Gary Burton started out in 1960 with Hank Garland, combining jazz vibes with country guitar. Then he was in the thick of the bossa nova movement with Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto in 1964. In 1967 he released Duster, one of the first jazz-rock fusion albums and continued those explorations with Country Roads & Other Places (1968), Throb (1969) and Ring (1974). Through the '80s and '90s there were pairings with Chick Corea, Ahmad Jamal, Ralph Towner, Astor Piazzolla, Pat Metheny and others.
This week, Gary's memoir Learning to Listen (Berklee Press) is out and it's a wonderful read. In Part 2 of my conversation with Gary, we talk about his jazz-rock period, the education system and his favorite Gary Burton albums...
Gary Burton: As I was preparing to leave Stan Getz and form my own band, I was searching for something new that I could offer that would make my new group distinctive. I had already tried a record project combining jazz and country music. I wanted to come up with something that would appeal to my own age group—I was 25 at the time. I had become a big fan of the Beatles and Bob Dylan and the new rock music of the mid-'60s, so that held a big attraction for me. It was a natural step for me to try to bring jazz and rock together.
JW: When you were in San Francisco in 1967, what specific events caused you to think more expansively about jazz and music in general? Was LSD part of the mix or just exposure to rockers and new ways of thinking?
GB: I spent a good part of 1967 and '68 in San Francisco. I didn't actually live there, but we worked there so much that I felt like a local sometimes. The music I was most interested in exploring with my jazz band was centered at that time in the Bay Area, and we mixed with the local musicians and other bands that were part of the scene then. While many others were heavily into the drug scene, using everything from LSD and hard drugs to pot, our group pretty much steered clear. After all, we were still a jazz group—outsiders, even if we were mixing it up with the rockers to some extent.
JW: Some say that while the conservatory formally educates many jazz musicians, it also has had a negative impact. So much jazz coming out of music schools today is devoid of swing and the blues, emphasizing instead being as far out as possible. To some extent, has this misled jazz students about their futures, chased away audiences and hurt musicians’ ability to earn a decent living?
GB: I don't agree with the assumption that teaching jazz in schools somehow stultifies either creativity or passion. Musicians play what they hear and feel, whether they grow up in New York, Oklahoma or, in my case, rural Indiana. We learn from a variety of sources, including teachers and playing with other musicians. Lots of listening to records, too. Some musicians may approach jazz more academically while others do not. That's an individual choice, not something forced on you by the environment around you.
JW: Did you get a chance to spend time or chat with Bill Evans? What did you make of him as a person—what made him tick?
GB: Bill Evans was my greatest influence, but I only crossed paths with him a handful of times. On some occasions it was just brief hellos. A few times, we had longer conversations, and he once recommended a book on piano technique to me that I learned a lot from. We played together several times as well, but I was disappointed that none of those occasions was really memorable.
JW: What single moment in your jazz career was the most thrilling for you?
GB: After nearly five decades in this business, it's kind of hard to single out one "most thrilling" moment. But, if I think about what has been the most ongoing thrill, it would be my 41 years of playing with Chick Corea, my soulmate on the keyboards. Chick has always been an inspiration, and many of the concerts we've played I remember as being my favorites.
JW: Looking back, what would you say are your five most exciting albums?
GB: Wow. I think my five most exciting recordings are Crystal Silence with Chick Corea, Neuvo Tango with Astor Piazzolla, Duster with my first band, Dreams So Real with my band playing the music of Carla Bley and Hot House with Chick Corea.
JazzWax pages: You'll find Gary's memoir Learning to Listen (Berklee Press) here.
JazzWax tracks: Gary's new album, Guided Tour (Mack Ave.) can be found here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Gary with Stan Getz and Astrud Gilberto from Get Yourself a College Girl...
Here's Gary with Stan Getz and Ruth Price singing The Telephone Song in 1964...
Here's Gary and Chick Corea on Eleanor Rigby from 2011...