Recalling Wayne Shorter

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Wayne Shorter in 2006. Photo credit: Tom Beetz.

This first musical nickname tagged him to the city of his birth: the Newark Flash.

To a club called Lloyd’s Manor in Wayne Shorter’s hometown came Sonny Stitt in 1951. Stitt hailed from across the Hudson River—the bebop crucible of Harlem and its downtown mecca of 42nd street. The visitor from New York had already gotten word of the precocious tenor player from Newark and invited him to sit in for a night.

Shorter was just seventeen and had played the tenor saxophone for only two years. The story has the heroic, exaggerated quality of a legend whose teller would later claim that he could then play in only three keys: C, B-flat and G. The first tune Stitt called was in E-flat. Shorter gathered his wits and marshaled his gifts, and at the end of the night Stitt asked him to come on tour. Shorter declined the offer in order to pursue his music degree at N.Y.U., Stitt agreeing that a university education, not the hard-knock lessons of the road, were what the teenager needed next. Shorter had come through his trial by fiery bebop, the encounter duly inscribed in jazz history.

Lloyd’s Manor makes a cameo in American Pastoral by Philip Roth, that great chronicler of Newark’s demise. Roth and Shorter were born in the city in the same year, 1933. According to Roth’s alter ego in the novel, Nathan Zuckerman, Lloyd’s was a “place where few whites other than a musician’s reckless Desdemona would venture.” Teenagers were warned by their parents, Zuckerman tells us, that they’d be “stabbed to death by a colored guy ‘high on reefer,’ whatever that meant.” Shorter’s mother had tried to stop him from frequenting the club. I’m guessing that Roth never ventured into Lloyd’s. These two sons of Newark of very different temperaments never seem to have met.

I heard Shorter play only once, a long way from Newark. It was 2008 in the ballroom of the Four Seasons Hotel in San Francisco at a gala fundraiser at which he received SFJazz’s Lifetime Achievement Award. The rich and powerful were there, including former Mayor Willie Brown and various titans of Silicon Valley.

SFJazz was and is committed to fostering young talent, and that evening a septet of high school students from diverse backgrounds performed their own arrangements of many of Wayne Shorter’s compositions, demanding pieces both for ensemble playing and for improvising over.  Most of these youngsters’ complex and creative music making took place as background music to the silent auction and designer cocktail hour happening in the rooms off the banqueting hall bandstand.

But after dinner and before dessert the high schoolers did get the attention of the now-seated public, their set culminating in complex and creative reading of “E. S. P.”—one of many Shorter compositions long-since become jazz standards.  Herbie Hancock, who took the stage after the kids had finished so he could introduce his best friend and man-of-the-hour, lavished sincere praise on the young musicians. Shorter and Hancock were colleagues in the watershed Miles Davis Quintet of the late 1960s and became enduring musical collaborators.

Simply to navigate a tune like “E. S. P.” without being capsized by the speeding rapids of the tempo and the eddies of its shifting chromatic harmonies is a feat in itself. To imbue a form with purpose, excitement, and coherence that is already flirting with abstraction is a real achievement for anyone at any age.

As I sat listening to the SFJazz High School All-Stars playing with Shorter and Hancock sitting at a nearby table I couldn’t help but consider the great gulf that separated Lloyd’s Manor from the Four Season’s Ball Room. Instead of the chaotic ferment of the urban jazz club, there were marble floors and the climate control of corporate hospitality; instead of the pilfered booze Shorter shared with one of his idols, Lester Young, in the basement of a Toronto jazz club in 1956, 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 a Drizzle of Blue Cheese Fondue.

I had been graciously invited along for the evening by two San Francisco patrons of jazz. Now and then I looked over at my hosts as they dined with the jazz titans and other San Francisco aristocrats. According to Michelle Mercer’s adulatory, anecdote-rich 2004 biography , Footprints, Shorter is a notoriously demanding conversationalist, refusing to engage in superficial banter, but instead pursuing often eccentric lines of inquiry and association. I saw him nod a few times over at the next table.

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 was then soon to be seventy-five, though he looked and played much younger than his years—as he always did.  Hancock offered a touching tribute to his friend, and then he and Shorter joined the SF Jazz Collective ensemble along with alumnus of that group and of the High School All-Stars, Joshua Redman, a local jazz hero gone on to an illustrious career.

First Redman then Shorter took long and increasingly animated solos on “Aung San Suu Kyi,” a Shorter composition written more than a decade earlier in honor of the Burmese Nobel Peace Prize laureate. The more contemplative version recorded by Shorter and Hancock on their 1997 album 1 + 1, for which the pair won a Grammy, was here recast as an urgent dance. Heard just a week after a devastating typhoon in Burma, this incarnation of the piece took on an even more marked aspect of Shorter’s Buddhism that searches for, as he put it, “indestructible happiness —even in the face of droughts and external catastrophes.” Shorter’s life was one of many tragedies, including the deaths of a daughter and a wife. But joy and acceptance seem to well up in his compositions and improvisations even in their most introspective moments. I find his rejection of the melancholic to be, paradoxically, both reverent and irreverent.

The compositions on 1 + 1 are by Shorter and Hancock individually, along with several collaborations. Those attributed to Shorter alone are all portraits of women: “Aung San Suu Kyi”; “Joanna’s Theme”; “Diana”; “Meridianne.”

Such subjects form an important strain in Shorter’s composition catalog, right from his vivacious, gutsy profile of Art Blakey’s two-year-old daughter, “Sakeena’s Vision,” heard on the Jazz Messenger Blue Note LP of 1960, The Big Beat. Warning: this is not your typical, cooingly sentimental portrait of a toddler. This kid has character.

By contrast, the sonic pictures of the women on 1 + 1 are poised portraits, though not without dramatic effects of light and shade, as in “Aung San Suu Kyi.”

Any criticism of Orientalism, I feel, is blunted by the music’s honesty, the contours of its eastern-inflected pentatonic scale mapped onto an almost-familiar jazz harmonic pattern marked by forthright syncopation. Dare I call it a Buddhist Blues? Along its journey there are soprano saxophone squawks, outbursts of joy and complaint, perhaps even pain, before tranquility returns.

Shorter had travelled a great distant from the days and nights of The Newark Flash. Much of the beauty of 1 + 1 could almost be called bucolic. Ironically perhaps, the album came out the same year as Roth’s American Pastoral.

A quarter century later, in June of 2022, Suu Kyi was moved by Myanmar’s junta from house arrest to solitary confinement. Since its first hearing, the meaning of Shorter’s portrait of her—like all music that matters—continues to unfold, its hypnotic oscillations between major and minor, both calming and restive, now convey a sense of confinement overcome.

Back in 2008 Shorter’s venerable “Footprints” provided, as it had to, that San Francisco gala’s rousing finale. At the thrillride’s close the tuxedoed and evening-gowned audience rose to its feet as one.  Shorter’s music knew no color or class. In spite of the court trappings, I couldn’t help but feel in the princes’ applause a wave of sincerity.

DAVID YEARSLEY is a long-time contributor to CounterPunch and the Anderson Valley Advertiser. His latest book is Sex, Death, and Minuets: Anna Magdalena Bach and Her Musical NotebooksHe can be reached at