CONTINUING THE MESSAGE OF CHANGE: An interview with the legendary saxophonist and composer.
Many have argued that it has only been Miles Davis that has continually moved from one musical genre to another, thus forgetting that Wayne Shorter has traveled a similar path, with similar success. From the hard bop sound with Art Blakey, his free expressive tone with Miles Davis, formation of one of the most success jazz-rock groups Weather Report and along with his solo career, Wayne Shorter has demonstrated a constant need to change.
In the early sixties, he was one of the few young saxophonists to develop an individual voice in the wake of John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and has emerged as an influential figure to many of today’s jazz musicians. Equally influential as his saxophone improvisation, is his work as a composer (arguably one of the most important composers of the twentieth century), several of his compositions now being part of the standard jazz repertoire.
I caught up with a very busy Mr. Shorter on route to Japan, a country that has a special significance to him, as he explained. “The first time I went to Japan was with Art Blakey and The Jazz Messengers on the night of New Years Eve in 1950, and it was really something then. We were the first modern jazz/be-bop group to go there and the first concert we played was at a hail across from the Imperial Palace. The concert had finished at about lam, but we didn’t get out of that hall until 4am, because the whole audience made two lines and all the band members had to sign autographs”. It was his time with Art Blakey (from 1959 until 1964) that saw Wayne come to prominence and in particular the Morgan/Shorter combination proved to be highly successful with albums such as; ‘A Night In Tunisia’ (Blue Note), ‘Big Beat’ (Blue Note), and on Morgan’s highly impressive A Search For A New Land’ (Blue Note).
Furthermore, his writing soon came to dominate the Messengers repertoire. “I had an incredible time”, he said. “…yeah Lee Morgan, he was bad, his reach was something else. Miles really liked Lee, I mean when Miles was asked who did he like as a trumpeter he said Lee Morgan”. Despite being in the definitive Messenger line up Wayne believes that today’s jazz audiences are unaware of his involvement. “I don’t think the public know’, he says “…know about my connection with the Jazz Messengers, there is a blinker when I start to talk about Art Blakey, sometimes they think the word Jazz Messengers came around in the eighties. What do you think a Jazz Messenger means? I asked. ‘1 think a Jazz Messenger means you carrying the message of what it means to have the courage to step into something new. Not what some young people of today are doing by carrying on the legacy of jazz or preserve jazz from Louis Armstrong. To me, the meaning of be-bop was about adventure. To me, the preservation of the legacy of jazz means preservation of change, the spirit of breakthrough. It’s all about change, I don’t think anyone can analyze or trace the changes from the swing music to be-bop and Charlie Parker. All we know is that Charlie Parker just got a horn and started studying and practicing furiously. That’s all you kinda get. We know he was aware of Lester Young, he watched his hands and all that but there was no one that said first Charlie played like this, then he played like that, and from that he discovered be-bop. He just practiced furiously and then immediately started to play something different and that’s what I mean about change and what can happen. In these schools, such as Berkeley, they are teaching that in order to really play jazz you’ve got to know everything about the history, that’s ok but they also want to let the sound play through your mind, through your fingers, so much so, that you can perform a perfect rendition of, say Louis Armstrong, you can learn it, get the essence of it, and then move on but it seems today that if you go with a recording company, the encouragement is to resist change”.
And change he did, when Miles lured him away from Art Blakey.” When I joined Miles, immediately I didn’t play anything like I played with Art. The first day I played with Miles was at the Hollywood Bowl and after the concert the interviewer asked me ‘You’ve changed right away, how did you do that?’ because I knew about that kind of playing when I was 15, I listened to the way Miles was playing”. In his band, Wayne was able to find greater freedom and his sound began to explore new emotional and technical dimensions. He was quoted as saying, ‘With Miles I felt like a cello, I felt viola, I felt liquid…and colours really started coining’. Wayne was with Miles during his most crucial years from the classic jazz quintet of the mid-sixties (Hancock, Carter, Williams: albums; ‘ESP’, ‘Miles Smiles’, ‘Nefertiti’-all CBS) to the electric fusion that made ‘In A Silent Way’ (CBS) to the mind blowing Bitches Brew’ (CBS).”When we did ‘Bitches Brew’ we all knew that not just another stage was coming but one that was being set. But you know the changes in Bitches Brew were not far from what Charlie Parker was doing and the songs written around that time by musicians such as Cann Tameron who wrote ‘The Squirrel’.
Miles was writing melodies based on words. You see that attitude, the notes Miles was using came from notes in be-bop. You see, the dialect still existed in Bitches Brew onwards and the dialect still existed in what we did with Weather Report. The dialect of bebop and jazz was never destroyed”. However despite the music containing elements of jazz, the critics reacted harshly to what they saw as ‘selling out’. “Both, critics and musicians, because they too became critics, would say things like; ‘If it doesn’t sound like this, it isn’t jazz, you’re not preserving the purity of jazz, you won’t carry on the legacy, if you let something else in that’s not jazz, then you dilute the purity of jazz and that isn’t right”. Actually that’s also something concert promoters and record companies do, they resist change. They are going to make a certain amount of comfortable financial gain, when something stands still long enough, people get used to it, and it becomes a household product. Change has always been discouraged because like contemporary anything, anything original. Original meaning what is not expected; it’s away from the standard. It interferes with the easy access flow of royalties to composing society such as ASCAP, publishing collection agency.
They want to control the entrance, the doorway that brings in new material, because you have to work with the new material so that it becomes accepted to give them royalties. This immediate thing, especially in America, has become an infectious process that this disease called ‘instant gratification’ has run out of control. So people are encouraged to cover ‘Body & Soul’ but not ‘Paraphernalia’, I said. “Exactly, he replied, you can easily stamp on something new by throwing a hand-grenade and cripple it before it gets to the door or someone would say ‘did you hear that new thing …that’s no good’, because there is no one else already trained to support you. When you really think about it, music doesn’t actually speak for itself’.
Another change was to follow after Wayne left Miles in 1970 to set up Weather Report with Joe Zawinal and Miroslav Vitous. ‘‘I met Joe, when I was discharged from the army in 1958. We met in New York City on the corner of 52nd St and Broadway; he came from Vienna and was already in Maynard Ferguson’s band. I was no longer in Miles’ band and Joe was away from Cannon Ball Adderley. Miroslav was getting ready to join Miles Davis but we had a three way phone call and decided to get a group together and Weather Report was fanned”. It was one of the most widely influential and successful jazz-rock groups in the early seventies releasing over fifteen albums in a ten-year period. However, with continued success, the role of the soloists became weaker and weaker with more emphasis upon instrumental texture and group sound. “After a certain length of time what we were doing as Weather Report became Weather Report and it became a slogan, I said it’s time for the individual to step in front of the name and fly on”.
While with both Miles and Weather Report, Wayne pursued his own solo career releasing mainly own compositions such as; ‘Speak No Evil’ (Blue Note), ‘Adams Apple’ (Blue Note), ‘and Native Dancer’ (CBS). ‘Atlantic’ (CBS). He has recently released his debut for Verve entitled ‘High Life’, which is produced by Marcus Miller. “I feel real good about this one, it was a whole special time, and we all knew it was special, particularly when the orchestra came”.
Like Miles, Wayne has never musically looked back “I feel I should be doing what’s going to come, I mean I should do what I’m called to do, the voices, the magnet pulling me towards the next galaxy. It’s like being born, meaning would I like to be born again in the year 1600? that’s how serious it is. People should try to do something different. Let’s see what’s in that dark place, you light the candle and you see something totally different- it’s not what they told either you or me”.
Donald Palmer (aka The Jazz Defekta) for ukvibe issue 17 1996