Gary Burton’s mastery of the vibraphone led to work with George Shearing at age 19. Offstage he would come to realize he was gay in jazz’s mostly straight-male world.
DownBeat magazine’s Jazzman of the Year in 1968, Burton was a twice-married father when he came out to his family in the 1980s and then to the music world.
In Burton’s new book, “Learning to Listen,” he offers a candid account of personal struggles and professional triumphs, along with an all-night gig’s worth of insider tales about musicians performing brilliantly (Chick Corea) and behaving badly (Stan Getz).
The 70-year-old, six-time Grammy Award Winner spoke to me from his hotel in Washington, ahead of a series of shows at New York’s Blue Note jazz club tonight through Sunday.
Cole: How did friends and family react when you came out?
Burton: My usual collaborators and friends remained steadfastly supportive. I was prepared to lose some ground. I thought it might affect my career at the Berklee College of Music, where I was the dean, but the school was supportive. If anything, my career has gotten better.
Cole: Your stories about Stan Getz’s drinking and flirting were shocking and sad. He humiliated Astrud Gilberto onstage, and she later walked off in the middle of the performance.
Burton: Stan was the most outrageous musician I’ve ever encountered. It was the 1960s, and the concept of being bipolar didn’t exist yet, and he was a classic case. He would zoom back and forth between being the nicest guy imaginable to angry and suspicious and thinking everyone’s out to get him.
You could never predict any given day. I was the one who drove him to gigs because he was too drunk himself and I bailed him out of fights when he would get into trouble with the club owners. Still, Stan gave me great exposure, and that was a factor in starting my own band.
Cole: You write that Getz made many demeaning comments about gays.
Burton: He had two targets. One was Jews, and he was one. He made lots of denigrating remarks about being Jewish. He also called people “faggot” a lot. When a handsome guy would walk by, sometimes he would make these sexy comments about him.
It made me wonder. I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had thoughts about a guy sometimes and his way of dealing with it would be saying critical things about homosexuals.
Cole: You say you don’t practice daily.
Burton: There’s a difference between instruments. If you play the trumpet, you have to practice every day or two to keep your chops in shape. My instrument is very forgiving. You can be away from the vibes for an extended period of time and it won’t affect your ability to play.
My mind is frequently about the songs and the music and soloing, so I’m mentally practicing if I don’t have an instrument in front of me.
Cole: Who were your mentors and heroes?
Burton: My first big hero was Milt Jackson when I was in high school. My musical influences tended to be piano players like Bill Evans. When I discovered him, it changed my life and what I wanted to do musically.
Cole: It must have been tough trying to choose the musicians for your 70th birthday celebration at the Blue Note. You’ve played with Corea, Pat Metheny and many others.
Burton: My original idea was to get three guitar players, but it turned out that everyone I asked except Larry Coryell wasn’t available. John Scofield wasn’t available, Metheny wasn’t available.
So I picked players such as (Cuban trumpeter) Arturo Sandoval. I’m on his Grammy-winning record this year. Terence Blanchard is a trumpeter who has always interested me. He’s very big in jazz education. I’ve gotten to know him, but we’ve never played together, so it’s a chance to play and get to know him better.
(The New Gary Burton Quartet performs tonight through Sunday at the Blue Note, 131 W. 3rd St. in Manhattan at 8 and 10:30 p.m. Information: +1-212-475-8592 or http://www.bluenotejazz.com/new york.)
(Patrick Cole is a reporter for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. Any opinions expressed are his own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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