Good vibes: Gary Burton celebrates the big 7-0 preview

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Gary Burton turned 70 this year -- not a big deal for him, but it is for marketers.

The vibraphonist who first made his mark with saxophonist Stan Getz comes to the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on Saturday for the customary two shows on a 70th birthday tour.

"That seems to be the trend -- that was more their idea than mine," Mr. Burton says. "It started about a decade ago with Chick Corea," now 72 and who has collaborated with Mr. Burton for 40 years, for a 60th birthday celebration.

The New Gary Burton Quartet

Where: Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, North Side.

When: 7 and 9:30 p.m. Saturday.

Tickets: $50; or 412-322-0800.

In addition to a record, "Guided Tour," with his latest quartet of three years, he's also written an autobiography, "Learning to Listen," that was published in August. "When you get to certain age, a lot of people look back and see career and life and [think about] what they've done," Mr. Burton says," so I decided to give it a try." The book has sold so well that "Amazon has had to restock three times."

Born in Anderson, Ind., and raised in the even smaller Princeton, Ind., Mr. Burton didn't choose his instrument. When he was 8 or 9 his parents got him lessons with a woman who played vibraphone; soon afterward he began performing at churches and Lions' Club meetings. At 13, after hearing a Benny Goodman record, he was turned onto jazz and got more serious about the instrument.

Just before graduating from high school he caught the ear of guitarist Hank Garland, who "liked the idea of teaming up with a vibraphone player. He suggested that I move to Nashville for the summer. I left home the day I graduated, and at the end of the summer RCA Victor offered me a record contract -- that gave me a really early start on my professional career."

After two years at the Berklee College of Music, Mr. Burton moved to New York, where one of his early contacts was Marian McPartland, who recommended him to George Shearing. Soon after that, he auditioned for Mr. Getz, who at the time was looking for a piano player, but didn't get the gig at first because "He didn't like my playing." Still desperate, "A week later he called and asked, 'Will you do three weeks in Canada?' I ended up staying for three years."

Since this was the time when bossa nova, which Mr. Getz was known for, was hot, the gig put Mr. Burton on the musical map and he began his career as a leader at 24. Over the years he's recorded 66 albums and won seven Grammy awards, and in 1971 he returned to Berklee, this time as a faculty member.

Mr. Burton pioneered the four-mallet technique on the vibes; until he came along players generally used only two.

"That goes back to my farmtown beginnings," Mr. Burton said. "I played alone a lot, and I needed the music to be more complete" by adding harmony. "I kept working at playing with four mallets, but it was uncommon for vibraphone. Some people tried to talk me out of it."

In addition to his prowess on the vibes, Mr. Burton is one the few jazz musicians who openly identifies himself as gay; that process, he says, began about three decades ago after two failed marriages. After undergoing therapy, he decided to come out publicly in 1994 in an interview on the radio program "Fresh Air" with Terry Gross, all the while fearing that his career in the male-dominated instrumental music world would be damaged with that revelation. That, however, never happened.

He went to officials at Berklee, where he was a dean and later executive vice-president, and the school "couldn't have been more supportive. Then I started coming out to the musicians" -- including Mr. Corea and Pat Metheny -- who also were accepting. "It's made a difference because there's a sense of liberation that I no longer have to keep this secret."

Mr. Burton points to native Pittsburgher, composer and pianist Billy Strayhorn who was gay.

"He bravely lived his life," Mr. Burton says. "I think of him as a pioneer in my world."

Not everyone would have done that

Mr. Burton's quartet also comprises guitarist Julian Lage, bassist Scott Colley and drummer Antonio Sanchez, who has also done work with Mr. Metheny.


Rick Nowlin: or 412-263-3871.


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