Wayne Shorter, Giant Of Jazz Saxophone, Dies At 89

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Wayne Shorter, the enigmatic jazz saxophonist and composer known as one of the inventors of jazz-rock, or fusion, has died in hospital in Los Angeles, at the age of 89. His publicist confirmed his death to the New York Times. Shorter is survived by his third wife, Carolina Dos Santos, and daughter, Miyako.

Like John Coltrane before him, Shorter was a key figure in popularizing the soprano saxophone, an instrument equally suited to carrying a melody as it is producing eerie, otherworldly sounds. After cutting his teeth playing tenor in the hard bop scene of the late 1950s, he rose to fame as a central player in the evolution of post-bop jazz in the 1960s; through a series of solo albums for Blue Note and a stint with the Miles Davis Quintet, he departed from the chorus-verse-chorus format to explore novel approaches to harmony, melody, and structure.

Between 1970 and 1986, looking to expand his horizons further, he led groundbreaking jazz-rock supergroup Weather Report alongside keyboard player Joe Zawinul, all while collaborating with some of the biggest names in pop and rock, including Steely Dan, Joni Mitchell, and Santana.

Mysterious as his music

With its haunting melodies and unusual chords, Shorter’s music was in some ways just as mysterious as the man himself. Known equally for his love for sci-fi novels and his devotion to the Buddhist faith, which he began practicing in 1973, he had a reputation for speaking in oblique phrases during interviews; in 2002, he described himself to Ted Panken as a “lone wolf.” In his 2014 memoir, Possibilities, collaborator Herbie Hancock compared Shorter to a fictional Jedi knight from Star Wars. “He’s kind of like Yoda,” he wrote. “He speaks in this whimsical way, but he’s also very wise.”

Shorter’s commitment to challenging himself followed him well into his 80s, when he won his eleventh Grammy award for Emanon, a 2008 audio-visual work combining two hours of music with a 74-page graphic novel. At the time of his death, he was working on an even more ambitious project: an opera called Iphigenia.

A reimagining of a Euripides play, it tells the story of a woman who sacrifices her life for the greater good of humanity and debuted in Washington, DC in 2021. “He’s at a level of exploration that’s on another plane,” Esperanza Spalding, the Grammy-winning jazz musician who wrote the libretto, told Mercury News in 2014. “He’s a one-in-a-million musician.”

Shorter was born in 1933, in Newark, New Jersey, to parents Joseph and Louise Shorter, both factory workers. The younger of two brothers, he devoured comic books as a child and dreamed of becoming an illustrator. It wasn’t until he was 14, while studying drawing at Newark’s Arts High School, that he heard Thelonious Monk, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell on the radio for the first time. “My ears perked up when I heard it, and something must have clicked, ‘cause I wasn’t into music at all,” he later told Michelle Mercer in his 2002 authorized biography, Footprints: The Life And Work Of Wayne Shorter.

Excited by bebop’s rambunctious energy and aura of newness, he decided to try his hand at playing a musical instrument. “I bought a Tonette, a small plastic instrument with eight holes,” he told Mercer. “It looked like a submarine.” By the time he was 15, he had progressed to the clarinet, and music was the center of his universe. He repeatedly skipped school to see icons like Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker perform at a local theater, and, after switching instruments once again — this time, to the tenor saxophone — joined a local bebop ensemble with his brother Alan, an alto saxophonist.

Jazz nights and school days

When he matriculated at New York University to study music education, the clubs continued to beckon — especially since he was now just a subway ride away from 1950s jazz meccas like Birdland and Café Bohemia. “I’d hang till one or two at clubs in New York and get home close to three,” he told Michelle Mercer. “Then I’d be up at seven to go to school. I’d do that every day and night.”

By this time, people in the Big Apple jazz scene had started calling him “the Newark Flash,” a comic book-inspired moniker that spoke of his skills as a quick-draw saxophone slinger. Shorter had also begun composing, penning a couple of mambo-inspired dance tunes as well as pieces inspired by classical music, including an opera called The Singing Lesson, which he wrote at age 19. At age 23, not long after graduating from NYU, Shorter made his first professional recording with the Dixieland piano-led group Johnny Eaton And His Princetonians, who cut two of his original compositions, though the session was never released.

After a two-year stint in the U.S. military, where he played in an army ensemble at New Jersey’s Fort Dix, he returned to New York and got a gig in the house band at Minton’s Playhouse, a hip Harlem nightspot. It was there, in 1959, that he met saxophonist John Coltrane. Seven years his senior, Coltrane was getting ready to leave Miles Davis’ band and urged the younger saxophonist to take his place.

But when Shorter rang Davis offering his services, the trumpeter was caught off guard: he hadn’t been aware that Coltrane was leaving. “I was shocked,” Davis recalled in his 1989 memoir, Miles: The Autobiography. “Then I said, ‘If I need a saxophone player I’ll get one!’ And then I hung up.” Though the encounter left Shorter feeling discouraged, it wasn’t the last time their paths would cross.

Later that year, still reeling from the rejection, he would begin a four-year stint playing with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers. Though the Pittsburgh-born drummer was renowned for his polyrhythmic prowess and dramatic, swashbuckling style, he wasn’t a composer, which meant that he had discovered in Shorter an invaluable asset: Not only was he an excellent saxophonist — with a vibrato-less tone that melded Coltrane’s searching quality with Sonny Rollins athletic prowess — he also knew how to write a compelling jazz tune.

Though Shorter began pursuing a parallel career as a solo artist just a few months later — releasing a solid but unspectacular debut LP, Introducing Wayne Shorter, for Chicago’s Vee-Jay label — his work as a Jazz Messenger made a more profound impact. As the band’s musical director, he grew increasingly self-assured as a composer, writing indelible hard-bop classics like “Lester Left Town” — a tribute to his idol, saxophonist Lester Young — and “Children of The Night,” purportedly inspired by a Bela Lugosi’s Dracula.

Fun with Art

In turn, Blakey’s pragmatic, no-nonsense approach helped sharpen Shorter’s instincts as a writer. “We had fun with Art learning what he called ‘getting to the point,’” Shorter would tell Record Collector in 2012: “He said ‘get to the point playing jazz and don’t spend time practicing when you’re making a record. If you want to practice something, practice not repeating an idea, a thought, or expression.’”

After marrying a woman from Chicago named Irene Nakagami, Shorter left the Messengers in 1964, hoping to explore new musical territory. On Night Dreamer, his first session as a leader for Blue Note Records, his playing retained the muscularity of his work with the Messengers. In other ways, though, the album was the antithesis of Blakey’s sinewy, swaggering hard bop; instead of driving grooves with anthemic choruses, it was more subtle, defined by the unusual melodies and chords that were quickly becoming a hallmark of the saxophonist’s evolving style.

By this point, five years had elapsed since Shorter’s ill-fated phone call with Davis; the trumpeter had been tracking Shorter’s progress and, in a surprise turn of events, trying in vain to get Shorter to join his band. In September 1964, Shorter finally said yes. He would replace Sam Rivers in an iteration of the band that jazz historians would come to call the “Second Great Quintet,” improvising alongside pianist Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and wunderkind drummer Tony Williams, then just 17.

Shorter’s presence, especially as a composer, immediately made an impact on the group, which would go on to patent a looser, more abstract style of playing, anchored in bebop but with a feeling of melodic and harmonic liberation that was closer to free jazz. “From the minute Wayne stepped in, the magic started to flow,” wrote Hancock in his memoir, describing this so-called “free-bop” period.

With their snaking melodies, unorthodox harmonies, and elliptical structures, mid-1960s Shorter contributions like “E.S.P,” “Masqualero,” and “Footprints,” crystallized the group’s sonic identity. “Miles loved Wayne because he’d compose these perfect pieces and then just walk up, hand Miles a sheet of paper, and say, ‘I wrote something,’” Hancock wrote. “And Miles never had to touch Wayne’s songs, because they were invariably brilliant platforms for our style of playing.”

Though the Davis quintet didn’t subscribe to the concept of free jazz, which had ousted hard bop as jazz’s hippest new currency, there was undoubtedly a feeling of emancipation in the music. Instead of telling his charges what to play, Davis encouraged them to express themselves with authenticity and play without fear: “With Miles, it was like you were in a university in the beyond and you were on your own,” Shorter told Record Collector in 2012. “He never talked about music, and we had no rehearsals. He said, ‘Don’t practice in your room, do it on the bandstand.’”

Six albums in 18 months

The mid-1960s was also a productive time for Shorter’s budding solo career. Between April 1964 and October 1965, he recorded six albums in quick succession for Blue Note, each charting his evolution toward a more personal form of musical expression, though not all of them were released at the time. With its uncommon melodic motifs and unexpected chord changes, one of them, Speak No Evil, would achieve a particularly vaunted status among critics and fans—most notably because of “Infant Eyes,” a haunting ballad that he wrote for his first daughter, Miyako.

By 1968, rock music had emerged as the dominant youth music, and Davis was tuning into the zeitgeist, introducing amplified instruments and rock-influenced backbeats into his sound. In 1970, with Shorter at his side, he recorded the sprawling double album Bitches Brew. It was something of a Big Bang moment for this new jazz-rock sound, which critics described as “fusion.” Unlike in the quintet, which Davis had dissolved in 1968, Shorter opted to play the soprano sax. He chose the instrument with good reason: It was simply more effective than the tenor sax at cutting through a wall of amplified sound.

Enter Weather Report

After closing his account with Blue Note with the album Odyssey Of Iska, which was more meditative and introspective than the saxophonist’s previous work, Shorter set about taking this musical cross-pollination to the next level. With pianist Zawinul, whom he met while playing on Davis albums like Bitches Brew and A Silent Way, he founded a new band called Weather Report, which followed a similar jazz-rock trajectory – albeit without employing a guitarist, and with a greater focus on impressionistic soundscapes. “We were trying to do music with another grammar,” Shorter told Michelle Mercer. “It was close to film music.”

The group’s 1971 self-titled debut for Columbia Records was a highly experimental affair, blending evocative tone poems with rock amplification and uncompromising avant-jazz. Personality-wise, the Shorter and Zawinul couldn’t be any more different: where Shorter was reticent, romantic, and prone to reverie, Zawinul was direct, macho, and highly competitive. But their chemistry as musicians was unique: Zawinul’s tunes were often big and anthemic, while Shorter’s tended to be minimalistic and gnomic—a duality that came to define Weather Report’s widescreen sound.

As tastes evolved, the loose, cinematic quality of Weather Report’s earlier work gave way to a funkier, synth-led approach — most notably on their fourth album, 1974’s Mysterious Traveller. In 1976, the band’s sound evolved once more with the arrival of flamboyant bassist and composer Jaco Pastorius, whose R&B-influenced playing style injected the band with a new commercial appeal, one that is impossible to ignore on their 1977 hit album, Heavy Weather.

While Shorter’s commitment to Weather Report during his 15 years with the band restricted his solo activities to just one album — 1974’s Native Dancer, an inspired fusion of jazz and Brazilian music featuring singer Milton Nascimento — he did manage to carve out time for other pursuits: Starting in 1977, he reunited with fellow Miles Davis Quintet alumni to form an acoustic group V.S.O.P., which allowed him to revisit some of his 1960s material. As he continued to mine the common ground between jazz and other genres, he also made cameo appearances on several rock and pop albums, including Steely Dan’s Aja (1977), Joni Mitchell’s Mingus (1979), and Santana’s The Swing Of Delight (1980).

Though Shorter’s loyalty to Weather Report never wavered, by 1978, it was noticeable that Zawinul had been taking on more of a leadership role in the group, and that Shorter’s writing contributions had become increasingly minimal: “I was struggling, trying to write,” he told Musician magazine in 1981, speaking of his work in the Weather Report and beyond. “I’ve heard about painters who would stop in the middle of the canvas and say, ‘That’s all…I have nothing more to paint.’ That was how I felt. I was worried I’d gone dry permanently.”

After Pastorius departed the band in 1982, Weather Report continued until 1986, when Zawinul and Shorter decided they had taken the group as far as it could go and decided to disband it. According to Mercer, Weather Report’s demise was also hastened by the 1985 death of Shorter’s second daughter Iska, born to his Portugal-born second wife, Ana Maria, following an epileptic seizure.

Solo again

In 1985, when Shorter released his first solo album in 11 years, it appeared he had finally overcome a long period of writer’s block. A series of carefully wrought ensemble pieces with minimal improvisation, Atlantis marked a new, more cinematic direction for the artist, who described the songs as “mini-movies.” Production-wise, the use of synthesizers and funk rhythms gave the album a pronounced 1980s feel — and the records that followed it, which often featured drum machines and an electronic wind instrument called a lyricon, showed that he was unafraid of embracing new technological innovations.

After Ana Maria tragically perished in a 1996 plane crash, he immersed himself in making new music. He paid tribute to her on his next album, 1+1, an intimate acoustic collaboration with Hancock. “When we did 1+1, it was almost like her presence was there,” Hancock later told Mercer. Album track “Aung San Suu Kyi,” a tribute to the Burmese politician, human rights activist, and 1991 Nobel Peace Prize winner by that name, won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Composition. It was the first in a string of eight Grammy awards Shorter would earn in the last three decades of his life.

In 2000, Shorter formed an acoustic quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade, three younger but accomplished musicians. The quartet would be his main artistic vehicle for the next 15 years, combining songs from Shorter’s catalog and new material. On their Grammy-winning 2005 live album, Beyond The Sound Barrier, they seem to be communicating on a telepathic level.

In 2012, at the age of 79, Wayne Shorter returned to Blue Note following a 42-year absence. Instrumental in bringing him back was the label’s president, producer Don Was, who saw the saxophonist as a bridge between the company’s past and present. “The vibe of having Wayne around is absolutely inspiring to the people that work at the label and to the other musicians there,” he told uDiscover Music in 2018. “He’s just got this positive, powerful energy. […]. And he’s still the most innovative guy in town at 85.”

Shorter marked his return with his 24th album, Without A Net, a compendium of exploratory live performances that showed that even on the eve of his 80th birthday, he remained committed to challenging himself. “We need fearlessness and not being afraid of the unexpected and the unknown,” he told Record Collector, summing up the ethos behind the album.

In 2015, after touring Without A Net and joining forces with his old friends Hancock and Santana to form a supergroup called Mega Nova, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammy Awards; in the years that followed, he would also win a Polar Music Prize and become a Kennedy Center honoree.

In 2017, Shorter, who had been practicing SGI Nichiren Buddhism since 1973, teamed with Hancock and Japanese philosopher Daisaku Ikeda to co-author a book called Reaching Beyond: Improvisations On Jazz, Buddhism, And A Joyful Life. In it, Shorter reveals how his religious convictions helped to shape his fearless approach to music. “The message I share with people when I play is this: Do not avoid confrontation with the unexpected and the unknown,” he wrote. “During performances, many musical challenges arise. It is precisely in those moments that I address the question of how to engage with the unexpected, rather than running away from it or just looking for the comfort of the familiar.”

Ambitious to the last

Shorter continued producing increasingly ambitious work. In 2018, just in time for his 85th birthday, he returned to Blue Note with Emanon. Combining a triple album of both live and studio recordings with a graphic novel illustrated by award-winning Marvel and DC Comics artist Randy DuBurke, the sweeping multi-disciplinary project tells the story of a superhero who helps humanity overcome its fears. Characteristically, it saw Shorter reworking some of his older compositions.

“I always say, in a real sense any piece of music is not finished,” he told Record Collector in 2012, explaining his rationale for reviving pre-existing pieces. “It’s just stopped until somebody says ‘this is the end,’ but to me, there’s no such thing as a beginning or an ending. The music is eternal. Everything is open to move forward, and so there’s evolution and revolution.”

Blue Note president Was described the concept as “revolutionary. I don’t know anyone else who’s done it,” he told uDiscover Music. The album won a Grammy for Best Instrumental Jazz album, and the New York Times and Rolling Stone ranked it as one of the best albums of 2018. Not to rest on his laurels, Shorter spent the past few years of his life collaborating with Grammy-winning jazz bassist/composer Esperanza Spalding on the Iphigenia opera, a work that brought his career full circle from his student days at NYU.

In some ways, Shorter was a jazz superhero: an intrepid sonic explorer whose curiosity never wavered and whose music grew bolder and more fearless with age. Critics will remember him for his spellbinding playing style and for writing the sort of haunting compositions, like “Infant Eyes” and “Footprints,” that generations of young music students will aspire to play. But his friends emphasized the mystical aspect of his presence, the child-like fascination with which he viewed the world.

As Santana put it in his 2014 biography, The Universal Tone: “Wayne is that bright angel on top of the Christmas tree.” But perhaps Herbie Hancock summed him up best, writing in his memoir: “Wayne Shorter has evolved as a human being to a point where he can synthesize all the history of jazz into a very special, very alive, musical expression. Nobody else can do that now.”

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