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And the Winner is … Wayne Shorter

These days prizes and honors proliferate faster than quack grass after a rain and anti-American attitudes after an invasion. The United States must have the highest ratio of individual awards to population of any country in the world.

The Oscars is perhaps the most tedious public manifestation of the prize-mania that so afflicts our times. Only George C. Scott refused an Oscar for artistic reasons, declining the award because he believed competitions between actors a bad thing.

In music the radical change began in the 18th-century, and we can see one clear example of it in the watershed figure of J. S. Bach.  In the late 1730s Bach was ambushed by a one-eyed critic named Johann Scheibe, who claimed Bach’s music was overly-complicated and old-fashioned.  Bach’s proxies, presumably in consultation with Bach himself, responded that the composer’s recently acquired honorary title should be enough to silence all detractors: “The Great Augustus, Elector of Saxony, bestows his favor upon Bach and rewards his deserts—this alone suffices for his praise.  Whoever is loved by so great and wise a prince must certainly possess true skill.”

Johann Mattheson, whose 1728 book Der musicalische Patriot inspired the name of this column, chuckled snidely at the silliness of such views. He likened sovereigns dispensing titles and trinkets to farmhands scattering corn for blind hens to peck at. If a musical functionary was lucky or opportunistic enough to get something in his beak, that should hardly elevate him in the esteem of his peers. Rather it was the enlightened opinion of what Mattheson called the Musical Republic—refined professionals and educated amateurs—that really counted.

All this brings me to Wayne Shorter’s recent apotheosis at the San Francisco Jazz Gala, held two weeks ago atop the Four Season Hotel off Market Street, celebrating the twenty-fifth year of this institution. It  brings one of the world’s great jazz festival to the city every fall, organizes a spring jazz season and summerfest, supports an internationally acclaimed ensemble musicians under the banner of the SFJazz Collective, and nurtures young musicians through its vital youth programs.

The proof of this last, and perhaps most significant, aspect of the organization’s work was the septet of high school students from diverse backgrounds performing their own arrangements of many of Wayne Shorter’s compositions, demanding pieces both for ensemble playing and for improvising over.  Most of these youngeters’ complex and creative music making took place before dinner, as background music to the silent-auction and designer cocktail hour happening in the rooms outside the banqueting hall bandstand. But after dinner and before dessert the high schools did get the attention of the now-seated public, and their complex and creative reading of Shorter’s E. S. P. showed that SF Jazz is cultivating young musicians of promise.  Even Herbie Hancock, who took the stage after the kids had finished so he could introduce his friend Wayne Shorter, was truly impressed. Simply to navigate a tune like E. S. P. without being capsized by the speeding rapids of the tempo and the eddies of its harmony is a feat in itself; to imbue with purpose a form that is already flirting with abstraction is a real achievement for anyone at any age.

Wayne Shorter was himself something of prodigy.  Born and raised in Newark, New Jersey, he sat in with alto saxophonist Sonny Stitt at the Lloyd’s Manor jazz club in his hometown in 1951 at the age of seventeen after having played the tenor only two years. Stitt immediately asked Shorter to go on the road with him, but Shorter declined the offer so he could pursue his undergraduate music degree at N.Y.U.

Lloyd’s Manor appears in American Pastoral by Philip Roth, that great chronicler of Newark and its destruction. Roth was born in Newark in the same year as Shorter. Both celebrate their seventy-fifth birthdays this year. Lloyd’s was, according to Roth’s alter-ego Nathan Zuckerman, a “place where few whites other than a musician’s reckless Desdemona would venture,” and where teenagers’ were warned by their parents to avoid the place lest they be “stabbed to death by a colored guy ‘high on reefer,’ whatever that meant.” I guess Roth never ventured into Lloyd’s and these two great products of Newark’s unrecognizable past never met during their youth, or perhaps not since then either.

As I sat listening to the SFJazz High School All-Stars with the likes of former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown, Herbie Hancock, and Wayne Shorter, nearby I couldn’t help but consider the great gulf that separated Lloyd’s Manor from the Four Season’s Ball Room, and ask myself if Shorter might have been thinking back to his youthful 1951 encounter with Stitt as well. Instead of the chaotic ferment of the urban jazz club, we had the marble floors and climate control of corporate hospitality; instead of heroin and weed, we had Roederer champagne and Blue Coat Gin; instead of barbequed ribs we had Pepper Crusted Filet of Beef, Veal Jus, Served with Wild Mushrooms, Red Wine Risotto and Broccoli Rabe, with Drizzle of Blue Cheese Fondue.

The institutionalization of jazz could not be more sharply reflected than in a comparison of those evenings separated by an entire continent and half a century. I would not begin to claim that the caliber of the playing in San Francisco was rendered inauthentic by the opulent bad-taste of the Four Seasons venue, nor made harmless by the fact that the threat of violence did not hang in the hotel air. A product of a middle-class musical upbringing, I perhaps self-servingly reject the notion that struggle and deprivation yield more profound music and musicians, though I also recognize that, say, negro spirituals plumb depths unknown in the whitebread hymns of the suburban Episcopal church.  But it is still worth remarking on the fact that Shorter and his teenage successors had learned and displayed their craft under very different circumstances.

The institutionalization of jazz goes hand in hand with the marketing of it.  Out at the silent auction I abjured the high-priced grape juice on offer and duly grabbed a Brother Thelonious Monk, a north Coast Ale whose label kits the be-bop pianist and composer out in a Trappist habit and a stylized version of the fez he often wore, puts a dark beer in a Belgian glass in one hand and a memento mori skull in the other. What would Sphere have thought of it?  The post-modern bricolage is one thing, but the circled R for Registered Trademark hovering off the final S of Thelonious is nowhere, man, just nowhere. To inflict that burning stigma on the great iconclast is a sin for which the brewers will burn in hell.  This didn’t stop me from drinking it, though — dark mahogany and very alcoholic and as bitterly acid as Monk’s piano style.

Thelonius in hand, I meandered through the auction. My vote for most incongruous item went to item 312, the Nascar Package—a $7,500 value.  I imagined Thelonious on the Daytona Speedway infield, basking in the ubiquituous racial harmony and shared musical aesthetic of a Jim Crow afternoon and, like everyone else, waiting for a ten-car wreck to brighten the Florida afternoon still further.  Or how about Charlie Parker cackling like a banshee behind the wheel of the orange and black Home Depot #20?

Farther on, I was tempted by the Fender Strat Squier signed by John Lee Hooker and Carlos Santana, but that auction started at $10,000.  Peanuts for many of those in attendance, but no one had entered a bid.

All this fun and foolishness went towards furthering the good work of the foundation and other important developments now underway, projects that promise to secure the art form’s position high atop the city’s cultural establishment. Donors here want to surpass the prestige and money accorded jazz in New York, especially at Lincoln Center.

I had been graciously included in the evening by two important San Francisco patrons of jazz. I couldn’t help but look over at my hosts as they dined with Shorter and Hancock and various princes of the city. According to Michelle Mercer’s trippy, adulatory, and sometimes insightful 2004 biography of Shorter, he is a notoriously demanding conversationalist, refusing to engage in superficial banter, but instead pursuing often eccentric lines of inquiry. I saw him nod a few times.

This all had much of the royal banquet to it, and after the High School All-Stars had played, it was time for the honoree to receive his crystal achievement award and then grace the audience with some of his own Musique de Table. Shorter will be seventy-five in August, though he looks and plays much younger than his years.  Hancock offered a touching tribute to his best friend, and then Wayne joined the of the SF Jazz Collective, including alumnus of the group and of the High School All-Stars Joshua Redman, a local jazz hero gone on to an already illustrious career. First Redman then Shorter took long and increasingly frenetic solos on a Aung San Suu Kyi, a Shorter composition written more than a decade ago in honor of the eponymous Nobel Peace Prize laureate.  The more contained, even contemplative, version recorded by Shorter and Hancock on their 1997 album 1 + 1, for which both the pair one a Grammy, was here recast as an urgent even joyful dance, the contours of its eastern-inflected pentatonic scale energized by strident syncopation. Heard just a week after the typhoon in Burma, this incarnation of the piece took on an even more marked aspect of the Buddhist Shorter’s search for “indestructible happiness —even in the face of droughts and external catastrophes.” Shorter’s life has been one of many tragedies, including the deaths of a daughter and a wife. But joy seems to well up in his compositions and improvisations even in their most introspective moments. There is something unbounded, even irreverent in his rejection of melancholic.  I marvel at his conviction, perhaps all the more as melancholy is one of my favorite musical topics.

After Shorter’s venerable Footprints closed out the short two-piece set, the tuxedoed and evening-gowned audience rose to its feet.  All nine Grammies awarded Shorter from the music industry were suddenly outshone by the gracious, heartfelt appreciation of princes.  And in spite of the distractions of the court trappings, I couldn’t help but feel the applause as a wave of sincerity.

DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. A long-time contributor to the Anderson Valley Advertiser, he is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at dgy2@cornell.edu

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DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His recording of J. S. Bach’s organ trio sonatas is available from Musica Omnia. He can be reached at  dgyearsley@gmail.com

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