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. Me and a couple of other guys were waiting out front of the Adams Theater and when he finally did show up, he had the pork pie hat and everything. So 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…Ilinois 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. While still in high school, Shorter participated in several cutting contests on Newark’s jazz scene, including one memorable encounter with sax great Sonny Stitt. He attended college at New York University while also soaking up the Manhattan jazz scene by frequenting popular nightspots like Birdland and Cafe Bohemia. Wayne worked his way through college by playing with the Nat Phipps orchestra. Upon graduating in 1956, he worked briefly with Johnny Eaton and his Princetonians, earning the nickname “The Newark Flash” for his speed and facility on the tenor saxophone.
Just as he was beginning making his mark, Shorter was drafted into the Army. “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!’”