Born January 23, 1943, in Anderson, Indiana, Gary Burton began music lessons at an early age upon the insistence of his parents, who wanted all of their children to study an instrument. Intrigued by one particular instrument's size and method of play — namely, the use of mallets to create its rich sound — the six-year-old Burton chose the marimba. However, his venture into music seemed ill-fated when he refused to budge from his seat at his first lesson. Upon returning home with his mother, he begged her to let him try again and within a short time mastered both the marimba and the more modern vibraharp.
Soon Burton was adapting both piano and violin music for his instruments. By the age of eleven, he was performing around his hometown of Princeton, Indiana, with a band that consisted of his father, brother, and sister. Four years later, when his piano teacher loaned him an Erroll Garner record, Burton developed a serious interest in jazz. In 1959, at the age of 16, Burton attended the first summer jazz band camp at Bloomington, Indiana, and decided on the spot that he wanted to be a professional musician. "Before that I thought I was playing for fun," Burton told High Fidelity, "and I always pictured myself playing weekends to make some money, but I intended to be something serious — like a doctor, lawyer, or an engineer."
Burton attended Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1960–61. He studied with Herb Pomeroy and soon befriended the composer and arranger Michael Gibbs. After establishing his career during the 1960s, he returned to join the staff of Berklee from 1971–2004, serving first as Professor, then Dean and finally as Executive Vice President during his last decade at the college.
Early in his career, at the behest of noted Nashville saxophonist Boots Randolph, Burton moved to Nashville and recorded with several notable Nashville musicians including guitarist Hank Garland, pianist Floyd Cramer and guitarist Chet Atkins.
After touring both the U.S. and Japan with pianist George Shearing in 1963, Burton went on to play with saxophonist Stan Getz from 1964 to 1966. It was during this time with the Stan Getz Quartet that Burton appeared with the band in a feature film, "Get Yourself a College Girl", playing "Girl From Ipanema" with Astrud Gilberto. In 1967 he formed the Gary Burton Quartet along with guitarist Larry Coryell, drummer Roy Haynes, and bassist Steve Swallow. Predating the jazz-rock fusion craze of the 1970s, the group's first record, Duster, combined jazz, country and rock and roll elements. However, some of Burton's previous albums (notably Tennessee Firebird and Time Machine, both from 1966) had already shown his inclination toward such experimentation with different genres of popular music. After Coryell left the quartet in the late 1960s, Burton hired a number of well-regarded guitarists: Jerry Hahn, David Pritchard, Mick Goodrick, Pat Metheny, John Scofield, Kurt Rosenwinkel, and most recently Julian Lage, who played guitar in Burton's group Next Generation.
While Burton was with Stan Getz in the mid-1960s he had befriended pianist Chick Corea who had joined the group towards the end of Burton's tenure but their relationship continued. In 1972, the duo recorded the first of several duet albums, this first was for ECM entitled Crystal Silence. Burton and Corea display a kinetic partnership on this recording, sounding as if they've been playing together for decades. As active as Burton has been in music he has been equally as passionate about education. In 1971, Burton made his way back to the Berklee College of Music in Boston where he started an association that continued for well over thirty years. Also that year, his solo album Alone at Last garnered him his first Grammy Award.
Burton recorded with an album with guitarist Ralph Towner in 1974 called Matchbook for the ECM label. Songs of note from the album include "Icarus." Burton had always been one to include guitarists in his group and in 1975, a young guitarist from Missouri named Pat Metheny joined his group, the start of a more than thirty-year collaboration.
During the 1980s, Burton continued to record and perform just as actively as he did in the previous two decades. In 1980, Burton recorded a live album with Chick Corea, In Concert: Zurich. The previous year the duo recorded their second album as duo entitled Duet. Burton also recorded an album with Berklee College of Music students for JVC in 1985 and also recorded an album with Argentine composer Astor Piazzolla called The New Tango at Montreux in 1986. The two can be heard on the song "Milonga is Coming" In 1989, Burton recorded with Pat Metheny and drummer Peter Erskine for the GRP album Reunion.