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Saxophone titan Wayne Shorter transitions at 89

Wayne Shorter, the reed man whose fiery improvisations on soprano and tenor blazed original pathways


12-time Grammy winner left an indelible mark while transcending genres

Wayne Shorter, the reed man whose fiery improvisations on soprano and tenor blazed original pathways across contemporary music for over half a century, has passed at 89 years old.

A noted composer who began his career during the transition of jazz music from a dance-oriented backdrop into a medium for serious academic and intellectual contemplation, he died March 2 at his Los Angeles home surrounded by family and friends. No cause of death was given by publicist Alisse Kingsley.

Born in Newark, N.J., Wayne Shorter and his older brother trumpeter/flugelhornist Alan “Al” maturated at Newark Arts High, where their artistic peers included fledgling poet Leroi Jones (better known as Amiri Baraka). They soon cultivated reputations for eccentric behavior on top of exceptional musicianship. This included irregular speech idioms and fashion choices, in keeping with their embrace of a still controversial genre called bebop.

“We had wrinkled clothes, because we thought you played bebop better with wrinkled clothes,” Shorter once recalled.

The Shorter’s, oddball reputation began to spread around the neighborhood, spawning the metaphorical expression “as Weird as Wayne,” remembered his contemporary Baraka.

The siblings embellished their “Be raggedy to be for real,” mantra by wearing sunglasses as they performed in dimly lit clubs, and promoting their wacky nicknames by painting their monikers on their horn cases (“Mr. Weird” for Wayne, “Doc Strange” for Alan). This penchant for odd behavior devolved to the point where they began carrying their horns in shopping bags. (One of these monikers, “Mr. Gone” later resurfaced as the title of a 1978 best selling album by Shorter’s jazz fusion group. Weather Report.)

The brothers continued their musical exploits across the river at New York University, where Wayne earned a degree while making a name in local nite spots as “The Newark Flash,” a reference to his impressive technical ability. After a short detour in the army, Shorter’s career began with his selection into Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

The band became a mid-century launch pad for Donald Byrd, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard, Wynton Marsalis, Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, and scores of other marquee musicians, as Shorter became its primary composer.

After several years in the limelight, Shorter’s career got an additional boost when he became part of what became known as trumpeter Miles Davis’ “Second Great Quintet” (the first including Cannonball Adderley and John Coltrane in the late 1950s), in 1964. He continued his high standard of composition with such standout tunes as “E.S.P.,” “Nefertiti,” and “Footprints.” Around this time he began to establish himself as a bandleader in his own right with recordings on the Blue Note Label with Night Dreamer, JuJu, and other albums.

Shorter’s main musical “gig” remained with Davis’ Quintet, as he helped the elder horn man with his explorations into what became known as jazz fusion, in 1969’s “In a Silent Way,” and “Bitches’ Brew.” These albums are notable in that he, traditionally a tenor player, began to augment his repertoire with the soprano saxophone. This mastery of a new instrument transcended, in the mind of some listeners, his prodigious achievements with the tenor.

By 1971, he felt the urge to move on again, this time with one of the defining groups of the jazz-rock fusion era, “Weather Report,” which broke new ground with forays into the avant-garde and electronic realms, eventually evolving into dance-able rhythms and funk. Fronted by Shorter and another Miles Davis Alumnus, the Austrian keyboardist Josef Zawinul, over the next decade and a half, with a revolving membership of supporting players, it achieved critical acclaim and record sales in excess of one million units.

Shorter’s tenure with Weather Report left him little time for solo projects, but this period found him new and profitable associations with entities within the pop music category. His entry into this lucrative frontier was marked by a blistering eight-minute solo tenor solo, on the title track of rock band Steely Dan’s 1977 chart topper “Aja.” This audacious beginning led to collaborations with Don Henley of the Eagles, Joni Mitchell, Santana, and the Rolling Stones.

Like many artistic giants, his influence could not be contained by mere categorization or genre. Among his disciples are rock guitar virtuoso Warren Haynes, who became aware of Shorter through his work during the 1970s as a member of Weather Report, which prompted him to study his previous recordings with Davis, and going back to the Jazz Messengers of the 1960s.

“The Miles Davis Quintet with Wayne, Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams is probably my all-time favorite band. Odd for a guitar player to say I know,” recalls Haynes, who made his name as a guitarist for the Allman Brothers Band and Gov’t Mule.

During the course of his career, Shorter was a 12-time Grammy-award winner. None-the-less, scores of peers and listeners insisted that he was under-appreciated for his musical contributions.

“For my money, possibly the most underrated genius in any genre of music,” cultural critic Sean Murphy wrote. “His name does not come up quickly or often enough in discussions of the true masters. Aside from his considerable proficiency on the horn(s), he is also among the most distinctive and consistently satisfying composers.”

A dedicated comic book fan in adolescence, he maintained a vast collection of action figures into adulthood. This, along with his penchant for science fiction, was a key inspiration for his musical concepts.

Close friend and fellow Nichiren Buddhist Herbie Hancock issued the following statement:

“I miss being around him and his special Wayne-isms but I carry his spirit within my heart always.”