Wayne Shorter: one of the last modernists

    The novel arrangements of harmony and melody in the saxophonist’s early 1960s work formed a landmark in the last decades of jazz modernism

    Wayne Shorter in London in 1975. Photo © Brian O'Connor

    Sometime in the 1990s, in the wake of the hard-bop revival of the early 1980s, some article asked British jazz journalists where jazz was going and who were the current pathfinders, those to equal such paradigm shifters as Armstrong, Ellington, Parker, Davis and Coltrane. The consensus was that there was none, that jazz was more or less in a period of consolidation, with no major advance and no rallying central stylist. Jazz postmodernism had arrived and has largely prevailed for three decades, with retrospection dominant and the old (or a mixture of the old) – celebrated for its “timeless”, historical value or presented as new by careless publicists. Witness, too, the new demand for vinyl, reflecting in part a hunger for an “authentic” past, and perhaps inadvertently betraying a suspicion that innovation ended there. The clear-eyed, or cynical, or both, might sense stylistic stagnation.

    The question – “what’s new?” – presupposes (not unreasonably, given the evidence) that jazz until 1980 or so was a series of musical advances, essentially from musical simplicity to complexity, coloured by innovations in technology, especially from the 1960s onwards. Under that interpretation, the early 1960s Blue Note work of Wayne Shorter, who died 2 March, was a landmark in the last decades of jazz modernism, its innovations pointing towards the structures developed in Weather Report and other so-called “fusion” bands in the 1970s and 1980s.

    Given the relaxed, melodic quality in much of his music, Shorter might be perceived as a minimalist. Mark C. Gridley, in typically lucid form in his Jazz Styles: History And Analysis (1985) noted that during the early 60s Shorter expunged bop licks from his playing, developed an economic “floating” phraseology and extended his range of peculiarly saxophonic expressive devices, using various kinds of attack and tonal manipulation.

    However, as a youth, in a household resonating to pop standards, country and western and gospel music, Shorter had identified with the intense complexity of bebop when he first heard it on Martin Block’s WNEW radio programme Make Believe Ballroom.

    He told me in a 1986 Jazz Journal interview: “Bebop was the word that was hitting me, and the music had a velocity in there, something that meant more than music to me. It was the same kind of velocity that would go on in certain sections of a symphony, but with bebop, this velocity was all in a box – you could take it in your lunch pail!” Later, after high school, he would lie in bed, tuned to the classical station, because the music was complicated: “It had to be music with a lot of stuff going on. I would confirm to myself what was going on, and then go to sleep. Instead of trying to transcribe what I heard I thought ‘Go write your own stuff.’”

    So he did. Although Bird licks might have gone from his solo lines he retained complexity in his song forms. He had a knack for writing tunes – for example, Witch Hunt, Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum and Speak No Evil – that conformed to rondo structure and fitted on a one-page lead sheet like any songbook standard but employed complex harmonic sequences never heard before in jazz.

    Where did the style come from? Shorter was notoriously opaque when asked about musical nuts and bolts, referring me in 2002 to Miles Davis’s advice that jazzers should look at the way John Wayne walks and turns a corner and try to play it, and telling me in that 1986 interview that if anything was behind his 1960s masterpieces “it was like a wish that was manifested musically: maybe a wish for eternity or a beautiful girl”.

    But in 1996 he gave me somewhat more concrete information about his structures: “When people used to say that I wrote a melody, and the harmony was far away from the melody, I’d sometimes discover that the melody and chords, seemingly far away, are more organically close to the melody even if the melody is a seventh away from the chords. So that’s what I think I was always doing, hearing that oddity.”

    Shorter compositions from this time often marry sequences of functional, diatonic harmony with sections where the melody is drawn from the tones of a series of diatonically unrelated chords – effectively treating chords modally and tying them together with a strong but simple melodic line. The chord sequences were new, in jazz at least.

    However, in the same interview he added: “I don’t have a monopoly on that.” He might have meant other jazz composers were interested in “oddity” and went on to note that Monk was “the only other odd composer” (though Monk didn’t step away from functional harmony). But he might also have been referring to his classical background. While doing a fine arts major at high school in Newark in 1950-51 (he was supposed to have become a painter) he minored in music with Achilles D’Amico and then (to “see my mother and father smile”) spent four years at New York University learning to be a music teacher.

    Classical procedures undoubtedly filtered into his jazz writing, but music and sound effects from the cinema, especially sci-fi, were an abiding influence, and might explain the expansive, imagistic quality in his music.

    “I think it started with going to the movies. My brother and I used to get up in the middle of the night, at two or three o’clock. We’d sit up in the bed and rock back and forth and imitate what we had heard in the movies. Like, the sound effects – we’d soundtrack the things we’d seen.” He added: “You might say that floating thing of mine is the kind of thing I like through the whole history of movie soundtracks.”

    Two sounds that probably didn’t filter into his writing were the “sanctified church music” his father put on on Sunday morning (“I had to leave the room, get out of the house”) and (notwithstanding cowboy John Wayne’s pivotal role in the development of the Miles Davis style) the C&W he put on in the person of Crash Corrigan (“I suppose the nearest I got to separating music would to isolate cowboy music”).

    Shorter’s eclecticism survived the loss of country and gospel music. Of his first composition, at 17, to a girl “who was thought of as being very difficult to date”, Shorter said: “It wasn’t blues, it wasn’t rhythm ’n’ blues, it was something . . . it didn’t sound like any of the standard song forms.”

    His stylistic promiscuity got him into trouble at NYU: “One of the teachers – her husband wrote for movies in Hollywood – was Medina Scoville. She gave us an assignment sometime to compose something and we had to go and sit at the piano and play, and when I’d struggled through playing the one I wrote – it was only something like 16 measures or something – she stopped me and said ‘You know, you’ve gone through three different styles already,’ and we were supposed to write something in one style. She said: ‘You know, there may be a way to mix styles and really tell a story. Someday, maybe, but try to get one at a time right now.’ I didn’t have a chance to tell her, but I heard everything all together, every style together. They were like starting somewhere like romantic, going into a little bit of impressionistic and into a contemporary, modern style.”

    Scoville’s “someday” did materialise when one of Shorter’s classroom pieces provided the opening phrase for Elegant People, his 1975 composition for Weather Report’s Black Market album.

    Shorter’s affinity with movie music doubtless informed the epic vistas, irregular structures and evocative soundscapes of Weather Report and of his solo fusion albums in the 80s, Atlantis, Phantom Navigator and Joy Ryder. But innovator though he was then, he did appear frequently in the new millennium with a traditional piano trio. The music was, however, largely focused on loose interpretation, unlike in his 60s combos, perhaps sustaining the idea of forward motion.

    In 1996, I asked him if he would regard it as a regression to again play his early 60s compositions. He indicated he didn’t have much time for the revivalism of the day and underlined his commitment to new technology, coming full circle with his teenage fascination with sci-fi. The modernist, it seemed, prevailed.

    “Not a regression, but it’s not what I consider preserving the spirit of jazz. For me, preserving the spirit of jazz means change. That’s what jazz is – breakthrough. And for all those young people who want to play like something that was played before, to preserve it, I would say maybe it’s better to preserve the process of discovery.

    “Some might say ‘Why can’t we have those days with the stagecoach?’ I’m not gonna go from London to Manchester by stagecoach! Unless the name of that rocket ship was called Stagecoach!”

    Wayne Shorter, b. Newark, NJ, 25 August 1933; d. Los Angeles, 2 March 2023