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Good vibes for gay jazz artist Gary Burton

koz An interesting story in today’s Miami Herald. The writer, however, left out one of the biggest names in jazz today, American saxophonist Dave Koz, who came out publicly in The Advocate in 2004.

From an Advocate follow written by Koz in 2005:

Well, it’s been a year. And everything in life seems somehow sweeter. I’ve been doing concerts for a lot of years, but since coming out in The Advocate last April, it’s as if I were taking the stage with my saxophone for the very first time—finally stepping into my shoes fully and completely. On our tour last summer, the music seemed better, the shows were more fun, and, to my great surprise, attendance at the concerts actually increased. (To read the complete article, click here.)

BY BOB WEINBERG

burton The big deal about being openly gay in the jazz world in 2009 may just be that it's no big deal.

Multiple Grammy Award winner Gary Burton, who lives in Poinsettia Park in Fort Lauderdale and will be a guest of the South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble Sunday at Broward Center for the Performing Arts, feared the worst when he came out in the 1980s. The vibraphonist, who found fame in the 1960s and '70s alongside such progressive-jazz heavyweights as Chick Corea, Pat Metheny and Larry Coryell, brought a male date to a faculty function at Berklee College of Music in Boston, where he had enjoyed a long tenure.

When the president of the college took Burton aside, he used the gesture to assure him that he and his partner would be welcome at any function, any time. A few years later, Burton was appointed vice president.

''I imagined all kinds of things,'' the 66-year-old vibes virtuoso says from Argentina, where he was performing with the Astor Piazzolla Reunion band. ``I imagined the possibility that I'd get a lot less work, that the people I was used to playing with would stop calling me. It would be easy for someone to never quite have a project for the vibes again. It would never be an overt confrontation. . . . Just the phone would never ring.''

Burton, who has been married and has kids, went more widely public in 1994 when Fresh Air radio host Terry Gross asked during the broadcast about his experiences as a gay jazz artist.

''I got a batch of letters, and every one was congratulations, some from people I hadn't seen for years,'' he says. ``And [NPR stations] rerun it about every five years, because I get another batch of letters each time.''

AN OPPORTUNITY

Count among Burton's avid supporters neighbor Dan Basset, artistic director of the Pride Wind Ensemble, who realized that the All That Jazz concert presented a perfect opportunity for an invitation. Burton accepted and will be featured on versions of Maynard Ferguson's Coconut Champagne and Chuck Mangione's Land of Make Believe, as well as in a solo number.

''For someone of his caliber to come out is terrific for everybody in the [gay] community, as well as in the jazz world,'' Basset says. 'I've worked with musicians on the hiring end for many years for a lot of gay organizations, including the Gay Men's Chorus and different churches with gay congregations, and I used to put out to these musicians we were hiring, `Well, this is a very gay church; is that a problem?' And I just stopped doing it, because no one ever had a problem.''

Burton's experience is similar. In January, he collected his sixth Grammy Award for The New Crystal Silence, another project with his old friend Corea. He and Metheny reunited with bassist and longtime pal Steve Swallow for a tour and a new recording (Quartet Live), for which they will hit the road again this summer. And he is planning shows in Japan next year with pianist and frequent duo partner Makoto Ozone.

Burton's personal life has also flourished. He shares a newly built house with his partner, Jonathan Chong. They just returned from a Burton family reunion in San Francisco.

MACHISMO WORLD

''I was lucky. The jazz world has always had this machismo thing, even worse than the rock world,'' says Burton, who spent his early years as a sideman with Stan Getz and George Shearing. ``I feel like it's been easy for me. . . . It's not part of my performing persona. If I showed up on stage like Elton John, with makeup and gold lamé, then it would be part of what I was marketing. [But] I was always the cerebral guy, the college professor, the guy with the long jazz history, the four-mallet player, the virtuoso. . . . And so the identity thing was sort of in the background.''

Pianist Fred Hersch can relate, although his struggle as an openly gay jazz artist has been complicated by his HIV-positive status. While Hersch has a gay fanbase that may have come to jazz through his activism, he also acknowledges that nothing about his music or presentation telegraphs his orientation.

''As a person first, who's a musician second, who happens to be gay, who happens to have HIV: If I could script it, that's how I would want people to know me,'' Hersch says from his home in New York City. ``Not as a gay musician or that I play gay jazz. There's no such thing. It doesn't exist.''

Like Burton, Hersch hasn't been hindered by his openness. Despite having had a terrible year healthwise, the 53-year-old pianist continues to create wondrously lyrical and introspective music, as he demonstrates on the recent release Live at the Jazz Standard with his Pocket Orchestra. Another album, a solo piano tribute to the music of Antonio Carlos Jobim, should be available in July.

''It's becoming more and more of a non-issue,'' Hersch says of sexual orientation. ``Whether or not it is in the jazz world, I can't say, but my career gets better every year, so I'm not aware that it's in any way held me back.''

When he was wrestling with the decision to come out, Burton called Hersch for advice. The vibist was at a crossroads; he was in his 40s, and the strain of maintaining a secret life was taking its toll.

'I said, `Look, being in the closet, there's a big price to be paid,' '' Hersch remembers telling his colleague. ``I think if you want to be honest as a musician, it's good to be honest in general.''

BIO OF GAY MAN

In 1996, author David Hajdu published Lush Life, a biography of Duke Ellington's right-hand man, arranger and composer Billy Strayhorn, openly gay at a time when being so could be dangerous.

Boston-based saxophonist Charlie Kohlhase, 52, is old enough to remember when traveling with a band could be uncomfortable for a closeted gay man. As in any hetero-male sphere, conversation often involves bragging about women and the requisite gay putdowns.

''You had to endure a lot of trash talk,'' says Kohlhase, who was a member of the 11-piece Either/Orchestra from 1987 to 2001. 'I made sure I came out to the biggest blabbermouth in the band. He told everyone, but no one acknowledged it. A lot of guys came up and apologized to me. `Man, I'm sorry if any comments I made in the last couple of years were offensive to you.' It was kind of funny. And, once I came out, if they wanted to talk trash, I just talked trash back to them.''

Kohlhase also notes a generational shift in attitudes. Musicians he works with in their late 30s and early 40s don't think twice about orientation. After all, he notes, this generation saw gay characters on a weekly basis on popular sitcoms.

''It's funny,'' he says. ``I don't think young people appreciate just what a big deal it was once.''

Hersch envisions a day when gay jazz musicians blend in as thoroughly as, say, those who wear glasses. However, he says, as his saxophone-playing friend Jane Ira Bloom stresses, female artists have yet to achieve such parity, a fact underscored by the numerous ''women in jazz'' events that continue to focus on their otherness within a straight, male-dominated milieu.

Burton would like to see more musicians come out. However, he appreciates the risk, even today, in a field in which so many intangibles determine whether a musician gets a gig. For him and Hersch, though, the payoff far outweighs the perils.

''I felt like, for 40 years, the first half of my life, I reviewed every sentence I was about to speak to make sure I didn't slip and give away some clue that might hint that I was gay,'' he says. ``And it felt so liberating to leave that behind and to be able to answer any questions directly. That alone was worth the effort.''

IF YOU GO

What: All That Jazz: The South Florida Pride Wind Ensemble with special guest Gary Burton

When: 7:30 p.m. Sunday

Where: Broward Center for the Performing Arts, 201 SW Fifth Ave., Fort Lauderdale

Cost: $20

Info: 954-462-0222; Pridewindensemble.org

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