THE GUARDIAN / Ben Beaumont-Thomas
Wayne Shorter, one of America’s greatest jazz saxophonists whose career spanned bop, fusion and more, has died in hospital in Los Angeles, aged 89. His publicist confirmed his death to the New York Times.
Shorter was a central force in three of the 20th century’s great jazz groups: the Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey, who established the mid-century “hard bop” style; the second iteration of Miles Davis’s quintet in the mid to late 1960s that led Davis to his electric period; and the hugely successful fusion group Weather Report, formed in 1970.
He also had a long and fruitful partnership with Joni Mitchell, appearing on 10 of her albums, and collaborated with rock musicians such as Carlos Santana and Steely Dan. He is an 11-time Grammy award winner, plus the recipient of their lifetime achievement award.
Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, and started playing the clarinet at 15, eventually focusing on tenor and soprano saxophone. He and his brother Alan, who became a jazz trumpeter, were captivated by bebop they heard on the radio: “We weren’t like consciously saying, ‘Oh, that sounds like some of that stuff in science fiction movies,’ but I think, subconsciously … it was sort of like that,” Shorter later said. “[Charlie] Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk … they took the place of Captain Marvel.”
After learning his craft in high school he studied music education at university, and following two years in the army, played with bandleader Maynard Ferguson before being hired to the Jazz Messengers in 1958, playing alongside Blakey, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard and more during his tenure. He composed numerous pieces for the group and eventually became musical director, but after a number of attempts, was hired away by Miles Davis in 1964.
Davis’s First Great Quintet, featuring John Coltrane, Bill Evans and more in with shifting personnel, had recorded classics including Kind of Blue, but by 1963 he was struggling to maintain a coherent lineup. Shorter was part of a clean slate with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums, an ensemble whose flattened hierarchy and free-thinking produced increasingly adventurous albums: Filles de Kilimanjaro, Sorcerer, Miles Smiles and more. Shorter contributed numerous compositions including the title tracks of the albums Nefertiti and ESP, and stayed on after the quintet broke up in 1969 for another Davis masterpiece that year, In a Silent Way.
Beginning in 1959, Shorter also released solo albums including the acclaimed Speak No Evil, Night Dreamer and JuJu, all recorded in 1964. Like Davis, his playing then became freer, more atonal, and began fusing with rock, Latin music and other styles, leading to the formation of his next group, Weather Report.
Co-led with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, and supported by various other musicians during their 16-year tenure including bassists Jaco Pastorius and Miroslav Vitouš, they blended jazz with funk and R&B grooves, with Shorter moving back to more melodic playing. This accessible blend generated considerable commercial success: 1977’s Heavy Weather went platinum and reached the US Top 30.
Shorter’s affinity for fusion meant he also performed the saxophone solos on two soft rock hits, Steely Dan’s Aja and Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence, the latter reaching the US Top 10. He also played on the Rolling Stones’ 1997 album Bridges to Babylon.
His Joni Mitchell collaborations began with her 1977 album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter, with Shorter saying in 2013: “She had a sense of feeling that I was joining her as a painter. She likes to paint and I majored in fine arts before music. And she said, ‘You’re playing like you have a paint brush, you know’ … she would choose from different takes to edit in as if using a paint brush.”
He paired with his Davis bandmate Herbie Hancock for Mitchell’s Charles Mingus-inspired album Mingus in 1979, and Shorter and Hancock would collaborate frequently over the following years. In the late 1970s they joined their old Davis quintet members as VSOP, with Freddie Hubbard on trumpet, and recorded the 1994 Grammy-winning album A Tribute to Miles following Davis’s death, with Wallace Roney on trumpet.
Later they won another Grammy for 1997 track Aung San Suu Kyi, named after the Burmese politician, and formed the supergroup Mega Nova with Carlos Santana, with whom Shorter had collaborated in 1988. They also played a private concert for Barack Obama’s 50th birthday, and played an International Jazz Day concert at the White House in 2016 alongside Aretha Franklin and others.
Hancock once said of the Second Great Quintet: “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.”
Shorter continued to work with esteemed younger jazz musicians into old age, including Terri Lyne Carrington and Brad Mehldau, and formed a quartet under his own name in 2000. He eventually retired from live performance due to ill health, but in his late 80s he composed an opera, Iphigenia, with a libretto by American jazz-fusion bassist Esperanza Spalding.
Shorter was married three times, first to Teruko Nakagami in 1961, with whom he had a daughter, Miyako. He married his second wife, Ana Maria Patricio, in 1970, who introduced him to Buddhism, and they had a daughter, Iska, who died of a seizure aged 14 in 1985.
Shorter faced further tragedy when Patricio died along with the couple’s niece and 228 others in the TWA Flight 800 explosion in 1996 off Long Island, New York. He said the following year, regarding his music: “I’d be stumbling through something, and it was like I could sense the voice of my wife, saying, ‘Don’t repeat, do something different.’ Like a gate to eternity. It’s almost as though she was saying, ‘Do your work – that is the way we find each other, eternally.’” He remarried in 1999, to Carolina Dos Santos.
In 2017 he received the Polar Music prize, and in 2018, he was named as an honoree by the Kennedy Center, with Spalding saying it was “long overdue … it’s really beautiful to amplify his magic on this scale”.
In 2013 he was honoured with a lifetime achievement award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz (now the Hancock Institute of Jazz), telling the audience his vision for music-making: “Try to create how you wish the world to be for eternity; taking off the layers and becoming what we really are, eternally.”