Born in 1943 and raised in Indiana, Gary Burton taught himself to play the vibraphone and, at the age of 17, made his recording debut in Nashville, Tennessee, with guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. Two years later, Burton left his studies at Berklee College of Music to join George Shearing and subsequently Stan Getz, with whom he worked from 1964-1966.
As a member of Getz’s quartet, Burton won Down Beat magazine’s Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition award in 1965. By the time he left Getz to form his own quartet in 1967, Burton had also recorded three albums under his name for RCA. Borrowing rhythms and sonorities from rock music, while maintaining jazz’s emphasis on improvisation and harmonic complexity, Burton’s first quartet attracted large audiences from both sides of the jazz-rock spectrum. Such albums as Duster and Lofty Fake Anagram established Burton and his band as progenitors of the jazz fusion phenomenon. Burton’s burgeoning popularity was quickly validated by Down Beat magazine, which awarded him its Jazzman of the Year award in 1968, the youngest ever to receive that honor. During his subsequent association with the ECM label (1973-1988) the Burton Quartet expanded to include the young Pat Metheny on guitar, and the band began to explore a repertoire of modern compositions. In the ’70s, Burton also began to focus on more intimate contexts for his music. His 1971 album Alone at Last, a solo vibraphone concert recorded at the 1971 Montreux Jazz Festival, was honored with his first Grammy Award. Burton also turned to the rarely heard duo format, recording with bassist Steve Swallow, guitarist Ralph Towner, and most notably with pianist Chick Corea, thus cementing a long personal and professional relationship that has garnered an additional four Grammy Awards.
Also in the ’70s, Burton began his music education career with Berklee College of Music in Boston. Burton began as a teacher of percussion and improvisation at Berklee in 1971. In 1985 he was named Dean of Curriculum. In 1989, he received an honorary doctorate of music from the college, and in 1996, he was appointed Executive Vice President, responsible for overseeing the daily operation of the college.
After eight years at RCA Victor, five at Atlantic Records, and sixteen at ECM Records (resulting in two more Grammy awards in 1979 and 1981), Burton began recording for GRP Records in 1988. In 1990, he paired up again with his former protege Pat Metheny for Reunion, which landed the number one spot on Billboard magazine’s jazz chart. After recording a total of eight CD's for GRP, Burton began his current label affiliation with Concord Records. Departure (Gary Burton & Friends) was released in 1997 as well as Native Sense, another duet collaboration with Chick Corea, which garnered Gary's fourth Grammy Award in 1998. Also in 1997, Burton recorded his second collection of tango music, Astor Piazzolla Reunion, featuring the top tango musicians of Argentina, followed by Libertango in 2000, another Piazzolla project. His 1998 Concord release, Like Minds, an all-star hit featuring his frequent collaborators Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Roy Haynes, and Dave Holland, was also honored with a Grammy win, Burton’s fifth. Gary’s vibraphone tribute CD, For Hamp, Red, Bags and Cal, was released in March 2001 and was honored with Gary’s 12th Grammy nomination (to date he has a total of 15 Grammy nominations). His 2002 release was a unique project with Makoto Ozone, Gary's pianist collaborator of the past twenty years. For Virtuosi the pair explored the improvisational possibilities of classical themes including works by Brahms, Scarlatti, Ravel, Barber and others. In an unusual move, the Recording Academy nominated Virtuosi in the Grammy's Classical music category, a unique honor for Gary and Makoto.
As Gary announced his retirement from Berklee College of Music in 2003 after 33 years at the college, he formed a new band and began touring regularly. The 'Generations' band featured a line-up of talented young musicians including then sixteen-year old guitarist Julian Lage and Russian-born pianist Vadim Nevelovskyi. Gary recorded two CDs with the group titled Generation and Next Generation and the band toured steadily from 2003 through mid-2006.
Since then, Gary has focused his recording and performing efforts on collaborations, with old friends and new, including tours and recordings with Chick Corea, Pat Metheny, Makoto Ozone, Spanish pianist/composer Polo Orti, and French accordionist Richard Galliano. Armistad Suite with Polo Orti and the Tenerife Symphony Orchestra was released in spring 2007. L’hymne a L’amour with Richard Galliano was released on the Camjazz label in August 2007. The double-CD live concert recording with Chick Corea, The New Crystal Silence, came out in 2008, resulting in the sixth Grammy for Gary Burton at the 2009 Grammy Awards. Chick and Gary toured full-time from September 2006 through spring 2008, and continued off and on playing concerts in the USA and Europe in 2009.
Next came collaborative project Quartet Live, reprising the Gary Burton Quartet of the 1970's with Pat Metheny, Steve Swallow and Antonio Sanchez. Having already toured in Japan, USA, and Europe, this group made their third tour with performances in the USA and Canada in June, 2009. Plans are already in place to re-unite and record and tour again in the near future. Meanwhile, Gary toured again with Chick Corea in 2010-2011.
June 2011 saw the release of Common Ground, Gary's first release on Mack Avenue Records featuring the New Gary Burton Quartet. The new group reunites the vibist with guitar star Julian Lage with the addition of drummer Antonio Sanchez and bassist Scott Colley. The group will be busy touring throughout 2011.