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A Fireside Chat With Wayne Shorter

A Fireside Chat With Wayne Shorter

Courtesy Robert Ashcroft / Blue Note Records


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By playing music, I am doing less than a fraction. Music is a drop in the ocean of life.
This article was first published at All About Jazz in October 2002.

I have done my fair share of Firesides (500 or so last census). I have favorites. Certainly, the first Sonny Rollins was memorable. Cecil Taylor, Charles Lloyd, Joe Chambers, and Lester Bowie were provocative. Willie Nelson was high (allegedly) and Tony Bennett was cool. I was the last interview for a handful of artists, a considerable honor. But this Wayne Shorter interview is dear to my heart. Shorter is an icon. Speak No Evil, JuJu, The All Seeing Eye, his work with Lee Morgan, Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, and Miles Davis' now infamous Quintet is legend enough. Furthermore, Shorter rarely does interviews. And you will begin to understand why as I have as you read on. Shorter spoke with me from his home, candidly about his hopes, his time with Blakey and Miles, his Weather Report days, his recordings on Blue Note, and his new record Footprints Live!, as always unedited and in his own words.

Wayne Shorter's influence on jazz as a composer, player and mentor cannot be overstated. He was a key figure in the development of the post-bop and fusion styles of the '60s and '70s, and in the years before his death at 89 in 2023 was almost universally regarded as the most eminent living composer in jazz. In recognition of his contributions, Shorter was awarded numerous honors throughout his career, including multiple Grammy Awards, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and induction into the DownBeat Jazz Hall of Fame. This interview was conducted by All About Jazz in 2002.

All About Jazz: Let's start from the beginning.

Wayne Shorter: Well, what happened was when I was in the Army, my last three months in the Army, I was being called. Horace Silver called. He had my mother call the Army base in Fort Dix, New Jersey. And since I had three more months left, he wanted to know if I could be released long enough to play a weekend and ten days, ten days in one place and a weekend in another place at Philadelphia and Canada. The company commander said to go ahead because I only had three more months to go in the Army, so not much to do. I was released to go and play. Then, at that time, the last month in the Army, we went to go see Miles Davis play, which was a little ways over. It was in Washington D.C., not too far from Fort Dix. He was there with John Coltrane and Abbey Lincoln sat in and sang. She sang a song called "Mean and Evil." "You're so mean and evil, even rain don't fall on you." And Cannonball Adderley was there and all that. We were there with our uniforms, guys in the Army, sergeants and everything just having a good time checking out Miles. Then when I left, I got another job with Horace Silver, when I left the Army. I got one more job with Horace Silver. It was like a matinee somewhere in New York City. It was at that matinee, during the end of it, at the end of the matinee, a lady came up to me backstage and said that somebody wanted to meet me and I said, "Yeah, who?" I put my horn away and I turned around and it was John Coltrane.

We started talking and all that and he invited me to his house. Then he told me that Miles, that he was leaving Miles. And he invited me to his house for a whole week. I went back and forth from Newark, New Jersey to New York and he had me stay overnight one night and he came to my house too for Thanksgiving dinner. He was telling me that I could have the gig, I could have the thing if I wanted it. But at that time, I was, let's see, I had just joined, I was working at Minton's Playhouse at 118th Street and Amsterdam, Minton's Playhouse for about six weeks and I joined Maynard Ferguson's band for three weeks. I played with him for three weeks. That's when, in Canada, Lee Morgan came across the field when they finished playing with Art Blakey. He came across and asked me if I wanted to join the Messengers. Lee had called me back when I was home in Jersey, one Monday evening. He and Coltrane were playing in Newark at a Monday night gig and Lee called my house and said, "Come on down and play. This is Lee Morgan." We hadn't met. When Lee left Dizzy Gillespie's big band, the last couple of gigs he played with Dizzy's band, I went into the club, a big club where they were playing and that's how I met Lee Morgan, like very quickly. I didn't know that Lee had been around listening to me at different places and then he invited me to play with John that Monday night. John also invited me to play with him on a Monday night at Birdland. That's when Elvin Jones walked in the door and he sat in on the drums and I could see the formulation of Coltrane's group beginning.

So the word got around about me when I was drafted into the Army, after I graduated from NYU. I had gone to a nightclub called Cafe Bohemia, just to see some music and musicians for the last time. Of course, I was very dramatic. I'm going to see these guys for the last time as an audience participator. Max Roach was standing at the bar and asked me if I was the kid from Newark. I said, "Yeah," and I showed him my draft notice. I had it in my back pocket and I said, "Well, I'm going in the Army," and he said to come on up and play. I played with him. Oscar Pettiford was on the cello and the bass. People were taking turns and Art Blakey played drums. Somebody else played the drums. Walter Bishop, Jr. played the piano. Cannonball came in there and played. He had just come into town. Miles was looking for him. There is a lot of stuff going on. So when I went into the Army. After basic training, they grabbed me and put me in the Army band. They said, "We got some news about you." They called me the "Newark Flash." "You're the Newark Flash." Max Roach said, "You're the Newark Flash."

AAJ: Hip.

WS: (Laughing) Yeah, I guess they were saying that I came out of nowhere real quick, that kind of thing. In those days, it was colorful. Almost everyone had something said about them that was like a handle. That is sort of a carryover from Lester Young's dialogue on life because Lester Young called everybody "lady." So everyone got their own self-style after Lester Young. So anyway, after Coltrane left Miles, I was with Maynard for three weeks. Lee Morgan came running across the field in Toronto, Canada and asked me if I wanted to join the band. So I left Maynard Ferguson, joined Art Blakey's band and stayed with him for five years, and then I left Art Blakey. I joined Art Blakey in 1959. Miles Davis called in 1961 or 1962. He called me. I didn't want to leave Art Blakey that soon. He told me, "When you get ready to leave, let me know."

He called again around 1963. He called right in the middle of a rehearsal (laughing). Art Blakey picked up the phone. I stayed with Art Blakey until 1964 and then I left. Miles' agent called me and told me that Miles had just come back from Japan and he said to give him a call at the Chateau Marmont where John Belushi was hanging out and all that. But Miles was there before John Belushi. Miles went out there years before that. So I called Miles and he sent me a first-class ticket and he sent me to his tailor to get a tuxedo made and I went on and got the tuxedo made and flew out there and joined the band. The first concert we played at the Hollywood Bowl, after that first concert, he said, "You got any music?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "We're going to record Monday," and we recorded the next day and that was the E.S.P. album (Columbia Records, 1965).

AAJ: "E.S.P." was your composition.

WS: Yeah.

AAJ: Most are familiar with "Footprints" but you also penned "Nefertiti," "Prince of Darkness," "Paraphernalia," and "Sanctuary."

WS: Yeah, "Dolores," "Orbits," a couple of things, "Limbo."

AAJ: Was your tenure with Art Blakey extended because of the chemistry between your tenor and Morgan's trumpet?

WS: Oh, yeah, Lee was the guy. Miles really liked Lee Morgan of all the young people. You don't have to say young. He just liked Lee. Dizzy was crazy about Lee and Miles was crazy about Dizzy. He knew that Lee was coming through the foundation. Lee was really coming through sort of a foundation and not really playing the trumpet book, so to speak. Lee, actually, he was the most original. He was thoughtful when he played. He just didn't play a lot of notes to dazzle. Every note Lee played counted.

AAJ: He didn't waste notes.

WS: Right and also he played as if he was talking. He wasn't going to play to show you that I could play the trumpet or like it was a demonstration. Lee had some perception and vision. That's why he was on that album with Trane, Blue Train (Blue Note, 1958).

AAJ: And your collaborations with Blakey led to your own dates for Blue Note.

WS: Oh, yeah, being with Art, you are going to be recording on Blue Note.

AAJ: You recorded Night Dreamer in 1964 and followed up with JuJu and Speak No Evil, a very good year.

WS: Yeah, we were like, actually, if you didn't do anything else, that was your living. If you're not on the road, you were preparing to record to maintain yourself, whether you're single or married. But that was where income came from. It was, like you did it all in one move. You came home from the road and you thought about recording and then you would do it. You would record so you could stand on your own feet at that time. Everything was lower then, housing, rent. At that time, for an apartment, it would average around a hundred dollars a month for an apartment.

AAJ: A significant amount of your compositions had Asian references e.g. "House of Jade," "Mahjong," and "Oriental Folk Song."

WS: Oh, yeah, at that time, yeah. Yeah, "Mahjong," that's the game. The Japanese-Americans who were in American barbed-wire concentration camps at the time of World War II, I was told they still played games. They spent a lot of time playing games in the camps, mahjong and poker and others.

AAJ: Did you join Miles before or after Speak No Evil?

WS: After.

AAJ: So your association with Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter (both appear on the record) began prior to Miles.

WS: Well, actually, it was Herbie. Herbie came to town with Donald Byrd. While he was recording with Donald Byrd, I met Herbie after the Donald Byrd recording. I also heard that Herbie was the guy that Miles chose to be his pianist. They were talking about this guy from Chicago. "Have you heard this guy? This guy Herbie Hancock from Chicago?" I said, "Man, Miles knows how to pick guys." Miles got them before everybody else.

AAJ: Your older brother, Alan, was featured on The All Seeing Eye release (Blue Note, 1966) before going on to record the classic Orgasm (Verve, 1968).

WS: Oh, yeah, he was out there. He wanted to do exactly what he wanted to do. He did it the way he knew how and he was actually making a statement about how he felt about society. He has a book that he wrote, a big, fat book that he wrote his thoughts about life and places where he had been. He has a chapter on France (laughing). He had chapter, how do I put this if this is going out in the newspaper, but it is interesting. He had a chapter on France and on this one page, he said, "As I was leaving France, the customs officer asked me if I ever intended to return to France," and he said, "I answered, 'Pour quoi?'"

AAJ: Blue Note has released The Classic Blue Note Recordings (Blue Note, 2002), a retrospective from sessions with Blakey and Morgan as well as signature material from your classics. There certainly is enough material to release a mammoth comprehensive homage.

WS: That's up to them. That is up to whoever is running that. I think they are going to sneak in there and do it.

AAJ: Let me make some calls.

WS: (Laughing) They might start getting in there and doing it after the Latin release of the last album [Moto Grosso Feio (Blue Note, 1974)].

AAJ: The 1965-68 Miles Quintet has gone on to become, along with Trane's quartet, the preeminent band in the history of this music.

WS: Miles just asked if I had any music and I said, "Yeah," and he said, "Bring it." We never had any rehearsals really. We would just go to the studio and I had this book with music in it that I had been writing—some of this music before I went in the Army around 1956, when I was in my last year of college. I was writing some of this music, and he used to say (in an uncanny imitation of Miles), "You got the book?" They referred to that band as royalty (laughing).

AAJ: What prompted your departure?

WS: Well, after five-and-a-half, close to six years, it was about time for me to go ahead and check out some other stuff. It was really actually time. The band was really actually going into, Miles was going into . . . Bitches Brew, that's my last recording with Miles. Then I started to think about, I was checking the guitarist from Canada and somebody else and somebody else and I did an album called Super Nova (Blue Note, 1969). In Japan, they gave me something called the Silver Award for that album. It was actually time. Miles was talking to me and he said, "Hey, looks like it is time for you to start your own band, huh?"

AAJ: It was on Super Nova where you made the recording switch from tenor to soprano.

WS: Yeah, well, somewhere around '68 I went and brought a soprano and that was getting me back to the way you hold a clarinet because I started on the clarinet when I was about fifteen-and-a-half, 16. That feeling of when you hold it straight out, that ventured back to the clarinet as sort of a snap back to it, like when you get into a fetal [position]. Sometimes you see that as an analogy, a memory.

AAJ: Was it long after you left Miles that along with Joe Zawinul, you formed Weather Report?

WS: No, we formed Weather Report in 1970, Joe and I. That went on for about 14 years. We also had the contracts with CBS. They were taking up the options, renewing the contracts and it was their option to renew, and when they renewed, the thought of leaving Weather Report, nobody thought of leaving the group in a place without the known creators of the group, the signature names. We thought about leaving, but thinking about starting to get the new person known and, even then, they were not like rock stars. But we needed every chance we could muster, so we had the names of Joe Zawinul, myself, Miroslav Vitous. We had been with Miles. Joe had been with Cannonball. He was with Cannonball for close to 10 years. Miroslav Vitous, if he hadn't gone with Weather Report, Miles wanted him. Miles was going to check him out.

AAJ: When did you last see Miles?

WS: On my birthday. He was at the Hollywood Bowl and I went to see him. I had a birthday party somewhere, a surprise birthday party at a big restaurant. A lot of people were there and we all said, "Let's go up and see Miles." It was Danny Glover, the actor, Joni Mitchell, my wife through the surprise party. We all had a caravan of cars going up to the Bowl to see Miles. I got there and I saw Miles in his dressing room. He just wanted to see me first alone before he went on stage. We talked and everything. He hugged me and then when he went on stage and I was sitting down in my seat, the place was loaded with people and he played "Happy Birthday."

AAJ: Classic Miles.

WS: And I have that on tape. Carlos Santana called me later on that month and he was there and he got a tape of it too and he sent it to me and said, "You may already have this, but check it out." Carlos is a nice guy.

AAJ: You have closely collaborated with Joni Mitchell through the years.

WS: I met her at the Roxy. She came to the Roxy when Miles was there with his new band and she came with Clive Davis. He was bringing her in and having her meet everybody. Around the same time, it was in New York, when Carlos and I met. Carlos Santana, myself, and Joni, we met around the same time. Carlos and I are very good friends all through these years, I mean, super friends. His children are growing. Family is nice and all that. He has maintained his spirituality.

AAJ: You kept me wringing my hands, recording only three albums over the last decade.

WS: Well, you know, there was nothing actually to record. There is so much more to living and life than doing music. It is working on, not working on, but exploring the areas of life that can be left unattended. You can do music, music, music, and then still be a cripple when it comes to what you're really here for. You think you might be here for music, then the human condition, the humanity part of your life can be . . . you can be blinded to that part, be really out of touch and when somebody is saying something, you can't always equate it with what you're doing. There is a chance that the world [is] revolving around baseball or music or boxing or whatever. It was like finding out what is your real purpose in life. I used to walk by a mirror and look in the mirror and say, "What's your real name?" And we've been named as we are born and what is your real name? What is anybody's real name? That sparked: What are you supposed to do? What are you supposed to do, also? By playing music, I am doing less than a fraction. Music is a drop in the ocean of life.

AAJ: Having gained knowledge and wisdom that comes with living, what is the purpose of your life?

WS: At this point, it is to celebrate life in such a way that it, the celebration translates to other people, that they can translate it to mean that we are eternal and since we're eternal, there's no need to count our neighbor's fortune and rob our neighbor's fortune because prior to being convinced that we live eternal, you think you only live once. Because you only think you're here for a short time, you've got to go out and rob banks. You want what someone else has, if you don't have it. You want the shortcut if you can get away with it. You may pay for it by being executed or something like that, but that's all there is to it. That's not all there is to it. If I, through music or painting, if I paint again, I don't know if I will do that, but through music or music with or without motion pictures . . . I can do music for movies that will never be made as long as the person that is listening or embracing it can start to make movies of their own lives, and so they become the producer and director and actor. So it is no one else making them puppets. If I can be a musical catalyst for self-decision or self-thought person who thinks about themselves and not have to join the club of popularity where everything is sold with a pop package. I am talking about cars and food and voting and voting unilaterally. It is another word for popular or it is another word for thoughtless, mindless. (Long pause) To actually support, I would say, to support an all-pervading law of life itself and saying that we are that law, we are the manifestation of that law. When we do negative stuff, the law reveals the negative effects. The law of ourselves doesn't punish us. We reward or punish ourselves. I am talking about blame outside of ourselves, blame when something goes wrong or goes down, something tragic happens and you start to blame. Of course, there are opposing forces among people. The opposing forces have come about because of an unawareness of person-by-person-by-person taking advantage of unawareness from birth. In other words, there is a whole karmic something that we are able to erase from this moment on, one-by-one, to lessen karmic retribution.

AAJ: What kind of kick in the head are we looking for with society, as self-involved as it is? After all, this is the day of reality shows to escape from reality.

WS: I would say if the power of music could turn things around, turn people's thinking around, to turn it around, to be an ambassador to music. We played in Turkey last year again. We've been to Turkey more than once. To play in a place in proximity to Iran, I played someplace near in Turkey where Iranian journalists and young people came to the dressing room with presents and paintings of their history. They are artists. They like art and culture and all that. If the businessmen of the world and the politicians, people who are encased in those careers... (watching the Montgomery County Police Chief giving a press conference on television about recent sniper attacks) Wow, this chief has everybody around him talking to him. We met Colin Powell at the State Department this year, we meaning the Thelonious Monk Institute (now the Herbie Hancock Institute). The son of Thelonious was there and some people who were working with the Clinton administration. The Monk Institute's headquarters is in Washington on Wisconsin Avenue. We met with Colin Powell and his wife and he got up in the stands and talked. It is big, the State Department. They had trees, shrubbery in the form and shape of saxophones. It was the competition for the saxophone this time. They have a competition every year. They had a lot of hors d'oeuvres, food all over the place and people were eating and all that. What's his name was there too, the monetary guy.

AAJ: Alan Greenspan.

WS: Alan Greenspan, he was there. The head, he had the same job that Colin Powell had. He was the head of the Army and Navy and all of that. He's an Air Force general. General, what's his name?

AAJ: General Myers.

WS: He is the chief of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He's the top guy. If something happened to the Secretary of Defense, I think he would be next. I'm not sure. I had presented to me a crystal saxophone at the Monk Institute. He was invited and he came from Afghanistan and participated in presenting me with a crystal saxophone for life achievement, work that I've been involved with. He heard that we were going over to the State Department and he had something on a Sunday morning show and he ended up going to the State Department. He called and cancelled his dinner and he went to the State Department. General Myers and he and I talked about doing R.O.T.C. at the same time. He's the same age. [In] 1953, we did Air Force R.O.T.C. at the same time. He said he never thought he would be where he is now. Colin Powell got up on the bandstand and said, "Contrary to popular belief, some Republicans do have rhythm." (Laughing) And so you do things that change. It might be negligible, something you see in the corner of your eye, a little movement and that might be the start. You never know. You can't count anything out. I just came from Hawaii and we did a peace conference there. It was two weeks in Hawaii. We were with the grandson of Mahatma Gandhi and the nephew of Nobel and Dean Lawrence Carter of Morehouse College and another lady who was with 2,000 people in Colombia, where they go around the world to get to the non-violence level with different programs that they are instituting. She was with four people who were kidnapped by drug dealers in Colombia. So we were there with them. These kinds of meetings went on unbeknownst. You're not going to see this in the newspaper. My wife was involved with fourteen countries this weekend, translating. Her daughter was translating in French, Portuguese, my wife from Portuguese to English, Italian. Fourteen countries about peace as opposed to violence, but new thinking, ways of new thinking. This is going on and it is non-stop now. It is not we have to get peace and sit down on it. Just like the opposite, they are non-stop with feeding. As soon as the child is born, the feeding begins and we have to know the difference.

AAJ: Footprints Live! (Verve, 2002) showcases your new quartet (Danilo Pérez, Brian Blade, and John Patitucci).

WS: Oh, yeah, the guys are good. They have fun with that. We are going out on the 22nd of October. We are going to do some universities and weekends around the United States in October, November. I am going to France on December 7. Lyon. We're doing something with the Lyon Symphony Orchestra and the band, the quartet. And then in the spring, we are going to England and to France and do some concerts. We're going to be doing Carnegie Hall with an orchestra and the band, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra with the band, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, probably with the band, and something in August. Something we are working on: an idea at the Hollywood Bowl and we may have some interesting people to celebrate. We have a recording that is coming out in January. It is being worked on. It is being mixed now. It is the band, plus now there will be trumpets, woodwinds, and a few strings. It is not going to be four of us on the record, but it is different pieces of music with different-sized groups and combinations. It might be a bit of a surprise as to what you're going to hear.

AAJ: Are you playing both soprano and tenor?

WS: I'm playing that again, but there is other sounds on there. We're doing a Villa-Lobos piece and I am doing one piece by Leroy Anderson. There is an old Welsh, legendary folk song. There is another piece from the 13th century and another piece about Angola and another piece that Miles gave me from Spain. It is called, "Vendiendo Allegria," "selling happiness."

AAJ: Good mantra.

WS: Yeah, it is.

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