When saxophonist Wayne Shorter first came on the scene, he was known as the "Newark Flash." The name was apt. Brilliant and fast with an extensive knowledge of superhero lore, Shorter arrived ready to be heard. But for more than half of his life now, Shorter has been a resident of Los Angeles.
At 82 years old, it is unlikely Shorter is answering to any nicknames but he does answer his phone early in the morning. "From where I live I can see the ocean, Century City," he told me recently. "I can see Catalina. I'm way up on top. At night, the sky, man, the shapes and everything. It's really happening."
In conversation, Shorter is elastic and tangential; he is amused at his ideas and not unafraid to share his opinions (He doesn't care for Kurt Vonnegut but is looking forward to the new "Star Wars" movie. Of the film "Whiplash," he says "It's an essay on how not to be."). The top of the hills is an appropriate place for Shorter to dwell because he has ascended to a level of mastery far beyond what most jazz musicians will ever glimpse.
After graduating from NYU and accruing some post-graduate work in a set of fatigues, Shorter hit the ground running in the mid 1950s, racking up time with pianist Horace Silver and trumpeter Maynard Ferguson before spending five years as a fixture of the legendary Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey.
It was with Blakey that Shorter first saw Los Angeles. "I thought it was nice. It seemed like people had more space in between them. But I realized that no matter where I am, the environment should not really matter. An environment should not dictate your destiny."
He closed out the latter part of the 1960s as part of the Miles Davis Quintet alongside pianistHerbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams, before springing into the 1970s with his band Weather Report, the definitive jazz fusion band. In 1973, amidst the skyrocketing success of that band, he moved here hoping to provide a better environment for his epileptic daughter who eventually succumbed to the affliction while only a teenager.
With a touring schedule that allowed him to live anywhere (or nowhere, really) Shorter stayed on his perch, dispensing with new and challenging ideas for anyone ready to engage. The Thelonious Monk Institute, one of the largest and most influential jazz organizations, offers jazz outreach, a fully-accredited graduate jazz studies program and an annual competition that has helped to launch the careers of talented up-and-comers like Kris Bowers and Joshua White. The organization is currently housed at UCLA and is one of those places where Shorter has recently been spending a lot of time.
"I think Monk would've OKed it," Shorter says about the Institute's mission. "I knew Monk. We spent some time with him over the years especially when I worked with Art Blakey. Those two were buddies. I think Monk would've said go ahead with it. He wanted jazz to pierce the future but not forget something called foundation. Don't cut the bridges behind you and drop all of that for the sake of future-sound."
Shorter first became involved with the Institute during a fundraiser for then president Bill Clinton. Clinton, a saxophonist who no doubt was influenced by Shorter's great 1960s "Blue Note" releases, proved to be a giddy fan. At last year's Institute competition, Clinton came on stage to receive an award from Quincy Jones and Hancock. Before accepting it, he went out of his way to greet Shorter who was sitting in the darkness, watching the pageantry. "One time I got a telephone call," remembers Shorter, "Clinton's staff called to see if I knew a reliable dealer to send him a birthday present of a saxophone stand."
In a bold move, Holophonor, a group formed from the most recent graduates from the Monk program, asked Shorter if he would produce their most recent album. He was happy to lend his ears but mostly let things run their course.
"When I was there, I didn't say much," he remembers. "I said 'yeah' or 'that's cool' but they decide the final takes and all that stuff. They are doing it themselves and that is the object. Somebody introduced a producer to Miles once. They said, 'Miles, this is the great producer so-and-so' and Miles said: 'Produce what? As a producer of oranges and fruit, stuff like that?' It's kind of like let's make up a job called 'producer.' Then we can funnel this money. Maybe you can even drive the truck, drive the artistic ship."
Shorter still tours regularly with his quartet, challenging audiences with a collective improvisation that dances with the ethereal and blinks with synchronistic sorcery. After more than 60 years onstage, he is still happily reaching for the unknowable with horn in hand.
"There was always a lot at stake," he says. "In hindsight, I can see it more clearly. The trap-door is becoming gratified in a moment, of believing that you are there wherever there is in the world. You're there and somebody else is not there. You have reached a place lots of people haven't reached. To be in a state of glorified bliss, that's a trap. A big trap. To realize that humbling oneself sincerely, going through that process of being humble, to realize that awards are OK but to reveal oneself in front of an audience... Take off all your awards. Go on the stage naked. Or your pajamas. And go out there and do what you can do to inspire something greater than yourself."