Wayne Shorter (Steinhardt Music, B.S., 1956) More than half a century after embarking on his lifelong musical adventure, Shorter is universally regarded as a living legend in jazz. His great body of work as a composer for (themselves) legendary groups such as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis’ mid ‘60s quintet, and Weather Report is enough to ensure him an historic place in jazz. But even if this prolific composer had never written a single composition, his signature sound and unparalleled expression on both tenor and soprano saxes would have earmarked him for historic recognition. When this legendary writing prowess is combined with legendary performances with some of the greatest jazz artists of the last 50 years, the result is a jazz immortal. “Life is so mysterious, to me,” says Shorter. “I can’t stop at any one thing to say, ‘Oh, this is what it is.’ And I think it’s always becoming, always becoming. That’s the adventure. And imagination is part of that adventure."
Born in Newark, New Jersey on August 25, 1933, Wayne Shorter had his first great jazz epiphany as a teenager: “I remember seeing Lester Young when I was 15 years old. It was a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic show in Newark and he was late coming to the theater. A couple of other guys and me were waiting out front of the Adams Theater and when he finally did show up, he had the pork pie hat and everything. Then we were trying to figure out how to get into the theater from the fire escape around the back. We eventually got into the mezzanine and saw that whole show -- Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie bands together on stage doing ‘Peanut Vendor,’ Charlie Parker with strings doing ‘Laura’ and stuff like that. And Russell Jacquet…IIlinois Jacquet. He was there doing his thing. That whole scene impressed me so much that I just decided, ‘Hey, man, let me get a clarinet.’ So I got one when I was 16, and that’s when I started music.”
Switching to tenor saxophone, Shorter formed a teenage band in Newark called The Jazz Informers and later got some invaluable bandstand experience with the Jackie Bland Band, a progressive Newark orchestra that specialized in bebop. While still in high school, Shorter participated in several cutting contests in Newark's jazz scene, including one memorable encounter with sax great Sonny Stitt. He was accepted to the Music Department in The Steinhardt School at New York University and immediately started soaking up the Manhattan jazz scene by frequenting popular nightspots like Birdland and Cafe Bohemia. Shorter worked his way through NYU by playing with the Nat Phipps orchestra. Upon graduating NYU in 1956, he worked briefly with Johnny Eaton and the Princetonians, and Shorter earned the nickname "The Newark Flash" for his speed and facility on the tenor saxophone. But just as he was beginning to make his mark, Shorter was drafted into the Army. He recalls a memorable jam session at the Cafe Bohemia just days before he was shipped off to Fort Dix, New Jersey. "A week before I went into the Army I went to the Cafe Bohemia to hear music, I said, for the last time in my life. I was standing at the bar having a cognac and I had my draft notice in my back pocket. That’s when I met Max Roach. He said, 'You’re the kid from Newark, huh? You’re The Flash.' And he asked me to sit in. They were changing drummers throughout the night, so Max played drums, then Art Taylor, then Art Blakey. Oscar Pettiford was on cello. Jimmy Smith came in the door with his organ. He drove to the club with his organ in a hearse. And outside we heard that Miles was looking for somebody named Cannonball. And I’m saying to myself, 'All this stuff is going on and I gotta go to the Army in about five days!'"
Following his time in the service, Shorter had a brief stint in 1958 with Horace Silver and later played in the house band at Minton's Playhouse in Harlem. It was around this time that Shorter began jamming with fellow tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In 1959, Shorter had a brief stint with the Maynard Ferguson big band before joining Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in August of that year. He remained with the Jazz Messengers through 1963, becoming Blakey's musical director and contributing several key compositions to the band's book during those years. Shorter made his recording debut as a leader in 1959 for the Vee Jay label and in 1964 cut the first of a string of important recordings for the Blue Note label. He joined the Miles Davis band in 1964 and remained with the group through 1970, contributing such landmark compositions as "Nefertiti," "E.S.P.," "Pinocchio," "Sanctuary," "Fall" and "Footprints."
In 1970, Shorter co-founded the group Weather Report with keyboardist and Miles Davis alum, Joe Zawinul. It remained the premier fusion group through the '70s and into the early '80s before disbanding in 1985 after 16 acclaimed recordings, including the Grammy Award-winning double-live LP, 8:30, in 1980. Shorter formed his own group in 1986 and produced a succession of electric jazz albums for the Columbia Records: Atlantis (1986), Phantom Navigator (1987), and Joy Ryder (1988). He re-emerged on the Verve Records label with High Life in 1995. After the tragic loss of his wife in 1996 (she was aboard the ill-fated Paris-bound flight TWA 800), Shorter returned to the scene with the release of 1+1 (1997), an intimate duet recording with pianist and former Miles Davis quintet bandmate Herbie Hancock. Hancock and Shorter spent 1998 touring as a duet. Also in that year, Shorter was given the most prestigious award in jazz, the NEA Jazz Masters Award. In the summer of 2001 Shorter began touring as the leader of a talented young lineup featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, each a celebrated recording artist and bandleader in his own right. The group's amazing chemistry was well documented in the acclaimed Footprints Live! (2002). Shorter followed in 2003 with Alegria, an expanded vision for large ensemble which earned him a Grammy Award that year. In addition, he has received 9 Grammy Awards and 13 Grammy nominations in his career, which are ground shaking numbers. Most recently, Mr. Shorter’s album, Beyond the Sound Barrier, received the 2006 Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz Album.
top photo: Jazz legend and Alumnus Wayne Shorter & Dr. Dave Schroeder at Commencement 2010