Meeting a Legend: Gary Burton

Shannon Finney

Recently I had the privilege of meeting and interviewing a jazz icon, and an inductee of the NEA. Jazz Masters: Vibraphonist Extraordinaire, Gary Burton.

WOW!!! This was HUGE!

Needless to say, I was nervous. My knees knocked to a rhythm similar to his music. Gary Burton, whose music graces my LP stacks, cassette cases, and DVD rack; whose “Reunion” with Pat Metheny & crew travel with me on my cellphone’s MP3 playlist.

Gary Burton. The Master who has played with giants like Stephane Grappelli, Chick Corea, Chet Atkins, Stan Getz, George Shearing, Thelonious Monk, Miles Davis. Gary Burton, who was a featured sideman on an album starring Herbie Mann, and my favorite lady’s namesake Tamiko Jones (if you don’t know about her, see me later). Yeah, the same Gary Burton who is not only a composer and band leader, but a professor of music at the Berklee College.

Did I tell you this jazz man (who began recording at only 17 years old) has seven Grammy Awards?

This kind gent gave me the time out of his time day to listen to my Gary Burton story, which I will share with you.

When I was a little fellow, about 9 or 10, my dad—who knew that I was always a xylophone fan—made me a set of keys by following directions in an old encyclopedia. It was better crafted than the ones at the toy store and small enough for tabletop play. I loved that instrument and I fantasized of being Lionel Hampton or that “Red” guy (Red Norvo, whose LP’s my mom would play).

I would make music (mostly noise) as much as I could. One day, while Sis was watching some black and white movie on the Westinghouse (TV), I was summoned to see this guy play vibes. There was this young guy playing with “reckless abandon” —not two, but FOUR mallets!!!

1966: Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Steve Swallow and Roy Haynes | Image courtesy of the BBC
1966: Stan Getz, Gary Burton, Steve Swallow and Roy Haynes | Image courtesy of the BBC
Image courtesy of
Chick (Corea) And Gary (Burton) Duets | Image courtesy of

He was phenomenal, at least to this ten-year-old. I was so moved by the spectacle of his performance that I knew right then I would never match it. But I would become a listener for life!

To this day, I enjoy Jazz and Jazz vibraphonists as much as anyone, all thanks to Mr. Burton for the life-changing experience, both then and now! Thanks to you, Mr. Burton,  I’ve heard many other musicians and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting them in several venues!

I would love to share the story of Gary Burton’s life with you, but if I did, you wouldn’t go out and buy his excellent autobiography: “Learning To Listen – The Jazz Journey Of Gary Burton: An Autobiography.” This book, like most of his work, is exceptional and highly rated (Five Stars on Amazon).

What I will do is recommend are some Choice Cuts to set the mood as you read his book:

Gary Burton, Wendy Oxenhorn (mother of the Street Paper movement), Pharaoh Sanders and Archie Shepp, were inducted as National Endowment for The Arts Jazz Masters on April 4, 2016. The world is fortunate to share their contributions. If you haven’t experienced them, well, let’s just say “a life without a soundtrack, really isn’t one worth living!”

I’d advise all to “Learn to Listen” now. You’ll enjoy the message!

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