Wayne Shorter, the quintessential saxophonist and composer whose sound and improvisational playing enhanced American music, along with his many compositions, which became the definitive grail of jazz standards, died on March 2. He was 89.

Shorter died in a hospital in Los Angeles, according to his representative, Alisse Kingsley. No cause of death was given. 

Shorter was a visionary and explorer. As Roberta Flack’s song states, he chose “to dream the impossible dream,” which propelled him to the stars. At this year’s 2023 Grammy Awards, the NEA Jazz Master won his 12th Grammy, with pianist Leo Genovese, for “Best Improvised Jazz Solo,” and was nominated for Best Live Instrumental Jazz Album for “Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival” with Terri Lyne Carrington, Genovese, and Esperanza Spalding. In 2022, Park Place in Newark, New Jersey (home of WBGO radio), was renamed Wayne Shorter Way. 

Scott retired from his seven-decade performing career due to health reasons, but followed a longtime ambition: writing an opera titled “Iphigenia,” with Esperanza Spalding writing the libretto and scenic design by architect Frank Gehry, which premiered in 2021. 

“Wayne Shorter was a serious, intense individual, but when that rare moment came when he smiled or laughed, it was like the sun had risen on a cloudy day,” said NEA Jazz Master, bassist, composer, and former bandmate Reggie Workman. “Now, thinking back about this unusual character, the many unique compositions and approach to harmonic progressions, those uncanny statements [that] emerged at the most unusual times—he will be missed but never forgotten. I cherish his contribution to the universe.”

Shorter played music that made you listen. His sound was all-engrossing, straight-ahead, fusion, futurism, blues, and avant garde edge. His music boosts an openness, a freedom to dance on the edge of his notes without a net, falling back and rejoicing in the eye of his hurricane, or—more appropriately—swinging in the middle of his “All Seeing Eye (Blue Note 1966).” He was our inter-galactic admiral, who took us on wondrous journeys not to be duplicated. During a discussion of “Philosophy Through Life and Jazz” on International Jazz Day in 2014, he said, “Life wants to create and all concepts negotiating reality comes through in your work. I like hard to do because faith is to fear nothing.” 

Shorter’s later musical concepts were partly based on his spiritual teachings of Buddhism. “We have a phrase [in Buddhism]: hom nim yoh,” ‘From this moment forward is the first day of my life,’ so put 100 percent into the moment that you’re in because the present moment is the only time when you can change the past and the future,” he said in the 2013 NPR interview.

Shorter was born on August 25, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey. His mother Louise worked for a furrier, and his father Joseph Shorter was a welder at a Singer sewing-machine factory. He had an early interest in music and his father encouraged him to study clarinet, which he did, although his first love at that time was art. At age 12, he won a citywide art contest and on his teacher’s recommendation, he applied to Arts High School in pursuit of becoming a visual artist. 

Ironically, the inquisitive young Shorter found more interest in cutting classes and hanging out around the corner at the Adams Theater to see a movie or stage play. He said he always made it back to school for his favorite classes. However, with an accumulation of unexcused absences, he was sentenced to a creative form of detention: He had to take a music theory class. It was this class that pushed him into the music pond for life. Taking clarinet lessons helped with his new music class, which eventually led him to start playing the tenor saxophone. He was already quite interested in bebop, having been introduced to Charlie Parker recordings in his music class and having seen Parker and Dizzy Gillespie perform live at the Adams Theater. 

By his junior year in high school, Shorter felt proficient enough to start a little combo with his older brother Alan, who played alto saxophone, and local friends. Their repertoire was built around bebop, although it was a struggle for them to play. During an interview with writer and author Nate Chien, Shorter said, “We did crazy stuff, we’d play these dances at the YMCA, and maybe 10 people would come, trying to dance to this kind of stuff. We’d play a dance on Saturday night wearing galoshes when it wasn’t raining. We would say that’s what bebop was about.” 

He graduated from Newark Arts High School[ in 1952. 

Early on, Shorter and his brother were known for doing stuff differently. Shorter admitted that while other boys were out playing sports or trying to impress girls, he was reading comic books and science fiction or listening to his favorite radio serials: “Lights Out,” a supernatural horror, and “The Mysterious Traveler,” which opened with a voice of mystifying intrigue. Shorter later gave the title to his 1974 album with Weather Report. It didn’t come as odd when another Newark native son, Amiri Baraka, dedicated a chapter to Shorter in his book “Black Music,” where he noted, “the two weird Shorter brothers, it even became a metaphor…‘As weird as Wayne.’” 

The moniker never bothered Shorter because he was always dreaming of the beyond, looking for the next dare. His other nickname was “Mr. Gone,” which was rather hip, in my opinion. It later became an album title for Weather Report (ARC/Columbia 1978). 

“Recording and touring with Wayne was invaluable. What I cherish most was sitting with him in his home listening to hours of his compositions while discussing a plethora of musical styles and approaches to rhythm,” said drummer and composer Will Calhoun. “He turned me on to many books, which led me to become a voracious reader. What I will miss most is Wayne’s laughter. That sound was as beautiful as his horn playing. “

After graduating from New York University in 1956, Shorter served in the U.S. Army. In 1959, he enjoyed a four-year stint with the bootcamp master Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, where he became the band’s musical director. In 1964, he joined Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet. “Working with Miles, we never rehearsed and we never talked about music,” said Shorter. “Then I figured out the conversation was the rehearsal.” 

Shorter and Miles were kindred spirits, always moving forward, not looking back. Miles loved his compositions, which led to the memorable Miles quote to Shorter, “make sure you bring the book.” Miles offered him a freedom to explore new sounds while he was still playing tenor saxophone. 

After the quintet parted ways in 1968, Shorter remained with Davis on the beginning of his fusion journey, playing on the recordings “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,” and “Filles de Kilimanjaro.” It was during this period that Shorter began playing soprano saxophone. 

While with the Davis quintet, there were Shorter’s epochal Blue Note albums of the 1960s, including “Night Dreamer,” “JuJu,” and “Speak No Evil.”

After his departure from Miles, Shorter formed his own fusion group Weather Report with Davis bandmates keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitous. Throughout the band’s existence, many musicians contributed to their varied sound, like bassist Jaco Pastorius. Weather Report’s music was a sparkling infusion of Latin jazz, funk, bebop and futurism—it was Shorter’s spaceship, his brewing kettle, his path to the unknown. 

As a tech sci-fi musician, Shorter explored all the sounds and spaces in his galaxy of life. His playing style, those lyrical layers, his choice of notes around and about up and down. To say he was a genius or legend is inadequate. He was like Sun-Ra, that unique human being from the galaxy beyond the clouds, where minds are open to ponder, to dream, to create. 

With Brazil in mind, Shorter joined with Brazilian composer and vocalist Milton Nascimento and Herbie Hancock for “Native Dancer” (Columbia 1974). He was introduced to a wider fanbase when he appeared on 10 Joni Mitchell albums from 1977 through 2002. He later tapped another market when he played an extended solo on the title track of Steely Dan’s album “Aja,” in 1977. 

“Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates,” said Shorter. “Jazz is not supposed to be something that’s required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means, ‘I dare you.’”

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