The Joyous Gift of Wayne
In the world of jazz, you know you have reached the level of Icon when you can be referred to by one word: Pops, Louis (same guy!), Bird, Diz, Gil, Duke, Basie, Trane, Slide, Ella, Sarah, etc and et al. Also included on this rarefied list of masters is the wonderful imagineer of jazz who left us last week: Wayne Shorter (or simply: “Wayne.”)
I never personally had the honor of working with Wayne or getting to know him, but I certainly felt his profound influence — as did everyone in the jazz community. As early as my teens, I was aware that there was a genius writing and playing in the world that was unique and quite special indeed named Wayne Shorter. Even as a part of the intrinsically unique and special world that constitutes jazz, Wayne stood out as even more unique and special! Here was someone who came from the mold of John Coltrane (Trane) but sounded completely like himself–instantly recognizable! And as I quickly learned, his deeply thoughtful and ingenious compositions followed a logic that only Wayne could fathom that somehow made perfect sense to everyone that played and heard them. A completely original voice in an art form that prizes originality.
As mentioned earlier, I never worked with Wayne or even met him, but I did stand right next to him once. In 1982 when I was on the road with Maynard (another one-word icon with whom Wayne actually played with for awhile in the 1960s and where he met Joe Zawinul) we played a big festival at the Hollywood Bowl. On the bill with us was Weather Report who were practically deities back then. Between shows, I went to the men’s room backstage to “return some rented coffee” when I found myself standing next to THE Wayne Shorter who was also returning a beverage at the urinals. Somehow I plumbed the depths of a hitherto untapped reserve of good judgement and did not take that moment to introduce myself to the great man (how does one shake hands in such a situation? Just sayin…) but chose instead to simply bask in his presence.
I was once again struck by how much Wayne permeated the jazz community when I first moved to Denton, Texas to begin work on my masters at UNT. At a gathering of jazz students at the apartment I shared with trombonists Rodney Lancaster and Mike Burgess, the door suddenly flew open to reveal young trombone great Joe Jackson who was carrying an LP. “Cats!” he announced. “The new Wayne Aebersold is here!” This was greeted with loud cheers of great gladness from all assembled. Jamey Aebersold (himself a one word icon) had created a series of “Play-a-Long” records in the early 1970s, now known as “backing tracks” for jazz musicians to use as practice tools. The particular album that Joe was referring to was made up of all Shorter compositions and therefore highly prized by all the aspiring jazz greats. Iconic indeed.
And Wayne had another delightful gear as well. A wonderful tribute by biographer Michelle Mercer appeared recently on NPR titled “The Lessons of Wayne Shorter, Engine of Imagination.” In this piece (that I highly recommend you check out) we learn lots about Wayne’s delightful habit of regaling people with arcane and magical philosophy, and general quirky- yet-full-of-wisdom “Wayne-isms.” For instance, he embraced the early description of his playing as “scrambled eggs” by talking about Trane and himself as being “the egg scramblers.” As Mercer points out, another great example is when Wayne told an interviewer “I’m not into composition, I’m into decomposition.” I’ve heard of many of these enigmatic pretzel logic Wayne sayings over the years, but one of the coolest stories I have ever heard (that blows my mind to this day) came from the great drummer and Weather Report band mate of Wayne’s, Peter Erskine. Peter was visiting at the University of North Texas for our annual Gomez Artist Series and I of course asked him about his time with Wayne. Erskine then told me a completely unexpected story about Wayne that began with “You know what man? Wayne had the best Boris Karloff imitation!” To which I answered “Wait, what?” Peter continued: “Yeah, he would do Karloff bowling! (demonstrating in the voice of Karloff as he approached an imaginary bowling lane…) “Watch me now as I skillfully take care of this split…” MAN, that cracked me up!
I can only imagine what it was like to be around this profoundly wise, playful, generous, and deeply gifted soul on a daily basis as Peter had. Just knowing about him and studying his music has made me a better musician. His contributions to our art border on the metaphysical and we, as a people, are far less without his living presence amongst us. But as with all things in art, we have his wonderful body of work to listen to and to cherish.
There are far too many great examples of Wayne’s genius to list here, so I will share but one. Joni Mitchell did a breathtakingly beautiful rendition of her classic song “Both Sides Now” on her album of the same name released in 2000. On this particular iteration of her well known composition, I feel that you can hear in her voice the older wisdom of experiential knowledge as she artfully renders each lyric with special heartbreak, angst, and acceptance. To add to this, the great Vincent Mendoza orchestrates an almost impossibly beautiful string accompaniment that I am in awe of. And on top of everything else, seemingly floating above it all like the last leaf of autumn, Wayne’s soprano sax offers up the perfect commentary. Every time I hear this, I am so touched by what Wayne does not play as much as I am by the perfect notes that he does choose to play. When he sounds the final moment of the song, it is only then that we realize we have arrived at tonic as he lands on the major third. Incredible! Taken as a whole, this track never fails to make my cry…and it always feels great.
Thank you for everything Wayne! Godspeed to you, Sir. We are all very, very glad that you were born.