Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter is one of the musical geniuses of this century. He ranks among Ellington, Parker, Monk and Coltrane both as an improviser and as a composer. His influence on several generations of musicians is evident and speaks for itself. For nearly three decades he has been a prolific composer, always developing and working with new concepts and ideas. Like Miles Davis he has refused to stagnate and has had the ability to leave music that he loves behind in order to develop and explore. As a saxophonist he has it all, from the relentless swinging tenor with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to the lyrical and romantic soprano saxophone on many later recordings. He has during his career always belonged to the foremost and ground-breaking bands at the time: Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers, the legendary Miles Davis Quintet, the late 60’s Miles Davis, Weather Report and currently his own Wayne Shorter Group. His own current group is one of the most successful and sought after acts on the jazz scene today.
Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 26, 1933. His first creative sparks were not shown in music but in painting and sculpting. He was admitted to the Newark Arts High School and did not start to study music until he was 16. He was given a clarinet from his grandmother and started taking lessons with a local band leader. Soon he was to be exposed to the great jazz masters of the time. He went to hear performances by such acts as Duke Ellington, Thelonius Monk, Stan Kenton, Charlie Parker and just about everybody else that was on the scene at the time. After falling in love with this music he then got a tenor saxophone, switched to the music major during the last year of high school and started a band that he called The Group. He was now completely immersed in transcribing arrangements and compositions, especially from the bands that Dizzy Gillespie led at the time. He claims that the broad range he now has on his soprano comes from playing trumpet parts on his clarinet.
After graduation with honors in music and art from Newark Arts High School, he enrolled at New York University, majoring in music education. During these four years he started to do gigs around New York, sitting in at jam sessions at Birdland and all the jazz clubs that were blooming at the time. Just as he was about to get recognition he was drafted into the Army. He played with the Army band in Washington D.C. and during his stay there played a couple of concerts with Horace Silver’s band. After leaving the army things really started to take off for Shorter. One of the most important experiences of Shorter’s musical life was about to take place, namely his relationship with John Coltrane. They would practice and jam together, sharing conceptual ideas and even playing gigs together. Coltrane had heard about Shorter and was very exited about his playing, especially since he could relate to the way Shorter was trying new concepts and also stretching the limits of the tenor sax. Coltrane supposedly had said to Shorter that he liked the way he was “scrambling them eggs” referring to Shorter’s highly imaginative sheets of sound. They both were practicing from violin and harp etude books in order to play wider leaps and intervals and these wide intervals became one of the trade marks of Shorter’s improvisations and compositions. It was around this time Coltrane wrote Giant Steps using a tri-tonic system to break away from the be-bop and standard type of changes. One can hear how Shorter emulated this, and one can hear some clear evidence of Giant Steps soloing patterns in his solo on his composition E.S.P., from the 1964 Miles Davis Quintet album with the same name. Coltrane’s influence on the overall mood is also obvious on most of the Blue Note recordings that Shorter did as a leader. Shorter also used Coltrane’s rhythm sections or at least part of them on these recordings. The 26-year-old Shorter played with Coltrane one memorable night in December 1958, at Birdland. Among the other musicians were Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton and Elvin Jones. Cannonball and Nat Adderly’s band were playing opposite Coltrane’s band. Shorter says about this gig,”We had a rehearsal at his house, and that night we were playing. Opposite us were Cannonball with his brother Nat. Cannonball and Trane were working with Miles then, but they had time off and they split up and got different bands. Elvin Jones was on drums that night. It was historic; everybody realized it- we tore that place up. Ten years later when I went to California, people were still talking about it.- ‘Yeah we heard about it out here, that memorable Monday night at Birdland.’ That’s when Trane started playing all the new stuff he had written. It was a new wave. 1″Shorter has said about his practicing during this time, “I used to practice about 6 hours a day, play the first thing that came into my head, which was always harder than a regular exercise.”2
In 1959 Coltrane was about to leave Miles Davis’ band and had been wanting to for a while. He told Shorter if he wanted to do it it was all his. Shorter called Davis only to get the response of “If I need a tenor player I’ll get one.” Obviously Davis did not know that Coltrane was about to leave his group, and next time he saw Coltrane he told him, “Don’t be telling nobody to call me like that, and if you want to quit then just quit, but why don’t you do it after we get back from Europe?”3 Instead Shorter joined Maynard Ferguson’s band for a short stint. This was upon recommendation of pianist Joe Zawinul. Zawinul and Shorter were at this time socializing a lot but did not play together other than with Ferguson’ band. It would take another 10 years before they started their collaboration in Weather Report. After sitting in one night with Art Blakey & The Jazz Messengers Shorter was offered the gig and joined them for a 5 year stint. After being with Blakey for a short while he was offered the gig with Miles Davis but opted to stay with the Jazz Messengers.
Together with Lee Morgan, Shorter formed one of the most formidable front lines at the time. The Messengers was a hard- swinging band driven by the propulsive, down to earth drummer Art Blakey. Even though the music became too limited for Shorter after a while, there is no doubt that it was here he developed a strong connection to the roots of jazz and built the foundation that allowed him to stretch and experiment later on. Shorter became the musical director and his compositions and arrangements would characterize the sound of the Jazz Messengers for the 5 years he was with them. During his stay with Blakey he also recorded several albums as a leader.
In 1964 Shorter left Art Blakey and spent the summer practicing and composing. Miles Davis returned from a tour of Japan and found out that Shorter had left Art Blakey. He then asked everybody in his band to call Shorter and convince him to join the quintet. And so he did. The first engagement was at the Hollywood Bowl in late 1964. “Getting Wayne made me feel good , because with him I just knew some great music was going to happen. And it did; it happened real soon,”4 Miles says in his autobiography. “If I was the inspiration and wisdom and the link for this band, Tony (Williams) was the fire, the creative spark; Wayne was the idea person, the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did; Ron (Carter) and Herbie (Hancock) were the anchors.”5 Miles also says: “At first Wayne had been know as free-form player, but playing with Art Blakey for those years and being the band’s musical director had brought him back in somewhat. He wanted to play freer than he could in Art’s band, but he didn’t want to be all the way out, either. Wayne has always been someone who experimented with form instead of someone who did it without form. That’s why I thought he was perfect for where I wanted to see the music I played go. Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with a musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste. Wayne was out there on his own plane, orbiting around his own planet. Everybody else in the band was walking down here on earth. He couldn’t do in Art Blakey’s band what he did in mine; he just seemed to bloom as a composer when he was in my band. That’s why I say he was the intellectual musical catalyst for the band in his arrangement of his musical compositions that we recorded.” 6 Shorter said about playing with Miles: “Everyone noticed a difference, it wasn’t bish-bash, sock- em-dead routine we had with Blakey, with every solo a climax. With Miles, I felt like a cello, I felt viola, I felt liquid, dot-dash, and colors started really coming…” 7 This quintet dissolved in 1967-68 because Davis was again trying to break new ground. He brought in a lot of different musicians and a period of experimenting took place. Shorter still appeared on Davis’ albums as late as 1969. During his stay with Davis he recorded a substantial amount of records as a leader, most of them on Blue Note. It is interesting to note that the music on these recordings although recorded during the same era as the Davis Quintet are much less experimental and stays closer to the jazz tradition. This is with the exception of Etcetera (1965) and the albums recorded after 1968.
In 1970 Shorter formed Weather Report together with Joe Zawinul and Miroslav Vitous. He had played with both in different constellations during 1968-69, with Davis and in his own formations as a leader. Weather Report was to be at the forefront of the jazz fusion era, breaking new ground for 15 years, and a new unique sound was born. He shared the role as composer with Zawinul on the 15 albums that they recorded. His improvisations became almost minimalistic on some of the recordings, since compositions and group playing was the main focus of the group. His ability to think compositionally while improvising, and to say a lot with a few right notes, still makes his solos very interesting. The freedom to stretch out on longer improvisations is evident on their live album 8:30 recorded in 1979.
In 1985 Weather Report and the collaboration with Zawinul came to an end. Shorter started his own band and recorded Atlantis. This was his first album as leader since Native Dancer, a collaboration with Brazilian singer-composer Milton Nascimento that was recorded in 1974. The music on Atlantis was all through-composed, almost a form of jazz-fusion chamber music. It seemed like this was material that he did not get to record with Weather Report and now, not having to compromise, he got to control every aspect of the music. The writing on this album is very complex and utilizes many different compositional techniques. It also has an interesting blend of acoustic and synthesized instruments in the arrangements. There is hardly any improvisation except for short soloistic statements similar to the Weather Report recordings. As with Weather Report though, the same material is opened up for long improvisations in live performances and contains a lot of group interaction. After Atlantis two more albums were released, Phantom Navigator in 1987 and Joy Ryder in 1989. These are similar in style but have more of a high-tech sound, with sequenced drum and keyboard parts.



  1. Wayne Shorter – Down in the Depths, Vee Jay
  2. Wayne Shorter – Lost, Blue Note
  3. Wayne ShorterFootprints, Blue Note
  4. Wayne Shorterthe Soothsayer, Blue Note
  5. Wayne ShorterSpeak no evil, Jamey Aebersold
  6. Wayne ShorterPug nose, Vee Jay
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