For a long stretch of his early performing career, vibraphonist Gary Burton was always the youngest man on the bandstand. A child prodigy from Indiana, and then an onrushing force on the scene, he apprenticed with the great Nashville guitarist Hank Garland before going on tour with pianist George Shearing, followed by tenor saxophonist Stan Getz. He was all of 18 when he released his debut album, New Vibe Man In Town, on the RCA label.
In short order, he would change the technical vocabulary of mallet instruments — perhaps you’ve heard of the Burton grip — and create one of the early prototypes for fusion. He would become an important pioneer in jazz education. He’d win an armload of Grammy Awards, and come out as gay at a time when few jazz artists of his stature had done so. He’d also become a mentor, to more than a few young phenoms like his former self.
This spring Burton became something else altogether: a retiree. With little warning and a bare minimum of fuss, he announced his intention to step away from music. And at 74, still in possession of his quicksilver fluidity and deep intuition, he went on a farewell tour, bringing one of his old protégés and duet partners, the pianist Makoto Ozone. They played in a small handful of cities that mean something to Burton, playing material that fit the same criteria.
Jazz Night In America caught up with the tour at Blues Alley in Washington, D.C.; at Birdland in New York City; and at the Jazz Kitchen in Indianapolis, the final stop on the tour. Backstage, Burton opened up about the factors that led to his decision, acknowledging that retirement is an exceedingly rare outcome in his field. “We’ve seen so many elder statesmen of jazz go on way past the point of really being able to play even halfway decently,” he says, “and no one will tell them.”
In the radio episode of Jazz Night, you’ll hear much more from Burton about the pressure he always imposed on himself and the encroaching pall of diminishing prowess. You’ll hear from Pat Metheny and Julian Lage, two brilliant guitarists who know him not only as a musical hero but also as a former bandleader and a friend. And you’ll hear some of the actual music from Burton’s farewell tour, along with some from earlier in his career.
Jazz Night’s video short takes you into the clubs with Burton, where fans poured in to pay their respects. Hang long enough and you’ll even catch a glimpse of Burton’s post-retirement life thus far — at his home in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., with nary a mallet in sight.
Backstage at Birdland, I asked how he felt about rounding the home stretch of the tour, one last time. “Well, part of it will be a sense of relief that I’ve done it,” he replied, with trademark Midwestern stoicism. “I’ve completed my mission.”