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Gary Burton at 70: Taking care of business

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you.” Those were the words from jazz superstar Stan Getz to aspiring young vibes player Gary Burton after a dispiriting live audition. He got the job anyway. That led to three tumultuous years in which Burton acted as the band’s music director while also being a de facto handler for Getz, negotiating the mercurial player’s alcohol binges and complicated family life, and traveling around the word from one storied gig to the next.

The Getz years are just a fraction of the new autobiography, “Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton” (Berklee Press). Burton’s 70th birthday was in January, and he’s celebrating with the publication of “my one and only book,” an exciting new album, “Guided Tour” (on the Mack Avenue label), and a tour that will bring him to Scullers on Sept. 27 and 28.

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Burton has been an innovator on several fronts: virtuoso soloist as well as influential bandleader and educator. He’s discovered one future star after another for his bands: Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and, in his current quartet, the guitarist Julian Lage. Burton also ushered in the new wave of “jazz-rock fusion,” preceding Miles Davis by a couple of years. Meanwhile, as a teacher and administrator at Berklee for 33 years, he transformed the curriculum, bringing rock into the program, expanding the use of digital technology, and, more recently, initiating the school’s online education program. Berklee president Roger Brown, acknowledging Burton as a “rare breed of cat who can do it all,” says, “Berklee’s success owes much to Gary, and his presence and impact are still palpable.”

All of this is covered in Burton’s book, which he says he wanted to be more than the usual “chronology of career activities and a lot of war stories.” There are plenty of colorful stories (a standout being an epic comedy of errors with the Getz band at Carnegie Hall). But the thread of exploring the creative process runs throughout the book, the musical lessons he learned from bandleaders like Getz and George Shearing and from collaborators like Steve Swallow, Chick Corea, and Astor Piazzolla. Burton also discusses spending the first half of his life as a closeted gay man, famously coming out to Terry Gross on the NPR program “Fresh Air” in 1994.

Meanwhile, the new album, says Burton from his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., features “one of the handful of bands in my career where the chemistry is really cooking.” It’s not hard to hear what he’s talking about. With everyone in the band contributing compositions, there’s unusual cohesion and balance as well as variety, from burning tracks like drummer Antonio Sanchez’s opening “Caminos,” with its sharp rhythmic left turns, to the Latin groove of Lage’s “Helena,” bassist Scott Colley’s elegant ballad “Legacy,” and Burton’s own whimsical jazz waltz “Jane Fonda Called Again” and his tango tribute to Piazzolla “Remembering Tano.” In all, front-line soloists Burton and Lage complement each other with their particular brand of narrative lyricism.

A transformative event in Burton’s musical life is alluded to only briefly in the autobiography — an outing he arranged for the Getz band to see the Beatles at Shea Stadium in 1965. Burton was already a Beatles fan.“They had different harmonies that only an amateur musician would come up with. They did things I would never think of doing, and yet it sounded really cool.”

His memory of the concert itself differs from conventional accounts. Instead of constant, deafening screams, he remembers pandemonium only during instrumental passages, the crowd coming down to a hush during the vocals. That Beatles show, he says, is “still the most amazing live performance I have ever seen.”

Burton has been an innovator on several fronts: virtuoso soloist as well as influential bandleader and educator. He’s discovered one future star after another, including Larry Coryell, Pat Metheny, and Julian Lage.

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At the time, Burton also had a complaint that will be familiar to young jazz players now: He wanted to play for audiences his own age. Rock rhythms were foreign to jazz. Only Latin jazz and, more recently, jazz samba, had busted out of the 4/4 swing mold. Moreover, Burton, a rural-Indiana native, made his recorded debut on a country-jazz crossover album by the Nashville session guitarist Hank Garland. Burton and Swallow determined to write music that was geared to the guitar-based music of country and rock. “I said, well, if Stan [Getz] can do this with samba and jazz, maybe I can do it with this music I grew up with — country — and the music I’m so enthralled with, which was rock.”

Burton and his quartet were soon playing on sometimes bewildering rock bills at the Fillmore West. But the music persisted, and Burton’s bands, through its own music and the work of its alumni, have shaped the sound of jazz for several generations.

Although Burton retired full-time from Berklee in 2003, he still teaches in the online program he spearheaded. When he talks about the challenges facing Berklee students today compared with his own experience as a 17-year-old at the school, he concedes that the business model has changed, although in some ways, “the jazz business is bigger than it ever was.” He is impressed with young artists’ ability to promote themselves through social media and raise funds for recordings with tools like Kickstarter. But, he says, “I’m glad I’m not starting out now. I don’t feel like I have the energy to do all these things. Maybe if I was 20 years old I would feel energized by them. I’m just glad I’m still a part of it.”

Jon Garelick can be reached at jon.garelick4@gmail.com.
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