LGBTQ South Florida

Jazz superstar Gary Burton’s final concert tour stops in South Florida

Grammy-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton, in his Fort Lauderdale home in 2013, has announced his retirement.
Grammy-winning vibraphonist Gary Burton, in his Fort Lauderdale home in 2013, has announced his retirement. Miami Herald File

Superstar jazz vibraphonist Gary Burton of Fort Lauderdale says this definitely is it: He’s in the midst of his final tour, 13 concerts in eight cities in 17 days.

Burton — who helped revolutionize modern jazz and then risked his career by coming out as gay in a 1994 NPR interview — is making another announcement that other big stars would dread. The seven-time Grammy winner, 74, says that when this brief tour is over, he’ll retire and never again play music, on stage or off.

“I only enjoy playing with people,” Burton says. “It just doesn’t seem very fulfilling or satisfying to play by myself, or to sit down and play the piano for a while and so on. Never has. I’ve always been somebody who wanted the live experience.”

Burton, whose final tour includes a Saturday night concert in South Florida, says he began contemplating the end of his half-century-plus career a few years ago, after he published his autobiography, “Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton,” and released what now will be his last album, “Guided Tour.”

“It increasingly makes me uncomfortable when I go out on stage and I don’t feel as confident that I’m going to have a great night,” Burton says. “I’m starting to have moments — what we call senior moments. I have them sometimes when I’m playing. I suddenly forget where I am in the song. So for a few seconds I’m fumbling and having to guess where the heck am I, how do I get back into it, and so on.”

Burton — who since his late 50s has had six heart surgeries, “some minor, two major” — says there’s nothing seriously wrong with him, just that he’s getting older and a bit forgetful and is no longer at the top of his game.

“I don’t think I’m sliding into Alzheimer’s or dementia or anything,” he says. “I compare it to other kinds of careers. ... What if you’re a heart surgeon in the middle of an operation and suddenly you’re scrambled a little bit and have to regroup mentally to go on? Those are obvious examples where lives are risk. Nobody’s life is at risk if my solo bombs, but it’s a similar thing.”

Seven-time Grammy winner Gary Burton is one of the world's best-known jazz vibraphonists. But until late middle age, even Burton didn't know something crucial to his being: He's gay.

Burton and Japanese jazz pianist Makoto Ozone will perform at 8 p.m. Saturday at the Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center at Nova Southeastern University in Davie.

“In the whole spectrum of vibists, no one achieved the technical proficiency and the creative genius of Gary Burton,” says retired neurologist Dr. Ronald Weber, president of South Florida JAZZ, which will present Burton’s final South Florida performance. “He came from an unassuming background in the Midwest and is essentially self-taught and the most accomplished player ever on this instrument.

“Beyond that, he was one of the innovators of the jazz-rock fusion movement of the late 1960s,” Weber says. “He was hearing something that no one else was hearing in the jazz world at that time and wanted to incorporate some of the hard edge, exciting elements of rock music. But in doing so, the music was not at all edgy or inaccessible. It really was high-caliber jazz.”

Burton, who for 13 years has served as “artistic advisor” for South Florida JAZZ — helping Weber book some of the jazz world’s biggest stars into the intimate 498-seat Miniaci auditorium — says his final tour actually grew from the scheduled concert at Nova Southeastern.

“Ron knew I was going to stop and said, ‘Can I get you to play one more time for the jazz society? It’s our 25th year and it would be a great addition,’ ” Burton recalls. After Makoto agreed to play with him, Burton’s longtime agent, Ted Kurland, suggested they also do final gigs in a few of Burton’s favorite cities. “I said that sounds like a nice way to wrap things up. I ended up with a handful: Washington, New York, Boston, Chicago, Minneapolis, Indianapolis. Plus Fort Lauderdale.”

Kurland and Burton have known each other at least 45 years, and, according to the Kurland Agency’s website, Burton was its first client in 1975.

“Gary is the ultimate explorer and pathfinder,” Kurland says. “Musically, an awful lot of what he did, and at the time he did it, was breakthrough stuff. People now talk about the fusion of music genres.”

In the late 1960s and ’70s, Burton “was taking big chances across the line, experimenting with traditional jazz and contemporary rock,” Kurland said. “The first time I met Gary, when I walked into his office at the Berklee School of Music, I saw a poster, “Bill Graham presents Gary Burton with The Electric Flag and Cream. The jazzers — Gary’s group — they looked every bit as funky and radical as the rock guys.”

Kurland, who also represents jazz superstars including Ann Hampton Callaway, Arturo Sandoval, Chick Corea, Wynton Marsalis and Pat Metheny, says Burton has always made smart career decisions and been a role model for other major performers. “Our nickname for Gary was always ‘the chief.’ Gary was in charge. We should all do as well with managing our lives and who we are — and when it’s time to turn a corner.”

Burton taught himself to play the vibraphone as a boy in Indiana and made his recording debut at 17 in Nashville with guitarists Hank Garland and Chet Atkins. At 19, he began touring the world with pianist George Shearing. He joined saxophonist Stan Getz’s band in 1964, months after they recorded the monster hit “The Girl From Ipanema.” Burton can be seen playing vibes with Getz, the band and vocalist Astrud Gilberto in the 1964 film “Get Yourself a College Girl.”

In 1967, Burton left Getz and formed his own quartet, recording for RCA Records. In 1968, Down Beat magazine named him its youngest Jazzman of the Year.

In 1971, Burton began teaching percussion and improvisation at Berklee College of Music in Boston and eventually retired as the school’s executive vice president for daily operations.

Since the 1970s, Burton has worked at RCA, Atlantic Records, ECM Records, Dave Grusin and Larry Rosen’s GRP and Concord Jazz.

“I’ve recorded 66 albums as leader or co-leader,” Burton says. “I have no idea how many other records that I’ve guested on, sometimes just as a sideman, sometimes just one track or two. There’s been many dozens of those. We all do those through the years. I’ve completely lost track.”

Nor does he know how many live performances he’s given, guessing that in 54 years, he played about 5,400 concerts.

Along the way, he helped launch the careers of other modern jazz superstars, including close friends Corea and Metheny. “I figure I’ve done at least 2,000 [concerts] with Chick. We’ve been playing together for 45 years. That’s a lot of gigs. We’re not even a full-time band.”

Burton says he wants to “leave at a sensible time with dignity” and not end up like many aging jazz legends.

“Among the people I knew and have known well, like Lionel Hampton, for instance, who continued on after even having had three strokes,” Burton says. “At age 94, he was unable to play anymore, but he would go out on tours with his band and stand in front of a vibraphone and wave his mallets around, sort of conducting the band. He’d actually given up playing the thing because he was so arthritic at that point he could barely move.” Hampton, who began performing in the 1920s, died in 2002.

Burton says he has carefully assessed his own situation.

“Am I playing as well? Am I still able to tackle the most challenging pieces and consistently match the standards that I’ve always striven for?” he asked himself. “I noticed that as of about 2013, the last time I made a record, looking back, that was sort of a peak. Since then, I can see that my abilities to sight read, my abilities to memorize, my quickness at thinking while I’m in the process of playing is gradually changing and slowing down.”

Typically, artists compensate and improvise to trick co-workers and audiences, he says.

“Everybody ages some. You learn how to compensate. People like me who’ve been playing for decades, we know every trick in the book to cover up frailties, the mistakes, whatever,” he says. “There are ways of covering the mistakes, so that the audience doesn’t notice it. Other players don’t notice it at first. “At first, only you know you’re goofing in places. Eventually, the guys on the stage with you begin to notice it. And eventually people in the audience.”

Burton says that during his career, he played every state and countless nations around the world. From now on, he and husband Jonathan Chong will travel for their own enjoyment.

“I’ve saved up almost three million frequent-flyer miles from all the travel,” Burton says. “Our plan is to take a couple of vacations every year.” It’s so different when you go on vacation than when you have a concert schedule and you’re carrying hundreds of pounds of equipment, and you have four other people with you that you’re responsible for.”

Burton says he looks forward to becoming more involved in South Florida’s LGBTQ community. “I’m very interested in gay issues. Never really had time to get involved in fundraising and advocacy and political issues with the gay community, but I’d like to.”

The big question, according to Burton: “Do I stay involved in music at all?

“Do I serve on a Grammy committee, which I’ve done for years? Or do I continue to teach my online course for Berklee? How would I feel about that? Right now, part of me says it will become frustrating to talk about music and focus on music if I’m not able to participate in it and enjoy it myself. That may well become frustrating, so I’m kind of assuming that I’m going to move on to new interests in life. I figure I’ve got another 20, 25 years left in another phase of life. My mother’s 101, so at least gene-wise, if I don’t drink myself to death, I’ll be living a fairly long life.”

If You Go

▪ What: South Florida JAZZ presents Gary Burton and Makoto Ozone

▪ Where: Rose and Alfred Miniaci Performing Arts Center at Nova Southeastern University, 3100 Ray Ferrero Jr. Blvd., Davie

▪ When: 8 p.m. Saturday, March 4

▪ Tickets: $40 each plus fees, bit.ly/2kV0URF. Visit www.southfloridajazz.org for more information.

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