Gary Burton is one of the foremost innovators of the vibraphone. Moreover, his work as a soloist, duetist, band leader, band member, and educator has influenced countless generations of musicians. As he reaches the fortieth anniversary with one of his most prolific collaborations, that with Chick Corea, we asked him to look back on his career, their partnership, and the legacy he has left.

So many people talk about the impact you’ve had on music; what do you see as the impact you have made on jazz music and on the vibes?

I’m at the stage in my life where I look back and I think about these things. I ask myself, “What have I contributed? What’s out there that people associate with my name?” So as far as the vibes are concerned, I pioneered a few new ways of using it and playing it, namely my four-mallet style. I wasn’t the first person to play with four mallets, but nobody had done it as extensively as I did. I kind of proved that it was a quite viable way of playing the vibraphone and that is as a keyboard instrument instead of a single line instrument. I’m sure that’s the thing I will most go down in history for. The last thing before my name disappears in the midst of history won’t be a great solo I played on a certain record or any of that sort of thing. It’ll be, “Oh yeah, the guy with four sticks.” That’ll be my main legacy.

And I came up with a few other techniques as well that now are commonly used, but the thing is, the vibraphone was still a pretty new instrument when I came along. It was only 20-years old when I started playing it in 1949. So it was ripe for development and discovery. A lot of technical things and solo applications came about, but if it weren’t me doing it, someone else would have. I’ve always thought that I had some luck with timing. I happened to come along at the right moment to pioneer some things with the instrument that has had a lot to do with my getting established as a player because I was doing something different. I remember Duke Ellington telling me that he was always on the lookout for people who came up with a different way of playing an instrument. He heard me playing a solo piece in a concert once at a jazz festival when he was backstage. When I came off he stopped me and talked to me about it. He said, “You know, when you can do something that no one else has got, it means so much more.” That made me feel really good coming from him.

As far as my other area of contribution, I think as a bandleader, I was certainly one of the foremost leaders of the fusion movement back in the late-‘60s. I started my own band in ’67 and that was the concept that I had for my new band. It was to combine other genres of music with my jazz improvisation background. We used rock tunes and country influences, classical influences, anything that sounded interesting we would try. We would either adapt tunes or write new tunes that used these elements. It took a couple of years before it really caught on. By ’69 were getting interested in this and the dam really broke around ’70 when Miles came out with Bitches Brew, which was his big foray into the new music. Also John McLaughlin started his band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra around that time. So by that stage it had become pretty established as a new genre of jazz. Oddly enough, soon after that, I was beginning to lose interest in it. I went back to a middle ground of keeping some of the elements, but no longer playing everything in swing time or using typical jazz harmonies based on show tunes. We were doing more modern compositions and so on. But I wasn’t really interested in becoming a rock band, particularly because my instrument doesn’t really lend itself to that high volume. But anyways, I think that is my main contribution as a musician. I don’t always get credit for that. More and more I notice now that when people are talking about that era, my name gets included. But at the beginning, I was dismayed to notice that even fairly informed critics were sort of starting off with, “Well the people who started this thing were Miles and Chick Corea and John.”

Do you think that was because of your instrument?

Possibly. When you play a less common instrument, you don’t get noticed as much. It’s much easier to be considered a major influential player if you play guitar or piano, trumpet, saxophone. It’s much harder if you’re a bass player or a clarinet player or in my case a vibraphone player. They just don’t get as much attention I think.

My other contribution I would say leads us back to the discussion of the moment. I pioneered both soloing and dueting. There was very little in the way of solo jazz records except for piano players putting out solo records like Art Tatum or Thelonious Monk. But I ended up performing on the vibes as a soloist and that kind of kicked off a phase of a lot of my contemporaries starting to put out solo records as well. Chick and Keith for instance, put out records in the next year or two. Then came the duet. We weren’t the first jazz duet. The first one that I was aware of was a record made by Bill Evans and Jim Hall called Undercurrent back in the early ‘60s. That was a favorite record of mine. Still I had never thought of playing duets until the odd chance came along when Chick and I played a tune together in a spur of the moment kind of jam session.

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The story is that we were both on a jazz festival in Germany. The promoter went around asking everybody that night if they would do a jam session at the end of the concert. It turned out that the only two people who had said yes were me and Chick [laughs]. So we laughed about it and said, “Well what the hell, we’ll do it.” So he taught me one of his songs that he had recently written called “La Fiesta.” We still play that one to this day. So at the end of this concert, we went out just the two of us and played this tune. The crowd loved it. It was something different. Manfred Eicher, who had just started a new record label called ECM, was there. He had already started recording Chick at that point. He approached me and introduced himself and said, “You guys have got to record. You’ve got to make a record with this duo thing.” We thought he was crazy. Who would want to listen to a whole hour of vibes and piano? But he kept after us, calling us, and putting together feasible ways to do it. We flew to Europe and played at the Berlin Jazz Festival and then stayed and recorded.

That went so well and it was really our first chance to try it more than just that one song. It turned out that it was really easy to play together. We did the whole record in about three hours. Even then we thought that would probably be the end of it. But the record came out and we started getting calls for concert bookings, so we started touring on and off with the duet.

Now forty years later we’re still doing it. We play every year, and sometimes a lot if we have a new record out. Other times we maybe do one short tour or a few festivals or something like that. We’ve never skipped a year. This is our fortieth year. You know up until now we’ve done mostly original music, mostly Chick’s music because he’s such a prolific composer. But for this one we got to thinking. This is our seventh record I believe. We decided we would like to do other people’s music for a change. So we zeroed in on the time period where we were coming of age as musicians, the ‘50s and ‘60s. We picked favorite composers to feature. So we have music by Monk, Kurt Weill, Paul McCartney, Dave Brubeck, Antonio Carlos Jobim, Bill Evans, and a few others. There are ten pieces altogether, one of which is a new piece that we added in last minute that’s by Chick. The concept of the record was to do our approach to a standards records although none of the pieces are regular standards. We tell people at the concerts, “You’ll recognize the composers, but not necessarily the songs.”

How did you get the Paul McCartney tune in there?

Well, we were looking at tunes from the ‘50s and ‘60s and of course that was a ‘60s tune. It was Chick’s idea. He had just discovered the Beatles last year. He said, “You know, when they were popular I didn’t pay much attention to them, so I hardly noticed them. But lately somebody talked to me about the Beatles and sent me some tracks. Lately I’ve been listening to their music and I find it really fascinating.” He connected particularly with “Eleanor Rigby.” So one day when I showed up at his house to do a little rehearsing for this project, he had made an arrangement of it. It clicked pretty well. We made a few adjustments to it and then that one was ready to go. Granted it’s the one that’s in there that isn’t a standard or a jazz tune. But it seems to work pretty well musically for us.

So we’ve started touring this year with the record. It came out in Europe a few months ago and we toured all of March and April in Europe. It was 25 concerts. Now we took a break for the summer and started in late August in the US for the rest of the year. We have again about 25 concerts booked through the end of the year. We’re going to keep touring into the spring a little as well. We’re also going to be doing most of the fall tour with a string quartet. We have a small amount of repertoire for our duo with the string quartet. We’ve connected with this Harlem string quartet and we’ve done a few gigs with them already. We recorded one tune with them on Hot House as well. We’ll do a split performance with the first half as a duo and the second half with the quartet.

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I keep wondering if our fans are going to get bored with us after this many years. I used to think we would get bored. With most things you do, at a certain point people evolve and you sort of move on. It loses its glamor and interest for you. When we hit the twenty-year mark, back around 1990, I remember thinking, “Gee we must be near the end of this by now. I’ll be curious to see if we last much longer.” The next thing I knew, we were looking at our 35th anniversary. By that time I decided, you know, okay apparently this is going to keep on going. And we keep getting new ideas for material and for concepts. So as long as that keeps happening, I’m sure we’ll keep going. If we run out of ideas and find ourselves just repeating the same things over and over, I’m sure we’ll get bored. That has yet to happen. So as we both enter our 70s now, we’ll see how much longer we keep going.

Hopefully at least until 50!

[laughs] Well I said that to Chick, you know, I wonder if we’ll celebrate our 50th anniversary. We’ll be 80 at the time, which has been done. Jazz musicians seem to hang on for long careers. If you make it through your 60s, then it seems like you keep going on. So we’ll hope for the best.

Going back to Hot House, you mentioned that they were composers from the ‘50s and ‘60s when you were developing as musicians. That time was culturally very interesting as well. What was going on non-musically that shaped jazz?

The main thing that was happening at the time from my perspective was the process of integrating jazz. It was in its final stages at that point shall we say. The Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964. I started my career in 1960, as did Chick. I still remember travelling with mixed bands, like Stan Getz’s band, and in parts of the country having to stay in separate hotels, having to be careful what restaurants to go into if you didn’t want to be rudely refused service and so on. It seems like now a dim memory. Today it hardly seems possible, but that was the state of things. Mostly in those days, there weren’t many concert dates, it was mostly clubs where you would stay a week or two or even up to a month. You’d be at the same club in major cities over and over again. Audiences were mostly black because they were in the middle of cities. They were the jazz audience in those days. And I saw that come to an end during the ‘60s with the integration of the South and the Civil Rights Act. I remember the Holiday Inn was the first chain of hotels that guaranteed no discrimination. I was very partial to Holiday Inns for years because of this. They’re a Memphis-based company that from the outset put the word out, you know, “We’re open. All welcome.” I’ll tell you, travelling in the South, it was great. I just looked for Holiday Inns. I never had to worry about where to stay.

So that also allowed the musicians to mix more. A lot of the big bands, Basie’s band, Duke’s band, and so on, a lot of them were all black except for the occasional white musician. Miles’ band up until towards the end of the ‘60s was still mostly African-American. There was still a color line of sorts and that broke down by the ‘70s. The whole thing became much more integrated and diverse. Styles of music became more diverse as well. We didn’t just have one or two types of jazz, there came a wider selection that could support players.

What inspires you to continue pursuing new types of music and new ideas? In turn, what makes people want to continue listening to your music after so many years?

Well sometimes I wonder [laughs]. There seems to be an ark to jazz musician’s careers. You’re at your most innovative and risk taking in the early phase because up until that point you have nothing to lose. You’re establishing yourself and you’re audience during that phase. There’s a middle phase where you solidify your style and your identity as a player and you continue to lock in your audience. In the later years, there’s a tendency to slow down and stick with the same familiar tunes that you already know rather than adding more to the repertoire and staying with the same kind of setting. Some musicians, especially so, did this. I mean, Wes Montgomery had only one thing he did. Milt Jackson was another. He was a wonderful vibraphone player, but he kind of did the same kind of playing his entire career. There were no innovative changes in direction. The opposite would be Miles for instance, who every decade would reinvent himself. Often people weren’t even thrilled about his changes. He would gain a large following and then challenge them to keep up with him when he went electric or whatever.

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So for me, I’m one of those kinds of people who tend to keep looking around. I side-tracked into Tango music back in the ‘80s and have been doing Tango music ever since. I’ve put out three Tango records and a live DVD. I love it. Every now and then I’ll go back to Argentina and do a tour with these guys and have a great time doing it. It’s a nice break from my regular stuff. And I keep in touch with a few players, Pat Metheny is another one who I’ve known for about forty years, and we keep doing projects together. Every five years or so we do another record or another kind of band. We’re starting talking about getting something else going now. Then of course my collaboration with Chick that has gone on a long time. I guess as long as I can keep playing with new musicians, who then bring in new songs I haven’t played before, then I’ll keep on growing.

If I ever notice that this process isn’t happening anymore, then either I’ll know it’s time to quit or I’ll begin to get bored and lose interest. I’m curious to see what happens with me as I get up in years. What path will I take? Some musicians remain extremely creative right until the end. Others really slow down and stick with whatever they were doing in their fifties. They play with the same people and that’s their thing.

You have a great way of explaining music. Is that why you wrote all of the liner notes and are doing the interview? Is Chick not into talking about it or just not the interview type?

Chick doesn’t like interviews much. He’ll avoid as many as he can get away with avoiding. There are some that are quite important. If the Wall Street Journal calls or the New York Times, he’ll do one. He prefers them to be brief and doesn’t like to go into too much detail in talking about it. He also doesn’t really enjoy teaching. Every now and then he gets dragged into a clinic event at a college or something and he’s not real comfortable with it. He will answer questions and what not, but he doesn’t go deep into musical concepts. He’s just not into that. His main focus of every day of his life is the music and playing the piano and writing. He’s always thinking about the next project or two. He’s very prolific and at any given year, he has three or four different things going on. I think he feels it cuts into his concentration time if he has to do much in the way of interviews. He kind of hates it.

And when you’re with him rehearsing, is it a totally different story? As a part of his musical process, does he discuss it with you?

There’s a lot of talking about the tunes, about the arrangements, about this, about that. We’re both adjusting as we go. Sometimes they start out as the merest sketch and then we start playing it and adding things to it. Other times he might write a finished arrangement and we start from there and only make some small changes.

Then we talk a lot about the overall philosophy of whatever we’re doing and on our whole performance careers and that sort of thing. We’ve been friends for forty years, so we also talk about everything under the sun.

Chick Corea and Gary Burton are currently touring for the release of their record Hot House. Grab the record here and be sure to check them out at Blue Note NYC on 9/25 & 9/26 with sets at 8pm and 10:30pm. More information here!

Interview by Eric Sandler (@ericsandler)

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