For Wayne Shorter’s 78th birthday, I’m offering a feature piece that I wrote about him for Jazziz in 2002, a year or so before the publication of Michelle Mercer’s excellent biography, Footprints. His amazing quartet with Danilo Perez, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade was then two years old—they continue to evolve and create some of the freshest music on the planet.
[Jim Macnie’s posted a terrific interview with Wayne from a few years ago in which he talks about his relationship with John Coltrane.]
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“With Miles, there was no music dogma going on. I can’t remember having ONE rehearsal — even when I joined him. Rehearsing, that’s a fertile time for the dogma to raise its ugly-ass head! What are you going to do with the unexpected? How can you rehearse the unexpected?”
— Wayne Shorter.
“When I was a kid,” Wayne Shorter recalls, “my mother would bring home big boxes of clay from Saturday shopping, and we’d jump right into it. Once we tried to make World War Two on our big round kitchen table. In Russia we painted the Red Army and the Blue Army. The American Army was all olive…well, almost brown. We filled up the kitchen sink with water, made submarines, made little people, and put them inside the submarines, which we placed on the bottom. Another time we tried to make the whole world out of clay — a one-dimensional circle with a globe. We had so much clay we could do land masses. If somebody came by and wanted me to do something, like go to the store for them, she’d say, ‘No, don’t bother him now; he’s in his room practicing. He’s drawing.’ Me or my brother. ‘Wayne and Alan, they’re in the imagination room.’”
That Shorter, pushing 70, continues to spend quality time in the imagination room was manifest on last year’s Footprints: Live [Verve], a free-spirited virtual concert culled from a 2001 tour with his working quartet: pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. They provide Shorter an opportunity to navigate his music within a fully acoustic landscape for the first time since the 1960s, and help him vigorously deconstruct a set of iconic originals — “Footprints,” “JuJu,” “Go,” and “Sanctuary” — that, as Patitucci says, “everybody and their grandmother has performed live” — for the first time since the recording dates that produced them.
“We’re playing with the attitude that there is no such thing as a beginning or end,” Shorter declares. “To say of a piece of music, ‘Oh, that’s been done,’ is an illusion. It’s almost like saying that at 5 years old you’re so many feet high, and that’s it. You’re going to grow. You don’t feel yourself getting taller, but the process continues. I was working on ‘Vendiendo Alegria,’ which is a piece of music that Miles Davis gave me around 1965. He said, ‘Do something with this.’ I last saw Miles at the Hollywood Bowl before he passed away in 1991. The years passed, and the thought started to coalesce that maybe it’s time to start making some albums where everything is not based upon something original. I’ve got all the time in the world to go for those little subtleties that get ignored and are sometimes sold down the river for a knock-em-sock-em, drag ‘em out announcement in the name of innovation or in the name of, ‘Yeah, let’s have something fresh,’ and what’s glossed over and ignored is the lifeblood of what freshness means. What the hell is music for?”
On his 2003 release, Alegria/Joy, Shorter offers some thoughts on the matter. Addressing subjects as diverse as the Portuguese diaspora, English folksong, medieval choral music, Hollywood, and his own experience as a young man in Civil Rights Era America from a variety of angles, he sculpts elaborate fantasy worlds, creating musical lines that take on lives of their own, tracking them with logic and intuition to improvise intricate stories with a minimum of notes, projecting an emotional aura that transcends instrument and genre. Building on group-improvised tracks recorded in the fall of 2000 by the working quartet (replaced on several tunes by Brad Mehldau, Teri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Alex Acuna), Shorter and producer-conductor Robert Sadin painstakingly layered on the details of Shorter’s vivid orchestrations, working with various configurations of brass, woodwinds, and strings.
It seems that Shorter embraced the notion of music as mutable narrative from the beginning. By his senior year of high school he was writing charts, and he studied composition at New York University between 1952 and 1956. During those years and a subsequent tour of duty in an Army band, he wrote a slew of tunes — among them “Nellie Bly,” “Ping Pong,” “Hammerhead,” and “Sincerely Diana” — that became established as hardbop AABA classics on his subsequent sideman recordings with Art Blakey and as a Blue Note solo leader. He also wrote an attenuated opera called “The Singing Lesson,” inspired by his observations of Italian gangs near the NYU campus in the southern part of Greenwich Village.
“I stopped around my second or third year, when ‘The Wild One’ came out,” Shorter recalls. “I heard that Leonard Bernstein was doing something called ‘West Side Story,’ and I thought, ‘Unh-oh, I’ll catch up to mine some other time’ — which could be now. I have all the remaining pages. I’m going to scrutinize the stuff, rework it, and bring it into its own. To me music is like working with clay. I don’t deify notes, and ‘Well, it’s got to be like when I started.’
“It’s not like ‘Don Giovanni.’ There’s going to be some swinging parts. Not just grooves, but go for it, and still maintain the story. Character actors. The content. The struggle of winning or losing. And a lot of color. Shapes. Obstacles. Obstacles take a musical shape, too. So the audience gets it all. Panoramic. Not just something with an acrobatic, ‘Nice solo, my man.’”
“Wayne has absorbed a lot of the undercurrent elements of classical music,” Sadin says. “It isn’t that he uses violins or oboes, although that can be significant. It’s the structural unfolding of his melodies. The length of Wayne’s things, the way they consistently avoid the usual blocky 8- and 16- measure form is distinct from the vast majority of jazz composition — especially in the era going up to him. His solos also tend to make a big arc and are often quite melodic. He is not content to play through chord changes. He’s working with larger ideas.”
The most recent documentation of Shorter’s increasingly elaborate corpus of original music is the 1995 album High Life, [Verve], a suite for octet and a 31-piece orchestra that, although intended, as Shorter puts it, “to raise the IQ of commercial music,” caught the attention of numerous creative musicians of the latter Baby Boom. But he’s spent the first years of the new millennium paring down and retrospecting, returning to the attitude of speculative improvising that marked his 1964-70 tenure with Miles Davis.
“Ever since he recorded things like ‘Water Babies,’ ‘Sweet Pea’ and ‘Capricorn’ both on his own records and with Miles in ’68 and ’69, Wayne always quoted his own music,” says composer-saxophonist Bob Belden, a Shorter devotee. “That’s when he started to send a message that all his melodies will always be in his book, and he can do with them whatever he wants. He doesn’t believe the dogma that once the 8 bars have been chiseled into stone, you can’t touch them.”
“Wayne’s tunes were always provocative,” says Herbie Hancock of the Miles Davis period. “They would open up passages for your own conception and how you might perform the tune on any given day. Which worked out perfectly for Miles’ band, because we were into reducing things to their skeletal nature, and then each night put the meat on the bones.”
“Miles was famous for changing people’s music around,” Shorter remarks. “Which was hip, though, because the way it was written was square and … bland, let’s put it that way. And Miles brought dimension to it. But when I wrote something, he said it had to stay like it is. Which told me it’s already on its way to being what he wanted. The notes gave him the information. He didn’t have to give information to the music.”
“The first thing Wayne did for Miles, ‘ESP,’ defines the band’s sound,” says Belden. “Where is the melody? Where is the shape? Where is the form? What’s the bass part? What is the true anchor of the song? Well, there isn’t any. It’s the ambiguity. There’s also a level of hipness, the mystery, elegance and sophistication that has yet to be captured by anybody else since Miles in the mid-’60s. You hear it in lines like ‘Dolores’ and ‘Orbits,’ the shading between the major and the minor chord. Also, these guys were all playing the same breath; there were no mistakes. They would discover things at the moment they discovered them, rather than pre-planning it, like most records are made today.”
Although they piggyback their explorations on a much more elaborately rendered set of raw materials than the Miles Davis Quintet operated with in the ’60s, Shorter’s current quartet operates by similar imperatives.
“Wayne brings in highly composed and orchestrated pieces, and we go through them until the form is cemented in everybody’s mind,” said Patitucci a year ago. “Then invariably, he’ll say, ‘Okay, that’s what it is; now I want to delve into it and break it apart and put it back together.’ He wants it new every time — to be expansive, to dwell on the various aspects of the piece at will. You could say the one rule is that there are no rules.”
It takes courage to go out there together and be vulnerable,” Shorter says. “But John, Danilo, and Brian have the foundation. You take your knapsack, your best stuff that you know, and that’s like a flashlight into the darkness. This band is roll-up-your-sleeves. To them the detail and complexity and orchestration and chance-taking means an adventure, not an experiment. That adventure means facing obstacles and overcoming them, turning poison to medicine. Confronting something. Something some people are leery of or stay away from. Everybody’s life has a dominant something, a self-burden that stops us from doing things. It can appear as a place or a thing or a person — a schoolteacher … a wife. Then you get divorced, and you say, ‘Ah, I got it!’ and then you marry again, but it’s the same wife with a different face. Then you get to a point where you’re flying! People haven’t flown yet. Don’t worry. We’re all going to fly.”
A practicing Buddhist since 1973, Shorter focuses on his Tao, and it seems impossible for him not to frame his discourse in metaphoric koans. He was amused — “You don’t want to get philosophical!” — at my lugubrious efforts to steer our conversations away from the aura of “all that is solid melts into air” and onto solid ground. But although jokes about Shorter’s “weirdness” are legion in jazz circles, there is never a moment when he does not, as the cliches go, know precisely what time it is or land squarely on the one. He knows about labor and sacrifice. The tension between speculation and pragmatism, freedom and form, the high and the low, is a consistent trope in his conversation and a defining characteristic of his life and musical activity.
“He went from the most concrete descriptions to the most blindingly allegorical, sometimes within a short space of time,” Sadin says about their collaboration. Hancock elaborates with a story. “When Wayne has to communicate something important and be lucid in a more general way, he is all of that,” he says. “But even after Wayne had been playing with us for a while with Miles, I often couldn’t follow what he was saying. I just figured, ‘Well, Wayne’s a little out there.’ One day I decided: ‘I’ve got to find out whether this guy is a genius or just a little crazy!’ We had a few days off, and I decided to hang out with him until it was clear to me. So we hung out all night, had something to drink, and I went along with the conversation, and figured out a little more about how to listen and follow and play the games. And my conclusion was, ‘Yup, he’s a genius!’
“Wayne is a moviegoer. It’s his nature to be into drama, and his compositions have always reflected that. The world is his stage. The flow of his conversation is very much like the flow of his music. Instead of detailing every step, he jumps from here to there, and then makes another jump. The details aren’t so necessary to fill in. If anything, Wayne wants to stimulate your creativity to fill in those details, to give a deeper sense of what he wants to impart.”
“I had a world I could go into,” Shorter recalls of his childhood. “It was a combination of things — listening to the radio, comic books, going to the movies, and reading my first book all the way through (Water Babies, by Charles Kingsley) when I was 13. I used my imagination to put it all together. Sometimes my mother would say, ‘Call some nice church girl and take her to a movie.’ But I thought I was weird. I was the lone wolf. I didn’t have time for a girlfriend. Instead, I came home from the movies and wrote my first and only comic book, called ‘Other Worlds.’ I always say I’m writing music for films that will never be made — that no one has the courage to make.”
When Shorter’s grandmother presented him with a clarinet for his fifteenth birthday, the prospect of conjuring epic stories with sound was eminently appealing. “What was filtering through all the while was the background music, what used to be called programmatic music and then got changed to tone poems and soundtracks,” he states. “And the music that provoked further curiosity and investigation and taking action came from horror films and science fiction — Frankenstein, Dracula, The Mummy, The Wolfman. It seems like whoever did those didn’t have anybody looking over their shoulder, looking for a hit. I heard bebop and the classic saxophone music on the radio, and I listened every Saturday to a classical program called ‘New Ideas In Music.’ I heard Toscanini conduct his last concert on the radio. I listened to a lot of people. Then I said, ‘This is what I’d like to do, and let me see if I can surprise myself; if I can surprise myself, then I can surprise the world.'”
Shorter heeded the prevailing post-war black culture ethos that individuality is every bit as important as learning the scales and chords. “My mother used to talk about Lena Horne,” he says. “She said, ‘She’s not a singer’s singer, but she knows how to put over that song.’ I filed away that sentence, and its meaning played itself out in other areas. The talk then was, ‘Hey, man, you can be yourself; be original.’ Work on that tone, work on this, work on that. Nobody said, ‘Work on life.’ Except my parents. My parents were hip. Period. Hip to the idea of excellence and giving 100 percent to whatever it is that you do. My mother didn’t go past freshman year of high school, but she was very aware of everything. She always read the newspaper, and she was hip to the nuances of insurance policies. She didn’t take geometry, but she helped my brother with geometry by using the logic of what was going on.”
Bebop was at its apogee, and Shorter’s learning curve was rapid. He got the fundamentals in the solid music program at Newark’s Arts High School and heard Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, Lester Young and Charlie Parker with strings at Newark’s Adams Theater. He joined a 9-piece teenage band fronted by one Jackie Bland, who, Shorter recounts, didn’t read music, ‘but had the look,” and knew many of Gillespie’s arrangements by ear. “I sat with the trumpet player, and at dances when we did Dizzy’s ‘Things To Come,’ I’d blare out the trumpet part on the clarinet,” Shorter says. “We’d sound almost like three trumpets if we stayed right in the microphone loud. People said, ‘How do you dance to that stuff?’”
After Jackie Bland left, the band named itself The Groove. “We would play before three or four people acting like they’re dancing, and get $1.50 at the end of the night,” Shorter continues. “Then a guy at the YMCA named Mr. Lazar wanted us to play the Saturday night dances there, and taught us to read music. I had been taking clarinet lessons for a year, so the notes were running through me. He brought out ‘Things To Come,’ and we would stay on the first two measures all afternoon until we reached the point where we were playing it as an ensemble. Then we did things like ‘One Bass Hit,’ ‘Godchild,’ ‘Jeru,’ and ‘Israel’. Then we became rebels, and we’d rehearse on our own and do things like ‘’Round Midnight’ or ‘Weird Lullaby,’ the Babs Gonzalez song.
“Word got around that there was this crazy band. The other band in Newark played the Terrace Room and the cotillions and all that. Their hair was coiffed, they had rust-colored jackets with powder-blue pants, and they looked [i]good[i], man. They read music. They made some money. Most of them went to Barringer High School. We called them the Pretty Boy Band. So someone proposed for us to have a playoff, a contest at the Court Street YMCA. It was packed with people. They were playing on a balcony and we were down on the floor. They played ‘Harlem Nocturne’ and we played ‘Ool-Ya-Koo’ or ‘Cool Breeze.’ They played an arrangement of Gershwin’s ‘American In Paris.’ We played ‘Emanon.’ They played something else, and we played ‘Now Is the Time.’ We let them know that we were from some other place. My brother was in the band, too, and he carried his alto sax in a shopping bag and played with his gloves on. It was nice weather, but we came in wearing galoshes and wrinkled clothes. We didn’t have any music stands, so we took two sets of chairs, sat in one, turned the other around to face us, and put up newspapers, like we were reading the newspaper and playing ‘Manteca.’ We went back and forth, back and forth, and at the end, they rated by applause. We won.”
After graduating high school, Shorter got a job as a stock clerk at the Singer Sewing Machines factory in Elizabeth, N.J., where he spent a year wheeling bobbins from one department to the other.
“I didn’t play much that year,” he says. “In fact, the saxophone literally stayed under the bed. But just before the College Entrance Exam, I started to write stuff that we played at dances. My group broke up after a while. The Korean War was going on, and some guys went into the Army. Somewhere in the middle of my first year at NYU, the bandleader of that other band called, and I joined them. They made more money than we did, sometimes $28 per man on the weekend. I wrote 28 arrangements for that band. Once we were invited to play at the Palladium. Tito Puente and Tito Rodriguez — or maybe Perez Prado — were there; Celia Cruz was dancing; Mongo Santamaria and Guataca, the percussionist, were playing; and we played something I wrote called ‘The Midget Mambo,’ meaning the small mambo, a toy mambo. I wasn’t trying to encroach on ‘I came from Puerto Rico myself’ and so on. But I liked it. We knew Dizzy and Chano Pozo got their stuff from Africa and mixed it. And when we grew up, mambo and cha-cha were big. You couldn’t get a date if you couldn’t dance the cha-cha. No girl would go to the movies with you. They said, ‘Can you dance?’”
Through his decade with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, Shorter would continue to answer that question in the affirmative. “Wayne’s body of work with Blakey is phenomenal,” Belden says. “His tunes captured that real African-American funk element Blakey embodied, and were still harmonically interesting and captivating harmonically. They represent a sort of hip detachment. And they make a point. They tell you about something. When he joins Miles Davis, his playing becomes much more open, a completely unique, original language — harmonically, articulation-wise, phrasing — that’s not based on anything preceding it.”
“What Miles was doing had a philosophical lean,” Shorter says. “His bands had the freshness that comes with unfamiliarity — always having a bunch of originals, records loaded with firsts. The newness and surprise supplied the drive. Different apples and oranges forming a garden that everyone wanted to be in. That all-encompassing edge of this solar system, and wanting to go into the darkness to see what the other solar system is like.”
Seven years after losing his wife, Ana Maria, in the mysterious crash of TWA Flight 800 off Long Island, and 18 years after the death of their daughter Iska, Shorter has remarried and resettled in Florida from California, his home for 30 years. Fortified by his practice of Buddhism and the ministrations of his new wife, Carolina, he seems refreshed and vigorous, able to channel the spirit that animated his efflorescent first four decades.
“I would say that Wayne’s quartet is the focal point for a new development in jazz,” says Hancock. “Openness is very much a quality, although that wouldn’t distinguish it from many other bands. But another quality is that they depend on trust — in themselves and in each other—in their playing. Creating music for the moment. Being in the moment. Whatever they play sounds like that moment.
“But it couldn’t have happened any time but now. What exudes from Wayne includes all his past experiences — including losing his wife — and him being whatever he is at the moment. What he and the band are doing puts value to everything that happened in his life, including what immediately appears to be negative. I don’t want to take away from the talent of the individuals who play with him. Not all the ideas come directly from Wayne. But although he allows the other musicians so much latitude, his life force presence is very strong, and it helps to bring out all their talent. I’m sure Danilo never played like this before. Brian Blade, too. Whatever they did before prepared them to be able to do this.”
“For composers, it’s almost a decree that the chamber orchestra and string quartet are the height of individualism,” Shorter says, referring both to the content of his new album and the aesthetic that his quartet exemplifies. “Composers like Gabriel Faure wrote things like stories — complex but in color — that let you go away on a trip. The musicians leave their egos at the door. There’s companionship and exchange, and you don’t have one job. You have something to say, someone disagrees, the line you play saves the second violinist over there, then he or she comes and saves your ass!”
“Wayne is a profoundly secular musician,” says Sadin. “He spent much of his life playing in clubs and concert halls. But music as a cultural force rather than product or entertainment is very deep in him, just as the great 19th-century composers — who certainly wanted to make a living and so on — felt they were embodying a cultural mission.”
Which perhaps is why Shorter responded to his personal tragedy with an ode to joy. “I think we’re on an eternal journey, and when we go through the exit doors, it doesn’t mean the journey is done,” he says. “No one can convince me that if you don’t see someone, they’ve been taken away, that they’re gone. Everything can be a work in progress, just like our lives, and I want to support that up to the last moment of this three-dimensional existence. I want the music to reflect the true nature of the journey of life, with its tragedies and joys, and the ability to transcend what is temporary in tragedy, and also temporary in joy, but eternal in enlightenment, which casts out fear, doubt, and all the other teeter-totter stuff that people allow themselves to be victims of.”
Shorter halts his discourse. “I’m getting into some heavy stuff here,” he says with a twinkle in his voice. “But heavy is light to me. I’m going to be 70, and it seems like everything is getting lighter and lighter. Everything that I’m saying seems like it takes a long route. And I’m finding out more and more that the long way is the shortest way.”