In his introduction to Learning to Listen, master vibraphonist Gary Burton offers readers the choice of absorbing his story as either that of “a gay jazz musician or … a jazz-playing gay man, whichever you prefer.” This declaration might potentially put off jazz fans with no particular interest in LGBT issues. But Burton’s book is a jazz story first and foremost, and his compelling chronicle of his sexual-identity struggles in no way diminishes the musical material that, for most readers, will be the book’s raison d’être.
Born into a typical Indiana household, Burton became a professional musician at an early age; the book’s photo section reproduces a business card from 1952, when Burton was 9 years old. Eschewing formal music education for the life of a touring musician, he made his mark in the bands of George Shearing and the maddeningly mercurial Stan Getz before striking out on his own in the late ’60s. His bands of the era, featuring electric guitars and basses, were the earliest examples of the fusion style later adopted by Miles Davis and other previously acoustic artists. Burton provides richly detailed accounts of the frequently frantic touring life; his seminal collaborations with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and tango giant Astor Piazzolla; and his longtime tenure as an instructor and administrator at the Berklee College of Music, where he was responsible for integrating new musical technology and rock idioms into the school’s curriculum.