Gary Burton: Retiring The Mallets The vibraphonist announced his retirement at 74 with little warning. Still in possession of his quicksilver fluidity and deep intuition, he spoke with Jazz Night during his farewell tour.

Gary Burton: Retiring The Mallets

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/532050377/532093982" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

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."

[+] read more[-] less

More From Jazz

Bassist Christian McBride (left) and Blues artist Joey DeFrancesco (right). Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of the artist

A Reunion Of Brotherly Love: Joey DeFrancesco Traces His Roots

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Christian McBride interviews one of his oldest friends, organist Joey DeFrancesco, in their hometown of Philadelphia.

A Reunion Of Brotherly Love: Joey DeFrancesco Traces His Roots

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/687886485/688249013" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Grammy-winning trumpeter Roy Hargrove passed away at age 49. Courtesy of The Roy Hargrove Estate hide caption

toggle caption Courtesy of The Roy Hargrove Estate

'Jazz Night In America' Remembers Artists We Lost In 2018

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

Friends of the show offer memories and music of pianist Cecil Taylor, Village Vanguard owner Lorraine Gordon, South African trumpeter Hugh Masekela and trumpeter Roy Hargrove.

'Jazz Night In America' Remembers Artists We Lost In 2018

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/678136954/678160463" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Wynton Marsalis and the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra perform new arrangements of holiday classics in New York City. Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center hide caption

toggle caption Lawrence Sumulong/Jazz at Lincoln Center

The Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra Performs Big Band Holiday Classics

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

New arrangements, old Yuletide classics. Watch the annual Jazz at Lincoln Center Big Band Holidays concert live on Wed., December 19th at 7:30 p.m. ET.

This episode of Jazz Night in America features tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd. Dorothy Darr/Courtesy of the artist hide caption

toggle caption Dorothy Darr/Courtesy of the artist

At 80, Saxophonist Charles Lloyd Finds Enlightenment in the Groove

WBGO and Jazz At Lincoln Center

In this episode of Jazz Night in America, we get a taste of Lloyd's collaboration with Lucinda Williams, along with choice moments from his recent appearances at Lincoln Center.

At 80, Saxophonist Charles Lloyd Finds Enlightenment in the Groove

  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/673799006/674218582" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">

Joey Alexander performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Nov. 6, 2018 (Cameron Pollack/NPR). Cameron Pollack/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Cameron Pollack/NPR

Joey Alexander

No one in the NPR offices could have imagined how remarkable this 15-year old pianist would be at the Tiny Desk.

The Nicholas Payton Trio performs a Tiny Desk Concert on Oct. 10, 2018. (Cameron Pollack/NPR) Cameron Pollack/NPR/NPR hide caption

toggle caption Cameron Pollack/NPR/NPR

Nicholas Payton Trio

After back-to-back performances in South Africa, Argentina, Chile and New York, Payton hit the Tiny Desk, where he dazzled the audience, simultaneously playing his trumpet and a Fender Rhodes.

Back To Top