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Artist Profile: Saxophonist Wayne Shorter


Wayne Shorter Jazz Saxophone
© Rick Diamond / Getty Images

August 25th, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey

Jazz Saxophonist and Composer

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter has been active as a performer since the late 1950s, when hard bop was the prominent sound in jazz. His style of improvisation always carried with it a sense of looking beyond the fashionable trend, constantly searching for the next new way to approach jazz. Throughout his career, Shorter's concept earned him regular spots in some of the most notable bands in jazz history. He continues to forge new paths in music to this day, as leader of the new Wayne Shorter Quartet.

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933. He learned clarinet and saxophone as a teenager, and studied music education at New York University. When he graduated in 1956, he was infatuated with the sound of John Coltrane, whose star was on the ascendancy at the time, and who would later be Shorter's mentor and friend. After college, and on either side of a stint in the army, Shorter played briefly with iconic musicians such as pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson. In 1959, he got his first big break when he joined drummer Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

While he was a member of the Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis invited Shorter to become a member of his quintet. Coltrane, who had been a fixture in Miles’ group since the 1955, left in 1960 to lead his own band. Shorter initially declined Miles’ invitation, but finally accepted in 1964. The band was then composed of pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter, and drummer Tony Williams. With Shorter in the fold, the quintet drew a wide audience, left a permanent mark on jazz musicians, and is now considered one of the greatest bands in jazz history.

Miles’ group made it a point to experiment with form and harmony, and Shorter was encouraged to stretch his boundaries as an improviser. He also developed his voice as a composer. The pieces he wrote for the quintet, including “Footprints,” “E.S.P,” and “Nefertiti” are permanent fixtures of the modern jazz songbook. Shorter’s solos began to stray away from the conventions of bebop, by incorporating more space, longer lines, and motivic development. His writing and playing from the mid 1960s was captured on records he made as a leader, including JuJu (Blue Note 1964), and Speak No Evil (Blue Note 1965).

As the 1960s wore on, Miles Davis began to weave funk music and free improvisation into his compositions. Shorter left Miles’ group in 1970 to embrace these trends and to form his own group, Weather Report, along with keyboardist Joe Zawinul and bassist Miroslav Vitous. The music, which fused jazz with electronic music, funk, and rock, came to be known as “fusion.” Around this time, Shorter began to favor the soprano saxophone.

While Shorter led Weather Report, which lasted through 1985, he also recorded with pop acts such as Steely Dan and Joni Mitchell, bringing his sound to mainstream audiences. At the peak of his stardom, he continued recording with popular artists such as Don Henley and Carlos Santana, and also with jazz legends and former band mates Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.

Beginning in 2000, Shorter began performing and recording with his new quartet, featuring pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci, and drummer Brian Blade. The group plays sweeping pieces with a focus on musical freedom and expressionism. The quarter has released the albums Footprints Live! in 2002, Alegria in 2003, and Beyond the Sound Barrier in 2005. The latter two albums won Grammys for Best Instrumental Jazz Albums in 2004 and 2006 respectively. Shorter’s soprano and tenor solos are as spirited and fresh today as they were over 50 years ago.

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