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David and Art - Losing Wayne

Sofie Hernandez-Simeonidis

His name might not have the familiarity of someone like Coltrane or Miles, but Wayne Shorter was a giant of Jazz.

Jazz saxophone player and composer Wayne Shorter died on the second of this month. He was one of a dwindling number of people with direct ties to a golden age of American jazz and culture. Shorter was born on August 25, 1933, in Newark, New Jersey. With the support of his parents, he started playing the clarinet when he was young and switched to tenor sax shortly before entering NYU at age 18.

He graduated there in 1956 with a degree in music education. In 1959, after a two-year stint in the army he joined a group called “Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers” which was led by drummer Art Blakey and which became famous as a group where up and coming young musicians cut their chops and got started on their careers.

Shorter played with the Jazz Messengers for four years on some of their greatest albums and, moreover, began writing tunes for them. In 1964, he sort of switched mentors and began playing in what came to be known as Miles Davis’s second great quintet alongside future giants Ron Carter, Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, and of course, Miles.

Here, too, he continued to grow not just as a player but particularly as a composer. Herbie Hancock who played piano in that combo, once noted that Shorter was one of “the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.” In 1970, he shifted gears and formed the electronic jazz fusion group Weather Report with an Austrian keyboardist named Joe Zawinul. Shorter also played sax on 10 Joni Mitchell albums and, if you’re a fan of classic pop, it’s he that you hear soloing on Steely Dan’s tune “Aja,” and on Don Henley’s single “End of the Innocence.”

I was in New York recently and caught a couple of jazz sets by prominent players, and each night, the band played two Wayne Shorter songs in his memory. One night I heard sax player Ravi Coltrane’s trio play the cuts “Juju” and “Infant Eyes,” which Shorter wrote when his daughter was born. Then the next night I heard pianist Eric Reed lead his quartet through the Shorter tunes “Twelve More Bars” and “Yes or No.” His death hit the scene hard.

With his passing we’ve lost not only a great player but a great American composer. Wayne Shorter was 89.