In the mid-1980s, Gary Burton was just entering middle age, but he’d had experiences as a jazz player to fill several lifetimes. Duke Ellington had treated him with kindness, Milt Jackson with suspicion, Miles Davis with a death threat. He’d endured the mercurial tendencies of Stan Getz, in whose band he played in the 1960s and who, like so many, fought the battle between creative genius and substance abuse.
Burton’s memoir, “Learning to Listen,” tells these stories and situates its author’s own major contributions in jazz’s history. After leaving Getz in 1966, Burton — with guitarist Larry Coryell and others — pioneered jazz-rock fusion and played venues like the Fillmore in San Francisco. As a player, he brought his four-mallet technique and “Burton grip” to the vibraphone and marimba, expanding the potential for those instruments in both lead and support settings. As a bandleader, he spotted and mentored the likes of Pat Metheny.
Burton also taught at the Berklee College of Music, becoming a dean and helping to introduce rock and new technologies to the curriculum. But his soul was unsettled. In his early 40s, he was a father of two but twice divorced, his heterosexual marriages having failed, as he knew inside but couldn’t admit, because he was gay.
The memoir opens with the 1994 radio interview in which he came out in public. By that time, he had already gradually revealed his sexuality to close colleagues and friends. Burton has gone on to a happy life as an out gay man, and he offers the book as the story of “a gay jazz musician or a jazz-playing gay man, whichever you prefer.”
Despite this scene-setter, Burton’s book for most of its length holds the topic of his sexuality at bay, much as Burton did growing up in rural Indiana and as a young musician in Boston and New York. His presence was already freighted with being a white kid from the country, though he says he rarely felt that race worked against him. Out of doggedness and probably sublimation, he plunged himself into work, earning breaks from promoter George Wein and many others whom he credits graciously.
Burton tells his journey in linear manner: We follow his career over time and meet a constellation of jazz figures on the bandstand, on the road, and in the studio. The writing is plain but clear. A few stories ramble and some sections lapse into chronology, but the story is generally edifying.
The time with Getz proves especially rich, full of anecdotes about the band, its difficult leader, and their adventures. One, a US-sponsored journey to Asia while the Vietnam war was in full force, leads to encounters with the King of Thailand and a bizarre mission to play jazz for distracted soldiers in jungle bases that the military was telling the public did not exist.
A picture emerges of a community of artists who, while young and often disorganized in their private lives, were fully in rhythm with the changes of their time. Their relevance was beyond question. Burton, who smoked some weed but stayed lucid, keeping his own turmoil bottled up, proves an apt chronicler. Sidebars on key figures in his life, from Lionel Hampton to Chick Corea, offer insight on their musical importance and their quirks.
A few short chapters near the book’s end are valuable in a different way. In one, on the creative process, Burton shares how he visualizes movement through a song as if showing a guest around a house. In another, he addresses aging and the lessons from watching older jazz greats in their often difficult sunsets.
When Burton finally shares, with candor and grace, how he came to terms with his sexual identity, it functions as a resolution. The chapter title, “Who Is Gary Burton?,” is a reference to an album Burton recorded at the start of his career, in 1962. It took two and a half decades after that to know the answer, and the same time again before writing this book. “Learning to Listen” is about a man who learned to listen to himself.