The 2017 Polar Music Prize is awarded to musician and composer Wayne Shorter from Newark, New Jersey. For Wayne Shorter, music is a means of learning more about all aspects of life and the universe. He has himself aptly described his work as “drilling for wisdom”. With his soprano and tenor saxophones he is an explorer. Over the course of an extraordinary career, he has constantly sought out untravelled paths. Wayne Shorter has worked in epoch-making groups such as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis’s Second Great Quintet and Weather Report. He has played on many key albums with Joni Mitchell. As a solo artist he has been making albums for six decades, and he has written a number of the most enduring compositions in the history of jazz. Without the musical explorations of Wayne Shorter, modern music would not have drilled so deep.
Roots and Beginnings
‘Hey, man, let me get a clarinet.´
Born in Newark, New Jersey on August 25, 1933, Wayne Shorter had his first great jazz epiphany as a teenager:
“I remember seeing Lester Young when I was 15 years old. It was a Norman Granz Jazz at the Philharmonic show in Newark and he was late coming to the theater. Me and a couple of other guys were waiting out front of the Adams Theater and when he finally did show up, he had the pork pie hat and everything. So then we were trying to figure out how to get into the theater from the fire escape around the back. We eventually got into the mezzanine and saw that whole show — Stan Kenton and Dizzy Gillespie bands together on stage doing ‘Peanut Vendor,’ Charlie Parker with strings doing ‘Laura’ and stuff like that. And Russell Jacquet…Ilinois Jacquet. He was there doing his thing. That whole scene impressed me so much that I just decided, ‘Hey, man, let me get a clarinet.’ So I got one when I was 16, and that’s when I started music.”
The Newark Flash
Switching to tenor saxophone, Shorter formed a teenage band in Newark called The Jazz Informers. While still in high school, Shorter participated in several cutting contests on Newark’s jazz scene, including one memorable encounter with sax great Sonny Stitt. He attended college at New York University from 1952, while also soaking up the Manhattan jazz scene by frequenting popular nightspots like Birdland and Cafe Bohemia. Wayne worked his way through college by playing with the Nat Phipps orchestra. Upon graduating in 1956, he worked briefly with Johnny Eaton and his Princetonians, earning the nickname “The Newark Flash” for his speed and facility on the tenor saxophone.
Into the Jazz Scene
Just as he was beginning making his mark, Shorter was drafted into the Army. “A week before I went into the Army I went to the Cafe Bohemia to hear music, I said, for the last time in my life. I was standing at the bar having a cognac and I had my draft notice in my back pocket. That’s when I met Max Roach. He said, ‘You’re the kid from Newark, huh? You’re The Flash.’ And he asked me to sit in. They were changing drummers throughout the night, so Max played drums, then Art Taylor, then Art Blakey. Oscar Pettiford was on cello. Jimmy Smith came in the door with his organ. He drove to the club with his organ in a hearse. And outside we heard that Miles was looking for somebody named Cannonball. And I’m saying to myself, ‘All this stuff is going on and I gotta go to the Army in about five days!’”
Following his time in the service, Shorter had a brief stint in 1958 with Horace Silver and later played in the house band at Minton’s Playhouse in Harlem. It was around this time that Shorter began jamming with fellow tenor saxophonists John Coltrane and fellow Polar Music Prize Laureate Sonny Rollins. In 1959, Shorter had a brief stint with the Maynard Ferguson big band before joining Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers in August of that year.
The Jazz Messengers was a group of young jazz musicians led by drummer Art Blakey that performed in different constellations from the beginning of the 1950s until 1990, when Art Blakey passed away. The Jazz Messengers became a proving ground for many young musicians who started under the direction of Blakey and then continued with successful solo careers – Donald Byrd, Joanne Brackeen, Chick Corea, Freddie Hubbard and Branford Marsalis (who then played with Shorter’s fellow Polar Music Prize Laureate Sting in the 80s), to name a few.
Shorter remained with the Jazz Messengers through 1963, becoming Blakey’s musical director and contributing several key compositions to the band’s book during those years. Shorter made his recording debut as a leader in 1959 for the Vee Jay label Introducing Wayne Shorter and in 1964 cut the first of a string of important recordings for the Blue Note label.
In 1964 Miles Davis invited Wayne to go on the road. He joined Herbie Hancock (piano), Tony Williams (drums) and Ron Carter (bass) for what would become Miles Davis Second Great Quintet. This tour turned into a 6 year run with Davis in which he recorded a number albums with him. Along with Davis, he helped creating a sound that changed the face of music. In his time with Miles he crafted what have become jazz standards like “Nefertiti,” “E.S.P.,” “Pinocchio,” “Sanctuary,” “Fall” and “Footprints.”
“Wayne is a real composer…he knew that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your satisfaction and taste…”
Miles Davis, autobiography“
Simultaneous with his time in the Miles Davis quintet, Shorter recorded several albums for Blue Note Records, featuring almost exclusively his own compositions, with a variety of line-ups, quartets and larger groups including Blue Note favourites such as Freddie Hubbard. His first Blue Note album of nine in total was Night Dreamer recorded at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in 1964 with Lee Morgan, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman and Elvin Jones. The later album The All Seeing Eye was a free-jazz workout with a larger group, while Adam’s Apple of 1966 was back to carefully constructed melodies by Shorter leading a quartet. Then a sextet again in the following year for Schizophrenia with his Miles Davis band mates Hancock and Carter plus trombonist Curtis Fuller, alto saxophonist/flautist James Spaulding and strong rhythms by drummer Joe Chambers. These albums have recently been remastered by Rudy Van Gelder.
The Weather report
In 1970, Shorter co-founded the group Weather Report with keyboardist and Miles Davis alumni, Joe Zawinul. The Weather Report came to be one of the first internationally acclaimed groups introducing the jazz fusion genre, mixing jazz, rock and so called world music influences. Throughout the years, Shorter and Zawinul would be the steady members of the band, the other members shifting throughout the years, of course influencing and developing the sound. The Weather Report remained the reference fusion group through the ’70s and into the early ’80s before disbanding in 1985 after 16 acclaimed recordings, including 1980’s Grammy Award-winning double-live LP set, 8:30.
After Weather Report, Shorter continued to record and lead groups in jazz fusion styles, including touring in 1988 with guitarist Carlos Santana, who appeared on the last Weather Report disc This is This! In 1989, he scored a hit on the rock charts, playing the sax solo on Don Henley’s song “The End of the Innocence” and also produced the album Pilar by the Portuguese singer-songwriter Pilar Homem de Melo.
He also released a succession of electric jazz albums for the Columbia label — 1986’s Atlantis, 1987’s Phantom Navigator, 1988’s Joy Ryder.
1990 - 2000
In 1995, Shorter released the album High Life, his first solo recording for seven years. It was also Shorter’s debut as a leader for Verve Records. Shorter composed all the compositions on the album and co-produced it with the bassist Marcus Miller. High Life received the Grammy Award for best Contemporary Jazz Album in 1997.
Shorter would work with Hancock once again in 1997, on the much acclaimed and heralded album 1+1. The song “Aung San Suu Kyi” (named for the Burmese pro-democracy activist) won both Hancock and Shorter a Grammy Award.
In 2009, he was announced as one of the headline acts at the Gnaoua World Music Festival in Essaouira, Morocco.
The Wayne Shorter Quartet
By the summer of 2001, Wayne began touring as the leader of a talented young lineup featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade, each a celebrated recording artist and bandleader in his own right. The group’s uncanny chemistry was well documented on 2002’s acclaimed “Footprints” Live! Shorter followed in 2003 with the ambitious Alegria, an expanded vision for large ensemble which earned him a Grammy Award. In 2005, Shorter released the live Beyond the Sound Barrier which earned him another Grammy Award. “It’s the same mission…fighting the good fight,” he said. “It’s making a statement about what life is, really. And I’m going to end the line with it.”
For his 80th birthday, Shorter was back on Blue Note and released Without A Net, together with his quartet. Instead of retrospectives and best of albums, Shorter keeps looking ahead.