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.
I adopted a kind of pianistic approach, using four mallets and playing it more like a keyboard instrument than a horn-like instrument. And the vibraphone world today is divided evenly between people who take the two mallet approach, and people who take the four mallet approach. I look at it as the Milt Jackson School and the Gary Burton School. Each approach is perfectly valid and fine. It just depends on how you hear the music and what you want to accomplish on the instrument.
Were you the first person to use four mallets?
Yes and no. People did play with four mallets before I came along. In fact, Red Norvo started out as a xylophone player. In the late 1920s and early ’30s, he wasn’t playing vibes, he was playing xylophone. And he was pretty adept at playing with four mallets. He told me, ironically, when he switched to vibraphone in 1943 – the same year I was born – he decided to switch to two mallets because that was the style everybody was playing at that time. And he said, “I didn’t want to be out of the norm.” And he regretted it years later. He said, “I really should have kept up with this four mallet playing, but it was too late to start over.”
Bear in mind when I started playing in 1949 as a kid, the instrument was just 20 years old. So there were a lot of technical and stylistic possibilities just waiting to be discovered with this new instrument. I was lucky, timing-wise, to be the one who explored a lot of new things for the instrument. If it hadn’t been me, someone else would have done it soon after. I just happened to be coming along at the right time.
I grew up in a farm town in Indiana. In the early years I played by myself, because there were no other musicians around. And especially no one else who had an interest in jazz music that I had sort of discovered from records. So playing with just two mallets was so empty, wasn’t complete. I wanted some harmony to make the music sound complete. In high school, I started experimenting playing with four mallets more and more. And eventually by the time I was about ready to leave home, I had pretty much become a four mallet player.
I was surprised when I finally moved to Boston and the East Coast, to discover that there weren’t that many vibraphone players around. And I was the only one playing with four mallets. I didn’t just dabble in it. I really committed myself to it and I developed a fair amount of independence of the mallets so I could really play it in a pianistic way. Which was something that no other players had done yet. So I’m credited, rightly or wrongly. I didn’t invent four mallet playing – I popularized it.
I remember reading that you’re pretty heavily influenced by Bill Evans. He’s known for his very rich chord vocabulary. How do you take that and translate it to a medium where you are limited by four voices.
Yes. It is a little more limited than the piano. But not as much as you think. Pianists don’t put all 10 fingers down at once. A typical voicing for a pianist is four or five notes at a time. And I can do four notes at a time. In fact, there’s a way I can play five notes at a time as well by playing an additional note just a split second after I hit the chord and [when] you hear it, that’s a five note chord. You don’t realize that a note was added at the last possible split second.
Also I discovered a good influence for me for chords was the guitar. I was a big fan of Jim Hall as well. I liked his comping style, his accompanying. And that he played, generally, four note chords, the top four strings of the guitar. And I said, “Oh, this is perfect. I got four notes available and I can make those same kind of voicings.”
So I went on straight ahead. And with Bill’s playing, it wasn’t so much an attempt to copy what he did. It’s just that he was the player I liked the most. He was innovative in the way he shaped his melodic lines and re-harmonized and rearranged standard songs. His versions of songs were so definitive that you had a sense that this was the way they were meant to be played. Once I heard Bill play some standard, I couldn’t imagine playing it any other way. He was really terrific at that. So he was my hero to listen to. And a lot of what I was hearing rubbed off on my own playing. It wasn’t an attempt to copy what he did. I never took one of his records and then tried to play the same notes, for instance, the way some people do. They’ll try to literally transcribe somebody’s famous solo. I never did that. But I loved what he could do with the piano, how expressive he made it sound.
Another thing: The vibes and the piano share certain characteristics. They’re both very mechanical instruments. Think, for instance, of wind instruments where you’re blowing and you’re breathing and the sound [is] as close as possible as you could get to the human voice, which is sort of our standard of what phrasing should be like. And meanwhile, at the other end of the spectrum comes the vibraphone where all the notes sound the same. And the piano, where it’s a huge machine, you push buttons and [a] bunch of levers move and it hits a string inside there. It’s not at all, by nature, an expressive instrument. But if you listen to great piano players, both classical and jazz, there’s a huge range of dynamics and colors and emotional expression that’s possible with the instrument.
And when I heard Bill – of course, keeping in mind that the pianists prior to Bill were like Oscar Peterson, Red Garland, Horace Silver and so on, fairly percussive piano players. Bill was the first one to take a more classical touch to the instrument and really use the kind of phrasing and different colors that you could get from the voicings and the way he played. And when I heard that he did that with the piano, I said, “Well, if he can do it with the piano, then surely I can do something along the same lines with the vibraphone.” And that became one of my goals.
You went to school at Berklee [College of Music].
Yes. I was there two years.
You actually started off playing with some country musicians.
The country thing happened before I went to Berklee. I was living in southern Indiana, about a three [or] four-hour drive to Nashville. And I got introduced to a guitar player in Nashville when I was in my last months of high school. Boots Randolph lived in Evansville right near me, because that’s where his wife was from. And he had become established in the Nashville studio scene. He would drive down every few weeks and play on some Elvis sessions or something. So he introduced me to Hank Garland, his guitar player in Nashville, who was a country star but had convinced his record company to let him make a jazz record. And he was looking for a vibes player – and there were none in Nashville.
So Boots said, “Well there this kid in Indiana you might want to hear.” So I rode down to Nashville the next time Boots was going and brought the vibes and we played a couple of tunes in a studio before their record session started. And based on that, Hank asked me what I was doing. And I said, “I’m finishing high school in a couple of months and then I’m going to Boston to school in the fall.” So he suggested that I move to Nashville for the summer and we would play weekends at a local club and make a record. And that’s exactly what I did. And I ended up being on a number of country record dates as a background player. Made the record with Hank. And by the end of the summer, got offered my own record contract with RCA.
Chet Atkins ran the RCA division in Nashville. And he became something of a fan coming to our weekend club gigs. So at the end of the summer, he took me aside and said, “Look, I talked to the guys in New York and we decided to offer you a contract. So I went off to Berklee with a record contract with a major label in my pocket. And my career got a pretty early start. I was 17 years old.
One thinks of the jazz world and the country world as being polar opposites.
You would think.
Did you experience it that way?
To my surprise, no. As I became more acquainted with country musicians, I discovered that a lot of them were big jazz fans. And I realized that the two [types of] music have a lot in common. They both feature improvised solos – the bluegrass music and the hot violin solo, and so on. So they have a lot of respect for the improvising in the jazz world. And the songs were a little different, but the concept of being a hot instrumentalist existed in both of those kinds of music.
And so I came to have a lot of respect, and received a lot of enjoyment out of country music. I didn’t pay any attention to it at all when I was growing up. I was a real jazz snob. I knew nothing about classical music or country or pop or anything else. Jazz was my world when I was a teenager. That was a great experience in Nashville. It not only introduced me to the professional music world and got my career off to an early start, but it also very much broadened my awareness of what was out there in the music world.
So you went a couple years at Berklee.
Yes. And then I moved to New York. Marian McPartland, who I had met through Joe Morello [was] the drummer who was on the Hank Garland record. He was an old friend of Garland’s. And he flew down to Nashville to be on the record, taking a break from Dave Brubeck’s Quartet. And so he told me when I came to New York the next year to be sure to get in touch with him. And we went the one night down to a club called the Hickory House, a famous jazz club at the time, and was introduced to Marian. And based on just that meeting and Joe’s big recommendation, she called up George Shearing, another British piano player friend of hers, and told him about me. I got a call to come and audition for George. And so that’s how I got the job with him. I toured for a year with Shearing’s band.
I remember reading in another one of your interviews that he tried to make a record using counterpoint in a classical style.
Yes. Toward the end of that year with George, I had started being more proactive at bringing in songs for George. They were either tunes I had tried to write, or other people’s songs that I thought would be a good fit for George’s style.
And he was fascinated with classical music and particularly with Bach. And he said, “Hey, why don’t you write a jazz piece that uses counterpoint?” So I went about it to see if I could. I wrote a piece and brought it in. He loved it. So he soon said to me, “How about doing a whole record of these? Can you write some more?”
And at first the record company said they only would approve half a record. Up to that point, even though George was quite a successful name in the business, his deal with Capitol Records was that he would only record standard tunes. It had not happened before that he wanted to record original songs. So they said, “Well, we’ll approve half a record. And you can put other stuff on the other side.”
So we went into the studio and recorded the first six tunes that I wrote. Then after that was done, the record company said, “Well, that seemed to go okay. So go ahead and complete the record and do another six.” So I quickly wrote another six songs in this sort of counter-pointal style. And we used the Woodwind Quintet and George’s Quintet. There were 10 musicians altogether on the record.
By the time it came out, I had already left his band. It was called Out of the Woods. And I was quite proud of it because that was the most composing that I’ve ever done in my life. And it was done under pressure of time constraints. But it turned out quite satisfactorily and I was very happy with it and proud of it.
You also spent time with Stan Getz – three years?
From what I understand, which fits in with everything else I’ve read about Stan Getz, it sounds like it was a mixed experience.
Yes. George decided to disband after a year. I would have stayed longer, but he wanted to get off the road for a while and stay home. He started a radio show in Los Angeles. So I found myself back home in New York with no job. A couple weeks later I got a call to audition for Stan. He was looking for a piano player, actually, but hadn’t found anyone. Time was running out. He had a tour to Canada coming up a week later and still couldn’t find anybody that was available. A friend of his, Lou Levy, the pianist who accompanied Peggy Lee, had seen me playing at a club in Los Angeles, and noticed that I played with four mallets. And he said to Stan, “Maybe this vibes player could be a substitute for the piano.”
And so I got the call and I auditioned for Stan. He didn’t really much like it the first night. I didn’t do very well either. I didn’t know the songs that his group was playing or their arrangements. And I didn’t really get to make much of an impression. But a week or so later I got the call to do this tour to Canada.
So [I] started playing with Stan. And [at] first it was just to be that three weeks. But we found a balance, a blend, and a way of playing together by that time. And he had me stay on and eventually I ended up staying for three years.