Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians
Shaw, Woody (Herman)
Woody Shaw, artwork by Suzanne Cerny
A vital link in the chain of modern jazz, trumpeter Woody Shaw expanded the hard-bop style pioneered by Lee Morgan and Freddie Hubbard by incorporating avant-garde influences from John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy into to the trumpet's lexicon.
Passionately intense and technically brilliant in all registers of his horn, Shaw’s cerebral improvisations were harmonically complex and advanced, often through the use of fourth-based patterns, side-slipping, and wide intervallic leaps. Always presented with a dark yet piercing tone and painstakingly precise articulation, his harmonic ingenuity is a major influence on all who have held a trumpet since his rise to prominence in the mid 1960s.
Woody Herman Shaw II was born on December 24, 1944 in Laurinburg, North Carolina. His father had attended the town's Laurinburg Institute, a rigorous boarding school for African-American boys founded by disciples of Booker T. Washington. He had been a classmate there of a budding trumpeter named Dizzy Gillespie. Of course, by 1944 Dizzy was long gone, and Shaw's family moved to Newark, New Jersey when the boy was only two months old.
In Newark, his father became a member of the Diamond Jubilee Singers. From an early age, the boy was captivated by the rhythms and feelings of the gospel music performed by his father’s group. The Shaw home was saturated with other music as well, from the popular Latin dance styles of the era, such as the mambo and cha-cha-cha, as well as jazz and the piano music of Chopin and Mozart.
Shaw first played bugle in Newark's Washington Carver Drum and Bugle Corps and at age eleven he made a permanent move to the trumpet. His early influences on the instrument included Louis Armstrong and Harry James, but upon hearing Dizzy Gillespie Shaw became fascinated and determined to become a bebop trumpeter. Coincidentally, Shaw later discovered that he switched to trumpet in the same month that Clifford Brown passed away, which he took as a retrospective personal confirmation that he was destined to play an important role in the jazz trumpet lineage.
Shaw first studied trumpet with Jerome Zierfning at age thirteen, concentrating on classical technique and tone. He joined a local Newark YMCA big band led by Ladozier Lamar at age fourteen, which played stock arrangements by Ellington and Basie. Along with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Shaw attended Newark's Arts High School, and as a teenager he cut his teeth at jam sessions and began playing professional local gigs.
At age eighteen, Shaw dropped out of high school and went on tour with drummer Rufus Jones and later joined conguero Willie Bobo’s group, which also included Chick Corea, saxophonist Joe Farrell, trombonist Garnett Brown, and bassist Larry Gales.
Shaw met avant-garde saxophonist and clarinetist Eric Dolphy in New York, shortly after which he joined Dolphy's group. Shaw’s first professional recordings were on Dolphy’s 1963 albums Conversations and Iron Man. Shaw credited Dolphy for teaching him how to play both inside and outside of a song's harmonic progression, and helping him find his “own individual approach.”
In May 1964, Dolphy summoned Shaw to join him for a gig in Paris. As the trumpeter prepared to leave the U.S., he received a phone call from vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson informing him that the thirty-six year old saxophonist had suddenly died of a diabetic coma. Shaw left for Paris anyway, where he performed for six months with other expatriates, such as drummers Kenny Clarke and Art Taylor, pianist Bud Powell, and saxophonists Johnny Griffin and Nathan Davis.
Shaw then convinced some of his childhood friends from Newark to join him in Paris and form a group. Shaw's group played in Paris, London, and Berlin with Nathan Davis on saxophone, Larry Young on piano, Jimmie Woode on bass, and drummer Billy Brooks.
After almost an entire year, Shaw returned to the U.S. in 1965 and joined Horace Silver’s band, which also featured Joe Henderson on tenor. The group recorded Silver’s classic Cape Verdean Blues, an album which featured “Nutville,” “Pretty Eyes,” and “The African Queen.” A year’s worth of consistent gigging instilled a new sense of confidence in Shaw: all of his solos on Cape Verdean Blues are bold and bursting with fresh ideas. He can also be heard on Silver’s 1966 albums The Jody Grind and the live album Re-Entry.
Shaw made his debut as a leader, Cassandranite, in 1965. Also that year, he recorded in the band of his old friend Larry Young, who had now switched to organ. Young’s album Unity features some of Shaw’s finest early playing, exhibiting a beautifully warm tone, crystal clear articulation, and advanced harmonic ideas on a composition he contributed to the album, “The Moontrane.”
After Silver disbanded his group, demand for Shaw's skills as a sideman were in high demand. He joined Chick Corea’s band and is prominently featured on several of the pianist’s albums, including Innerspace from 1966, Tones for Joan’s Bones in 1967, and Sundance in 1969. Shaw played on McCoy Tyner’s classic 1967 Blue Note album Expansions which includes his jaw-dropping performance on “Peresina.”
He can also be heard with pianist Andrew Hill on the groovy “Soul Special” from Grass Roots in 1968, in which Shaw clearly proves there is plenty of gospel soul underlying his harmonically dense improvisational workouts. From 1968 to 1969, Shaw worked with Max Roach. Other high profile engagements from the late 1960s included record sessions with Jackie McLean, Booker Ervin, Tyrone Washington, Hank Mobley, and Pharoah Sanders. Shaw’s exceptional reading skills and technical facility also enabled him to find work as a studio musician and in pit orchestras for Broadway musicals.
In 1970, Shaw formed a quintet with tenor saxophonist Joe Henderson, his former frontline partner in Horace Silver’s group. The group, which featured George Cables on piano, bassist Ron Carter, and Lenny White on drums, released three albums: If You’re Not Part of the Problem, In Pursuit of Blackness, and Joe Henderson Quintet at the Lighthouse. While the Shaw/Henderson band can be heard to flirt with jazz-rock fusion, they mainly stayed within the realm of advanced hard bop.
Shaw’s career as a leader began to pick up steam in 1970, when he recorded Blackstone Legacy, the first album recorded under his own name in five years. This was followed by Song of Songs in 1972, which featured a mesmerizing performance by Shaw on “The Goat and the Archer.” Listen to his descending use of fourths in his emphatic opening. Shaw’s playing from this era, and that of his whole band, is a direct predecessor to the sound of Wynton Marsalis’s groups in the early to mid 1980s.
In 1973, Shaw was tapped to join Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and he recorded three albums with the group. 1973’s Child’s Dance includes the track “Anthenagin,” on which trumpeter Brian Lynch perfectly balances Shaw’s ability to achieve multiple peaks within a single solo. With Blakey in 1973, Shaw also recorded Buhaina and Mission Eternal. Shaw left Blakey later that year and relocated to San Francisco to colead a group with Bobby Hutcherson, playing on two of Hutcherson’s Blue Note albums, Live at Montreux from 1973 and Cirrus from 1974.
In 1975, Shaw returned to New York with the Junior Cook-Louis Hayes quintet, and soon took over co-leadership when Rene McLean replaced Cook. When tenorman Dexter Gordon made his famous and well-documented return to New York after fourteen years overseas, he personally picked the Shaw-Hayes group to back him on his national tour. Gordon’s triumphant return is captured on Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard. Shaw’s fiery improvisations are in distinct contrast to his elder’s behind-the-beat approach, but the two masters easily bridged the generational gap. Their somewhat surprising chemistry is evidenced on “Gingerbread Boy,” “Fried Bananas,” and “Round Midnight.”
Well-deserved accolades were finally bestowed upon Shaw in 1978. After signing with Columbia Records, he released a string of classic recordings, beginning with Rosewood, which was nominated for a Grammy, won Down Beat’s album of the year award, and earned Shaw Best Trumpeter award as well. Stepping Stones followed, which featured inspired blowing by Shaw on “Escape Velocity.”
Shaw reached the apex of his musical achievements in the late 1970s, in which all albums he recorded are advanced yet accessible hard-bop essentials. His working group at this time was arguably his finest, and included Carter Jefferson on tenor sax, Onaje Allan Gumbs on piano, Clint Houston on bass, and drummer Victor Lewis.
Shaw led another outstanding group with trombonist Steve Turre, pianist Mulgrew Miller, bassist Stafford James, and drummer Tony Reedus in the early 1980s. Their work is solid and gratifying, and Shaw’s loyalty to his hard-bop roots remained strong.
Also noteworthy were his collaborations with fellow trumpet giant Freddie Hubbard, with whom he co-led three albums, tributes to Clifford Brown, Fats Navarro, and Louis Armstrong. Shaw was also a member of the Paris Reunion Band, a group assembled as a tribute to jazz artists who sought artistic freedom in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s while also seeking relief from the racial prejudices prevalent in America at the time. Shaw joined Cannonball Adderley, Joe Henderson, Curtis Fuller, Walter Bishop Jr., and Idris Muhammad in the group, which recorded For Klook in 1986 and French Cooking in 1987.
Shaw was troubled by addiction as well as medical problems in his later years. Stricken with retinitis pigmentosa, Shaw was declared legally blind by 1989. In a tragic accident in Brooklyn, New York, Shaw’s left arm was severed after he fell onto a subway track. He died soon after on May 10th, 1989, at the age of forty-four.
Select Discography: As a Leader:
As a Leader:
Blackstone Legacy (1970)
Song of Songs (1972)
The Moontrane (1976)
Little Red’s Fantasy (1976)
Concert Ensemble at the Berliner Jazztage (1976)
Live Vol. 1 (1977)
Live Vol. 2 (1977)
Stepping Stones (1978)
Woody III (1978)
For Sure! (1980)
Lotus Flower (1982)
Setting Standards (1983)
Bemsha Swing (1986)
Double Take (1986)
As a Sideman:
Iron Man (Eric Dolphy, 1963)
Cape Verdean Blues (Horace Silver, 1965)
Unity (Larry Young, 1965)
Tones for Joan’s Bones (Chick Corea, 1966)
Demon’s Dance (Jackie McLean, 1967)
Expansions (McCoy Tyner, 1968)
Grass Roots (Andrew Hill, 1968)
Passing Ships (Andrew Hill, 1969)
Sundance (Chick Corea, 1969)
Deaf Dumb Blind (Pharoah Sanders, 1970)
In Pursuit of Blackness (Joe Henderson, 1970)
Joe Henderson Quintet Live at the Lighthouse (Joe Henderson, 1970)
Child’s Dance (Art Blakey, 1973)
Kwanza (Archie Shepp, 1974)
Homecoming: Live at the Village Vanguard (Dexter Gordon, 1976)
Sophisticated Giant (Dexter Gordon, 1977)
Introducing Kenny Garrett (Kenny Garrett, 1984)
Contributor: Matt Leskovic
The Dozens: Brian Lynch Selects 12 Essential Woody Shaw Tracks, edited by Ted Panken