Gary Burton, by any measure, is one of the most important jazz musicians of his generation. As a player, Burton pioneered the four mallet approach on vibes that allowed the instrument to be played more orchestrally. Beginning with his work as a sideman, and then later as a leader, he helped bring other musical influences into jazz, helping to define the fusion sound that popularized and revitalized jazz. Burton agreed to be interviewed on the release of Hot House, his 40th anniversary collaboration with Chick Corea.
I'd like to start off with the history of the vibraphone in jazz. Some years back you made a tribute album to some of the pioneers of the instruments. Red Norvo, Lionel Hampton, Milt Jackson, Cal Tjader. Can you talk about the influence that those guys had and what they brought to the table for you?
Sure, I can give you a little capsule of history. The instrument was invented around 1930. So it's a fairly recent instrument. And the first musician to come to prominence playing the vibraphone was Lionel Hampton. In fact, the first record was a Louis Armstrong recording that he was a guest musician on. They recorded two songs with the vibraphone.
Hampton was with the Benny Goodman group for about five years, and it was the most popular jazz band in the country. That established him as a major name. And then he went on to have his own bands. The two leaders of that generation of vibraphone players were Hampton and Red Norvo. They were prominent in the 1930s and into the '40s.
The most important player of the next generation was Milt Jackson. He came to prominence in the early 1950s and was a member of the Modern Jazz Quartet for his entire career – for 40 some years. And he, in my opinion, perhaps the most influential of all the players. The instrument started out as kind of a novelty percussion instrument. It was made originally to be a metal version of the xylophone. People played it rather percussively with hard mallets. It was clanky – it didn't really sound all that pleasant in its earliest years.
Then Milt came along. He'd been a guitar player and a singer and he wanted a more mellow sound. So he used soft mallets and the slow vibrato speed (of the instrument). It was a much different sound to come out of the vibraphone. And that influenced everybody from then on.
Next was my generation. I came of age as a player in the '60s, as did Bobby Hutcherson, my contemporary from that time period. Bobby followed in the Milt Jackson style of playing with two mallets in a sort of a bluesy, horn-style way of playing the instrument.