Wayne Shorter (born August 25, 1933) is an American jazz saxophonist and composer. Many of Shorter’s compositions have become jazz standards, and his output has earned worldwide recognition, critical praise and various commendations.
Shorter first came to wide prominence in the late 1950s as a member of, and eventually primary composer for, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In the 1960s, he went on to join Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet, and from there he co-founded the jazz fusion band Weather Report. He has recorded over 20 albums as a bandleader.
Shorter has won 10 Grammy Awards. He has also received acclaim for his mastery of the soprano saxophone (after switching his focus from the tenor in the late 1960s), beginning an extended reign in 1970 as Down Beat’s annual poll-winner on that instrument, winning the critics’ poll for 10 consecutive years and the readers’ for 18. The New York Times described Shorter in 2008 as “probably jazz’s greatest living small-group composer and a contender for greatest living improviser.” In 2017, he was awarded the Polar Music Prize.
Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, and attended Newark Arts High School, from which he graduated in 1952. He loved music, being encouraged by his father to take up the clarinet as a teenager (his brother Alan became a trumpeter). After graduating from New York University in 1956, Shorter spent two years in the U.S. Army, during which time he played briefly with Horace Silver. After his discharge, he played with Maynard Ferguson. In his youth Shorter had acquired the nickname “Mr. Gone”, which later became an album title for Weather Report.
In 1959, Shorter joined Art Blakey. He stayed with Blakey for five years, and eventually became the band’s musical director.
When John Coltrane left Miles Davis’ band in 1960 to pursue his own group, Coltrane proposed Shorter as a replacement, but Shorter was unavailable. Davis went with Sonny Stitt on tenor, followed by a revolving door of Hank Mobley, George Coleman, and Sam Rivers. In 1964 Davis persuaded Shorter to leave Blakey and join his quintet alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter and Tony Williams. Davis’s so-called Second Great Quintet (to distinguish it from the quintet with Coltrane) that included Hancock and Shorter has frequently been cited by musicians and critics as one of the most influential groups in the history of jazz, and Shorter’s compositions are a primary reason. He composed extensively for Davis (e.g. “Prince of Darkness”, “E.S.P.”, “Footprints”, “Sanctuary”, “Nefertiti”, and many others); on some albums, he provided half of the compositions.
Hancock said of Shorter’s tenure in the group: “The master writer to me, in that group, was Wayne Shorter. He still is a master. Wayne was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.” Davis said, “Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, write the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. … Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with 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.”
Shorter remained in Davis’s band after the breakup of the quintet in 1968, playing on early jazz fusion recordings including In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (both 1969). His last live dates and studio recordings with Davis were in 1970.
Until 1968, he played tenor saxophone exclusively. The final album on which he played tenor in the regular sequence of Davis albums was Filles de Kilimanjaro. In 1969, he played the soprano saxophone on the Davis album In a Silent Way and on his own Super Nova (recorded with then-current Davis sidemen Chick Corea and John McLaughlin). When performing live with Davis, and on recordings from summer 1969 to early spring 1970, he played both soprano and tenor saxophones; by the early 1970s, however, he chiefly played soprano.
Simultaneous with his time in the Davis quintet, Shorter recorded several albums for Blue Note Records, featuring almost exclusively his own compositions, with a variety of line-ups, quartets and larger groups, including Blue Note favourites such as Freddie Hubbard. His first Blue Note album (of 11 in total recorded from 1964 to 1970) was Night Dreamer, recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in 1964 with Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones.
JuJu and Speak No Evil are well known recordings from this era. Shorter’s compositions on these albums are notable for their use of pentatonic melodies harmonised with pedal points and complex harmonic relationships; structured solos that reflect the composition’s melody as much as its harmony; and long rests as an integral part of the music, in contrast with other, more effusive, players of the time such as John Coltrane.
The later album The All Seeing Eye was a workout with a larger group, while Adam’s Apple of 1966 was back to carefully constructed melodies by Shorter leading a quartet. Then a sextet again in the following year for Schizophrenia with Hancock and Carter plus trombonist Curtis Fuller, alto saxophonist/flautist James Spaulding and strong rhythms by drummer Joe Chambers.
Shorter also recorded occasionally as a sideman (again, mainly for Blue Note) with Donald Byrd, Tyner, Grachan Moncur III, Hubbard, Morgan, and bandmates Hancock and Williams.
Photo: Scottish National Jazz Orchestra0