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Wayne Shorter, the 12-time Grammy-winning saxophonist and composer and the creator of one of the singular sounds in contemporary jazz over more than half a century, died on Thursday, March 2 in Los Angeles. Shorter was 89 years old.
Cem Kurosman, a publicist at Blue Note Records, which released Shorter's recent recordings, confirmed his death in an email to NPR.
Shorter's influential career spanned decades. From the hard bop of the late 1950s to genre-defying small-group jazz in the '60s all the way through the birth of rock-influenced jazz in the '70s, Shorter's soprano and tenor saxophones offered sonic clarion calls for change and innovation.
Wayne Shorter, born Aug. 25, 1933, in Newark, N.J., was known as a deep thinker on and off the bandstand, ingrained with an intense curiosity that began during his childhood. After studying music at New York University in the mid-1950s, he joined a band that brought him to the attention of the jazz world as a composer and saxophonist: Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
In the mid-'60s, Shorter solidified the second coming of the Miles Davis Quintet, joining Davis, bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock. It was there that he was able to indulge a passion for the intellectual that once prompted one of his NYU professors to wonder why he wasn't a philosophy major.
"The six years I was with Miles we never talked about music," Shorter told NPR in 2013. "Miles, on his table, he had scores of Koussevitzky, the conductor ... and then he had another book on architecture and another book on law. Just sitting on the table. And then he'd talk about clothes and fashion."
During his time with Davis, Wayne Shorter also recorded a series of highly regarded solo albums. His relationship with the iconic Blue Note Records from 1964-1970 resulted in a number of now-classic recordings including Juju (recorded with members of John Coltrane's quartet), Speak No Evil (recorded with two fellow Miles Davis bandmates) and The Soothsayer (featuring fellow Blue Note artist Freddie Hubbard). Many of the albums contained Shorter compositions that are now considered jazz standards.
He stayed with Davis after the breakup of the second quintet, when the trumpeter experimented with electric instruments. Shorter then joined another Davis alum, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, to co-found Weather Report, which became one of the most renowned jazz-rock bands of the '70s. The band's 1979 album, 8:30, resulted in the first of Shorter's dozen Grammy Awards. He was awarded the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Grammy in 2015.
In a statement released by Shorter's publicist Alisse Kinglsey, Hancock, described as Shorter's "closest friend for more than six decades," wrote, "Wayne Shorter, my best friend, left us with courage in his heart, love and compassion for all, and a seeking spirit for the eternal future. He was ready for his rebirth. As it is with every human being, he is irreplaceable and was able to reach the pinnacle of excellence as a saxophonist, composer, orchestrator, and recently, composer of the masterful opera '...Iphigenia'. I miss being around him and his special Wayne-isms but I carry his spirit within my heart always."
The latter part of Wayne Shorter's life was marked by almost 50 years of devotion to Nichiren Buddhism, a Japanese strain of the popular religion.
"I was hearing about Buddhism," Shorter told NPR in 2013. "But then I started to look into it and I started to open up and find out what was going on in the rest of the world instead of the west."
Those spiritual teachings influenced the musical ideas he applied to jazz at the start of the new millennium when he formed the Wayne Shorter Quartet featuring a handpicked group of much younger musicians.
The group's recorded work was captured by Shorter's return to Blue Note Records after over four decades with a series of releases that showcased the band's intense improvisations on Shorter compositions old and new.
As recently as 2018, with the release of his acclaimed final album, Emanon, Wayne Shorter continued to find the common ground between the spiritual and the musical.
"We have a phrase [in Buddhism]: hom nim yoh," he said in the 2013 NPR interview."It means 'From this moment forward is the first day of my life.' So put 100 percent into the moment that you're in because the present moment is the only time when you can change the past and the future."
An earlier version of this story miscounted the number of Grammy Awards Wayne Shorter won before his death. He has won 12 Grammys.
NEA Jazz Master Wayne Shorter was named a Kennedy Center Honoree in 2018. Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy of the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts
Washington, DC—It is with great sadness that the National Endowment for the Arts acknowledges the passing of saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter, recipient of a 1998 NEA Jazz Masters Fellowship, the nation’s highest honor in jazz. Equally renowned for his compositions as for his saxophone playing, Shorter contributed many songs to the jazz canon while participating in some of the major changes in jazz music for more than 50 years. He received 12 Grammy Awards for his recordings and, in 2015, was recognized with a lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy.
In an interview with the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Program, Shorter described what he gravitates to in music: “Struggle and victory. Struggle and victory and overcoming…or a question mark. A question mark in music. I’m listening for something that’s saying, 'No beginning, no end.’”
Shorter's musical pursuits started on the clarinet, at age 16, evolving to the tenor saxophone soon thereafter. Shorter majored in music education at New York University from 1956 to 1958, working for a short while with Horace Silver in 1956. After serving in the Army, he joined Maynard Ferguson's band for a couple of months in 1959, followed by one of his most fruitful jobs: playing with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers. He remained in the Messengers until 1964, establishing himself as both composer and saxophonist, and began making his own records, first for Vee Jay, then for the Blue Note label. His three releases for Blue Note in 1964, Night Dreamer, Juju, and Speak No Evil, are considered the quintessential Blue Note sound: sophisticated structures and rhythms, strong melodies, and exceptional playing.
He left Blakey in 1964 to assume another productive affiliation with the Miles Davis Quintet, where he remained until 1970. While with Davis, he further solidified his position as one of the most intriguing composers of his time, contributing tunes such as "Nefertiti," "Fall," "ESP," "Paraphernalia," and "Sanctuary." He also developed his sound, a mixture of technique and emotion, able to find the appropriate mood in his playing to fit the song. During the latter stages of his tenure with Davis, he took up the soprano saxophone, which thereafter often became his principal horn. In 1971, he and pianist Joe Zawinul, who also had been part of Davis' recording sessions in the late-1960s to early-1970s, formed one of the pioneering jazz fusion bands, Weather Report. The band stayed together for 15 years through several different permutations, engaging electronics and numerous ethnic influences and furthering Shorter's reputation as a composer. The band scored a major hit, "Birdland," in 1977 on their bestselling record, Heavy Weather.
After the breakup of Weather Report, Shorter made occasional recordings and tours, continuing to write intriguing music based on the influences from other musical cultures. His work was a major influence on the generations of musicians who have entered the scene since the 1970s. In 2001, he began touring and releasing recordings with a new quartet comprising Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass, and Brian Blade on drums. In 2016, Shorter was named a Guggenheim Fellow, and he was a 2018 Kennedy Center Honoree.
Shorter, who originally studied as a visual artist, pursued the visual arts as well as music throughout his life. In 2018, at age 85, he released his final album, Emanon, which included his own science fiction comic, written with Monica Sly and illustrated by Randy DuBurke.
In 2021, Shorter composed an opera called Iphigenia, with a libretto by esperanza spalding and set designs from architect Frank Gehry, which premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to rave reviews.
CONTEMPLATION OF LOVE
Re: Blue Note CDP 7-84104-2
Can be recited or sung to "Contemplation" by Wayne Shorter, Miyako Music - BMI
Lyrics by Nelson E. Harrison, Timeslice Music/Mayah Publishing, Inc. - ASCAP
[412-441-4545] / firstname.lastname@example.org
Within… my mind…
I dream a world of p… eace for all mankind…
With peacethe joy of life
Will abide in each heart…
The silence fills…
My consciousness as my trembling stills…
And soon… the golden dawn…
Will awake from the night…
Love's… melody forever sings
A music of pure peace…
And each… soul is a living note…
Being played from on high…
Never to die… That is why…
Created when two people fall in love…
Comes through a contemplation
Of song from above…
Life… contemplating soul…
Inspires… the spirit to awake…
Arise! Enter the silence with…
Your heart opened wide…
And you'll receive…
What you believe…
CONTEMPLATION OF LOVE
Is real… You'll feel…
The dawning of the golden sun shine from within…
And every Contemplation of Love…
Is a song… singing in your soul…
Author Copyright © 1995 - 2022 by Nelson E. Harrison, ASCAP PAu 2-413-092
All rights Reserved without Prejudice
Article 1 Constitution of the United States and 1-207 U.C.C.
By Michael Jackson I May. 9, 2023
“Remember to be a warrior, not a worrier,” Shorter said, 10 days prior to his passing on March 2.(Photo: Michael Jackson)
Sadly, the formative giants of jazz are passing the torch and joining the ancestors. But such cliché and dwelling on pantheons wouldn’t interest Wayne Shorter, despite the DownBeat Hall of Famer’s fascination with mythology.
His interstellar career threaded through a brief stint with Maynard Ferguson, four formative years with Art Blakey, six with Miles Davis — concurrent to mining a deeply personal (and influential) leader career at Blue Note — then fusing global sounds with Weather Report and delving into further synthetic flavors alongside the sonic subtleties of Brazil before cracking his modus operandi even wider with decades of daredevil acoustic improv in the new century, and then an operatic finale. Despite all this, Shorter was, beyond music, fundamentally a humanist. A science fiction freak as a kid in New Jersey, “Mr. Weird” and “Mr. Gone” discovered Buddhism at 40, but had ever been searching for “other ways” to navigate life’s puzzles and postulations.
Clues to his unquenchable curiosity can be traced in myriad compositional conceits, pregnant with ominous musing, that bespeak the saxophonist’s boundless quest and embrace of rebirth: “Someplace Called ‘Where,’” “More Than Human,” “Fee-Fo-Fi-Fum,” “On The Eve Of Departure.” Thus, don’t unduly mourn Shorter’s transition, which occurred on March 2, at the age of 89, after an extended period of ill health. Instead, celebrate his terra firma triumphs, while squinting at the night sky, awaiting the explosion of a supernova — to reference one of Shorter’s most exploratory, least tethered sessions from 1969.
The following is one of the maestro’s last interviews, a phone conversation that began as a discussion of crucial Shorter collaborator and pianist Danilo Pérez for the May 2022 DownBeat cover. DownBeat found Shorter, despite the discomforts of dialysis, to be utterly lucid — contemplating intimate details of his incandescent career — and fearless. Shorter’s responses have been edited for space, clarity and continuity.
Michael Jackson: I’m wondering how the premier of your opera Iphigenia went?
Wayne Shorter: Well, the New York Times and other newspapers … they used the word “landmark.” They even compared it to Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress — [with] the impact, the road that it’s on. So they seem to think it’s a doorway into something.
Jackson: Well, that will work for you, won’t it? And Frank [Gehry, who designed the sets] was in attendance?
Shorter: Yeah, he was there at the end, too, taking bows. And the conductor, he was the director of the L.A. Phil at one time, and some other people, I couldn’t see them all; we were all on stage together.
Jackson: And was it sold out?
Shorter: Oh, yeah, sold out. In fact, people were standing outside still trying to get in, waiting for a loose ticket here and there, y’know.
Jackson: That’s amazing. Must have taken you back, to, well, I was going to say Weather Report days, but that doesn’t quite make sense.
Shorter: No, this is another hallway, unvisited. … Before he died, Miles Davis called me. He also wanted to do [an opera] rendition, as if Gil Evans was still around. But he called, asking me to write something … Tosca, the opera Tosca and some of the other operas he wanted to get into. Then he passed away.
Jackson: I was thinking back to the first time I saw you perform with Weather Report in Manchester, U.K., 1980 … Jaco [Pastorius], Joe [Zawinul], Peter Erskine, Robert Thomas Jr. I think that was the first time a laser was used for onstage special effect.
Shorter: Oh, yeah-yeah, I remember!
Jackson: Was that your idea?
Shorter: The laser? No, all I was into was doing the performance … just like with Herbie Hancock’s “Rockit,” those robots they used on the video, that was somebody’s idea, a guy from Scotland. Other people tried to take credit, including management, but Herbie reached out beyond the management handcuff. They were against it, but when it was a hit, they were all for it, took their 10 or 15 percent.
Jackson: I was but a twinkle in my father’s eye during your Jazz Messengers era, but they were some heady days, eh? Art Blakey was a progressive, pushy leader.
Shorter: Art and his family knew about a lot of things. “Don’t worry about Fidel Castro, watch out for Papa Doc in Haiti,” he’d say. We went to Algeria. Things happened there, man, with the French gendarmes and all that, the French colonists. We played a concert, and in the middle, Art went to the microphone and said [Shorter offers a gruff-voiced Blakey impersonation], “Ladies and gentlemen, we are unable to continue the concert because of a certain situation. …” Art had all these big words. He’d found out they’d raised the ticket price so high, regular Algerians couldn’t get in. [In protest] we walked out the dressing room to the cars waiting. It was wall-to-wall people steaming with anger at us. Art had a Koran under his arm and went under the name Abdullah Ibn Buhaina. They’d say, “What’s your name?” He’d state, “Abdullah Ibn Buhaina!”
Jackson: Was that during the Algerian War of Independence with France?
Shorter: Yes, 1959, when I got in his band. As Art left the room the promoter said, “You’d better stay in there, they’re very angry. We don’t know what they’re gonna do.” Art said to us — [and] I’d just got out of the Army, by the way — he said, “Gentlemen, are you ready to die?” I’d got that Army thing, I said, “Yeah!” And Art said, “Wayne, you walk beside me.” They were raising their fists and spitting at us. That night we went to a restaurant and all these little soldiers, walking around with machine guns, they knew who we were, but knew we were Americans. Art had a valet, they detained him at the airport. … He had a nose like a hook, and they thought he was Algerian. We saw cannons and bombs over the mountains. [Ahmed] Ben Bella fighting for freedom from France … boom-boom went the bombs!
Jackson: Not exactly “halcyon days” with Blakey in the early days then, but that was an organization with a mission.
Shorter: Once, we were at the Village Gate and here comes Robert Mitchum and Shirley MacLaine walking in, and Blakey got on the microphone: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are blessed with the company of [composer] Samuel Barber.” He’d been standing against the wall unnoticed. A lot was happening then: Leonard Bernstein going to the Five Spot, congratulating Ornette Coleman on accomplishing something musically.
Jackson: Hard-living days, though. I recall, I believe from Michelle Mercer’s book Footprints, something about you and Zawinul — Was it cognac-infused? — falling flat on your faces? And what about that showdown at Slugs’ [the notorious New York saloon where Lee Morgan was murdered], where you had recourse to pull out the hammer you kept in your sax case, right?
Shorter: That was McCoy Tyner’s gig. We were there six nights, and this gang came in from Brooklyn, the doors swinging, you know, like the Wild West. They came in real quiet and lined the walls. I had a hammer in my saxophone case and a big, long screwdriver, and Roy Haynes had these big long drumsticks made for the big tenor drums in marching. You can knock somebody out with those drumsticks! And McCoy and Ahmed Abdul-Malik on the bass, had something, too. Roy spoke up, “We know that some people are here to turn the place out. We don’t know what the reasoning is, but we’re here to tell you, we came prepared.” He took those big drumsticks from behind his back, I reached in my sax case, took out this hammer and the screwdriver; next thing we saw the doors were swinging again, they were on their way out.
Jackson: But you didn’t feel quite out of the woods at the end of the night, if I recall.
Shorter: I walked down the street to get a taxi, and I heard footsteps behind me. There’s a guy who worked at Slugs, C Sharp, he lived across the street, and on pay night they mugged him, took his horn, the money, everything. So I got under a streetlight in the rain, and I took the hammer out again and said [in malevolent voice], “I’m gonna get me somebody tonight!” Ha-ha! The footsteps disappeared, and I went and got my taxi.
Jackson: “Footprints” could have been “Footsteps.”
Shorter: All of this fantasy and ideas is how we make metaphors in the music. We did it a lot in the quartet with Danilo, Brian [Blade] and John [Patitucci]. I’d hear stories about Danilo growing up and Brian, I’d call him “razor blade,” he’s sharp on the drums, man. And John, he worked on my Phantom Navigator album [Columbia, 1986] at Chick Corea’s Madhatter Studios. He’d tell us about his family and how his mother knew how to make lasagna.
We’d have dinner at his house with Chick. Chick and I had camaraderie. We never talked about religion — Scientology, Christianity or anything like that. Whenever we saw each other, we’d make musical noises — oom-cha-gat, da-da, oom-cha-gat. Yay, Chick! His mother cooked lasagna, too. She’d call him, [sings] “Chickie-Chickie-Chick! Chick-ie, Chick-ie!”
We all met at the jam sessions with Tito Puente, the Latin bands, along with Count Basie and all that; there was Chick and Ray Baretto at Birdland and Joe Zawinul would come in off the road from Dinah Washington.
Jackson: Dinah was not to be trifled with, from what I’ve heard — or her father, for that matter. Jimmy Cobb told me once that he was married to Dinah, and I said, “Hmm, I don’t see that listed in her Wikipedia bio anywhere.” To which Jimmy responded, “Put it this way, whenever I went back to her place and bumped into her father, I had to tell him we were married!”
Shorter: Curtis Fuller, the trombonist, told me that when he was working with Quincy Jones’ big band, they all went to Dinah’s wedding to a young Mexican actor. He was in the movie 12 Angry Men with Henry Fonda. At the time, that Flower Drum Song was a big hit, and all the girls from the musical were at the reception getting around the groom. Dinah walked over into the center of the girls and said to the star, Nancy Kwan, “Aloha, bitch!” Ha-ha! “Get your hands off my man, aloha!” Dinah knew how to swing. If she got angry, she couldn’t stop swinging. Her voice, her sentences, they had that musical swing. Miles was like that, too. He didn’t talk much, but whatever he said had a swing to it.
Someone would come in the dressing room unwarranted and Miles would say, [gruff-voiced Miles impression] “How did you get in here? Get him outta here!”
Jackson: I had a similar experience with Jimmy Smith, I was introduced to him in the green room as the guy from DownBeat. He wasn’t well, had a newspaper over his head at the time and grunted, “DownBeat? Get the fuck outta here!” Later we spoke on the phone, and he offered, “If I was Miles Davis, muthafucka, I’d shoot you!”
Shorter: I knew Jimmy Smith pretty well. He said he would never smoke, drink or get involved with drugs. We flew to Japan for a concert that was cancelled because of a typhoon and had to fly back to the U.S. together. He was smoking and hitting the scotch. On another occasion we were at Ronnie Scott’s Club. George Harrison was there, and Roberta Flack. I think Dizzy Gillespie was on the stand with Stan Getz. Jimmy was at the bar holding court, showing people his karate moves. He’d put his foot way up in your face — “Haaaaaa!”
Jackson: It didn’t matter that you’d met Jimmy before. He was, “You’re not Leonard Feather!” Miles was not impressed with hearsay either, so I gather.
Shorter: Here’s the way Miles would ask about somebody. … He’d hear about somebody that he should investigate. “Everybody’s talking about this new guy on the saxophone. You gotta check this guy out.” And Miles would say, “Well that’s all right, but can he see?” They didn’t know what he was talking about.
Jackson: Can he scan the dots, right?
Shorter: Because everybody who worked with Miles and Gil Evans, that big band stuff, you had to read. Philly Joe Jones could read good. Miles could read. But one night he was talking to Trane at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. We were up on the bandstand doing a new tune I wrote called “Paraphernalia,” and he read the music but was stumbling a bit in memorizing it. He stopped the band in front of the people — and this was the only time he had done this — held the music up and said, [another Davis impression] “Let’s start it again.” I mean, they called him a king, but that would have been considered vulnerable. He was a human being.
Beethoven suffered a lot writing what he did, but you hear schools and professors say, “This was pure genius. This music came from above.” Had you heard Beethoven himself, it would have been: “Man, I was in trouble. I was fighting this stuff!”
Jackson: Two watchwords that come up in reference to the sonic adventures with your last, long-running quartet are “zero gravity” and “optimistic chaos.”
Shorter: Optimistic chaos is a term Frank Gehry came up with. I lived at Frank’s place in Santa Monica with my wife and Esperanza [Spalding] for three months. I was working on an ending to the opera, and said, “I want the ending to be like chaos, all kinds of brrr, brrr, brrr.” And Frank said, “You mean like optimistic chaos?” So I’m working on that now for a classical pianist I’ve been asked to write things for in Holland. He doesn’t improvise, so I’m working with optimistic chaos. But I’m writing out everything that he could choose to play. There’s 10 other instruments with him and the piano.
Jackson: [Gehry] had this fad of making fish-shaped structures at a certain point in his career but failed to unite the concrete tail with the head of the fish for this important project in Japan. Ultimately he decided to make the building snake-like, despite what had been commissioned. It’s been lovely talking to you, as a non-sequitur, which I’m sure you’ll approve, I recall you once said, “Water is something a fish knows nothing about.”
Shorter: Yes, but does the water take the shape that the fish makes, or does the fish make the shape that the water takes?
It was always both intriguing and entertaining to converse with Wayne Shorter and to listen to his visionary music. Forlorn fans can take heart from some of his last words, “Remember to be a warrior, not a worrier.” He communicated that message to Rob Griffin, his road manager and audio engineer for 30 years, just 10 days before passing away in Los Angeles. Griffin worked on Shorter’s final album, Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival (Candid), an all-star affair with Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding, earning Genovese a 2023 Grammy for Best Improvised Solo. DB