record. Audiences have an emotional reaction. For example, my instrument is very visual. Audiences get more out of seeing a vibraphonist or a drummer than watching other instrumentalists. With the drums and vibes, you can see all the movement that goes into creating the sound. [Photo by David Redfern]
JW: What was your first recording for RCA?
GB: I went down to New York in June 1961. It was a session that featured a mix of players who weren’t used to playing together. It didn’t work out too well. So RCA had me do a leadership date in July. I decided not to take any chances. I hired Gene Cherico on bass and Joe Morello on drums. I had just recorded with Joe on It's About Time. The trio album was called New Vibe Man in Town. I didn’t name it. The record company controlled everything. I fought with the label for three years over their dumb decisions.
JW: How long did you remain in Boston?
GB: I moved to New York after two years in college. I was getting a chance to play with more and more musicians and had a few albums out. So I felt the time was right to make it in the business.
JW: You didn’t finish at Berklee?
GB: No. One of the main guys at RCA urged me to finish college while the label was paying my living expenses. But I decided it was time to start working full time. Almost immediately, I met Marian McPartland through Joe Morello. They were at the Hickory House together on 52nd St,, and I went down to say hello.
JW: What happened?
GB: Marian called George Shearing and recommended me. The next day I got a call from John Levy, George’s manager. He said George was interested in hearing me play.
JW: What happened next?
GB: They arranged an audition on Labor Day 1962. I had been living in New York only a month. I met George in front of a building and we went up to the studio, where they had rented a set of vibes.
JW: How did it go?
GB: George liked what he heard and said he’d love for me to join his quintet. The only drawback was that he wasn’t going to start to work for a few months.
GB: He was attending a school where they teach you how to work with a guide dog. He said we’d form the group in January 1963. During this four-month stretch, I got one gig playing a wedding reception in Queens working with guitarist Gene Bertoncini [laughs]. I also got a call from Herbie Mann asking me to join his band. But he called back later and said he decided to stick with [vibist] Dave Pike.
JW: So you joined Shearing in January 1963?
GB: Yes. I flew out to L.A. and we started touring. We played a live concert at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium in February 1963. I had been in the band just two weeks. I was surprised how intricate the charts were and how tight we sounded.
JW: What was it like working with Shearing?
GB: It was an interesting challenge and experience for me. George did not believe in lengthy solos. Everyone got to play one chorus on any song. You had about 30 seconds to solo.
JW: Did that become a problem?JW: What else was special about Shearing?
GB: For me, coming from my student days of five-minute solos, I didn’t know how to do this. At first I tried to play a million things. But that didn’t work too well. Then I became philosophical about it, playing smaller chunks rather than long stretches. With George, I learned how to get into a solo immediately and pace it.
GB: He was a master of harmony. He could voice and re-harmonize unbelievably well. I learned about harmony from George and melody from Stan Getz later. The other thing that George did that I wound up using is playing a beautiful solo piece in the middle of a set. That always becomes a hit with audiences. I was with George for a year.
JW: In 1963, you recorded an unusual classical-themed jazz album with Shearing called Out of the Woods.
GB: George had a fascination with counterpoint. He said to me, “Why don’t you write a song for us with counterpoint.” So I did, calling it J.S. Bop. I had studied counterpoint for a year at college.
JW: What did Shearing think?
GB: George loved it. He said he wanted to make an entire record with similar songs. We used two quintets, one with woodwinds and George’s regular quintet. But the record company, Capitol, was reluctant to release it.
JW: Why not?
GB: I think it was too far out for their pop sensibilities. I don’t know why but under Capitol, George was never allowed to record anything original. It always had to be standards. He fought with them over this album. Finally they agreed that we’d do a record with our new music on one side and standards on the other half. Six of ours, six of theirs. We recorded the first half and then broke up the band.
GB: George decided he wanted to stay home and stop touring.
JW: What did you do?
GB: I started playing with Stan Getz. But then Shearing called and said Capitol had a change of heart and liked the original tracks. George asked me to write another six songs, so I did. We finished the record in May.
Tomorrow, Gary talks about joining Stan Getz in 1964 at the height of the bossa nova craze in the U.S., touring with the jazz-samba group and Getz's odd behavior.
JazzWax tracks: George Shearing's Out of the Woods with Gary Burton is a superb album and highly unusual for Shearing during this period. The experimental recording features Abe Most, Justin Gordon, Jules Jacobs and Paul Horn (woodwinds); George Shearing (p,harpsichord); Gary Burton (vib,p,lyre); John Gray (g); Ralph Pena (b) or Gene Cherico (b); and Shelly Manne (d). Unfortunately, the Capitol recording never made it to CD. You can find the LP on eBay.
New Vibe Man in Town, Gary's first leadership date, is available on CD but it's out of print. It swings hard the whole way through. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Time on My Hands from Joe Morello's It's About Time, which featured Gary Burton and a host of songs about the clock...