Excerpt from the new book from Berklee Press: An Autobiography

learning to listen
the jazz journey of

GARY BURTON

Edited

by

Neil

Tesser

Berklee Press Boston, MA

In Learning to Listen, Gary Burton shares his 50 years of experiences at the top of the jazz scene. A seven-time Grammy Award-winner, Burton made his first recordings at age 17, has toured and recorded with a who’s who of famous jazz names, and is one of only a few openly gay musicians in jazz. Burton is a true innovator, both as a performer and an educator. His autobiography is one of the most personal and insightful jazz books ever written.

Available wherever books are sold.

For Steph and Sam, so they’ll know what I’ve been up to all these years

Editor in Chief: Jonathan Feist Vice President of Online Learning and Continuing Education: Debbie Cavalier Assistant Vice President of Operations for Berklee Media: Robert F. Green Assistant Vice President of Marketing and Recruitment for Berklee Media: Mike King Dean of Continuing Education: Carin Nuernberg Editorial Assistants: Matthew Dunkle, Amy Kaminski, Sarah Walk Cover Design: Small Mammoth Designs Cover Photos: Jimmy Katz, courtesy of Mack Ave Records (Top); David Redfern, Getty Images (Bottom Center); Bill Gallery (Bottom Right) About the Author Photo: Michael Murphy

Berklee Press

ISBN 978-0-87639-140-2

1140 Boylston Street Boston, MA 02215-3693 USA (617) 747-2146 Visit Berklee Press Online at www.berkleepress.com Visit Hal Leonard Online at www.halleonard.com

Berklee Press, a publishing activity of Berklee College of Music, is a not-for-profit educational publisher. Available proceeds from the sales of our products are contributed to the scholarship funds of the college.

Copyright 2013 by James Gary Burton. All Rights Reserved No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the Publisher.

Part I. Early Years
CHAPTER 1

What’s a Vibraphone?
The oldest trophy on my library shelf is a little brass cup (now with a broken handle) naming me first-place winner at the 1951 National Marimba Camp. I was eight, but I had already been a musician for two years. My grandfather and my parents took me to DuQuoin, to the Illinois State Fairgrounds, for what was the largest gathering of mallet percussionists up till that time; there were about fifty entrants in the competition. I realized that it is intensely satisfying when a group of people sits and watches as you do something they can’t—and having them applaud is even better. Winning that trophy was my first indication that some ability of mine just might take me somewhere. And even at eight, my instincts were already telling me that rural Indiana might not be the place for me. My parents, Wayne Burton and Bernice Aishe, married in 1934, in their teens, and were together sixty-four years, till the death of my father. Though he managed to work his way

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through college and graduated as a chemical engineer, his first job was shoveling gravel for $9 a week, working for my mother’s father. For economic reasons, my parents waited until after the Great Depression before starting a family. I was born James Gary Burton on January 23, 1943, the middle child of three. My earliest memories of life with my family take place at 2207 Delaware Street in Anderson, Indiana, where we lived until I was nine. The house was rather small for a family of five, but my parents rented it for just $11 a month. Our car was a thirteen-year-old Ford with holes worn through the floorboard; you could look down at your feet and watch the street passing underneath. We weren’t exactly poor, but life was pretty basic. My dad had worked at a General Motors factory in Anderson for about ten years, but by the time the kids came along, he had started his own plastics company in a rented building a few blocks from our house. In spite of our modest circumstances, my folks—typical of parents who had grown up during the Depression—wanted their children to have the things they had missed in their youth. And that included music lessons. My parents actually had some musical ability, and my father always wished he could have studied music. Strangely, I only discovered their musical backgrounds later in life; for some still unfathomable reason, they kept their own musical histories a secret. When I went to visit them once in the late 1990s, I was given the usual tour of the house, and I noticed an old photograph of a group of teenage boys holding music instruments. I took a closer look and my mother casually said, “Oh, that’s your father’s band from when he was in high school.” He was in the front row holding a trumpet! And if that weren’t enough, another room contained an old silver trombone in the corner. I asked where that came from, and my father said, “It’s your mother’s. She used to play it in the high school band.” And she still had it! 2

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Where had she kept a trombone in the house all those years without anyone ever noticing it? They had never told any of us kids about their musical pasts. I asked my brother if he knew anything about Mom’s trombone or Dad’s trumpet, and he thought I was making it up. I don’t want to give the idea that my parents were eccentric—far from it. They were absolutely your typical midwestern parents, as grounded as any parents could be, and they structured their lives around the interests of us children. I can only guess that they didn’t want us to feel any expectations from them when it came to our own experiences with music. (When I asked my mother about it, she said they just didn’t think it was all that important to talk about.) People sometimes wonder if I inherited my talent, but other than my parents’ youthful encounters with the trumpet and trombone, the family had no other musicians as far back as I have been able to determine. My maternal grandfather, Cecil Aishe, lived his whole life in Odon, Indiana, a small, mostly Amish town where my parents met as teenagers. When I released my first album in 1961, he bought his very first phonograph, just to play my record; I’m sure he had never previously listened to any music. From then on, when I visited his house, I always thought it was funny seeing that little record player on the dining-room table with my one record laying beside it. When we were small, my brother Phil and I spent our summers at Grandpa’s farm, which had a dairy operation and fields of corn and soybean. Nearer to his house was a fairly substantial horse and pony farm, which was his pride and joy. Phil and I were expected to ride in the local horse shows and county-fair competitions and add to his collection of blue ribbons and trophies. Phil was more into the riding part than I was, but we both became familiar with life on the farm— feeding the animals, collecting eggs from the henhouse, 3

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helping with the gardening. Some days, Grandpa would drive us around in his old pickup, or just leave us to explore the barns and play with the ponies on our own. I saw the grandparents from my father’s side less often. Hamilton Burton started life as a farmer, then one day came in from the field and said the Lord had called him to preach the gospel. He became a Methodist minister, as would two of my uncles and one of my cousins; in fact, my father was the only male in his immediate family who wasn’t a preacher. So, it came as no surprise that Grandpa Burton’s reaction to my life in jazz was one of disapproval. When I was in high school and started playing in nightclubs, my parents insisted on keeping this a secret from him. I don’t think he found out about my career until I was well along. After he moved to a retirement home, he saw me playing on The Mike Douglas Show on television and wrote me a sharply worded letter telling me to cut my hair and shave off my mustache. Considering all this, I’d say that the music genome in our family began with my parents. My mother told me that when I was about four or five, she brought home a set of 78-rpm records of The Nutcracker Suite, and that I would sit and listen to them over and over. When my sister Ann, two years older, started piano lessons, I began to watch her play and soon figured out the notes for myself. One day, when she played a wrong note, I yelled from the kitchen, “No, that’s an E-flat, not an E-natural!” Hearing that, my father decided I should be getting music lessons, too. My folks started trying to find an instrument for me. At that age, I didn’t even know what the choices were, so the first step was to investigate the range of options by attending some local performances. One of these was a recital by Evelyn Tucker, a marimba and vibraphone teacher. I don’t really remember this experience— or even the fact that I apparently showed sufficient interest to 4

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convince my parents this was the instrument I wanted to play. My mother recalled that when she took me for my first lesson, I was so scared I just sat on the chair, and despite all efforts to get me to try playing, I refused to budge or even speak. Evelyn told my mother that I was probably too young and that we should come back in a couple of years. But as soon as we got home, I started nagging my mother to go back, and after a few weeks of carrying on, another lesson was scheduled. This time, I was ready. (What a metaphor for my life! As with many things, I wanted to check it out and think it through before diving in.) I do remember that second lesson distinctly. It was in Evelyn’s living room, and I learned “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star.” Being able to learn a complete tune in the first lesson was a real plus, however insignificant the song may have been. Many instruments require a considerable amount of practice before a beginner can even produce usable sounds. The mallet instruments, however, offer the possibility of instant gratification. So, in 1949, at age six, I started my life in music, with Evelyn as my guide. She was an enterprising lady who had built up a clientele of about fifty students on primarily marimba and vibraphone, but also piano and what she referred to as “dramatic readings.” (This latter category seemed to have been created exclusively for three blind girls known as the Heiny Sisters.) Each year, Evelyn would work everyone into a frenzy, staging a big recital that featured all of her students. This annual ritual required a huge space: getting all those marimbas and vibraphones together wasn’t easy, and the image of thirty or forty instruments spread across the floor of a high school gym remains a vivid memory for me. At my first recital, I played “The Parade of the Wooden Soldiers” on a little marimba—a beginner’s model, scaled to fit a six-year old. And there was always a finale with all the students playing together; at my 5

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first recital, we finished with that staple of the accordion world, “Lady of Spain.” Evelyn was a vaudevillian at heart, and she always tried to spice up the shows with costumes and comedy patter of the corniest nature. Even as a child, I was embarrassed at the gags we had to deliver. There might be a “Tribute to Uncle Sam,” or a Carmen Miranda-style number with fruit-laden hats, etc. Evelyn would make us all wear make-up—lipstick and rouge—which, for the boys, was totally weird. But we did it for Evelyn because she overwhelmed everyone with her charm and energy. The important thing was that her lessons were anchored in good, basic musicianship. Probably unknown to her, this included just what I needed to start improvising later on. Evelyn taught me to read music and introduced me to the concept of playing with four mallets instead of just two. She didn’t know a whole lot about music theory, but she knew the basic chord structures, and she would always explain to me the foundation of what I was playing. Just as important, she encouraged me to begin making things up. Due to the shortage of material written for mallet instruments, I learned a lot of songs from sheet music published for piano, and Evelyn had me create new introductions, endings, interludes, chord voicings, and so on. This was my start at improvising. Years later, when I first heard solos on jazz records, I recognized that this was a more extended form of what I had already been doing under Evelyn’s tutelage. I think that’s one reason I was eventually drawn to jazz. After I had practiced the marimba for the first year, Evelyn suggested I also add the vibes to my lessons. And consequently, my grandparents came up with the money to buy not only a new vibraphone but also the matching model of marimba. No more kids’ models—these were the real things—but I wasn’t yet tall enough to reach the keys. In order for me to play, my 6

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father had to build a platform the length of the instrument for me to stand on. I found out years later that Evelyn was one of the biggest dealers of mallet instruments in the world during the 1950s, because she had so many students, and they all bought instruments through her. Admittedly, it was a small market. Musser, the largest manufacturer of mallet instruments, typically sold only about 150 vibraphones per year in the 1950s. I had presumed there were teachers like Evelyn in every town in America, but I eventually realized she was almost unique in this regard. I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. Also around then, my father discovered I had perfect pitch. Each note in the scale sounded unique to me. Even as a six-year-old, it took no effort at all to name any note I heard. I’ve read that only about five percent of musicians have this kind of “pitch memory.” It wasn’t something I learned from studying music: it was there from the beginning. My father delighted in showing this off to visitors. He would have me turn away from the piano and would then just strike any random handful of notes, and I would rattle off the name of each pitch. I suppose this “gift” has been helpful to me. But then again, there are thousands of great musicians who don’t have perfect pitch, and several musicians I have known with perfect pitch turned out to be very mediocre players. In the end, it doesn’t seem to make a big difference. Evelyn was an inspiring teacher. She reacted very emotionally to everything. When I played a particularly rich harmony, for instance, or got all the way through a difficult piece without making mistakes, she would sigh and say she had goose bumps, making me feel I had done something just short of miraculous. In the two years I studied with Evelyn, I made a lot of progress, and thanks to her efforts, acquired enough experience to carry on by myself after our family moved. My father 7

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was offered a good-paying job in Princeton, down in the southwest corner of Indiana, and we settled into a comfortable house near the center of town. Princeton was much smaller than Anderson and a couple hundred miles away, so the move meant that I never had a vibes teacher again. But I kept on playing, mostly classical-music transcriptions on the marimba and popular standards on the vibes. My father ordered the music from Frank’s Drum Shop in Chicago, long known as a haven for anything to do with percussion. Princeton has a few claims to fame. When I was growing up, the world’s largest popcorn farm was just outside of town; Orville Redenbacher got his start there. The daughter of the local Pontiac dealer was married to comedian/pianist Victor Borge (though the great man never visited, as far as anyone knew). Dave Thomas, who founded the Wendy’s fast-food empire, was adopted by a couple in Princeton and spent some of his early years there. And it was in Princeton that Gary Burton went into the music business. After winning the National Marimba Contest at age eight, I entered a television talent contest, the Morris B. Sachs Amateur Hour, broadcast from Chicago. It was modeled after the nationally known Ted Mack’s Original Amateur Hour and featured the usual assortment of tap dancers and novelty acts. For my appearance on the show, I played “Twelfth Street Rag,” a popular standard written in 1914 and familiar even to casual listeners. This was my first visit to a big city and my first stay in a hotel. The show was broadcast from the local ABC station, and I still have a posed studio-promotion photograph of me standing in front of a microphone. I won top prize in the first round: a Gruen wristwatch and $75. This also meant a return trip to Chicago for the final round, which was fine with me. I loved the traveling and the excitement of being in a city. In the final round, I took second place, but that didn’t really faze me, because by then, I was starting to gig with some regularity. 8

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At first, I was invited to play at church events and for groups like the Lions Club and the Rotary Club. I could play about a half-hour of pieces ranging from classical excerpts to popular songs with a piano accompanist hired by my parents. It was a chore for my dad to load up a marimba and vibraphone and drive to nearby towns for these appearances, but he never complained. Word began to spread, and soon, I was playing up to a hundred dates a year. (I have more or less continued working at this same pace through most of my career. The music changed, but the schedule remained.) We made a trip to the Indiana State Fair when I was ten. My performance (once again, “Twelfth Street Rag”) was part of a daylong variety show featuring mostly Indiana entertainers but headlined by the marvelous singer Nat King Cole. I remember sitting in the cavernous locker room underneath the arena while my father talked with Mr. Cole about my playing; he was very gracious and encouraging, and it meant a lot to my father. Cole would later become one of my idols. I credit many hours of listening to his records as an important influence, particularly with regards to his melodic phrasing. Before long, we brought my sister Ann onboard to replace the hired piano accompanist. Ann was comfortable playing the classical pieces that had written parts. But I also needed someone to accompany me on the standards—someone who could “comp,” in jazz lingo, without having all the notes written out beforehand. I had managed to gradually teach myself to play piano, because the keyboard is laid out similarly to the vibes. Since my father was chauffering me around anyway, the obvious solution was to teach him enough piano to accompany me. (He proved to be a willing student.) This freed my sister to play a couple of tunes on the trombone, her instrument in the high school band. The “Burton Family” band was starting to take shape. Next, I decided that my brother should join in. 9

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Phil was a year younger than me and had begun playing bass and also clarinet. We tried a duet performance, me on piano and Phil on bass, at a Cub Scout talent night where we sang and played “Down Yonder,” a song from the ’20s made famous by Al Jolson. We were a hit, and the family troupe had added another member. Up until I was fourteen, “The Burton Family” performed nearly every weekend; in a typical December, we worked practically every night playing Christmas parties. We traveled mostly in Indiana, Illinois, and Kentucky, but got as far north as Chicago, and once played a week in Miami. My father maintained his day job as a consulting engineer, but my parents devoted their spare time to driving us all over the place to perform. Over the years we added comedy, more instruments—I taught myself trumpet and drums—and even tap dancing; I took tap lessons for several years and got pretty good at it. In our show, I did a few dance numbers, including one where I simultaneously tap-danced while playing “Bye Bye Blues” on the marimba. Once, during a power failure at the house, just for the fun of it, I stumbled over to the marimba to see if I could play in the dark. I discovered that one of the new pieces I was working on—the Rimsky-Korsakov novelty piece “Flight of the Bumblebee”—was actually easy to play without looking, because it was mostly chromatic with only a few leaps around the keyboard. Naturally, that became a part of the show. Mom made me a blindfold, and I played the piece night after night without missing a note. We also had several black-light numbers featuring glow-in-the-dark mallets and costumes. Anytime we saw something on television that we could use, we would add it to the act. We did seasonal medleys for Christmas, Halloween, Fourth of July, etc. Mom made the costumes, and Dad kept fitting out ever-larger trailers to haul all this stuff around.

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We were among the folks helping keep vaudeville alive—or at least on life support—in the form of rural talent shows and novelty acts. During those years, we played with all kinds of entertainers. Some of them were aging show-business veterans still doing well-worn acts, and some were kids like us. Among the regulars were a sword swallower, a roller-skating act, a guy who rattled bones and spoons, an old fellow who chewed up broken glass and razor blades, and quite a few barbershop quartets. We got acquainted with several other families with show-business kids, too, mostly dancers and singers but even some acrobats. The Burton Family band came to an end when I discovered jazz. It was destined to end anyway, because my sister had by then entered high school, and her interests had turned to other things: mainly, angora sweaters and boys. Still, the family band provided us a wonderful experience. We had traveled a lot and had become extremely close and supportive. I learned the essentials of how to write and arrange music and how to rehearse a group. And what I learned about how to communicate with audiences was just as valuable as anything I learned about music. In spite of the enthusiasm from my parents and all the performing we did as a family, they were hardly the stereotypical “stage parents.” It was never their intention that any of their children would go into a career in music. They thought the life of a musician was a poor one with little prospect for a happy and successful life; in this respect, they were quite different from those parents who dreamed of stardom for their kids and relentlessly pushed them to practice and audition. For the Burtons, music was just family fun.

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