Wayne Shorter didn’t pick up a musical instrument until he was fifteen, a relatively late start for a jazz great. He’d always preferred the visual arts, specifically film. It wasn’t until a revelatory moment of hearing Thelonious Monk’s ‘Off Minor’ on the radio that Wayne Shorter’s direction in life was affirmed. “My ears perked up when I heard it, and something just clicked. Bebop music seemed to reflect some of what was happening, or what people wished would happen (Footprints Pg. 27).” Bebop instantly became part of Shorter’s vocabulary and he felt a profound sense that music was the direction he was supposed to take. That sentiment has prevailed through his life, and he’s still challenging himself at the age of 75. “You need to know that life is a process,” he explained in a recent article in Downbeat magazine (May 2009), “and no one can put a process in a can or box and sell it. It’s the process of mastering your life so that you play your life story.”
Wayne Shorter’s life story began in Newark, New Jersey in 1933. He attended Newark Arts High School and was encouraged by his father to take up the saxophone. He entered New York University in 1952 as a music education major, where a modern-harmony professor encouraged him to mix different styles of music. Wayne began to compose, fascinated with classical music including opera. All the while, he continued experimenting with bebop, playing in subway stations and making some money gigging in clubs around Newark.
He graduated from NYU in 1956, and was quickly offered the job of musical director at a school district in Florida. But the job’s meager pay wasn’t enough to tempt Shorter into leaving New York where he was already being asked to play professional recording sessions. Wayne’s heart, however, lay with the hardcore bop scene in the clubs where he earned the nickname “The Newark Flash” (Footprints Pg. 53). Just as his reputation began to grow, Shorter was drafted into the army. One evening at the Café Bohemia, Shorter was jamming with Oscar Pettiford, Art Blakey, Jackie Mclean, Percy Heath, Max Roach, and Jimmy Smith with his draft notice in his back pocket. “The place was jumping and I thought going into the army meant the River Styx, so I was playing like it was the last time,” Shorter explained (Footprints Pg. 55). As it turns out, Shorter’s army life ended up being anything but dangerous. He was stationed in Fort Dix, New Jersey, where all he fought was the tedium of routine schedules; his refuge being his spot in the army band. He also found time outside army life to play with Horace Silver for a brief stint in 1958. Silver was one of the first major jazz artists to recognize Wayne’s talent for composition, and taught him how to make sure he got publishing rights for all his work. Many jazz artists of the fifties never owned the publishing rights to their own compositions, and Shorter, with Silver’s help, assured himself of the royalties due to him when someone used one of his compositions.
It was also through Horace Silver that Shorter met John Coltrane. Shorter and Coltrane had similar personalities and quickly developed a close friendship. They’d get together at Coltrane’s house and “look for freedom of speech in jazz’s vocabulary” (Footprints Pg. 59). “Coltrane was always going for the impossible, breaking down the layers of illusions for people,” Shorter explained (Footprints Pg. 73). Shorter would eventually take Coltrane’s place in Miles Davis’ band, writing extensively for Davis (sometimes composing half of the material on Davis’ albums).
Shorter would also become an indispensable composer for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, a group he would work in for five years (1959-1964), eventually becoming the musical director. Those were “hard-drinking hard-bop years,” Shorter would later ruminate (Footprints Pg. 63). Blakey’s group provided consistent work for Shorter and greater visibility among jazz fans. Blakey would introduce Shorter at shows as a “new star on the jazz horizon,” and it was through this exposure that Vee-Jay records recognize his talent and offered a recording contract. He would record his debut album (entitled Introducing Wayne Shorter) in two days, enlisting Lee Morgan, Wynton Kelly, and Paul Chambers to help him out. The Jazz Messengers were recording at the same time, and Shorter was bouncing back and forth between sessions, contributing compositions for both records. So began Shorter’s long recording career.
In 1964 Shorter was signed to Blue Note records where he recorded two of his most well known and respected albums, Juju and Speak No Evil. He composed every song on both albums. Speak No Evil featured the up-and-coming great jazz pianist Herbie Hancock. “Shorter is a master writer to me, and a real composer. He’d write the parts for everybody just as he wanted them to sound. He’d work within musical rules, but wouldn’t hesitate to break them if something wasn’t working,” Hancock explained (Footprints Pg. 141).
Shorter would continue to break the rules in the 1970’s, forming one of the seminal jazz fusion groups, Weather Report. Weather Report produced over eighteen albums blending funk, bebop, R&B, Latin jazz, and ethnic music, with an impressive alumni of musicians playing their part through the years (most notably revolutionary bassist Jaco Pastorius). Many of the group’s early records received the highest five star rating from Down Beat Magazine.
“Music has a way of telling what it needs,” Shorter told Down Beat magazine in 2009; “we like to put handcuffs on music. The whole thrust of the creative process is started and stopped by us. But I won’t let that happen!” Wayne Shorter continues to break new ground in jazz, working with artists as diverse as guitarist Carlos Santana, and singer songwriter Joni Mitchell. He’s received nine Grammies, the most recently for his 2005 album Alegria.
Thanks to the Manieri grant, Anacortes Public library has a huge collection of Wayne Shorter’s solo work, and his work with Weather Report, The Jazz Messengers, Joni Mitchell, Jaco Pastorius and Freddie Hubbard. Have a look at the Wayne Shorter featured artist of the month display at the library and take a few discs home. Perform a keyword search on the library catalog computers to explore all the different recordings to which Wayne Shorter has contributed. If you are interested in reading about Shorter’s life, check out the biography Footprints written by Michelle Mercer. It is part of the large collection of jazz books purchased through the Manieri grant.
Mercer, Michelle. Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter. New York, NY: Penguin Group, 2004.
Ouellette, Dan. “Pursuing Danger.” Down Beat Magazine. May 2009: 35-38.