Gary Burton on His Decision To Retire

You’re ending your retirement tour here in Indianapolis at the Jazz Kitchen, I’m curious what prompted your decision to retire, and why you chose Indianapolis as the location for your final performance. 

Gary Burton: Sure, and I’ll start with why Indianapolis, which was an addition to the tour. Originally the idea was to just revisit a handful of cities and venues that I have played regularly for decades, and know the promoters well, and have a strong fanbase in each city. So it was kind of a nostalgic thing to revisit a handful of these places, which included my current hometown where I’ve lived for the last 15 years in Florida. There was also Washington D.C., New York, Boston, Chicago and Minneapolis. Then my manager said, “By the way, we’ve had some interest from a club in Indianapolis that could be added right at the end if you think that would be interesting. After all, it’s your home state.” I thought about for a minute, and it did kind of have a certain symmetry. So, we added it to the schedule.

About retirement… [takes a deep breath] Of course I get asked a lot, with a querulous expression on people’s faces, “Why are you retiring? You can still play.” There’s sort of no precedent in the jazz world for people to retire. People keep going until they can no longer pick up their instrument. I don’t quite understand that, but I know in some cases it may be because the musician really has no financial resources and has to keep paying the rent. But there’s also plenty of cases where these are very successful musicians who just don’t want to give up the life, the glamour, the fun, the travel, and their musician buddies that they hang out with. Meanwhile, their playing steadily goes downhill to the point that it’s kind of embarrassing toward the end.

A prime example was Lionel Hampton, who really popularized the vibraphone. He played into his mid-’90s after three strokes. He couldn’t even move anymore. He would stand in front of his band and wave his arms around like he was conducting it. He couldn’t play the vibraphone anymore, but he had one up there, and he stood in front of it as if he might play it at any minute. He told me, “I can’t stand to stay at home with nothing to do. I just sit around my apartment getting depressed, so I go out on the road.”

I feel like that’s the wrong thing to do in terms of your musical legacy, to go beyond the point where you’re still playing at your best. I put it this way when someone recently asked me in an interview about this, I said, “A surgeon eventually notices that his hands are not steady and it’s time to retire. The trial lawyer starts having mental blank-outs and senior moments, and realizes that it’s not a good idea for him to be trying to help somebody avoid the death penalty.” Admittedly, nobody is going to die if I have a bad solo, but still the same logic applies.

I’ve always wanted to step back when it became obvious that my playing abilities were starting to shift. I noticed it starting about three years ago. I’m 74 now. I noticed that I have trouble reading music the way I used to. My memory is not sharp anymore. I have the equivalent of senior moments, little blank-outs where I can’t think of somebody’s name. That happens to me in the middle of performing. I forget where I am in the arrangement. I get lost, and have to fumble around until I get back on track. This has continued to happen more and more frequently over these past few years. So I knew as of a couple years ago that my abilities were starting to decline, and I wanted to wrap it up before it became obvious to others that I’m not playing as well as I used to.

Already I’m making one of the first compromises you make, which is you start playing easier songs. You avoid the really challenging stuff that you used to really relish getting into and mastering. I’m already past doing that. I’m sticking to things that I’ve know for years and can play with ease. That’s really my philosophical outlook on this: I want to quit while I’m ahead, or at least not too far past my peak. This seems like the right time to do it.