Not many musicians can match the list of accomplishments and credentials that vibraphone virtuoso Gary Burton has amassed in his illustrious career. Innovator, educator, and pioneer are just a few of the accolades that could be used to describe the virtuoso. Burton was born in Indiana 1943 and at the early age of six he started to teach himself how to play the marimba and vibraphone. Gary is a multi-instrumentalist who also took up the piano in his teens, citing the great pianist Bill Evans as the inspiration to develop his style on the vibraphone. Burton’s four-mallet technique — initially conceived as a way to add more harmony to his playing — was a true innovation and a completely uncharted approach to the instrument. The technique emerged as a way of emulating a piano instead of the traditional two-mallet method. Not given the name by the humble musician, the technique is now known globally by students of the instrument as the “Burton Grip.”
In the early 1960’s Burton attended the Berklee College of Music for a short time before leaving to establish his career as a musician. At seventeen Gary moved to Nashville to record with country music legends Hank Garland and Chet Atkins as well as many other prominent Nashville musicians, including Floyd Kramer and Boots Randolph. This proved to be an excellent career move for Burton as he subsequently went on to tour the US and Japan in 1963 with pianist George Shearing. After touring with Shearing, Burton then toured with the great Stan Getz from 1964-1966, solidly establishing himself as a highly respected and sought after musician. With the Stan Getz Quartet Burton appeared alongside the band in the motion picture Get Yourself a College Girl, performing the song “Girl from Ipanema” in the film. It was now time for Burton to become a legitimate bandleader and in 1967 he formed the Gary Burton Quartet with bassist Steve Swallow, drummer Roy Haynes, and with Larry Coryell rounding out the foursome on guitar. Burton’s experience playing with a diverse collection of musicians over the years proved to be an inspiration that was reflected in the band’s musical sensibilities. Larry Coryell eventually left the Quartet and Burton replaced him with several different guitarists including John Scofield and Pat Metheny. The Quartet was known as an innovative group that wasn’t afraid to mix music from different genres-including jazz, country, and rock and roll. The Gary Burton Quartet had a significant impact-pioneering jazz fusion and bringing the new genre to light, and albums like Duster and Lofty Fake Anagram (both released in 1967) were particularly instrumental in defining the genre.
In the 1970’s Burton would return to Berklee; this time as an educator teaching percussion and eventually becoming the Dean of Curriculum in 1985. He would also receive and honorary doctorate from the college, later becoming an executive vice president of the institution in 1996. Music education did not get in the way of Burton’s desire to create as he has collaborated with an extensive collection of prominent musicians well into the 2000’s — most notably working with Chick Corea, with the duo earning six Grammy awards for their work together. In total, Gary Burton has 22 Grammy nominations and is a seven time Grammy winner.
Gary continues to tour to this day with a new ensemble playing with the same passion, innovation, and impeccable musicianship that he has always been known for.
(by Mark Turner)