Gary Burton has long put his insecurities behind him.
At 70, the jazz vibraphonist is as comfortable in life as he is on stage, where he has been a pioneer on his instrument and a leading improvisational voice.
Burton, whose quartet performs Wednesday and Thursday at the Dakota Jazz Club in Minneapolis, has had a storied career — in large part because he plays an uncommon instrument. That worked to his advantage, earning him a recording contract at 17, a spot in pianist George Shearing's band at 19 and the opportunity to work with saxophonist Stan Getz at 20.
He pioneered several technical and musical developments on the vibraphone, a mallet percussion instrument with a warm tone that in the right hands delivers a range of colors and emotions.
But Burton's great professional success was accompanied by personal struggles. Conflicted about his sexuality since he was a teen, Burton avoided addressing his attraction to men because he was afraid doing so would thwart his career, a subject he addresses in his recently published autobiography, "Learning to Listen: The Jazz Journey of Gary Burton."
In the late 1950s and early '60s, jazz musicians embodied cool, and the music they made was on the cutting edge. But the jazz world was very much a macho environment — so much so that even the great songwriter Billy Strayhorn, a close friend of bandleader Duke Ellington, was scorned by some members of the band.
"I struggled with this from puberty on — mixed feelings and attractions — and just knew that being gay was not compatible with a career in jazz," Burton said. "And I was having a great start to my career and I just felt like I can't even think about this, I can't even allow myself to consider this possibility."
His childhood in rural Southern Indiana, in a conservative part of the state where there was "no support, no acceptance of any kind," convinced him that he had to deny it.
"I just constantly suppressed all feelings of that nature, and convinced myself that I was basically heterosexual but I had this kind of extra aesthetic. After all, I'm a musician and artist. I can appreciate men as well as women. But it was kind of a convenient rationale for me not to have to deal with my feelings."
That changed in the 1980s, when after two marriages and two children, therapy helped Burton realized that he had always been gay. He said that after going through therapy, he had "an aha moment." In 1994, he spoke publicly about his sexuality in an radio interview with Terry Gross, host of the show "Fresh Air."
"By then, the climate had changed considerably," he said of the growing acceptance of gay musicians in jazz. "And of course, today it's really changed."
He recently married his longtime partner, Jonathan Chong. Having fixed that part of his life, Burton became free to explore music, and life, without any inhibitions.
In his autobiography, he also offers his thoughts on the creative process. The book is very much about his musical journey, which began in Indiana, where Burton got his start on the vibraphone.
"It was just fate," Burton said of his choice of instrument. "My parents wanted us children — there were three of us — to get to take music lessons. And my older sister played the piano already. So when I was six my parents decided to find me a teacher of some other instrument. And I didn't know one from another at age six of course. But there was a woman in the town I was living in at first who played the marimba and the vibraphone. That's where I was taken to get lessons.
"I learned the vibraphone at that young age and it became so natural to me, so part of me," he said, "that even when I went through a period later of doubting that it was the best choice for me and I played piano some and I tried paying a few other instruments for a while, nothing felt as just naturally mine as my vibraphone playing."
Burton's book chronicles his experiences with guitarist Hank Garland, Shearing and others. He recalls tough times with Getz, whom he describes as an abusive bandleader plagued by drug and alcohol abuse. But as the touring manager for the saxophonist band, Burton also learned that he knew how to take a band places.
At 24, he formed the first of his many ensembles, and turned toward music. A Beatles fan, Burton was perfectly placed in history, in between the originators of jazz and the rock era, much like pianist Chick Corea, a contemporary with whom he has performed annually for 40 years.
"I managed to get to know and in some cases work with some of the originals, some of the pioneers of jazz," Burton said. "I knew Duke Ellington, I worked opposite Thelonious Monk a lot. I knew Dizzy Gillespie. A lot of the founders of jazz were people that I saw in person, got to know in person and connected with. That to me was the perfect bridge to my generation and the generations that followed who would not have the opportunity to get to connect to the original roots of jazz. I feel it was lucky timing for me both as a musician and as a vibraphone player as well."
Burton expanded the vibraphone's use in jazz and also created "the Burton grip," an approach to holding four mallets that most players use.
He is also known for his work at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, where he served as an instructor, dean of curriculum and executive vice president. His tenure there put him in touch with young players who would become rising stars, among them guitarists Pat Metheny and John Scofield.
Working with them, he said, has helped prevent his music from becoming stagnant and repetitive, a common trap for older musicians.
"One of the problems when you're a bandleader is you play your own music. You play with the same musicians night after night, year after year and it's easy to get kind of stuck in a rut stylistically," he said. "Everything starts to sound the same. But in an atmosphere like Berklee new things were happening all the time. Students were constantly asking me questions, challenging this, challenging that — suggesting things I wouldn't have thought of. And I found it to be a great atmosphere for a creative environment."
Burton, who has turned his attention to teaching improvisation online, is on tour to promote his latest recording, "Guided Tour." His quartet includes Julian Lage on guitar, Scott Colley on bass and Antonio Sanchez on drums — new music made possible by his dedication to a new instrument half a century ago.
"The vibes were only 20 years old when I started taking lessons in 1949 and there was a lot to be discovered about how to play the vibes and how to use the vibes and different instrument settings," he said. "And I got to be the pioneer of the vibraphone to a great extent because if I hadn't discovered these things someone else would have in time. But it was open to me to have a shot at."
IF YOU GO:
WHERE: Dakota Jazz Club, 1010 Nicollet Mall, Minneapolis.
WHEN: 7 and 9 p.m. tonight and Thursday.
• More information at dakotacooks.com