An Archival Interview from 1976 with Gary Burton

The vibist on ECM, practice, teaching and more

Manfred Eicher would probably cringe to hear it called a “package show.” Perhaps even more insulting to him would have been the term “Battle of the Bands.” But in retrospect, I think that’s exactly what was happening. In 1976, ECM Records put together a concert tour featuring several of its current acts. After individual sets of music from groups led by bassist Eberhard Weber, and by drummer Jack DeJohnette, plus a duo performance from guitarists Ralph Towner and John Abercrombie, the evening concluded with one of the label’s highest profile performers, vibraphonist Gary Burton.

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A 1970s publicity photo of Gary Burton

Some of the music was pretty dense stuff. I was familiar with Weber’s The Colours of Chloe LP, so I knew what to expect with his quartet, and I had followed Ralph Towner’s trajectory from the Paul Winter Consort to Oregon and solo and duet outings. I had been a longtime fan of Gary Burton, thanks to some of the upper classmen from college.

But even for the initiated, this was challenging material. And what I recall that night is not only the concentration needed to appreciate the music, but also how some audience members—while sincerely trying—were lost from note one. There were well-meaning but intrusive smatterings of clapping at strange times and other signs of bewilderment. It was as if there should have been a jazz appreciation seminar prior to the show.

After the concert, I waited backstage for an opportunity to interview Burton. It was cold that night in Minneapolis; those of us trying to get interviews were tired. Nobody knew who to approach about getting backstage. But down the hallway came Ralph Towner. The others didn’t appear to recognize him, so I waited until he had passed by before addressing him. I wanted him to myself, and the chances of getting the Burton interview were looking increasingly dim.

“Mr. Towner, I enjoyed your set tonight,” I told him. He turned and smiled. He too looked tired. He was patient, but I could tell he wanted to escape. So I just lobbed a fan’s question, yet one that I genuinely had wondered about: “Which recording of ‘Icarus’ is your favorite?” Towner had closed his set with this well-known, melodic composition.

He thought for a moment and then said, “The live one we did with Paul Winter.” I was glad, for this was the first version I had encountered, the beautifully played and unusually well recorded live album from 1970, called Road. After a pause he added, “And I like the duet recording with Gary Burton.” This was from a very recent LP, titled Matchbook. In fact, I thought that Burton and Towner might perform “Icarus” as a duet to close the night. But there was virtually no cross-pollination between group members at the concert.

I thanked the guitarist and walked back to the huddled group, which had begun to dwindle. Then a man came out and said, “The guy from National Public Radio should come with me.” Hey! I was the guy from NPR, or at least one of its affiliate stations. I was led downstairs into some concrete dressing rooms, one of which held Gary Burton. He was immediately pleasant and strikingly articulate. What follows is a previously unpublished transcript of our conversation.

I began by asking if he adapted his performance to the audience each night. Throughout many of his comments, Burton gave examples concerning music that paralleled his thoughts about the spoken word. He explained how he sees his performances as a form of storytelling, much like a short story, where the plot is already formed, the music structure already exists for a given composition.

Gary Burton: The storyteller tailors the work to that particular audience situation. And his main goal is to get this all communicated to the audience and put it across. And the improvising musician is in much the same position. He’s playing these tunes that he knows and is sort of interpreting them ... according to his usual style and all, but he tailors it in a lot of subtle ways for each individual performance, so that it sort of fits the situation and has a certain amount of spontaneity apparent to it that makes it ... unique ... compared to written music or rehearsed music.

And so I am very conscious of trying to strike this conversational rapport with the audience, as if I am out there talking to them and telling them these various stories about which I believe very much. These songs that I have chosen to play for them—I like them a lot, and I want them to feel as strongly about them as I do. I’m there to try to convince them of that.

Tom Wilmeth: When you improvise, you know where you’re going. It’s a matter of taking certain paths and certain directions.

GB: Well, there are a couple of ways to go about that. We [his quartet] tend to play organized structured songs on which to improvise. And that is the most familiar type of improvisation in jazz music that you’ll hear. There are also freer circumstances where there are not so much predetermined structures, and everybody just sort of listens to each other and reacts and lets it wander wherever it may—not adhering to a set number of measures or a format or predetermined circumstances.

And there is a parallel to that, I’m sure, in public speaking as well, where you are just going to talk off the top of your head. And if you’re clever enough and quick enough and imaginative enough, I’m sure that works. You can sit there and talk all evening with nothing planned, and drift from one thing to another and still get a lot across. It would depend on one’s style.

TW: A friend of mine tells me that you have an unpublished book on a subject, and forgive me if I am off-base on this, but you have a concept that if one thinks about practicing, this is the same as practicing. Do I have that right?

GB: Uh, yes and no. This is a confusing issue. It’s not a book. There are books on these subjects, but I haven’t done one. But I often go into these sorts of things when I am doing workshops and clinics at universities. These sort of ... rather esoteric points will come up. And it has a lot to do with understanding how language works. I mean, we don’t practice speaking in order to keep our conversational skills up. We don’t go home and workout for a couple of hours just practicing words and sentences or anything.

In fact, if we did it would probably stultify our speech and make it seem less natural. And the same is the problem with the improvising musician. So he has to be careful how he practices and what he practices, because he’s trying to keep it spontaneous and flexible and natural sounding. And not prepared and rehearsed and repetitive and mechanized.

So for most players, who are experienced players, they get to the point where they don’t practice in the normal sense of playing an hour or two each day—exercises and whatever. As long as you play regularly, your technique continues to stay under your control and even continues to grow and evolve without using the normal kind of training materials that you think of are necessary for technique.

TW: So you and your bass player Steve Swallow, you don’t run scales to practice?

GB: No ... if we’re going to play I’ll usually wiggle the mallets around just to get my hands loosened up, so I’m not stiff. Otherwise the first tune or two tends to be a little clumsy. But I don’t have access to my instrument; it’s either in shipment or down at the club or at the concert hall or at the airport or somewhere. So I’ve just learned over the years to go without practicing on that regular basis. Something that you have to do when you’re learning to play in the beginning—to acquire this basic technique.

Again, like language—I mean, if you came from a foreign country and had to learn this language you’d probably have to study it for a few years, and then you could continue to improve your use of the language by using it on a normal basis. And then if you continue to develop you would be able to write poetry and novels, or whatever. And that’s what the musician hopes will happen. He learns it mechanically first and then just tries to make it a part of his ability to express himself, as if another language.

TW: You’ve been involved with college-level jazz education for quite some time in Boston. Do you ever get the feeling that music majors, and particularly people who are going into jazz, are being cranked out much like business majors? That they are not really able to express themselves as jazz musicians?

GB: This is ... possible ... to a certain extent. But I don’t think it will ever affect the music scene. What it means is that there will be a lot of people who may have notions of going into music, who will not have the slightest chance of ever finding a career. Twenty years ago [ca. the 1950s] people often did not even find out about jazz until they were in their mid-20s, or at least in college. And one of the big changes is that with jazz bands in the schools, everybody tends to find out about it, at least, at an earlier age. And a lot more people are coming into direct contact with it. So it means that a lot of people now who would have missed out on this completely, had it been 20 years earlier, are now being introduced to this type of music and perhaps get an interest in it.

It doesn’t mean that there’s a job for everybody that has some experience at playing in a jazz band at school, any more than it means that there would be for all the people playing in the concert band in school. I mean, there aren’t that many symphonies around. It’s sort of the same kind of thing.

Those who are outstanding will undoubtedly make it, as has always been the case. It’s just that there are more people considering it for a career now. That’s where the misleading thing may be going on. I think that it should be made clearer to the student that there are 20,000 jazz bands in the schools around the country. If even one, let’s say, out of each band thinks about going into that as a career, from each graduating class there are 20,000 going into a field where they is maybe a handful of big bands. So there’s just more competition.

[At this point Burton’s guitarist Pat Metheny sticks his head into the room and asks if Burton is planning to go get something to eat with the rest of the band. Naturally, I take the hint and begin to wrap-up the interview.]

TW: You said that, undoubtedly, the people who are good will always make it. But what about somebody who is really gifted and puts together a band and just gets upset to the point of quitting because of the business aspects—the agents and the clubs.

GB: Well, everybody has to deal with that. The only final judge is the court of public opinion. And if you can find enough people to support your music for you to continue playing it, then you’ve succeeded. And for some people it’s a fairly small, but loyal following. But it’s enough for them.

Like if certain … more experimental composers and so on manage to have careers ... that are not flamboyant or even that noticed by the music business at large, but nonetheless—look at them 10 years later and they’re still composing music for a living, getting it played, and managing to have a family and a normal life, even though they may not be major stars at it. So, it just depends; it’s not as it seems in the press, I guess is what I’m saying.

TW: On this tour, are you travelling as a package?

GB: Right. We are doing altogether 16 cities; we’ve already done seven or eight as of now and we have another batch to go.

TW: How do you like this sort of arrangement?

GB: Oh, just fine! Of course no group gets to play what would be considered their whole concert’s worth of material. But, as long as we didn’t do this year-’round it isn’t a problem. In this case you introduce the music to a lot of people who may not have seen it before, particularly in this case the groups from Europe and the musicians who are not normally touring here. So it gives a lot of identification to the [ECM Records] label and all of our record output. It’s generally good to do this sort of thing if it’s handled with decent taste and everybody’s compatible.

TW:How long have you had this band with this personnel?

GB: Different lengths of time, because our new drummer [Danny Gottlieb] has only been with us for about six weeks. So in that respect it’s a fairly new combination, but actually we’ve had this instrumentation and this general concept of the music for quite a while. Our bass player Steve Swallow has been with me since the beginning, because we were together in another band before we started our own. And Pat Metheny on guitar has been with us three years.

TW: And lastly, being a teacher, do you find it difficult to write music yourself?

GB:Yes, to some extent. I also must point out that I don’t think that teaching per se will keep someone from writing. For me, it happens to. And I think it’s partly because I’m not much of a writer to begin with. I certainly don’t want to blame it on teaching completely. I was the type who only wrote a song or two a year, anyway. It may just mean that I would have stopped writing anyway.

Teaching does make you much more analytical about everything you do, much more observant about things you’re doing. And therefore, it makes you that much more self-conscious about what you do, if you’re not careful. That’s the danger of trying to do both at the same time. So it takes a certain amount of strength and belief in your style in what you’re playing and what you’re doing to not get psyched-out by that sort of thing, getting so self-conscious about it. And doing your own tunes, it’s that much harder. You start to write and the next thing you know you’ve rethought what you’ve already written and changed it four times and lost the thread of it.

I thanked Mr. Burton for his time and conversation. As I packed up my gear we discussed the general high quality of the ECM recordings and of the pressings themselves. As I read this transcript 35 years later, it strikes me how articulate this musician is and how generous he was with his time and talents.

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