Writing Learning to Listen: Beyond the Brick Wall
My guess is that a lot of people think they might write a book someday. (This is especially true of those of us who are bookworms to begin with.) I have always marveled at the work of genius writers, the ones who not only can write correctly, but have rhythm in their phrasing that is practically musical. Because I have such respect for truly gifted writers, I never thought I would attempt writing a book myself, any more than I would decide to paint a portrait or dance a ballet. But, when you get to a certain time in your life, there is the issue of your own life story – something that only you can tell honestly. I’ve spent my life wandering the world, playing music for all kinds of people (to date I’ve set foot in 94 countries and performed in 74 of them); I’ve also taught an untold number of students over the last four decades.
So, assuming I have a story worth telling, I decided to make a start on it about a dozen years ago. I got off to a pretty good start, at least until I got up to the year 1968, around the time I became leader of my own band. That accounted for about a 100 pages, but then I hit a wall. I couldn’t seem to envision where the story should go next, so after a while, I put it aside and took my mind off of it.
Every few years I came back to those hundred pages and the stack of index cards with notes to myself that I had collected. Each time I tried to work on it again, I ended up re-writing those original 100 pages, and getting to the same spot in the story, and hitting the same brick wall. (Einstein said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result – but hey, I’m an artistic type, so I kept trying).
As I entered my 60s, a lot of things changed in my life as I began the inevitable transition toward whatever was going to be the final phase of my career. I didn’t realize it at first, but later I saw that after that transition, my story now had not only a beginning and a middle, but I could see some kind of end, as well.
Around that time I had a break in my schedule as I finished some gigs in Los Angeles, and had almost a week off. I realized this was my opportunity to work on the book again. This time, as I toiled through yet another re-write of those first 100 pages, I just rolled right on past the usual stopping point and kept on going, completing a first draft by the end of the week. Then I discovered that’s when the real work begins.
I once saw columnist Liz Smith on a talk show with some other authors. Each panelist was asked to offer advice to aspiring writers, and one by one, serious, scholarly recommendations were offered. When the microphone got to Liz, her insightful advice was, “Get yourself a real comfortable chair.” I soon came to truly understand that piece of advice. I went through so many drafts and re-writes that I have lost track of how many. Each time through the manuscript was like peeling away another layer of an onion. It was tedious, but surprisingly satisfying as I watched the manuscript take shape.
I explored many earlier jazz biographies and noticed that most were written by professional writers, usually based on taped interviews with the musician. I didn’t want to take that approach. Although it meant taking a chance, I was determined to write my book myself.
I wanted to tell my story in my own voice and I also realized I wanted to take a somewhat different approach from other jazz biographies. Most tend to be founded on a chronology of the works of the artist – “We made this record, then that record; then I played in that band, and with this other band” – focusing on a catalog of career achievements. Throw in a few personal issues (drug use, family tragedies, etc.) to provide some personal drama, and there you have it.
I wanted to tell more than just the story of my career. I also wanted to tell the story of my non-musical life, the unique things I have dealt with and learned. I also realized I was more interested in writing about the important musicians who had inspired me, rather than my own projects.
So, I started with a list of the important people I encountered in my career, and wrote about how I knew them and what I learned from them. I also wanted very much to try to explain some personal things. I wanted to explain how a gay person, like me, figured out his sexual identity in mid-life and then went public about it, living the second half of my life as a gay man.
I also wanted to respond to all the people who have come up to me over the years to ask, “How do you know what notes to play? How do you know what the other musicians are going to play? How do you keep from making mistakes?” For the many people who love the music but have always wondered how it happens, I wanted to de-mystify jazz improvisation and try to explain what we do on the bandstand.
So, LEARNING TO LISTEN is finished, it’s published and now available. It will be in print, as an eBook, and it is being translated into Japanese. I will be talking about the book at a handful of book readings in the months ahead (starting with the Detroit Jazz Festival on August 30), and the book will be available for purchase at all the gigs on my September/October USA tour.
- Gary Burton
Read what others are saying about the book.
Read the New York Times Interview with Gary.
Read the Miami Herald Article on Learning to Listen.