Wayne Shorter, Intrepid Saxophonist and Composer, Dies at 89

His career reached across more than half a century, tracking jazz’s complex evolution during that span.

by Nate Chinen
New York Times
March 2, 2023

Wayne Shorter, the enigmatic, intrepid saxophonist who shaped the color and contour of modern jazz as one of its most intensely admired composers, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.

His publicist, Alisse Kingsley, confirmed his death, at a hospital.

Mr. Shorter had a sly, confiding style on the tenor saxophone, instantly identifiable by his low-gloss tone and elliptical sense of phrase. His sound was brighter on soprano, an instrument on which he left an incalculable influence; he could be inquisitive, teasing or elusive, but always with a pinpoint intonation and clarity of attack.

His career reached across more than half a century, largely inextricable from jazz's complex evolution during that span. He emerged in the 1960s as a tenor saxophonist and in-house composer for pace-setting editions of Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, two of the most celebrated small groups in jazz history.

He then helped pioneer fusion, with Davis and as a leader of Weather Report, which amassed a legion of fans. He also forged a bond with popular music in marquee collaborations with the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, the guitarist Carlos Santana and the band Steely Dan, whose 1977 song "Aja" reaches a dynamic climax with his hide-and-seek tenor solo.

Mr. Shorter wrote his share of compositions that became jazz standards, like "Footprints," a coolly ethereal waltz, and "Black Nile," a driving anthem. Beyond his book of tunes, he was revered for developing and endlessly refining a modern harmonic language. His compositions, sleek and insinuating, can convey elegant ambiguities of mood. They adhere to an internal logic even when they break the rules.

His recorded output as a leader, especially during a feverishly productive stretch on Blue Note Records in the mid-1960s - when he made "Night Dreamer," "JuJu," "Speak No Evil" and several others, all post-bop classics - compares favorably to the best winning streaks in jazz.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Wayne Shorter Quartet - by far Mr. Shorter's longest-running band, and the one most garlanded with acclaim - set an imposing standard for formal elasticity and cohesive volatility, bringing avant-garde practice into the heart of the jazz mainstream.

Mr. Shorter often said he was drawn to music because it has "velocity and mystery." A lifelong fan of comic books and science fiction, he kept a shelf crowded with action figures and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Superman "S" logo. In his later years, he cut the figure of a sage with a twinkle in his eye, issuing cryptic or elliptical statements that inevitably came back to a sense of play.

"Don't throw away your childish dreams," he said in 2012. "You have to be strong enough to protect them."

Throughout his career he refused to hew too closely to any tradition except that of fearless expedition. "The word 'jazz,' to me," he liked to say, "only means 'I dare you.'"

'The Newark Flash'

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark on Aug. 25, 1933. His father, Joseph, worked as a welder for the Singer sewing machine company, and his mother, Louise, sewed for a furrier.

Growing up in Newark's industrial Ironbound district, Wayne and his older brother, Alan, devoured comic books, science fiction, radio serials and movie matinees at the Adams Theater. Wayne won a citywide art contest at age 12, which led to his attending Newark Arts High School, the first public high school in the country specializing in the visual and performing arts.

There he encountered several teachers who cultivated his interest in music theory and composition. At the same time, bebop - an insurgent, often frenetic strain of modern jazz, typified by virtuosos like the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the pianist Bud Powell - was a source of endless fascination for him.

Bebop had a strong foothold in Newark: Savoy Records, the label most committed to the young movement, was based there, and local radio carried live broadcasts across the Hudson River from clubs like Birdland and the Royal Roost. Mr. Shorter, who had been taking private lessons on clarinet, switched to the tenor saxophone. Along with his brother, a trumpeter, he joined a local bebop group led by a flashy singer named Jackie Bland.

Onstage and off, the Shorter brothers took as much pride in bebop's stance of iconoclastic rebellion as in the swerving intricacies of the music; they would perform in intentionally rumpled suits and rubber galoshes, propping newspapers on their stands instead of sheet music. The poet Amiri Baraka, a classmate, famously recalled that such outré behavior sparked a local shorthand: "as weird as Wayne." Mr. Shorter wore that slight as a badge of honor, at one point painting the words "Mr. Weird" on his saxophone case.

He acquired a more heroic 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 - at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where he distinguished himself as a sharpshooter - he re-entered the scene, making a strong impression as a member of Blakey's Jazz Messengers, the shining exemplar for the down-to-earth yet combustible style known as hard bop.

Mr. Shorter shared the band's front line with a bravura young trumpeter, Lee Morgan, forming a musical kinship that soon extended to his own albums, and eventually to Morgan's. But in addition to his saxophone playing, Mr. Shorter brought to the Jazz Messengers a new degree of compositional sophistication, writing tunes, like "Ping Pong" and "Children of the Night," that spiked a familiar hard-bop formula with dark harmonic elixirs.

Mr. Shorter joined the second Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, after deflecting Davis's overtures for several years out of loyalty to Blakey. His arrival cinched a brilliant new edition of the band, with the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams. Davis, in his autobiography, called Mr. Shorter "the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did."

Once he joined, Mr. Shorter contributed new compositions to every studio album made by the Miles Davis Quintet, beginning with the title track of "E.S.P." in 1965. During an engagement at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago later that year, his tenor solos were marvels of invention, turning even a songbook standard like "On Green Dolphin Street" into a portal for shadowy intrigue.

But on the scale of intrigue, there could be no topping "Nefertiti," the title track of a Davis quintet album released in 1968. A 16-bar composition with a slithery melody and a shrewdly indeterminate harmonic path, it was so holistic in its effect that Davis decided to record it with no solos, just the melody line played over and over. In Michelle Mercer's 2004 book "Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter," Mr. Shorter described "Nefertiti" as "my most sprung-from-me-all-in-one-piece experience of music writing," like someone recalling a trance.

Most of Mr. Shorter's storied output on Blue Note unfolded while he was working with Davis, often with some of the same musical partners. He chronicled some aspects of his life on these albums: "Speak No Evil," recorded in 1964, featured his wife, Teruko Nakagami, known as Irene, on the cover, and contained a song ("Infant Eyes") dedicated to their daughter, Miyako. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966; "Miyako" would be the name of another composition the next year.

The Mysterious Traveler

Unlike the other members of the Miles Davis Quintet, Mr. Shorter remained through Davis's push into rock and funk - on the terse 1969 album "In A Silent Way," featuring the Austrian keyboardist and composer Josef Zawinul, and on the epochal sprawl of "Bitches Brew."

Together with Mr. Zawinul and the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, Mr. Shorter then formed Weather Report, which released its debut album, called simply "Weather Report," in 1971. Over the next 15 years, the band changed personnel several times, with Mr. Zawinul and Mr. Shorter as the only constants. Weather Report also changed styles, tacking away from chamberesque abstraction and toward danceable rhythms. Its most commercially successful edition, featuring the electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius, became an arena attraction, and one of its albums, "Heavy Weather," was certified gold (and later platinum).

Mr. Shorter was the instrumental voice out front in Weather Report, and second only to Mr. Zawinul as an engine of original material. Among the enduring tunes he wrote for the band are "Tears," a color-shifting tone poem; "Palladium," a funk tune with Caribbean flair; and "Mysterious Traveler," a rhythmic saga named after a popular radio show from his youth.

While in Weather Report, Mr. Shorter made precious few solo albums - but "Native Dancer," a 1974 collaboration with the Brazilian troubadour Milton Nascimento, inspired more than one generation of admirers, notably the guitarist and composer Pat Metheny and the bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who in 2008 recorded a version of the album's opening track, "Ponta de Areia."

The idea of working with Mr. Nascimento had come from Mr. Shorter's second wife, Ana Maria (Patricio) Shorter, who spent her childhood in Angola under Portuguese rule. (Mr. Shorter noted her influence in the album notes, and included a wistful ballad called "Ana Maria.")

It took more than a decade for Mr. Shorter to release his next album, "Atlantis," a complex sonic canvas that met with a tepid response, critically and commercially. One of its most vocal champions at the time was the critic Robert Palmer, who praised it in The New York Times as "an album of tunes in which everything - texture, color, mood, meter, tempo, instrumentation, density, you name it - seems to be in perpetual transformation."

Mr. Shorter held to a similar ideal after Weather Report disbanded in 1986. His next few albums featured a broad range of collaborators and a heavy quotient of synthetic timbres. The ambitious culmination was "High Life," which met with scathing criticism on its release in 1995, notoriously from Peter Watrous in The Times, who declared it "a pastel failure."

Personal tragedy visited Mr. Shorter soon after, and not for the first time. Iska, his daughter with Ana Maria, had lived with brain damage before dying of a grand mal seizure in 1985 at age 14. The loss had led Wayne and Ana Maria to delve into Nichiren Buddhism. Then, in 1996, Ana Maria and the Shorters' niece Dalila Lucien were among the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport in New York.

"We practice in Buddhism that we're able to have an eternal dialogue with the ones we lose temporarily," Mr. Shorter told The Guardian several years later. "When my wife left, she was in a state of enlightenment."

In 1999 he married Carolina Dos Santos, a Brazilian dancer and actor whom he had met through Ana Maria. His wife is among his survivors, who also include Miyako Shorter and a grandson. Alan Shorter died in 1987.

The Rogue Philosopher

As he entered a phase of late eminence, Mr. Shorter deepened his bond with Mr. Hancock, with whom he shared not only several decades of musical history but also a common foundation in Buddhist practice. Both artists served on the board of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit educational organization (now called the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) that administers a series of programs, including a long-running international competition.

Mr. Shorter and Mr. Hancock released an introspective duo album, "1+1," in 1997; it won Mr. Shorter a Grammy for best instrumental composition for "Aung San Suu Kyi," a heraldic theme dedicated to the activist and future leader of Myanmar, who was under house arrest at the time.

In total, Mr. Shorter won 12 Grammy Awards, along with a lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy in 2015. He 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. And he was among the recipients of the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors, in a class that also included the composer Philip Glass.

Mr. Shorter ushered in a profound new stage of his career in 2000 when he formed an acoustic quartet with the pianist Danilo Pérez, the bassist John Patitucci and the drummer Brian Blade. These were broad-minded musicians capable of following his every twitch and prompt, and they came from the generation that had grown up with his tunes.

The new Wayne Shorter Quartet started out playing versions of those tunes, like "Footprints" and "JuJu," often modified or abstracted to the point of near unrecognizability. Jon Pareles, reviewing a concert for The Times in 2013, observed that Mr. Shorter "treats bass lines or single phrases as clues and implications, toying on the spot with tempo, crosscurrents, inflection and attack; anything can be up for grabs, yet the composition retains an identity."

Mr. Shorter eventually composed new music for the group, like "Scout," which had its premiere in 2017, and "Pegasus," for which he also orchestrated parts for the quintet Imani Winds. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned his "Gaia," a symphonic tone poem that doubles as a concerto for Ms. Spalding and suggests a classical tradition deftly redrawn in Mr. Shorter's hand.

He was still straining against preconceptions and aesthetic prescriptions when, at 85, he released "Emanon," a suite that he recorded in two separate versions: one with his quartet and the other also featuring the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with his soprano saxophone darting through. The album received broad critical acclaim, topping year-end lists in The New York Times and JazzTimes.

Mr. Shorter, who created a hand-drawn 58-page comic book called Other Worlds as a teenager, also fulfilled a lifelong ambition with "Emanon." The albums came with a comic that he wrote with Monica Sly, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Set in a sci-fi dystopia, it hinges on the actions of Emanon, a "rogue philosopher" urging resistance to fear and oppression.

"There are a myriad of realities in the multiverse," reads the first panel, setting a familiar theme in a bold new key.

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