Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter

The gifted, multiple Grammy winner explains why he’s celebrating his milestone birthday with new music.

Wayne Shorter is a prolific musician-composer and one of music's most influential saxophonists. Many of his compositions have become jazz standards, earning him worldwide recognition, critical praise and multiple Grammys. The New Jersey native had his first jazz epiphany at age 15 and started his musical journey with a clarinet, switching to tenor sax and forming his own band in Newark. He worked his way through college by playing with an orchestra and has followed an eclectic career path, co-founding the jazz fusion band Weather Report and playing with the greats. Shorter continues to tour and celebrates his 80th year with the album, "Without a Net."

TRANSCRIPT

Tavis: When Wayne Shorter was studying music at New York University back in the 50s, he first confused and then impressed his professors by combining classical music with jazz. That was the beginning of his insistence that musical barriers were meant to be broken.

He’s done that for almost six decades now, shaping jazz both with his own recordings, of course, and those of Miles Davis, John Coltrane and, of course, the landmark jazz rock fusion group, Weather Report. His new CD is called “Without a Net.” There are so many clips I could share with you tonight about his storied career, but I decided to pick this one from 1967, Wayne.

[Clip]

Tavis: So congrats on these 80 years, for starters, sir.

Wayne Shorter: Thank you.

Tavis: You are more than welcome. What do you make of this 80-year journey so far?

Shorter: Yesterday I was telling people at my birthday party that I’m eight and, the same kind of feeling I had when I was eight years old, I’m collecting all these little statues of Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman [laugh].

Tavis: Let me ask that another way. How does it feel to still have the pipes to do what you do at 80?

Shorter: Well, it’s a lot less oxygen now. That’s why one reason it helps not to have rehearsals and read music that’s written because you have to play long lines with a lot of wind.

Tavis: Right.

Shorter: So I have to find another way to just express with improvisation and have a lot of room for the other musicians to have a voice too. So it is a blessing that I don’t have that much wind.

Tavis: Yeah. You made me think of Allen Iverson. This is a famous clip from years ago. “Practice? Practice? What you talk about, practice? I ain’t gotta practice!” So when you said rehearsal a moment ago, does that mean now that you don’t spend as much time rehearsing? That it is about improvisation on the stage?

Shorter: It’s really mostly about improvisation because my question is, how do you rehearse the future? How do you rehearse the unknown? And with Miles, he used to say, “When you’re practicing something, you’re gonna go on stage and do variations of what you practice.” It’s no surprise. So dealing with the unknown, the unexpected, is a reflection for me musically of what’s happening in the world today ’cause people are learning how to dialog with each other without any past strategy or any kind of formula from the past.

Tavis: But for a young person watching this, though, you’re not suggesting that they don’t have to spend time getting their practice in to become a Wayne Shorter one day? You can do this now. You couldn’t have done this 80 years ago.

Shorter: Right. In other words, you have to really, really get your foundation together, practice a lot of scales and all that stuff. I have a tape of Charlie Parker talking like that and his student asked Charlie Parker, “You mean, I have to learn all these keys? I have to learn to play everything in all these keys?” Charlie Parker said, “Yes, and then forget it.” Throw it away and start, you know…

Tavis: Speaking of forgetting it, how much have you forgotten – that’s a strange way of asking are you still learning new stuff?

Shorter: I’m still learning. I’m learning more about life when I’m playing too, you know, and writing music. I’m learning more about life, the connection. What we’re doing is not disconnected from, I’ll say, human behavior. Sometimes you can fool people and be one way like really great and be very dark, negative, you know, in your human behavior. I want to erase the contradictions that have arisen too many times in the world.

Tavis: How does what you are learning about life even at 80 show up in your performance? How does that translate?

Shorter: Okay. When I’m learning about life and when I hit the stage, the first thing I’m actually thinking about, and the other musicians, we’re thinking about, okay, let’s put away all our credentials, our musical credentials, Grammies, awards, and keep the ego handcuffed and go out on the stage vulnerable. Go out on the stage as a human being and do not be afraid to show struggle in your music.

It’s a struggle in life and then struggle and then victory, then struggle and another victory and a struggle, not like you’re going out there like you know it all and this is a perfect performance. And they will say that group is tight. That’s passé to me, you know.

Tavis: This is getting good now. I’m glad you went there because that is totally antithetical to the way most artists hit the stage these days. You want a good review, so you’d better be rehearsed, you’d better be practiced, you’d better be proficient. Here you come telling us after 80 years that the trick is to go on stage and be vulnerable. Nobody wants to do that.

Shorter: Yeah.

Tavis: Struggle on stage? Who wants to do that? What’s the New York Times gonna say tomorrow morning?

Shorter: Well, actually, when you go out there being vulnerable, it means to have the courage to go out there fearless with facing the unknown and how do you negotiate the unexpected? ‘Cause, I mean, all of the music lessons that we have, to me, are like once upon a time. That’s all your music lessons.

Now what are you gonna say after once upon a time? Not the music lessons anymore. So the thing is to be more creative. Pull out of the depths of our human existence the necessity for creative endeavor to change the world.

Tavis: What has being such a great jazz artist all these years and working with so many other greats, what has that taught you about the value or the over-rating of individuality?

Shorter: You know, the value of individuality comes to me when I used to see Miles and Coltrane. Sometimes I saw them in a nightclub playing and they would take their solos one after another. And one of the solos, finished the solo, I mean, doing some stuff on the solo, silent night. Nobody applauded. It was quiet. And I’d say that’s the individual thing of coming out here. They’re not playing for an applause. They’re not playing for themselves either, but it’s not a selfish thing.

When I got to meet Miles. He would say like he’s playing to get there, to get somewhere, and he didn’t say at the expense of the audience. When he had his back turned, he was not just being an individual. He was actually listening closely more to the acoustics of the room.

So the individual, to me, what we need more now is individuals becoming like leaders in life rather than followers and learning that becoming leaders, becoming much more respectful of each other, just leader to leader, you have to respect each other and raise your life conditions to the point where we can respect each other.

And it’s happening in these short increments now, the small increments that I see popping up in a lot of young people from the classical world and so-called jazz world, you know.

Tavis: Why do you say so-called jazz world? So-called?

Shorter: So-called jazz world and the notion that, if it doesn’t sound like jazz, it isn’t. But to me, the word jazz means I dare you [laugh].

Tavis: I like that. I like that. You were just speaking a moment ago of all these things when you were giving your example about leaders respecting leaders and we don’t have to be followers. I take that. I know exactly what you meant by that. You mentioned young people. Can music teach all of that?

The reason why I’m asking this, Wayne, is ’cause, as you know, we all know, music is not being taught in our schools the way it used to be. And I think there’s a huge price that our country pays for that. So I’m just trying to get a sense of what you think we are missing, what we’re lacking, what we’re devoid of, by not exposing kids to music in the way that we used to back in the day.

Shorter: Okay. When I went to NYU in my last year, my fourth year, this teacher, Medina Scoville, she asked the whole class, “How many of you had a hard time in math through grammar and high school? How many of you had a hard time?”

The whole class raised their hands. This is a music class. This is a music composition class. She said, “Well, you’re doing math now.” That slammed everybody in the face ’cause there’s some geniuses in that class and all that.

When I’m writing scores, there’s a lot of math involved, you know. It’s according to how far you want to go. But there won’t be too much math involved if you get in a comfort zone and you want to make everything so-called simple.

So without music and art in the schools, there’s a dumbing down simplistic which creates a simplistic view of life for many of the student body. A simplistic view is being presented. I would say, and it might be an extreme thing, but we are taught to go to sleep at the opera [laugh].

Tavis: I get your point. I hear you. The answer to this question might be one and the same, but let me ask it anyway. When did you know, when did Wayne Shorter know, that he was gifted as an artist and when did you know that this was going to be your life’s work? ‘Cause just because you’re gifted at it doesn’t mean you’re gonna choose it as your vocation, your calling, your purpose. When did that happen or was it the same moment?

Shorter: Well, I was playing hooky. I was in Arts High School in Newark, New Jersey and I played hooky, skipped classes…

Tavis: Not you.

Shorter: Yes, I did [laugh]. I skipped a lot of classes and they caught me, you know.

Tavis: Yeah.

Shorter: It was the first school where they had an intercom in an elevator. And when they called me, the intercom would go through all the classrooms. Everybody was surprised. What did he do? Wayne Shorter, report to the principal’s office immediately. Mother and father there and they had all my forged notes and all that, fictitious doctors’ names.

They said, “Before we decide what we’re gonna do with you, where did you go?” And I said I went to the theater. There’s a theater that had a stage show and they had two motion pictures in that time. I would see Stan Kenton, Duke Ellington, Jimmy Lunsford, Dizzy Gillespie’s band.

They said, “You like the stage, huh?” So they put me in the head of the music department’s class. His name was Achilles D’Amico and, in his class, he had on his desk three records. My first day in his class, he was a disciplinarian too.

He said, “Music’s gonna go in these three directions.” I’m not really thinking about music. I’m thinking about maybe how to get out of that class [laugh]. He said gonna be three directions. He said, “The first record was a record from a singer from Peru named Yma Sumac, Latin America. The second one was “The Rite of Spring” by Igor Stravinsky, “The Rite of Spring.” The third one was Charlie Parker, Charles Christopher Parker. Three directions.”

Then I took my first music test, a final test in that same year, the third year of high school, and I was the first one to get up. We had 100 questions and stuff. And I thought I did something wrong. The teacher said, “Uh-uh, when you get up, you gotta leave the classroom.” I put my paper on the desk and she looked at it and she said, “Wait a minute.” I was opening the door to leave and she said, “Class, I wanna show you something.”

She held the paper up ’cause they couldn’t see the answers, but she had on the front 100 or an A. She said, “I want you to think about this” because a lot of had been studying music since they were six years old or piano or whatever. “This is a perfect test paper. I want you to think about that.” When I was walking down the hall, I was thinking about it too [laugh]. That’s when I…

Tavis: You made the turn.

Shorter: Yeah.

Tavis: Yeah. See now, there’s a lot in that story that I could unpack that tickles me and turns me on. The part that I am most moved by, though, is that, when you were skipping school, if that happened today, I literally just months ago did a primetime special here for PBS called “Education Under Arrest.”

And the whole special was about how we’re criminalizing kids in society today and the people don’t really take the time to understand what the challenge is, what the problem is, how gifted the child is, why the child might be skipping school. Nobody’s asking, okay, before we punish you, where were you going when you were skipping?

Shorter: Yeah, where you going?

Tavis: You arrested me with that part of the story because somebody was interested enough to find out what you were doing, what mattered to you, what you were good at and then, before they punished you, they put you in that class and that’s where the light bulb goes off.

Shorter: Right.

Tavis: As opposed to just locking you up, throwing away the key, sending you in front of some judge. You get kicked out of school for truancy, which I still don’t understand. You skip school and they kick you out of school for skipping school, which doesn’t make any sense. But I just love the fact that somebody cared enough back then to understand that you did have a gift and that your punishment needed to include putting you where you could flower and flourish.

Shorter: Right. My mother and father, they were standing right there and when they heard my name, the other classes heard the name to be called to the principal’s office, everybody was surprised ’cause they said, “You’re dressed well, your mother and father, they’re good people.” They could see that. You were quiet and everything. There was a mystery. Why is he leaving school? Where’d you go?

Tavis: Why were you leaving?

Shorter: Some of the classes. You know, it was like I wanted to go see this movie and I heard about other people doing it. It was almost like when I went alone and never with a crowd and I guess it was the word “boring.” I didn’t think of the word boring. I would walk up to the school, I walked past the building, turned the corner, go around to the theater. But then when I got into Achilles D’Amico’s class, I liked his name, Achilles D’Amico.

Then I saw a drama. I saw the Greek legend, “Achilles” and I was thinking of D’Amico. They called him a Toscanini in a way. I just thought I’d listen to the radio a lot. I heard Toscanini conducting and I heard something called “New Ideas in Music” that came from Louisville, Kentucky, the Louisville, Kentucky Orchestra every Sunday.

And I started watching Italian, French and the Swedish Film Festivals every Saturday. I didn’t mind reading their subtitles. I got to watching all that stuff, you know, with Anna Magnani and all these people. Then I started painting or drawing what I wanted. I even drew a whole science fiction comic book called “Other Worlds.”

I went on to go to NYU as a music education major and I met some people there in Greenwich Village and Charlie Parker would be in a place called Eddie Condon’s nightclub. He would be sitting there eating sometimes. We had a chance to go see Toscanini conduct a rehearsal which I didn’t. I went somewhere.

I had to go to Birdland a lot and I saw Tino Fuentes and Tito Rodriguez and Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. And I’m sitting there watching Billie Holiday. I’m going into the Army. This is when I was a senior at graduating. I said to myself, all this stuff is happening and I’m going in the Army.

Tavis: But when you got back, you made up for lost time.

Shorter: Yeah.

Tavis: You made up for lost time and you cranked out some good work over the years. My time is up, but I could do this for hours with you. Right quick, tell me about “Without a Net,” the new project.

Shorter: Well, “Without a Net,” for the first time, we played in a nightclub in San Francisco called Yoshi’s for the first time in a long time.

Tavis: I love Yoshi’s.

Shorter: And there was an actress there that I’d known for years. Her name was Vonetta McGee.

Tavis; Oh, yeah. Wish I knew her.

Shorter: Yeah. At the end of the night, she and her husband, Carl Lumbly, they walked backstage. I’d known her since she was about 15 years old. She walked out and we shook hands and all that. And as she was leaving, she said, “You know, you guys are playing without a net” and she left. It didn’t sink in, but later on, we were at the Forest Wake University or college in North Carolina or somewhere…

Tavis: Wake Forest, yeah.

Shorter: Wake Forest.

Tavis: Maya Angelou teaches there.

Shorter: With some scientists ’cause we’re involved with Amazon and all that stuff, some scientists. We had a dinner and we said the words without a net and he said, “Is that a song on the album?” Then it kicked in. That’s the title! So mystically between Vonetta McGee and this young scientist, we say that mystically they connected, whether she’s alive, and it hit. So “Without a Net.”

Tavis: Here it is. It connected. The new project from Wayne Shorter is called “Without a Net.” And speaking of connections, I could talk to him for hours. I got a few more minutes to talk, but I’m gonna save my questions for another night because Wayne Shorter has brought a very special guest with him tonight and I was just delighted to see her walk through the door.

I say this all the time. I take great pride in saying that years ago before the rest of the world knew her, I was delighted to have Esperanza Spalding on this show long before she became a Grammy winner for Best New Artist in 2011.

And believe it or not, she’s sitting off to the side over here. Esperanza Spalding is in the building and coming up in just a moment, a special performance from Wayne Shorter alongside, he’ll be joined by Esperanza Spalding for this classic tune, “Footprints.” You don’t want to miss that. Esperanza Spalding with our guest tonight, Wayne Shorter, coming up in just a moment. Wayne, I love you, man. Thank you.

Shorter: Thank you, thank you.

Tavis: Stay tuned. We’re back in just a moment. And now a special performance by Wayne Shorter joined by a special guest artist. She was on this program long before she was honored with a Grammy for Best New Artist in 2011.

Mr. Shorter joined on stage by Esperanza Spalding to play his classic composition first appearing in 1966 on his album, “Adam’s Apple.” Please enjoy “Footprints.” Goodnight from Los Angeles and keep the faith.

[Performance]

Announcer:  For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Announcer: And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.

  • GLENN CASHMAN

    Tavis, the Wayne Shorter show was one of the best done with a jazz artist on national media, or anywhere for that matter. Very insightful and revealing while displaying an impressive depth of understanding on your part. Thank you!

  • Jeff Schlieper

    Well done, sir. Mr. Shorter’s career arcs across the broader jazz landscape with the power of a Saturn rocket and the direction of a shooting star.

  • Joan W Drake

    Your interview with Wayne Shorter on tonight’s show (1/1/14) about his path to a music career was priceless — as was his duet with Esperanza Spalding — seems he’s following in the footsteps of his mentor & music teacher Achilles Damico — whatta a story & whatta performance by these two outstanding instrumentalists! Thank you, Tavis, for tonight’s show & for regularly bringing the best to us, your fans, & Happy New Year!

  • Benny Heflinger

    Wonderful show which was very inspiring to hear the wisdom of someone who’s been embracing the magic of music for such a long time. And incredible performance at end with Esperanza Spalding and Wayne Shorter performing together!

Last modified: September 3, 2013 at 3:44 pm