Gary Burton, b. Jan 23, 1943

January 23, 2020
Posted by Jay Livingston

Sometime in the early 1970s, I was listening to the radio and heard Gary Burton’s recording of the great Jobim tune “Chega de Saudade” (inEnglish, “No More Blues.”)  It sounded like this. Go ahead, click and listen to at least the first 16 bars (15 seconds).

If you’ve never heard this recording before, you probably are thinking what I thought: That can’t be one person playing vibes. He’s overdubbing, accompanying himself, like Bill Evans on the “Conversations With Myself” album released ten years earlier.

But no, it’s just Burton by himself. “Alone At Last” as the title says. No overdubs, no tricks. Here’s a live version. You can see him holding the four mallets, sometimes playing chords, sometimes rapid single-note lines.

Burton revolutionized jazz vibraphone. Before Burton, jazz vibists had used only two mallets. Even if they used four to play chords when comping behind a soloist, when it came time for their own solo, they would lay two mallets aside. Burton even invented a different way of holding two mallets in each hand, now called the “Burton grip,” that allowed for an easier adjustment of the interval between the mallets in each hand. 

What had seemed an incredible feat nearly 50 years ago has now become a standard part of the vibes repertoire. On YouTube you can find a 22-year old Austrian kid playing Burton’s “Alone At Last” version note for note (here), and an 18-year old American girl playing her own Burton-inspired arrangement of the same tune (here),  the familiar part starts at about 0:55).

Burton is also one of the few gay jazz musicians. He came out during a Fresh Air interview in 1994.

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