Interview: Steve Swallow on the Gary Burton Quartet

An interview with Steve Swallow
By JON GARELICK  |  June 30, 2009

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DO YOU REMEMBER EXACTLY HOW YOU GUYS FIRST GOT TOGETHER? I have a memory. I tend to distrust them, but my recollection is that I met Gary when he called me up and asked me if I would consider playing in Stan Getz's band, which he was already in. I believe Jim Hall told Gary about me and then it was on the basis of Jim's word that Gary gave me a call. So what I distinctly remember is going to his apartment and playing with him in a kind of audition, I guess. Just the two of us. And striking an immediate strong rapport. It's an indelible memory in fact because it was so strong right off the bat; we were playing together effortlessly and it was a lot of fun. Which is lucky for me because I got the gig with Stan, and that turned out to be a good thing. And it gave Gary and I a couple of years of playing together — under Stan — before he started his own ventures. So we were more than solid together as players by the time he left Stan and started his own band.

READ: Inside Out, Charlie Kohlhase's Explorer's Club, Lee Konitz + Minsarah, and Steve Swallow recanting. By Jon Garelick

I WAS TALKING TO GARY A LOT ABOUT HOW THE TWO OF YOU WERE VERY INTERESTED IN BRINGING IN ROCK AND FOLK, CONTEMPORARY POP, AND EVEN CLASSICAL INTO THE JAZZ REPERTOIRE AND INTO THE WRITING. IS THAT SOMETHING THAT STARTED IN STAN'S BAND? Yeah, maybe so. I think Stan did have a kind of openness to music outside of the strictest definitions of jazz, and the jazz community was at that time incredibly strict and stern, formidably so. I mean it was really heretical I think when we started growing our hair long and playing a lot of straight eighth-note music. That's one thing that Stan certainly did was to extend himself to Brazilian music; he really got inside that music I think, and in the course of playing with him I think Gary and I did too. In fact before I joined Stan I had been playing with João Gilberto when he first began coming up to North America to work. So I had already discovered an affinity for Brazilian music and in particular for João Gilberto and Jobim. Which was already a bit of a first step outside of the orthodoxy.

But I had throughout the '50s and into the early '60s been very typical of the jazz musicians of that time. I had nothing but disdain for popular music. And for the electric bass as well; but little did I know how thoroughly turned around that world would be in the mid- and late-'60s. One of the first rumblings that there was music outside of jazz that was really worthy of attention was when in I guess '61 or, yeah I would say '61, Carla Bley started playing Supremes records around her and Paul's house. [In fact, probably 1964; See "Giant Steps" for correction.] And at first I was just kind of amused and perplexed by her obvious devotion to this music and her obvious regard for it. But I was hanging out at their house all the time so I was thoroughly exposed to the Supremes and I began to get it, I began to catch on that there was something there, there was something really powerful there.

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