The Grammy winner this year for best improvised jazz solo (“Orbits” from his live album “Without a Net”), Shorter demonstrates his ageless artistry in breaking musical barriers.
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter
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 of Wayne Shorter performing live]
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 (laughter).
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 there’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.
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? With Miles, he used to say, “When you’re practicing something, you’re going 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, because 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. (Laughter)
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, 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, 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. What 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 – Grammys, 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. They will say, “That group is tight.”
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.
So the thing is to be more creative, to pull out of the depths of our human existence the necessity for creative endeavor to change the world.
Tavis: 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: 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.
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, because we’re involved with Amazon and all that stuff, some scientists. We had a dinner and some scientist said – we said the words “Without a net” and he said, “Is that a song on the album?”
Then it kicked – 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.” Speaking of connections, I could talk to him for hours. I got a few more minutes to talk, but I’m going to 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.
Believe it or not, she’s sitting off to the side over here. Esperanza Spalding is in the building. 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. Good to have you here.
Shorter: Thank you, thank you.
Tavis: Stay tuned. We’re back in just a moment.
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.
[Live performance by Wayne Shorter and Esperanza Spalding]
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
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