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Wayne Shorter

by Mel Martin
Reprinted from The Saxophone Journal
Volume 16, Number 4
January/February 1992
 
Wayne Shorter is one of the most unique and influential saxophonists and composers performing today. He has spawned a whole new generation of musicians whose musical efforts reflect his profound and lasting influence. His career spans several generations, from his early VeeJay and Blue Note recordings, through his work with Art Blakey and Miles Davis, as well as his work with the seminal fusion group Weather Report, and his own very creative groups. I was able to catch up with Wayne at a concert with Herbie Hancock at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California. It was the first time Wayne and Herbie had played together in an acoustic setting in quite some time and was a delight to hear them as they explored some well worn standards. They came up with some of the most interesting music I've heard in a while. They were on the same bill as the Mike Brecker band and some others. Wayne had just that day purchased a 75,000 series Mark VI tenor and this was his first opportunity to try it out. In the dressing room backstage Mike, Herbie, and I were all admiring this instrument which, for all practical purposes, looked brand new with the original lacquer intact.

More recently, I heard Wayne performing with his own band at Kimball's East, and once again was blown away by his absolute creativity in what is loosely regarded as a "fusion" context. He was also playing a tenor which he had previously owned, and had it gold plated. He was playing compositions from different parts of his career with as much freshness and vitality as one could. Wayne has a kind of poetic and creative way of speaking which I've attempted to capture in print, however, one really has to hear the inflections and tonal qualities inherent in his human voice to appreciate the full meaning of his words: much as the way he plays. This interview covers a wide range of topics including many reflections on his contacts with some of the great saxophonists that were his mentors, as well as his views on making music. The conversation begins, appropriately enough, on the subject of saxophones.


The Mark VII is a very heavy horn. It makes you use muscles that are not necessary. Your muscles get tired; muscles that don't even lead to your fingers.
 
Johnny Griffin was telling that he was playing one and the sleeves of his clothes would get caught in the side keys. He said it played good, but it messed him up.

Uh-huh. And also the high register top notes had a tendency to crack. It's just not a thoughtfully built instrument. The one I have now I just got today. It was built somewhere around the late fifties or early sixties. That's the kind of horn I had when I was with Art Blakey and Miles Davis. All horns are different, but I heard this particular one had sat under the bed of a grandfather for twenty years. A lady walked in the store with the horn and said, 'Her grandfather's horn was up for grabs.' The store owner knew right away that was one of those saxophones that has "it," whatever "it" is. I think Coltrane had one of those horns.
 
He had a Selmer Balanced Action didn't he? But later on he got a VI. That certain vintage of Mark VI was certainly a good one.

Yeah, it makes you feel like a violin player. It makes your hands feel like you're doing something violinistic or pianistic. Other horns made today are geared toward some kind of honking and rock 'n rollish, muscular chainsaw results on the bandstand. Why not have that Stradavarius spirit with every instrument? Every instrument should be a Stradavarius according to the desire of the player. People have different desires. Some don't even care. It's good to know that there is a workmanship that's equal to performance. Or there was workmanship that existed that in my estimation is equal to the highest performance that someone can do with or without an instrument. I don't know what happened to all that. Maybe there were some patent arguments; people wanting to copy that and not paying the royalties due. I bet if I look it up there was a court suit and all that.
 
I don't know. I think maybe it has a lot to do with manufacturing costs and the care it takes to make a good instrument. The guy making it really has to follow it through.

The Mark VII I have is good. It has another kind of sound, heavy kind of sound. The first horn I ever played was a Martin. I remember playing that horn on a stage with Sonny Rollins in Newark, New Jersey at a place called Sugar Hill. I was in the Army and I had a weekend off. This was when Max Roach and Sonny Rollins were playing together, right after when Clifford Brown died. I walked into the club in uniform and Max waved to me to come on up, but I went home and changed clothes first (laughter). We played Cherokee real fast. A guy named Pete Lonesome recorded that. What a name! He was from West Virginia and as far as I know he still has that recording somewhere. Pete, please contact this magazine. He put the mic right on the stage. Pete Lonesome. Anyway, the saxophones I had were ripped off from me. Three times. One time I was with Coltrane. We went from New York to New Jersey. He had a gig there with Miles Davis and he wanted me to ride with him. He asked me to come over to his house a lot at that time, and that night he had a gig. He said that the last time he was at this place somebody stole his horn. It's a funny thing. I went into that same place a later time with Art Blakey and The Messengers, and wouldn't you know somebody stole my horn, Curtis Fuller's trombone, his raincoat and his goulashes! He said, 'What would somebody want with my goulashes?' His driver's license and all that was taken also. He didn't feel so bad when I told him someone took 'Trane's horn too. Then he calmed down. When I was with Miles' band somebody stole my horn from the limousine in which it was locked. It was a professional job. They stole it, and relocked the car. Miles said, (Wayne imitates Miles' raspy voice) 'That's the shit. Professional!' (laughter) But he helped me to get a new horn. He laid some bread on me because we were working non-stop then, and I got the horn. I paid him back real fast. He was surprised.

I remember one night you were playing with Blakey at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco and you had an old Bundy that was falling apart, with rubber bands and glue and Art came over and asked me if you could use my Selmer, which you did for a set.

Yeah, and that's when I joined Miles, with that Bundy. He called me and said, 'Come to California.' I was living in New York at the time. Miles said, 'Bring what you've got.' He sent me a first-class ticket and I flew to California. Within a couple of days we walked on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. But before we walked out, he said, 'Do you know my music?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, "Uh, oh!" So we went out and the first thing we started off with was Joshua. I played the harmony parts with him. We went through a lot of things and I knew them all. I had worked on that music at home, plus I had been checking Miles out since I was fifteen, as well as Bird. Including the body English and the sound and how the two played together. I got a lot of my ensemble work together with Lee Morgan and other people.

I've got your first record on Veejay Records, 'Introducing Wayne Shorter' and Lee's on there, as well as Wynton Kelly, Paul Chamber, Jimmy Cobb. There must have been at least four or five of your compositions that nobody's ever heard since. Hardly anybody plays them, but they are really good compositions. You're one of the most prolific writers. I went through my record collection, knowing we were going to get together, just to think about things. I must have more records with you on them than any other single player, and I've got a large collection. You've had a very prolific career and I admire it greatly. I've also been checking out your new records which are a whole new step. Maybe you could talk a bit about what you've been doing with your own bands. It seems to me that you're obviously having a great time exploring the new technology and the new instruments which are available.

Yeah, just having some fun. What seems like new music is only what I already thought of in the first place. The word "jazz" means to me no category, but when you get stuck into wanting to do something the way it was with the "jazz emblem" or logo chained around your neck, you play in a frozen moment in time and you keep fermenting the 'fifties saying jazz should be this way or that. Well, if jazz to me means no category, then I've got the green light And if it sounds like.. sounds like.. sounds like, and keeps crossing over, it's what I wanted to do in the first place. I like the way Stravinsky and those guys did things. They expressed something, if not themselves. In fact, some people talk about expression, but expression really doesn't mean anything to me because there's a lot of work which goes into building a drama and then it's up to other people to offer "expression." Expression is such a nebulous thing.
 
I have seen some of your scores and it's some of the most detailed music I've ever seen. So I know what you do is not a random thing that just falls off accidently. It's some- thing that you've thought about in great detail.

I'd say composing is improvisation slowed down. I'm working on something now that I'm trying to finish. If you want to call it classical, go ahead. I won't even have to play on it. It's for full orchestra and we did part of it in Japan already. Richard Stolzman was the guest soloist. He and I played together with the New Japan Orchestra, which is Seji Ozawa's workshop or home orchestra. In that orchestra there were Europeans and everything, all mixed, not just people indigenous of Japan. We had fun, and they recorded it somewhere with the microphone under the stage, so I've got the first seven minutes of it. I'm working on it now and I'll complete it soon. When I was with CBS, they were talking about Sir George Solti conducting this piece. I'm not with CBS now. I had a manager who ended it while I was on the road. When the cat's away, the mice will play type of relationship. That happens all over, managers dealing and piling up contracts and they say, 'Well, we keep you working!' Now I'm record contract free and manager free.
 
I'd be interested in knowing how you feel about a lot of the current generation of; let's use the term jazz players, but there's a lot of young cats who are really paying their obligation to you both in compositions and in playing. I hear it a lot. There are older cats, too, but in my understanding, the young generation, the "Marsalis generation" let's call it, is heavily influenced by you. How do you feel about that? You must have noticed?

Well, it's almost the same as a lot of these classical composers who think, where do you go after Stravinsky? In the world of music, you don't hear any real explosive turn of events. I think the place where you might hear something explosive like that would be in jazz action.
 
But there hasn't been any real explosions in jazz for at least twenty, maybe twenty-five years.


Right, but I'm saying that should be a place where you can expect something like that to happen. What I think was happening was in the whole spectrum of musical styles and everything. There is an inconspicuous change that doesn't always have to be explosive. I heard a song written and sung by Melissa Manchester. I always liked Melissa, and this song she did at this five hour show called our Common Future with John Denver, Christopher Reeves (Superman), Diana Ross, Herbie and Joni Mitchell and those people. Melissa did a song early in the program. I was just talking with her yesterday. She was saying she doesn't write a whole bunch of music, what she writes is usually simple, and what she's aiming at writing now is for adults. In this song she made the hair on hairless people move (laughter). We didn't come on until last, so we went back to the hotel to watch the beginning. The phone would ring, 'Did you hear that?' We had a suite and people would knock on every door saying, 'Did you hear that song by Melissa Manchester?' Later on my wife met her backstage and my wife grabbed me and said, 'This is Melissa.' I said, 'Who wrote that?' Melissa said, 'I did.' I gave her a hug and said, 'I want it!' She just sent it to me last week. This song she wrote is a departure from her "Woodstock Superstar Rock 'n Roll" stature. It's called Sometimes I Feel Sorry For God. It's not recorded yet, so she sent me the demo. I think I'm going to cover it. It's a moving song. It really touched everybody. So, it's that kind of inconspicuous evolution that's going on. It makes it's mark just as much as an explosion. If an explosion happens, it kind of means that everybody's dumb because they didn't see it coming.
 
Musicians like yourself obviously were influenced by certain elements, but your talents were fully formed by the time you hit the scene as far as I could judge from your first album. And I heard you right along from when you were first with Blakey through Miles. Your talent has always been there as an individual. You're very identifiable as an individual in your writing and in your playing. A lot of cats now are checking out what's gone before them almost to the point of not developing their own individuality as much. When Ornette hit the scene there was a real individual, like when 'Trane hit the scene, and when Sonny hit the scene. You knew from the time those guys were nineteen years old that they were strong individuals making strong statements. You just don't seem to see that as much any more. There's some really strong young players.

Most of the players, when they hit the scene, were really well versed in Charlie Parker. Sonny Rollins still has the respect. I can hear it in the spiritual respect that he adheres to when he was digging Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
  Mel Marti & Wayne Shorter
That's what Joe Henderson said, that in Detroit you knew every Charlie Parker tune, even to just show up at a jam session. In fact, it goes back to Lester Young.

The great players listened to Lester Young. I've been checking him out since I was about fifteen. When I was in the Army I got ten days off, so I went to Canada, and he was playing at the Town Tavern. During intermission he came down to where I was standing at the bar, the place was packed, and he said to me, 'You look like you're from New York.' I had a pin-strip suit on (laughter). I was trying to get a drink at the bar and he said, 'Do you want some Cognac?' I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Let's go down to the wine cellar and get some real cognac!' He grabbed two big water glasses and went down there. I went back to camp and I told these people. They said, 'You were talking with Lester Young?' And then about five weeks after that he passed away. I also knew his niece, Martha Young, who has passed away. I also saw him walking in at a theater in Newark, New Jersey. It was called The Grand Auditorium at that time, but it's now called The Masonic Hall. He was late. Everybody was up on the bandstand playing: Charlie Christian, Stan Kenton's band, Charlie Parker, and all that. He was walking through the theater lobby with a kind of upward slope on his pork-pie hat, a long coat with wrangling sleeves and what we called Studebaker shoes, and he was moving just as slow as he wanted to, you know. He had the look on his face like, 'Hey, isn't this the way it's supposed to be?'
 
You know Sonny Rollins, and you also knew Coleman Hawkins. Could you share some interesting stories about these two jazz greats?

Sonny Rollins and I talked quite a bit when were on the road in Japan riding the bullet train, the busses and all that. We didn't talk about music all that much. We talked about health and being healthy. He'd say, 'you've got to take care of your health!' We talked about the time he fell off of the stage. His wife, Lucille, is always with him and was very concerned. He was still carrying his tenor and soprano while getting on the bullet train. I said, 'Sonny, haven't you got anybody to carry that for you?' He said, 'Instead of eight weeks, I'll make it two weeks.' Sonny doesn't like to do long tours any more.
Coleman Hawkins and I used to sit together all the time we were on the road in Europe years ago. He'd say, 'Get yourself a mouthpiece made,' in a gruff voice. He was into custom made mouthpieces.
 
John Coltrane was a big influence on you. You mentioned earlier that you used to practice with him?

Yes, when I left the Army I was working with Horace Silver, like for a couple of weeks. We were working at this one place in New York and this lady came up to me and said, 'My name is Anita. My husband wants to meet you.' I was back in the kitchen working on my horn and she went back and got her husband, who was John Coltrane. She said, 'He likes what you're doing.' He said to me, 'You're playing that funny stuff, all over the horn.' He invited me to his house, so I went. It was very nice to meet him because I knew he was the only one that was on to something musically that was moving. When I was in the Army we used to go to DC and see Miles with 'Trane and Cannonball. So I went to his house, and they wouldn't let me leave! They were cooking and we'd sit and talk about life, and he'd play the piano, and then stop, and then we'd compare horns. He'd say, 'That's a nice horn, but if you can get one of those old mouthpieces ... I think you have to shake that horn up, separate the molecules.' I later looked around horn shops for the kind of old Link mouthpiece he recommended. Anyway, after that, John called me, Freddie Hubbard, and some other people to work with him at Birdland on a Monday night. The group opposite them was Cannonball's group. They were both still with Miles, but that was their off night. People twenty-five years after that said, 'That was a hell of a night!'
 
So it was you, 'Trane and Freddie .

Yeah, and Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and George Tucker. And then who walked in the door but Elvin Jones, so he sat down on the drums. We were playing all this new stuff. We were actually playing Giant Steps.. John had written Giant Steps by then. I was like walking through it. And then we did some standards. Cannonball's group would come on with the rhythm and blues thing, then we'd come back on with the new thing, looking to the future. After that, John said he wanted to leave the Miles Davis group and move on. He told me, 'The gig is yours if you want it.' But, that's about the time I joined Art Blakey instead.
 
You had been with Maynard Ferguson a little bit, right? Did you ever play with Monk?

Hmm... maybe one time sitting in at The Five Spot with Art, but I can't remember many details. I played with Bud Powell once at the Olympia Theater in Paris. It's a recording.
 
Were those musicians much of an influence on you? To me, you are as individualistic as Monk was. You're
both composers and idiomatic in your own right. Was Monk much of an influence on you?

I liked what Monk was doing. It was very spiritual to state what you're going to state and not just jump on a band wagon. Monk would say, 'Stick to your guns.' Musical influence for me came from movies, the way people acted on the screen or the stage. I would think, 'I want to do something the way Humphrey Bogart did in that movie.' When Marlon Brando would do something I'd say, 'Wow, play that!' Or a total movie that was done well and got into your life. I'd get so into the film I'd forgot I was in the theater. The idea is to transcend music. And also to transcend the academia of music. Something else manifests, something else takes place. Theoretically you can say that any sound is neutral, but with the human element and the response or reaction, any song begs to differ.
 
Then you're saying there's something beyond the mechanics of music. You're looking to find that other element and to literally play to it.

Yes. Like when you get in a cab sometimes and people know that you are a musician, they will turn to a music station right away. We were driving to the our Common Future thing, and Andy Summers from the band The Police was sitting next to me. When the driver turned on the radio, Andy said, (using a British accent) 'Would you mind turning that off please? I'd rather listen to the music of life for a change?' I don't play music (recordings) when I am at home. One thing I could never do is play something over and over again. If I have it, I know it's there to be played over and over, but to actually confirm this "something" the value of playing it over and over and over again is like a web that's spun but you can't get out of it. When you become neutral the music is more alive than you. That goes for anything, even eating too much ice cream. The ice cream is very much alive, but you're dead. The same with liquor, cocaine, and drugs, dwelling on something so that you have to end up in an institution.
 
You don't want to lay that on the music. Some people get very attached to what they are trying to do, and it's an easy trap to fall into; to get so involved with that music.

Three attachments usually need to suffer. That's what a guy named Sokyamuni said about three thousand years ago in India. I don't usually talk about music that much. I'm doing a lot of drawing and painting now.
 
As I remember, you did cartoons as a youngster. I've seen these somewhere. You had mentioned to someone I know that you had your original cartoons laminated so they would be saved.

Yes, I'm doing a lot of that now as to make an effort to put 100% of myself into all the other aspects of living.
Photo of Wayne Shorter and Mel Martin by Catey Martin
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