Wayne Shorter

RIP: Legendary Jazz Saxophonist Wayne Shorter Dead at 89

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark on Aug. 25, 1933. At the age of 12, he won a citywide art contest, which led to his attending Newark Arts High School, the first public high school in the country specializing in the visual and performing arts. His teachers helped him cultivate his interest in music theory and composition. At the same time, he became fascinated with bebop and the works of Charlie Parker and Bud Powell. Shorter switched from clarinet to the tenor saxophone. He joined a local bebop group led by a singer named Jackie Bland.

He acquired the nickname, the Newark Flash, around the jazz scene of the 1950s, while earning a degree in music education at New York University. After serving two years in the Army, he re-entered the scene, making a strong impression as a member of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Shorter shared the band’s front line with trumpeter Lee Morgan, forming a musical kinship that soon extended to his own albums, and eventually to Morgan’s. In addition to his saxophone playing, Shorter began composing. His early works were used by the Jazz messengers which helped solidify his reputation as a composer.

Miles Davis became interested in Shorter and offered him a job in his band. For several years, Shorter refused the offer out of loyalty to Blakey. But Shorter joined the second Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, Along with Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams, this line up would become legendary. He contributed new compositions to every studio album made by the Miles Davis Quintet, including the title track of “E.S.P.” in 1965, “Footprints,” and the masterpiece “Nefretiti.”. In his autobiography, Davis called Shorter “the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did.”

In 1964, the same year he joined Davis, Shorter released his album Speak No Evil.

In 1969, Shorter followed Davis’s forays into rock and funk. He played on the 1969 album In A Silent Way, featuring Austrian keyboardist and composer Josef Zawinul, and on the Bitches Brew.

After leaving Davis, Shorter formed Weather Report with Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous. They released their debut album Weather Report, in 1971. Over the next 15 years, the band changed personnel several times, Zawinul and Shorter remaining the only constant members. Weather Report evolved from abstract jazz into danceable grooves. Its most commercially successful lineup featured bass guitar innovator Jaco Pastorius. This led to massive commercial success, and their album Heavy Weather eventually went platinum.

While in Weather Report, Shorter made a few solo albums, including Native Dancer, a 1974 collaboration with Milton Nascimento. A decade later, he released Atlantis, which met with mixed reviews. After Weather Report disbanded in 1986, his next few albums featured a broad range of collaborators and a heascathing vy use of synthesizer sounds. The 1995 album High Life, met with criticism.

Shorter suffered personal tragedy when his daughter Iska suffered brain damage before dying of a grand mal seizure in 1985 at age 14. The loss had led Wayne and his wife Ana Maria to embrace Nichiren Buddhism. In 1996, Ana Maria and the Shorter’s niece Dalila Lucien were among the 230 people killed whenTWA flight 800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport in New York.

In later life, Shorter deepened his bond with former bandmate Herbie Hancock, with whom he shared a common foundation in Buddhism. Both artists served on the board of the nonprofit educational organization Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz (formerly Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz). In 1997, Shorter and Hancock released 1+1. It won Shorter a Grammy for best instrumental composition.

He also received a lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy in 2015, was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 1998 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He received the Polar Music Prize, an international honor recognizing both pop and classical music, in 2017. He was  among the recipients of the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors. The final Grammy award (out of a total of 12 he won in his lifetime) was given in 2023 for best improvised jazz solo on “Endangered Species,” written with Esperanza Spalding.

In 2000 he formed an acoustic quartet with pianist Danilo Pérez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade

The new Wayne Shorter Quartet started out playing versions of Shorter’s compositions such as “Footprints” and “JuJu,” which they often modified or abstracted almost beyond recognition.  He also composed new music for the group, like “Scout,” which had its premiere in 2017, and “Pegasus,” for which he also orchestrated parts for the Imani Winds Quintet. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned his “Gaia,” a symphonic tone poem that doubles as a concerto for Esperanza Spalding.

At the age of 85, he released two versions of the suite “Emanon,” One version was with his quartet, the other featured the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The album came with a comic that he wrote with Monica Sly, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Set in a sci-fi dystopia, it tells the story of a “rogue philosopher” named Emanon.

Shorter died on March 2nd 2023. The cause of his death has not been announced as of this writing. He was 89 years old.

While most jazz musicians of his generation were content to remain solidified in the bebop tradition, Shorter was constantly evolving and experimenting. His work on the saxophone and his compositions deftly blended several styles and concepts and fearlessly explored possibilities few would have ever thought of. It is difficult, if not impossible to calculate the value of Wayne Shorter’s musical legacy.  

On a personal note, I must share an anecdote. The first concert I ever attended was in 1975 when I saw Weather Report (John McLaughlin’s post – Mahavishnu Orchestra band Shakti was the opening for them). The music impressed me as containing messages, ideas, and concepts it would take years to understand. While I loved the music, I knew I was in the presence of greatness, and struggled to absorb what they were doing. I’d already begun learning guitar, and realized how high the bar had been raised. Wayne Shorter’s work never stopped raising the bar, and never stopped being a source of inspiration.

MFM salutes the memory and legacy of Wayne Shorter.

Text by Dawoud Kringle