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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Monday, August 15, 2005

Financial Express

Financial Express Wayne, still well and truly waxing
Mike Hobart

Genius, especially in jazz, is often presented as an affliction leading inexorably to drug abuse, dysfunctionality and early death. Add to the stereotype a large dose of eccentricity and you have all the makings of a jazz legend.

The Life and Music
of Wayne Shorter
by Michelle Mercer
Tarcher $24.95, 320 pages

Saxophonist Wayne Shorter confounds the mythology -- partly. For a start, not only is he still alive, he has worked as an innovative jazz musician for 50 years, a living link from Charlie Parker to digital electronics. In the course of those decades, he has been called a genius for his radical reworkings of jazz harmony and composition.
Miles Davis clearly saw him as a torchbearer when, shortly before he died, he pulled Shorter to one side and whispered, "You know, you need to be more exposed." Shorter, known as "Weird Wayne" as a teenager and as an inhabitant of "planet Wayne" for much of his working life, does score highly in the weirdness stakes, although this is due to his verbal eccentricities rather than his behaviour.
Shorter was born in 1933 in the racially mixed working-class New York suburb of Newark, New Jersey. His father was a welder; his mother worked for a furrier and supplemented the family income with tailoring jobs. Michelle Mercer sketches a picture of a secure, respectable working-class family that valued discussion; remarkable, perhaps, only for the single-minded way in which Shorter's mother insisted her two sons should give full rein to their creativity: "Playtime wasn't just amusement, it was a time for creative industry."
Shorter was not initially drawn to music, and, for a jazz musician, started at the relatively late age of 15 when his mother bought him his first instrument. His original creative outlet was painting; his obsession comics and movies. At 12 he entered Newark's Arts High School, where he decided to become an artist. Influenced by the 1948 Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger film The Red Shoes, he set about working out what being an artist meant in terms of creativity, personal relationships and language. At the last count he had seen that film 90 times.
Movies were always to influence his music. As a child, he developed the habit of remembering entire film scores and relating them to characters and scenes in the movie. Later, his orchestral approach to improvisation, his ability to fit a single line into a dense textural background, to "hear" music visually, became central.
Shorter's introduction to jazz came through the radio. One night the announcer on his father's favourite programme, Make-Believe Ballroom, cautiously announced: "We're going to play a new kind of music. We hope you like it. They call this music ... bebop." The young Shorter was "mesmerised", and, once aware of this now music, found it everywhere: "the ne'er-do-wells ... would be standing on street corners talking hip stuff, acting like an information kiosk, asking 'Have you heard Charles Christopher Parker?"'.
Once hooked, Shorter started to cut classes to visit lunch time gigs in New York. He listened avidly to the radio and practised furiously by copying from records the advanced arrangements of Charlie Parker and pianist Lennie Tristano. School bands, private lessons, sensitive teachers and supportive parents all encouraged him
He became a self-confessed "bop fiend". In 1952 he started a double major in art and music, supporting his studies with commercial gigs. His real musical education was the thriving jazz nightclub scene. Musicians played long hours for little money, their skills sharpened during highly competitive jamming. He became known as "The Newark Flash", meeting key figures such as saxophonist John Coltrane, who recommended him to Miles Davis, and keyboardist Joe Zawinul.
As Mercer's intelligent and revealing book makes clear, the nightclubs confirmed Shorter's view that jazz, as an art form, has a higher purpose. She explores Shorter's belief that jazz's collectivity and spontaneity should lift people's awareness of the social world around them. In 1972 he was introduced to Buddhism by Herbie Hancock, who was drawn to the religion's melding of spiritual awareness and social conscience.
Shorter's musical career between 1958 and 1970 was dominated by his contract with Blue Note Records and the bandleaders Art Blakey and Davis. His compositions started to capture specific events and to act as springboards for collective improvisation. Mercer is particularly good at uncovering the relationship between the two. She shows how technicalities are subordinated to provoke a response in the listener, with the result that Shorter's compositions appear to make perfect sense - yet musically they break all the rules.
A seemingly trite work often carries grander themes. For example, his composition "The Three Marias" is a playful yet resilient melody and was named after three women who were arrested in Portugal for writing "obscene literature". The only thing they had in common was that they were all called Maria.
Shorter's musical instructions are rarely purely technical, and can also include references to scenes from Superman movies and childhood comics. One bemused pianist was instructed to "put more water in the chords".
Mercer also explains how sensitive Shorter was to a group's collective psyche. Spontaneity and improvisation were key and when he left Miles Davis in 1970 he tried the same approach with Zawinul when they cofounded the jazz-rock group Weather Report.
Only when the group disbanded in 1984 did Shorter become a bandleader in his own right. Jazz was then in a depressed state and his music became more composed and less improvised. The dense harmonies and layers of electronic sound of these recordings paint a dark picture.
At one point Shorter asked Mercer: "Are you still looking for a conflict in my story? 'Cause if you are, I think it's art versus commerce." It is his commitment to his art that makes this biography so fascinating. It clarifies Shorter's creative process and shows how quite ordinary cultural material can be the source of extraordinary art. And though Shorter's life includes tragedy -- his infant daughter left severely disabled by a vaccination, his father killed in a car accident and his wife in a plane crash - these events are presented neither as cause nor backdrop.
Shorter's story so far ends on an up beat. His current acoustic quartet has all the technical flair, spontaneity and collective purpose of the great bands of the 1960s. Its first live recording was universally well received, and its latest release, Beyond the Sound Barrier, is every bit its equal.

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