Burton, born in Anderson, Indiana in 1943 and raised in Princeton, in the southern part of the state, was a teenager when saxophonist Boots Randolph, who also lived in the state, first heard him play. Yes, I'm talking about the same Boots Randolph who brought "Yakety Sax" (a part of the Benny Hill mythos) to the world. Always more jazz-minded than many realized, Randolph recorded at the time for RCA Nashville.
He was impressed enough to take 17 year old Burton to Nashville for a visit in 1959, knowing that a friend, guitarist Hank Garland, needed a vibes player. Garland, a studio musician who accompanied the top country singers on their recordings (he plays the opening guitar riff on Patsy Cline's "I Fall To Pieces" and the slashing licks on Elvis's "Little Sister," was also an amazing jazz guitarist. When he heard Burton he suggested he spend his 1960 summer vacation in Nashville. What a summer it was.
Chet Atkins, the iconic guitarist and RCA producer who created so many country classics in the Nashville Sound style, heard Burton, who was jamming with Garland and other off-duty, jazz-loving Nashville studio musicians, at the Carousel Club in Printer's Alley. That summer, Garland recorded his groundbreaking Jazz Winds From A New Direction album for Columbia (a favorite album of George Benson's). Burton was there, alongside bassist Joe Benjamin and Dave Brubeck drummer Joe Morello.
1960: "Move'" with Hank Garland from Jazz Winds. This stab at the Denzil Best composition shows off Garland's and Burton's interaction. A few photos on the video were taken during the session. The album became a classic. The guitar he plays in many of these photos is the Gibson Byrdland, which he helped design.
The group who jammed at the Carousel impressed George Wein, who ran the Newport Jazz Festival. He had alreaday invited the group, Atkins, Garland, bassist Bob Moore, drummer Buddy Harman and pianist Floyd Cramer. Burton went along. RCA was going record the performance, proving the same guys who played on the country hits of the day were no slouch at jazz.
They got to Newport but never had the chance to perform. Drunken, rioting college kids shut down the festival, but RCA recorded them on location anyway, on the porch of a rented mansion the group was staying in.
1960: After The Riot At Newport, The entire album is here. Expect to be shocked, given the country roots of these guys. Oh, and the hot amplified violinist is Brenton Banks, a classical player who could rip it up. And despite those who feel all Nashville musicians were prejudiced, Banks, an African-American was considered a peer.
1961: With Atkins in his corner, Burton not only proved himself amid some heavy company, Atkins got him an RCA Victor recording contract. His debut album, New Vibe Man In Town, released in 1961, showcased him in a trio setting with Morello and bassist Gene Cherico. The song: Clifford Brown's "Joy Spring."
Burton was studying at Boston's Berklee College when he left in 1962 to pursue a fulltime musical career. He soon established himself as a major voice, first as a member of the George Shearing Quintet. He left Shearing in 1964 to join tenor sax legend Stan Getz, then sweeping the country with his hit recording of the Brazilian tune "Girl From Ipanema."
1966: Burton with Getz's Quartet on the BBC in London, with bassist Steve Swallow and drummer Roy Haynes, tearing it up on Charlie Parker's "Scrapple From The Apple."
From the same TV broadcast, Burton had a solo spot to play his ethereal original composition "The Sunset Bell," a track on his new RCA solo album Time Machine, released that same year.
That same year Burton returned to Nashville to record the jazz-country fusion album Tennessee Firebird, most of the songs longtime country favorites given a complex jazz treatment. It was ahead of its time, though it didn't quite succeed as he hoped. No YouTube examples are available. I interviewed Burton for a 1989 CD reissue of the record, and he recalled that despite its poor sales, "people are still mentioning (it) to me, so I know it's had more value than it probably had at the time."
1967 saw Burton become a pioneer of jazz-rock fusion fronting the Gary Burton Quartet with guitarist Larry Coryell and his Getz bandmates Swallow and Haynes (replaced by Bob Moses). Burton and Coryell, shaggy-haired, playing music with elements of blues, country and rock incorporated, set the jazz world on its ear in the late 60's.
1967: From an overseas TV broadcast, a tune called "General Mojo's Well-Laid Plan" with Moses on drums.
Unless you were there at the time (I was), it's hard to forget just how revolutionary these guys were back then.
At 70, Gary Burton has a legacy of decades of magnificent, forward-looking music. That he started in Nashville doesn't reflect on his career, but it is interesting—and not widely known.