The world lost a musical giant when Wayne Shorter passed away on March 2, 2023 at the age of 89. So many of his compositions that have become jazz standards earned him world recognition, critical praise, and 13 Grammy Awards. Even if you aren’t a hardcore Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter jazz aficionado, you probably have, perhaps unknowingly, enjoyed some of Wayne’s saxophone solos on hit songs like Steely Dan’s “Aja,” and Don Henley’s “Age of the Innocence.”
I won’t pretend to be someone who understands the sly, insinuating, elegant, ambiguous nuances of Wayne’s music, or that I can intelligently write about what an intrepid innovator and influence he was in the jazz world.
The most I knew about Wayne Shorter was from his decades long, very close friend, Carlos Santana, who I had the pleasure of interviewing three times. It was Carlos who told me that Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock played at his wedding to the high priestess on drums, Cindy Blackman on December 19, 2010. The couple said these two amazing men made their day complete.
Though I am admittedly not an expert on jazz, I am very interested in learning about the man behind the saxophone. I want to know about his family, his childhood, his roots, and what his journey was like on this earth.
LIFE LESSON: It’s okay to admit you don’t know something. You can’t be an expert on everything. I’m not big into jazz, but I am big into people—what makes people unique and wonderful, what drives them, scares them, and inspires them. I love the psychology of the soul, the language of heart.
In doing some research, I learned that Wayne’s life was not only filled with so many accomplishments and accolades, but some heart-breaking tragedies as well.
Michelle Mercer’s biography, Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter, has gotten excellent reviews.
From what I gleaned, Wayne Shorter grew up in Newark, New Jersey, not far from New York City, the center of the Universe for jazz artists and clubs.
While other kids were outside playing baseball, football, or on the school wrestling team, Wayne was reading science fiction books, watching movies like Rocketship X-M, with Lloyd Bridges, sketching comic books, and molding spaceships out of clay.
He went to Newark Arts High School, where students talked about Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Mozart. He says he would go to the library after class, lay on the floor, and read about Frédéric Chopin, George Sand, and letters that Beethoven wrote.
Wayne loved music,and when he was fifteen, his father encouraged him to learn to play the clarinet. Jazz musicians like Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk were his superheroes. That young boy had no idea he would grow up to become a musical legend himself.
LIFE LESSON: It’s good to be different from the other kids. You don’t have to fit the mold like everyone else. If sports aren’t your thing, do something else. Find your passion. Explore new avenues. As a child, Wayne was reading books and expanding his mind. He let creativity flood his mind.
After getting a degree in music education from New York University, Wayne served two years in the Army. After his discharge, he played with Canadian jazz trumpeter, Maynard Ferguson and his band for a while.
In the early 1960s, he joined Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet.” This video was recorded live in Milan, Italy, on October 11, 1964.
The master composer in that group was Wayne Shorter. He was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed. Wayne writes scores, and parts for everyone just as he wants them to sound. He understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste. If a rule didn’t work, he broke it, but with musical sense.”Herbie Hancock
Wayne left Miles Davis in 1970, when he co-founded Weather Report, an improvisational, jazz fusion band with avant-gard and experimental electronic leanings, along with Latin jazz, bebop, funk, ethnic music, and futurism, that made it the the most unique and enduring band of its era.
Many musicians came and went over the years, and Weather Report came to an end in late 1985.
In 1977, Wayne performed on the title song of Steely Dan’s album Aja. Three weeks after its release on September 23, 1977, Aja was the third best-selling album in the country, behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors and Linda Ronstadt’s Simple Dreams.
In 1980, Wayne composed and played a few songs on Santana’s double LP, The Swing of Delight and toured with him that year.
From 1977 through 2022, Wayne appeared on ten of Joni Mitchell’s studio albums.
Here is a real treasure—a vintage video from 1987 that features Joni Mitchell; Herbie Hancock; Wayne Shorter; alto saxophonist, David Sanborn; folk/jazz singer Bobby McFerrin; drummer, Vinnie Colaiuta; and bassist, Larry Klein—who was married to Joni Mitchell from 1982-1994. The beauty of this video is that this group of extraordinarily talented musicians not only play a couple of songs together, but we have a peek behind the scenes of them having these great conversational exchanges with each other.
In 1989, two of my favorite artists, Don Henley, from The Eagles, and pianist Bruce Hornsby, wrote and produced the fabulous song, “The End of the Innocence,” which received Grammy nominations for Song of the Year and Record of the Year.
Henley ensured there would be two political statements in this black-and-white video that earned him an MTV Video Music Award in 1990.
At the line “armchair warriors often fail,” a TV set shows scenes from the congressional testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North about the Iran-Contra scandal. North has been president of the NRA since 2018.
And during the line “they’re beating plowshares into swords, for this tired old man that we elected king,” the video shows a series of posters of President Ronald Reagan.
Only five musicians played on this track, and Wayne Shorter is one of them. It says a lot when a jazz musician is called upon by great artists in a different genre who are far younger to play on their albums. His soprano sax solo in this song creates a poignant remembrance of troubled times in the past.
“The End of the Innocence” got me wondering what Wayne’s social, political, and religious ideology might be.
Friends for over forty years, Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have won a combined total of twenty-five Grammys. Despite their countless accolades, they both insisted that their greatest achievements were their roles as husbands, fathers, and humans of this earth.
They suggested that artists need a set of guiding principles because there is always a lot of personal work to do. In these turbulent and unpredictable times, the two jazz greats say that “the answer to peace is simple; it begins with you.”
Here is the sage advice these two wise elders have to give to younger artists.
Ten Guiding Principles
Awaken to your humanity
You cannot hide behind a profession or instrument; you have to be human. Focus your energy on becoming the best human you can be. Focus on developing empathy and compassion. Through the process you’ll tap into a wealth of inspiration rooted in the complexity and curiosity of what it means to simply exist on this planet.
Embrace and conquer the road less traveled
Don’t allow yourself to be hijacked by common rhetoric, or false beliefs and illusions about how life should be lived. It’s up to you to be the pioneers.
Welcome to the Unknown
Every relationship, obstacle, interaction, etc. is a rehearsal for the next adventure in life. Everything is connected. Everything builds. Nothing is ever wasted. This type of thinking requires courage. Be courageous and do not lose your sense of exhilaration and reverence for this wonderful world around you.
Understand the True Nature of Obstacles
We have this idea of failure, but it’s not real; it’s an illusion. There is no such thing as failure. What you perceive as failure is really a new opportunity, a new hand of cards, or a new canvas to create upon.
Don’t Be Afraid to Interact with Those Who Are Different from You
The world needs more one-on-one interaction among people of diverse origins with a greater emphasis on art, culture and education. Our differences are what we have in common. We need to be connecting with one another, learning about one another, and experiencing life with one another. We can never have peace if we cannot understand the pain in each other’s hearts.
Strive to Create Agenda-Free Dialogue
Art in any form is a medium for dialogue, which is a powerful tool… we’re talking about reflecting and challenging the fears, which prevent us from discovering our unlimited access to the courage inherent in us all.
Be Wary of Ego
Creativity cannot flow when only the ego is served.
Work Towards a Business without Borders
The medical field has an organization called Doctors Without Borders. This lofty effort can serve as a model for transcending the limitations and strategies of old business formulas which are designed to perpetuate old systems in the guise of new ones.
Appreciate the Generation that Walked Before You
Your elders can help you. They are a source of wealth in the form of wisdom…. Don’t waste time repeating their mistakes.
Live in a State of Constant Wonder
As we accumulate years, parts of our imagination tend to dull. Whether from sadness, prolonged struggle, or social conditioning, somewhere along the way people forget how to tap into the inherent magic that exists within our minds. Don’t let that part of your imagination fade away. Look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like to be an astronaut or a pilot. Imagine exploring the pyramids or Machu Picchu. Imagine flying like a bird or crashing through a wall like Superman. Imagine running with dinosaurs or swimming like mer-creatures. All that exists is a product of someone’s imagination; treasure and nurture yours and you’ll always find yourself on the precipice of discovery.
How does any of this lend to the creation of a peaceful society you ask? It begins with a cause. Your causes create the effects that shape your future and the future of all those around you. Be the leaders in the movie of your life. You are the director, producer, and actor. Be bold and tirelessly compassionate as you dance through the voyage that is this lifetime.
LIFE LESSON: I love when people who are in a position to influence others use their platform in a positive way. Young people need mentors. And the world needs artists to use their creative talents to speak out about the rights and wrongs in the world. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock have been doing that for years.
In 1997, they worked together on the much acclaimed duet album 1+1. They named one of the songs on the album, “Aung San Suu Kyi,” in honor of the former Burmese, now Myanmar, pro-democracy diplomat, politician, author, activist, and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who spent more than 15 years under house arrest over a 21-year period. Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock both won a Grammy for the song.
In 1998, the duo performed at the Tokyo Opera City Concert Hall.
Wayne Shorter’s Personal Life
I mentioned that besides the accolades and accomplishments, Wayne Shorter has known tragedy.
In 1970, Wayne married his second wife, Ana Maria Patricio. They had a daughter named Iska, who died in 1986 at the age of 14 from a grand mal seizure.
In 1996, Ana Marie and the couple’s niece were on their way to visit Wayne in Italy when their plane, TWA Flight 800, exploded shortly after takeoff from JFK, and crashed into the ocean.
Perhaps being a Buddhist helped Wayne cope with these tragedies.
Singer and actress Tina Turner credits Wayne Shorter with saving her life. In her 2020 spiritual memoir, Happiness Becomes You, she states that Wayne and his wife, Ana Maria, provided Turner with critical refuge at their home for six months after she left her abusive husband, Ike Turner, in 1976.
Michelle Mercer, the author of Wayne’s biography, Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter says:
In his practice, he seeks enlightenment through earthly desires. That keeps him real. Backstage before a 2002 show, Wayne preformed his daily ritual chant, reciting the Lotus Sutra with deep deliberation. When the Panamanian pianist, Danilo Perez thought Wayne was safely immersed in the chanting, he tiptoed into his bandleader’s dressing room and rummaged around for the wine supply. Wayne always has the good stuff. Sensing the intrusion, Wayne finished his chanting, slipped into the room, grabbed the bottle of wine from Danilo, and knocked back a shot of Merlot. He punched the wall a couple of times—in tribute to Miles Davis’s love for boxing—then he walked onstage doing a James Cagney impression.”Michelle Mercer
Mercer wrote that onstage and off, Wayne wants every note to count, to push the story ahead. She said Wayne would recount how Miles would bring up Humphrey Bogart in those mystery movies he acted in. “Miles would say, ‘You see the way Humphrey threw that punch?’ and I’d said, ‘Yeah,’ and he’d say, ‘Play that.’”
“I like to make music like that,” Wayne continued. “Musical motion pictures without movies. Life has become my own motion picture. That’s a jazz musician’s ultimate act of improvisation.”
Awards and Accomplishments
In 1999, Shorter received an Honorary Doctorate of Music from the prestigious Berklee College of Music in Boston, Massachusetts.
In 2013, he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, which became known as The Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz in 2019.
In 2014, the Recording Academy awarded Shorter with the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
In 2014, he performed with label-mates, Norah Jones, Jason Moran, John Patitucci, and Brian Blade, in celebration of the 75th anniversary of Blue Note Records in the Concert Hall of John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.
In 2016, Shorter was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in the field of music composition—the only jazz artist to receive the honor that year.
In 2016, Wayne Shorter, Carlos Santana, and Herbie Hancock played their first show under the touring name Mega Nova at the Hollywood Bowl, along with bassist Marcus Miller, and Carlos’ wife, drummer Cindy Blackman Santana.
In 2017, Shorter was the joint winner of the Polar Music Prize—a Swedish international award started in 1989 by Stig Anderson, manager of the band ABBA. The award committee said, “Without the music explorations of Wayne Shorter, modern music would not have drilled so deep.”
In 2018, Shorter retired from his nearly 70-year performing career due to health issues, though he continued composing. He wrote the libretto for a “new operatic work” entitled Esperanza Spalding, and architect Frank Gehry designed the sets. It premiered on November 12, 2021 at the Cutler Majestic Theater, a 1903 Beaux Arts style theater at Emerson College in Boston, Massachusetts.
Also, in 2018, Wayne Shorter, Cher, Reba McEntire, Phillip Glass, Lin-Manuel and Thomas Kail received Kennedy Center Honors Awards at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts for their lifetime of contributions to the arts.
Wayne Shorter, my best friend, left us with courage in his heart, love and compassion for all, and a seeking spirit for the eternal future. He was ready for his rebirth. As it is with every human being, he is irreplaceable, and was able to reach the pinnacle of excellence as a saxophonist, composer, orchestrator, and recently, the composer of a masterful opera. I miss being around him and his special Wayne-isms, but I carry his spirit within my heart always.”Herbie Hancock
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