During the 1960s, jazz aficionados came to know Gary Burton—a skinny, longhaired vibraphone sensation who wielded four mallets at a time, spinning out beautiful musical lines in intricate counterpoint at lightning speed. First as a sideman with George Shearing and Stan Getz, and then out on his own, this kid from rural Indiana, who looked like a fifth Beatle but performed with the dazzling virtuosity of a Vladimir Horowitz, really made waves.
Five decades later, he’s still at it. Mr. Burton recently formed a quartet, and the group’s world-wide tour promoting its new album, “Common Ground” (Mack Avenue Records), makes stops at the Detroit International Jazz Festival on Monday and at New York’s Blue Note Sept. 22 to 25 before traveling to Boston, Philadelphia, Washington and the West Coast. (He is also as active as ever in collaborations with pianist Chick Corea, an association that has lasted 40 years.)
The hair is shorter now, and his perspectives on music and life have grown longer. “You always wonder, ‘Will my career fade out?’ Some do,” he says. “I know a lot of older players who are not as strong as they were. They get good at compensating by playing simpler and slower. I always said that if I ever caught myself doing that, I’d stop. But listening to this new album, to the structures of my solos, I feel that everything I aspired to in my playing is finally there. At 68, I’m still changing and growing.” He declares his new quartet “one of the standout bands of my career.”
Mr. Burton is thoroughly upbeat—and with good reason. “With maturity, you don’t feel as much of a need to prove anything,” he explains. “As a young player, you want to impress your peers, make a name for yourself and find your own sound. When you get older, you gradually shift to playing for the audience. Eventually, though, you begin to play for ‘the ear of God,’ for some higher power that is within you. I feel that state is coming more into focus for me—I’m playing for an inner judge that knows what the ideal is, and helps pull me toward it.”
It has been a long road. His musical training began at age 6. His family “looked around our small town of Anderson, Ind., and found a lady who gave lessons on the marimba and vibraphone. As it turned out, she was an ideal teacher. She taught me how to play with four mallets, and explained basic harmony. There wasn’t much music for mallet instruments, so we had to take piano music and change things. She’d say, ‘Make up an ending for this.’ So I was actually already starting to improvise.”
He played church events and Lions Club dinners from the age of 8 or 9, and then, in his early teens, discovered jazz. “Somehow I got my hands on a Benny Goodman record, and I had never heard anything like it before—it was so exciting rhythmically, and the improvising was amazing. That got me started on a quest to find more. I collected records by Art Blakey, Dave Brubeck and the Modern Jazz Quartet (which featured vibraphonist Milt Jackson).”
At that time, most modern players were playing with only two mallets, though four-mallet technique had been around for decades. “Red Norvo started out in the ’20s as a xylophone player—the vibes were not invented until 1930. But his early records have very intricate four-mallet playing. I simply repopularized the technique, and came up with a way to play that was less restricted. . . . I wanted to have melody and accompaniment, counterpoint and moving lines. I wanted the vibes to be a keyboard instrument. That’s where I established my identity. When I’m long gone, people won’t remember that great solo I played, but rather, ‘Oh yeah, he was the guy with four sticks.'”
As a result, his greatest influences turned out to be pianists. “I still remember hearing my first Bill Evans recording and being stunned by how different it was,” he reports. “Even the light piano players like Red Garland were up to that point fairly percussive. Here came Evans with a classical touch and chord voicings that were different, along with leisurely, lengthy melody lines. I stole from him unashamedly.”
In fact, when Mr. Burton went to study at the Berklee College of Music in Boston there was no major for mallet instruments; he had to study the piano, about which he has no regrets. (Years later, he went back to Berklee as a teacher, then became dean, and eventually ran the school. He spent 33 years in those capacities.)
His other great influences were Shearing and Getz. “George was a master of harmony, and his arrangements were gorgeous. He also played a solo piece every night, and it was always a great moment, so I started doing that too. Stan loved when I did this, because he could go get a cigarette and come back to the stage refreshed. Stan was the master of melody. Being a young player, I hadn’t paid that much attention to the melodies of songs—I was always anxious to get into the improvisation and play a million notes. Stan didn’t play that many notes—he was very focused in his ideas, and the audiences were mesmerized, particularly on ballads. The power of this was new to me. He also introduced me to singers. One night he took me to see Lena Horne and I was blown away. He had gotten his sense of phrasing from singers, so I always felt I owed him a lot.”
What changes has he witnessed in jazz over his 50-year career? “When I started out, it was the golden era of jazz clubs. We’d play in every major city for weeks at a stretch, with 90% club work and 10% concerts. By the end of the ’60s, it was drifting more to concerts and colleges, and the audience for records was growing, partly due to educational programs. Now that has shifted back, and the record industry is collapsing.
“There have been other changes. There used to be just one dominant style at a time: swing, bebop, this or that. That’s no longer true. And originally, there was a common repertoire of standards, all played in specific keys. We all knew the ‘Miles’ ending or the ‘Dizzy’ beginning of a tune. Now, people increasingly write their own originals. You make more money that way, and there is also a credibility issue: People write their own music for fear of being considered lightweight.”
We are at a crossroads, he suggests, waiting for the culture to determine how things will continue. For Gary Burton, though, it’s just one more step on a great adventure.
Mr. Isacoff is on the faculty of the Purchase College Conservatory of Music (SUNY).