Wayne Shorter, Innovator During an Era of Change in Jazz, Dies at 89 His career as an influential tenor saxophonist and composer reached across more than half a century, tracking jazz’s complex evolution during that span.
By Nate Chinen
March 2, 2023
Wayne Shorter, the enigmatic, intrepid saxophonist who shaped the color and contour of modern jazz as one of its most intensely admired composers, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.
His publicist, Alisse Kingsley, confirmed his death, at a hospital. There was no immediate information on the cause.
Mr. Shorter had a sly, confiding style on the tenor saxophone, instantly identifiable by his low-gloss tone and elliptical sense of phrase. His sound was brighter on soprano, an instrument on which he left an incalculable influence; he could be inquisitive, teasing or elusive, but always with a pinpoint intonation and clarity of attack.
His career reached across more than half a century, largely inextricable from jazz’s complex evolution during that span. He emerged in the 1960s as a tenor saxophonist and in-house composer for pace-setting editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, two of the most celebrated small groups in jazz history.
He then helped pioneer fusion, with Davis and as a leader of Weather Report, which amassed a legion of fans. He also forged a bond with popular music in marquee collaborations with the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, the guitarist Carlos Santana and the band Steely Dan, whose 1977 song “Aja” reaches a dynamic climax with his hide-and-seek tenor solo.
Mr. Shorter wrote his share of compositions that became jazz standards, like “Footprints,” a coolly ethereal waltz, and “Black Nile,” a driving anthem. Beyond his book of tunes, he was revered for developing and endlessly refining a modern harmonic language. His compositions, sleek and insinuating, can convey elegant ambiguities of mood. They adhere to an internal logic even when they break the rules.
His recorded output as a leader, especially during a feverishly productive stretch on Blue Note Records in the mid-1960s — when he made “Night Dreamer,” “JuJu,” “Speak No Evil” and several others, all post-bop classics — compares favorably to the best winning streaks in jazz.
Since the turn of the 21st century, the Wayne Shorter Quartet — by far Mr. Shorter’s longest-running band, and the one most garlanded with acclaim — set an imposing standard for formal elasticity and cohesive volatility, bringing avant-garde practice into the heart of the jazz mainstream.
Mr. Shorter often said he was drawn to music because it has “velocity and mystery.” A lifelong fan of comic books and science fiction, he kept a shelf crowded with action figures and wore T-shirts emblazoned with the Superman “S” logo. In his later years, he cut the figure of a sage with a twinkle in his eye, issuing cryptic or elliptical statements that inevitably came back to a sense of play.
“Don’t throw away your childish dreams,” he said in 2012. “You have to be strong enough to protect them.”
Throughout his career he refused to hew too closely to any tradition except that of fearless expedition. “The word ‘jazz,’ to me,” he liked to say, “only means ‘I dare you.’”
‘The Newark Flash’ Wayne Shorter was born in Newark on Aug. 25, 1933. His father, Joseph, worked as a welder for the Singer sewing machine company, and his mother, Louise, sewed for a furrier.
Growing up in Newark’s industrial Ironbound district, Wayne and his older brother, Alan, devoured comic books, science fiction, radio serials and movie matinees at the Adams Theater. Wayne won a citywide art contest at age 12, which led to his attending Newark Arts High School, the first public high school in the country specializing in the visual and performing arts.
There he encountered several teachers who cultivated his interest in music theory and composition. At the same time, bebop — an insurgent, often frenetic strain of modern jazz, typified by virtuosos like the alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and the pianist Bud Powell — was a source of endless fascination for him.
Bebop had a strong foothold in Newark: Savoy Records, the label most committed to the young movement, was based there, and local radio carried live broadcasts across the Hudson River from clubs like Birdland and the Royal Roost. Mr. Shorter, who had been taking private lessons on clarinet, switched to the tenor saxophone. Along with his brother, a trumpeter, he joined a local bebop group led by a flashy singer named Jackie Bland.
Onstage and off, the Shorter brothers took as much pride in bebop’s stance of iconoclastic rebellion as in the swerving intricacies of the music; they would perform in intentionally rumpled suits and rubber galoshes, propping newspapers on their stands instead of sheet music. The poet Amiri Baraka, a classmate, famously recalled that such outré behavior sparked a local shorthand: “as weird as Wayne.” Mr. Shorter wore that slight as a badge of honor, at one point painting the words “Mr. Weird” on his saxophone case.
He acquired a more heroic nickname, the Newark Flash, around the jazz scene of the 1950s, while earning a degree in music education at New York University. After serving two years in the Army — at Fort Dix in New Jersey, where he distinguished himself as a sharpshooter — he re-entered the scene, making a strong impression as a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the shining exemplar for the down-to-earth yet combustible style known as hard bop.
Mr. Shorter shared the band’s front line with a bravura young trumpeter, Lee Morgan, forming a musical kinship that soon extended to his own albums, and eventually to Morgan’s. But in addition to his saxophone playing, Mr. Shorter brought to the Jazz Messengers a new degree of compositional sophistication, writing tunes, like “Ping Pong” and “Children of the Night,” that spiked a familiar hard-bop formula with dark harmonic elixirs.
Image Mr. Shorter performing with Miles Davis in London in 1967. Davis, in his autobiography, called Mr. Shorter “the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did.” Mr. Shorter performing with Miles Davis in London in 1967. Davis, in his autobiography, called Mr. Shorter “the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did.”Credit...David Redfern/Getty Images
Mr. Shorter joined the second Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, after deflecting Davis’s overtures for several years out of loyalty to Blakey. His arrival cinched a brilliant new edition of the band, with the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams. Davis, in his autobiography, called Mr. Shorter “the conceptualizer of a whole lot of musical ideas we did.”
Once he joined, Mr. Shorter contributed new compositions to every studio album made by the Miles Davis Quintet, beginning with the title track of “E.S.P.” in 1965. During an engagement at the Plugged Nickel in Chicago later that year, his tenor solos were marvels of invention, turning even a songbook standard like “On Green Dolphin Street” into a portal for shadowy intrigue.
But on the scale of intrigue, there could be no topping “Nefertiti,” the title track of a Davis quintet album released in 1968. A 16-bar composition with a slithery melody and a shrewdly indeterminate harmonic path, it was so holistic in its effect that Davis decided to record it with no solos, just the melody line played over and over. In Michelle Mercer’s 2004 book “Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter,” Mr. Shorter described “Nefertiti” as “my most sprung-from-me-all-in-one-piece experience of music writing,” like someone recalling a trance.
Most of Mr. Shorter’s storied output on Blue Note unfolded while he was working with Davis, often with some of the same musical partners. He chronicled some aspects of his life on these albums: “Speak No Evil,” recorded in 1964, featured his wife, Teruko Nakagami, known as Irene, on the cover, and contained a song (“Infant Eyes”) dedicated to their daughter, Miyako. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966; “Miyako” would be the name of another composition the next year.
The Mysterious Traveler Unlike the other members of the Miles Davis Quintet, Mr. Shorter remained through Davis’s push into rock and funk — on the terse 1969 album “In A Silent Way,” featuring the Austrian keyboardist and composer Josef Zawinul, and on the epochal sprawl of “Bitches Brew.”
Together with Mr. Zawinul and the Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, Mr. Shorter then formed Weather Report, which released its debut album, called simply “Weather Report,” in 1971. Over the next 15 years, the band changed personnel several times, with Mr. Zawinul and Mr. Shorter as the only constants. Weather Report also changed styles, tacking away from chamberesque abstraction and toward danceable rhythms. Its most commercially successful edition, featuring the electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius, became an arena attraction, and one of its albums, “Heavy Weather,” was certified gold (and later platinum).
Mr. Shorter was the instrumental voice out front in Weather Report, and second only to Mr. Zawinul as an engine of original material. Among the enduring tunes he wrote for the band are “Tears,” a color-shifting tone poem; “Palladium,” a funk tune with Caribbean flair; and “Mysterious Traveler,” a rhythmic saga named after a popular radio show from his youth.
While in Weather Report, Mr. Shorter made precious few solo albums — but “Native Dancer,” a 1974 collaboration with the Brazilian troubadour Milton Nascimento, inspired more than one generation of admirers, notably the guitarist and composer Pat Metheny and the bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding, who in 2008 recorded a version of the album’s opening track, “Ponta de Areia.”
The idea of working with Mr. Nascimento had come from Mr. Shorter’s second wife, Ana Maria (Patricio) Shorter, who spent her childhood in Angola under Portuguese rule. (Mr. Shorter noted her influence in the album notes, and included a wistful ballad called “Ana Maria.”)
It took more than a decade for Mr. Shorter to release his next album, “Atlantis,” a complex sonic canvas that met with a tepid response, critically and commercially. One of its most vocal champions at the time was the critic Robert Palmer, who praised it in The New York Times as “an album of tunes in which everything — texture, color, mood, meter, tempo, instrumentation, density, you name it — seems to be in perpetual transformation.”
Mr. Shorter held to a similar ideal after Weather Report disbanded in 1986. His next few albums featured a broad range of collaborators and a heavy quotient of synthetic timbres. The ambitious culmination was “High Life,” which met with scathing criticism on its release in 1995, notoriously from Peter Watrous in The Times, who declared it “a pastel failure.”
Personal tragedy visited Mr. Shorter soon after, and not for the first time. Iska, his daughter with Ana Maria, had lived with brain damage before dying of a grand mal seizure in 1985 at age 14. The loss had led Wayne and Ana Maria to delve into Nichiren Buddhism. Then, in 1996, Ana Maria and the Shorters’ niece Dalila Lucien were among the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 crashed shortly after takeoff from Kennedy International Airport in New York.
“We practice in Buddhism that we’re able to have an eternal dialogue with the ones we lose temporarily,” Mr. Shorter told The Guardian several years later. “When my wife left, she was in a state of enlightenment.”
In 1999 he married Carolina Dos Santos, a Brazilian dancer and actor whom he had met through Ana Maria. She survives him, along with his daughters, Miyako and Mariana Shorter, and a grandson. Alan Shorter died in 1987.
The Rogue Philosopher As he entered a phase of late eminence, Mr. Shorter deepened his bond with Mr. Hancock, with whom he shared not only several decades of musical history but also a common foundation in Buddhist practice. Both artists served on the board of the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz, a nonprofit educational organization (now called the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz) that administers a series of programs, including a long-running international competition.
Mr. Shorter and Mr. Hancock released an introspective duo album, “1+1,” in 1997; it won Mr. Shorter a Grammy for best instrumental composition for “Aung San Suu Kyi,” a heraldic theme dedicated to the activist and future leader of Myanmar, who was under house arrest at the time.
In total, Mr. Shorter won 12 Grammy Awards, the last bestowed this year for best improvised jazz solo, for “Endangered Species,” a track, written with Ms. Spalding, from the album “Live at the Detroit Jazz Festival,” where he performed in a quartet with her, Terri Lyne Carrington and Leo Genovese.
He also received a lifetime achievement honor from the Recording Academy in 2015. He was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and a 1998 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He received the Polar Music Prize, an international honor recognizing both pop and classical music, in 2017. And he was among the recipients of the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors, in a class that also included the composer Philip Glass.
Mr. Shorter ushered in a profound new stage of his career in 2000, when he formed an acoustic quartet with the pianist Danilo Pérez, the bassist John Patitucci and the drummer Brian Blade. These were broad-minded musicians capable of following his every twitch and prompt, and they came from the generation that had grown up with his tunes.
The new Wayne Shorter Quartet started out playing versions of those tunes, like “Footprints” and “JuJu,” often modified or abstracted to the point of near unrecognizability. Jon Pareles, reviewing a concert for The Times in 2013, observed that Mr. Shorter “treats bass lines or single phrases as clues and implications, toying on the spot with tempo, crosscurrents, inflection and attack; anything can be up for grabs, yet the composition retains an identity.”
Image Mr. Shorter’s own quartet started off playing versions of his old tunes before he eventually composed new music for the group, including “Scout” and “Pegasus.” Mr. Shorter’s own quartet started off playing versions of his old tunes before he eventually composed new music for the group, including “Scout” and “Pegasus.”Credit...Chad Batka for The New York Times
Mr. Shorter eventually composed new music for the group, like “Scout,” which had its premiere in 2017, and “Pegasus,” for which he also orchestrated parts for the quintet Imani Winds. The Los Angeles Philharmonic commissioned his “Gaia,” a symphonic tone poem that doubles as a concerto for Ms. Spalding and suggests a classical tradition deftly redrawn in Mr. Shorter’s hand.
Together, Mr. Shorter and Ms. Spalding boldly expanded on this promise in “Iphigenia,” an opera loosely based on the Greek myth, featuring his music and her libretto, with set designs by the architect Frank Gehry. It had a series of performances in 2021 and 2022, notably at the Kennedy Center in Washington, with Mr. Shorter in the audience.
He was still straining against preconceptions and aesthetic prescriptions when, at 85, he released “Emanon,” a suite that he recorded in two separate versions: one with his quartet and the other also featuring the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, with his soprano saxophone darting through. The album received broad critical acclaim, topping year-end lists in The Times and JazzTimes.
Mr. Shorter, who created a hand-drawn 58-page comic book called Other Worlds as a teenager, also fulfilled a lifelong ambition with “Emanon.” The albums came with a comic that he wrote with Monica Sly, illustrated by Randy DuBurke. Set in a sci-fi dystopia, it hinges on the actions of Emanon, a “rogue philosopher” urging resistance to fear and oppression.
“There are a myriad of realities in the multiverse,” reads the first panel, setting a familiar theme in a bold new key.
Alex Traub contributed reporting.
A version of this article appears in print on March 3, 2023, Section A, Page 20 of the New York edition with the headline: Wayne Shorter, Innovator During an Era of Change in Jazz, Dies at 89.
Wayne Shorter, a Jazz Hero Whose Goal Was ‘to Fear Nothing’
The saxophonist, who died on Thursday at 89, redefined jazz composition by embracing the unknown. Listen to nine of his recordings with Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, Esperanza Spalding and more.
By Giovanni Russonello
Published March 2, 2023
Updated March 3, 2023, 12:02 a.m. ET
In the last decade or so of his life, it had become a commonplace to call Wayne Shorter jazz’s greatest living composer. There was simply no ambiguity about it, he was the one.
Now that the saxophonist has left the earthly realm, at the age of 89, does that distinction become eternal? It’s hard to think of another musician whose writing style worked its way so indelibly into the DNA of jazz: how the music is composed, how it’s played, how we think about it.
Shorter wrote melodies at a slant, doing a lot with a little. He packed harmonies with so much tension, they relieved a lot of the pressure that had been put on the rhythm section in the bebop era — allowing it to loosen its grip on the groove without sacrificing suspense. When he joined the Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, after a lengthy stint as Art Blakey’s musical director, Shorter’s impact was succinct and immediate: The group stayed cool and steady, even as Shorter’s compositions lured its five members into a state of constant combustion.
Like John Coltrane, his mentor and predecessor in Davis’s previous quintet, Shorter wasn’t flashy or spotlight-hungry. But his presence was commanding. Davis sometimes started concerts without him onstage; when Shorter came on, playing his way up to the microphone, it was an event.
Miles Davis Quintet, Teatro dell'Arte, Milan, Italy, October 11th, 1964
In the early ’70s, partly responding to the direction Davis’s music was taking, jazz steered toward a marriage with rock and funk. Shorter and the pianist Joe Zawinul teamed up to start Weather Report, arguably the quintessential band of the fusion era, and kept it going for 15 solid years. In that time, Shorter also made it into the studio with rock and Brazilian popular musicians, like Joni Mitchell, Santana and Milton Nascimento. Maybe Shorter’s mind took to fusion not just out of aesthetic affinity, but because he was always a high-tech thinker and an alchemist; electronics never scared him, and authenticity felt relative. Synths? Amp stacks? Jaco Pastorius’s flanged-up electric bass taking the melody out of your hands? What was the harm?
Growing up in downtown Newark, Shorter read and wrote comics about superheroes confronting threats from the cosmos, and he and his brother Alan, also a musician, caught every movie they could at the local theater. He listened on the radio to the newest sounds in bebop, Western classical and popular music. “As weird as Wayne” became a saying in the neighborhood, as the poet and critic Amiri Baraka famously remembered, and Shorter turned it into an honorific, dubbing himself “Mr. Weird.”
Sign up for the Louder Newsletter Stay on top of the latest in pop and jazz with reviews, interviews, podcasts and more from The New York Times music critics. Get it sent to your inbox. Throughout his life, Shorter was a fierce and articulate defender of the right to stand alone — or better yet, to take risks in reliable company. Speaking in 2018 about his approach to playing with his quartet, Shorter was (as usual) both metaphorical and direct. “It’s a little thing we call trust and faith,” he said. “To me, the definition of faith is to fear nothing.”
If there is one immortal distinction Shorter can certainly claim, it’s that of being jazz’s all-time greatest aphorist. That’s not an easily earned title, in a music community full of philosophers. Blakey, for one, famously said that jazz “washes away the dust of everyday life.” Davis reminded us that it’s about “the notes you don’t play.”
But as he grew older, Shorter was a seemingly bottomless font of mystic wisdom. One of his favorite lines was: “Jazz means, I dare you.” The title of his longtime quartet’s 2013 album, “Without a Net,” was a reference to his description of how the band improvised. That band operated for close to 20 years without, he said, ever holding a rehearsal. “How do you rehearse the unknown?” he asked.
Late in his career, Shorter developed a creative partnership with one of his biggest admirers, Esperanza Spalding. They performed often together, and over a period of years they took on his last herculean goal: composing a full-length opera, “Iphigenia,” which turned Euripides’s classic Greek tragedy upside-down and adorned it with a wildly expansive score. Frank Gehry, a longtime friend of Shorter’s, designed the set, with a looming, shimmery backdrop that seemed to harmonize with the saxophonist’s vaulted arrangements.
“Iphigenia” premiered in late 2021, to a mix of rapturous raves and quizzical responses — both of which must have delighted Shorter. But the enormity of his achievements as a composer were just as apparent at a completely different opera, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones,” which had its debut at the Metropolitan Opera around the same time. With Shorter’s passing, Blanchard becomes a candidate to assume that mantle of “greatest living jazz composer.” But at “Fire,” it was clearer than ever that he wouldn’t have gotten there without the influence of Shorter; it was in the way his harmonies spread their wings out wide, hang gliding from beginning to end, asking you to ride along — daring you.
Here are nine tracks that showcase the sly invention and dark poetics of Shorter’s compositions and saxophone sound.
Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, “Sakeena’s Vision” (1960)
“Sakeena’s Vision” is one of many tunes that Shorter wrote for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, the group from which he launched his career. His later work was never as straightforwardly propulsive and blues-driven as the charts he gave to Blakey, but on “Sakeena’s Vision” you’ll hear some of his soon-to-be signatures. At the end of the melody, Shorter introduces a catchy fillip of a phrase, repeats it, then turns it over in a few different harmonic contexts. It’ll get stuck in your head — the melody, the rhythm of it, the bounce of it — but then it’ll slip away from you.
Wayne Shorter, “House of Jade” (1965)
For “Juju,” arguably the most indispensable album from Shorter’s golden period with Blue Note Records in the 1960s, he was joined by a rhythm section of Coltrane quartet veterans: McCoy Tyner on piano, Reggie Workman on bass and Elvin Jones on drums. “House of Jade” is the gentlest of the LP’s six Shorter originals, but Jones’s ever-propulsive beat and Workman’s staunch bass playing vest Shorter’s slow, elliptical melody with heavy, grinding force.
Miles Davis Quintet, “Fall” (1968)
Miles Davis’s so-called second great quintet — for which Shorter was the primary composer — quite distinctly falls into this composition, with the trumpeter acting as if he’s just remembered the melody as he goes along. The emotion of this piece, as in so many of Shorter’s tunes, is both stark and shrouded: Is it mournful? Longing? Simply dazed? Whatever that feeling is — nameable or not — you’ll find it exerts a pull.
Wayne Shorter, “Beauty and the Beast” (1975)
Somewhere between funk, jazz, MPB and a slow jam, “Beauty and the Beast” comes from “Native Dancer,” Shorter’s first album-length collaboration with the star Brazilian vocalist Milton Nascimento, and an undisputed classic in both musicians’ catalogs.
Weather Report, “Palladium” (1977)
In Weather Report, Shorter was actually the group’s secondary composer, after Joe Zawinul, but he still got in some good licks. “Palladium” is one of the group’s most fun tunes; just when you think it’s resolving, it keeps flying on, transposing up a key and ultimately finishing on a cliffhanger.
Steely Dan, “Aja” (1977)
Steely Dan was a rock band with jazzy aspirations — until the group made “Aja,” a milestone of the fusion years and their first encounter with Shorter’s slippery saxophone playing. After an impressive guitar solo by Denny Dias, Shorter’s unmistakable tenor sound comes barreling out of the darkness, like a black car emerging from a tunnel at night with its lights turned off; less than a minute later he’s finished, and the track is in a new ZIP code.
Joni Mitchell, “Paprika Plains” (1977)
Shorter joined up with Joni Mitchell for the first time in the late 1970s, and they remained lifelong friends and collaborators. On many tracks, he offers color and complement, but on “Paprika Plains” — Mitchell’s epic tribute to the Indigenous community near her Saskatchewan hometown — he doesn’t appear till almost 14 minutes in, ready to carry the song skyward to its close.
Wayne Shorter Quartet, “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean (live)” (2005)
The quartet that Shorter assembled around the turn of the new millennium was his first attempt as a bandleader to revisit and expand upon the all-things-must-explode m.o. of Davis’s 1960s quintet. Alongside the drummer Brian Blade, the bassist John Patitucci and the pianist Danilo Pérez, Shorter leans heavily on the soprano saxophone (another nod to Coltrane’s influence), and on “Adventures Aboard the Golden Mean” he uses the band at once like a meditative space and a wild loom, spinning small, motif-like themes until they are frayed and stretched and fully unspooled.
Wayne Shorter, Terri Lyne Carrington, Leo Genovese and Esperanza Spalding, “Endangered Species (live)” (2022)
Esperanza Spalding and Terri Lyne Carrington have been among the most prominent advocates for Shorter’s legacy, and in 2017 they teamed up with him — and the pianist Leo Genovese — for a major performance at the Detroit Jazz Festival. “Endangered Species” is an ’80s-era gem from Shorter’s fusion catalog, written at the tail end of his time with Weather Report, built on the tonal toggling and crooked-angle grooves that he’d often worked out with Weather Report, but released on his 1985 solo album, “Atlantis.” In 2012 Spalding set it to words and did her own version. Their performance together in Detroit was released last year, and Shorter’s gusty, restrained solo on “Endangered Species” won him the 12th — and final — Grammy in an immortal career.