Ahead of London Jazz Festival, saxophone great Wayne Shorter tells Ivan Hewett how he replaced John Coltrane in Miles Davis’s band
As the golden age of postwar jazz recedes, the surviving giants of that era loom ever larger. Saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter is one of them. At the age of 83, he’s become a jazz monument, somewhat to his own bewilderment. He received a lifetime achievement award at the Grammys in 2014, and earlier this year became the only jazz musician ever to win a Guggenheim fellowship in composition. He’s busier than ever, with an opera and a concerto in progress, and next month plays the Barbican in the London Jazz Festival.
In fact, Shorter has been a major figure for more than 50 years. By the time he turned 30, in 1963, he’d played with pianist Horace Silver and multi-instrumentalist Maynard Ferguson, and become the mainstay of one of the great groups in the history of jazz, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. His compositions of the Sixties were just as admired as his playing, and many of them soon became standards.
Shorter chafes at boundaries, and finds endless possibilities in apparently modest things – a trait that showed itself early. “When we were kids, our parents would let us play outside all day,” he says, “and there was a horse-drawn milk wagon that could become anything in my mind, like a spaceship or something. Then, when my parents came home, they would ask, ‘So what did you do today?’ and I would say, ‘Oh, nuthin’. I tell you,” he continues, with a naughty-boy smile beaming from under his baseball cap, “when I make musicnow I’m still trying to do that same ‘nuthin’!”
It wasn’t long before the gifted boy discovered a new passion. “I would pass this music store on the way to school, and there was a clarinet in the window, a second-hand one. And I kept asking my parents to buy it, and eventually they did. I still have it now.”
Soon he was playing truant from school so he could hang out at the local movie house and play music. Once out of school, he moved to New York University to study music, but one senses his real education came from hanging out in clubs, watching bands such as Dizzy Gillespie’s and joining them for jam sessions afterwards.
People began to notice this intense young saxophonist with the lightning-fast fingers. “They called me the New Jersey Flash,” says Shorter, with a husky laugh. He endured 18 months in the US army, but even before he was discharged Shorter was being courted by jazz luminaries.
“My company commander gave me permission to play three gigs with Horace Silver, and the last time I played this lady came up to me and said, ‘My husband wants to meet you.’ That’s how I met [John] Coltrane. He told me he was going to leave Miles Davis’s group, and I could have that spot if I wanted it.” Which is how Shorter came to play in Davis’s second great quintet for six years.
Whenever Shorter tells a tale about the jazz legends he encountered, it’s always to make the same point: jazz is about freedom. “You know, there was a young man who asked Charlie Parker if he should practice scales. He said, ‘Sure, practice them real hard, and then forget them.’ Miles was the same. I remember he once signalled me to the side of the stage and said, ‘Wayne, do you ever wonder what it’s like to play as if you didn’t know how to play?’ He would say to the band, ‘Don’t practice in your rooms, practice on stage’,” says Shorter, imitating Davis’s raspy voice. But in the next breath he stresses the importance of working on tiny details. “A Hollywood composer once boasted to Stravinsky that he could write a film score in three weeks. Stravinsky said he might spend three weeks on two bars. But man, you should hear those two bars!”
That combination of composer’s finesse and improviser’s free-wheeling fantasy found its perfect expression in Weather Report, the jazz-funk band that Shorter led with Austrian-born keyboardist Joe Zawinul from 1970 until the mid-Eighties. “The problem was, the record company didn’t know what to do with us. They said, ‘How are we going to market this stuff?’ Well, as I said, you can market Wrigley’s spearmint gum, but you can’t market jazz. You can’t say it’s this or that thing, it’s what will happen in the moment.”
Since Weather Report, Shorter has been involved in numerous tours with old sparring partners such as the keyboardist Herbie Hancock, but his finest achievements in recent years have been with his latest and longest-lasting quartet. The title of their recent release, Without a Net, captures the way the group in every track seems to launch into the unknown, only for a mysterious coherence to emerge.
In between tours and recordings, Shorter likes to roam beyond jazz. Some years ago, he was invited by scientists at CERN to take part in seminars on “improvisation in art and science”. Right now he’s working on an opera with bassist and composer Esperanza Spalding. “Yeah,” he says. “That’s gonna take some time. It’s about Iphigenia, daughter of Agamemnon, and we’re basing it on the only play by the Greek tragedians that does not end in tragedy.” And Shorter is also writing a clarinet concerto for British clarinettist Julian Bliss.
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