Gary Burton: Learning To Listen


High on my list of “books to read if I ever have the chance to read for pleasure” is jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton’s new autobiography, “Learning To Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton“. Burton, who started playing professionally when he was just 8 years old (and who recently turned 70), revolutionized jazz vibraphone by inventing a four-mallet technique that allowed the solo instrument to play chord voicings previously available only to pianists, harpists, and, to a lesser extent, guitarists. By impeccably combining that technique with a mastery of the most advanced improvisational theory to be found in jazz, Burton managed to stay on the forefront of jazz-fusion for well over fifty years, and he’s still going strong. Here’s an example of his youthful virtuosity in what appears to be the early 1970s, when I first became aware of his playing: a solo performance of Jobim’s “Chega de Saudade” (“No More Blues”)-

If you can tolerate Tom Ashbrook’s overbearing interview style, check out today’s “On Point” podcast, in which Burton discusses his long career as a performer and a teacher, as well as the challenges he faced – before coming out in the 1990s – as a closeted gay man in the relatively macho jazz community.

Why I Support Obama On Syria


One word: ignorance. My own.

The fact is, I don’t understand the situation in Syria. I doubt that the vast majority of Americans do. For that reason, I’m glad that I don’t make Syria policy, and I’m also glad that the majority of Americans, many of whom could not find Syria on a map, don’t make it. But I do pay taxes, and I expect my taxes to help pay for the best intelligence and foreign policy expertise in the world. I also trust Obama’s basic ability to make good use of that intelligence and expertise. He’s clearly not interested in starting unnecessary wars (unlike some other presidents we’ve had recently). So, until I hear some good reason to think that he’s mistaken, I’ll continue to support his efforts. Frankly, I’m surprised that so many of his supporters on other issues won’t give him the benefit of the doubt on this.

There are also many moral arguments in favor of action, but the sorts of simple analogies that sometimes suffice fall short when the situation is so complicated, and more theoretical arguments are notoriously unpersuasive unless one is already prepared to accept the conclusion. We are, however, presumably talking about the intentional gassing of children and other innocents. If the reasonable desire to prevent more of that doesn’t create at least a prima facie case in favor of acting, I don’t know what does.

Of course, there is no need to act militarily on this issue if current diplomatic efforts to neutralize Assad’s chemical weapons arsenal succeed. But I buy the argument that they will succeed only if a credible threat of military action is maintained. Obama requires all the political support he can get in order to maintain that threat’s credibility.

To remind you of just what Obama’s policy preferences actually are, rather than how they’ve been distorted in the media and on the net (on both the Left and the Right), here’s a video of his speech last night-

Finally, for those who suggest that military action should be ruled out because any such action would strengthen the more radical opposition to Assad, consider this exchange between Fareed Zakaria and French philosopher Bernard-Henri Levy (with ellipses added for clarity):

ZAKARIA: One of the reasons I was supportive of the intervention in Libya was it struck me that there were many forces in Libya that were pro-Western, secular, you could [see] them, you could talk to them, you could understand how they wanted to shape the country. In Syria, do you worry that so many of the forces seem to be quite sectarian … because the regime was very sectarian. I mean it was an Alawite regime that radicalized its opposition, remember, Hama, … so, … there’s a radicalization of the opposition that makes me worry, who are these people … you see the violence that they, the opposition is able to perpetrate.

LEVY: Of course. There is a radicalization of the opposition. That’s true, undeniable. But on the other side, on Bashar al Assad, everybody seems to forget that the allies of Bashar al Assad, Iran, the ayatollahs of Iran who are not, as far as I know, moderates. Hezbollah, who are the best warriors of Bashar al-Assad. … Hamas, which was sheltered, the political headquarters of Hamas was in Damascus. So you have radical Islam in the two sides. But … if the West intervenes … you will see how the landscape in the opposition will move. If Obama does not strike, the radical Islamists will take the lead. If the West appears to be on the good side, which is the side of the people, the radical Islamists will lose ground in the opposition. It is always like this. When the West takes the lead, the pro-West take advantage. When the West is Munich spirit, then the radical Islamists take credit for the fall of the dictator, they take credit for the revolution as in Egypt with the Muslim Brothers and it’s bad for everybody. That’s one of the other reasons why it was so important … for the international community for the West, for America, for France to build this strong alliance with some Arab countries and so on.

For a more complete transcript of their conversation, click here.