In conversation with wayne shorter
by Bob Blumenthal
Of the many interviews that I have conducted in Burlington, Vermont at the city’s Discover Jazz festival, none has proven more memorable than my conversation with Wayne Shorter in 2002. As is the case with a handful of artists (Ornette Coleman and the late Andrew Hill come to mind), Shorter is a thinker of substance who speaks in images all his own, images that can sometimes be tricky to follow. In addition, I had seen interviews by others where a focus on historic and technical specifics evoked terse responses from Shorter, at best.
As you will see, Shorter was relaxed, loquacious and humorous, often slipping into voices or following his own stream-of-consciousness leads, but always addressing the issue at hand. The only moment of discomfort occurred in the section of audience questions, when someone asked what needed to be done to “save” jazz; but even then, after scowling, Shorter made his point. I’ve tried to retain as much of the flow and the flavor of the conversation as possible, and want to thank Shorter for his permission to publish our exchange.
A lot of musicians are identified with their home towns, and you often hear talk of all the greats from Philadelphia, Detroit…You come from a place that I suspect was also a hotbed of music, Newark, New Jersey. What was the music scene like growing up in Newark?
Wayne Shorter, photo by Jos L. Knaepen
I didn’t pay any attention to what was going on, because I was not into music until about the age of 15. I had been drawing, majoring in Fine Arts. Knowing about music only meant, to me, what I heard in film scores, but we didn’t use those words. We called it “soundtrack,” or “background.” I had heard about the background stuff that the organ player played in the Twenties, behind silent films. My mother would tell me about how people sat in the theaters, listening, and would say, “Uh oh, the organ player’s drunk!” They could really tell when they were doing that “Follow the bouncing ball” stuff. So my parents’ generation was really glad when sound came in. But that’s the earliest recollection of something staying inside of me. I’d go to the Capitol Theatre and see Captive Wild Woman with John Carradine and the guy who played Doc on Gunsmoke…
Yes, that guy. He was the lion tamer, and the actress’s name was Aquanita. She only had one name, like Burgess Meredith’s wife, Margo. Those are the things I was noticing – people with one name, and the music behind Bela Lugosi when he played Igor in Frankenstein [WS pronounces it Frankensteen], the Son of Frankenstein. Then The Wolf Man. Now The Wolf Man was the start of something, the first time we went to the movies at night. When you were eight years old, going with your parents at night was a big thing. And they had two films, The Wolf Man and a movie with Olivia De Haviland called To Each His Own. It was a soap opera, but she was good in it. But as kids, we were waiting for The Wolf Man.
I always identified your piece “Children of the Night” with Bela Lugosi and Dracula.
Yes, but then “Children of the Night” became astronauts, going out into the darkness of the unknown. But that film music, the backgrounds when Lon Chaney was changing into a werewolf, or The Mummy. It seemed like those composers had carte blanche. No one was leaning over their shoulder saying, “We want a hit. Let’s get my cousin to write a hit song.” That kind of writing in those films got me interested about sound, and I just got curious and more curious.
Then I heard a lot of stuff on the radio, and I got really interested when I heard Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk, Bud Powell, Max Roach and all those guys. I remember one evening, just when I was turning sixteen, some of the guys saying “You ever heard of Charles Christopher Parker?” These three or four guys, they were hip. We were the only ones in the school who were paying attention to Charlie Parker. We went to this theater around the corner from school, the Adams Theatre, they would have a movie and a show there, and they had all the bands there: Stan Kenton, Woody Herman. I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s band there, and of course Dizzy Gillespie, Illinois Jacquet, his brother Russell Jacquet, Andy Kirk. And comedians like Timmie Rogers. He used to say “Oh yeah!” all the time, and we’d say “Oh no!” So all of that, sight and sound, was getting to me.
I played hooky a lot my third year of high school, going to that theatre. They caught me because I wrote a bunch of notes falsifying my mother’s signature. This was the first high school to have an intercom and an elevator; when they called you down on the intercom, the whole school heard it. “Miisster Shhhorter [imitates a bad intercom], report to the Viice Prrincipall’s offfice immediately." To me, the whole school stopped, because I was supposed to be one of the nice guys. “He played hooky?” See, I would skip one class to hear the band at the Adams, go back for another class, and then skip again later in the day when the band would come back on. I had 56 absences in a short period of time. So they called my parents in and the Vice Principal asked, “Where do you go when you play hooky?”
“The Adams Theatre.”
“Oh, do you like movies?”
“Yes, but also the bands there.”
“Oh, do you like music?”
So they called in the music teacher, Achilles D’Amico and told me, “We’re going to put you in a music class, so you can study music from the ground up. But this is primarily disciplinary, because Mr. D’Amico is a disciplinarian.” And the first day I was in his class – and this is the hook; this is the hit – he stood up after we had listened to Mozart’s G minor 40[th Symphony] and said, “Music’s going to go in three directions.” Then he held up The Rite of Spring by Igor Stravinsky, another record that I had been hearing by Yma Sumac, Xtabay, and a third record, which was Charlie Parker. That was the stuff on the radio.
So I remember what Charlie Parker was doing, and I remember the bunny hop at the prom. The band would play the bunny hop, but I wasn’t in the band. “They have to play the bunny hop, and wear band uniforms? Get out of here, man.” Then at 15 or 16, I started taking clarinet lessons, but I was checking out the college guys. They had the brown and white bucks, the seersucker jackets and suits. Some had cars, and some of the other guys, with the leather jackets, had motorcycles. This was around the time that The Wild One came out, with Brando. Our schoolyard had a whole section for motorcycles, and another for cars. They guys who didn’t have cars or motorcycles walked home. I was walking home, carrying my saxophone and a bag of books, thinking “The guys getting rich are the guys making hits; but this stuff – bebop, progressive music…,” because I was interested in all modern music.
I used to listen to a program every Saturday afternoon, New Ideas in Music, about the evolution of classical music into contemporary and onward. Anyway, I knew that this was going to be a long, long struggle, a long road. Because everybody I knew, at the parties and the dances, if you brought a modern record and put it on…They wanted the slow drag stuff, so the guys could dance with the girls, hook up and make time. But put something interesting on and shhhhhhhh [imitates a needle dragged over vinyl], “Take that off!’ My brother and myself and another guy, Pete Lonesome, made it a point to keep going straight ahead. At the universities, they [Alan Shorter and Pete] would crash the fraternity parties to get new ideas from the records they were playing there.
That’s the only way that I can talk about music. Playing music, to me, reflects what’s happening and what’s not happening. And what some people wish could happen. Sometimes you get in a fantasy place all by yourself, you can be self-contained. Get a little cash flow, just do music for yourself while not being selfish. Don’t record, just make music at home and little videos, like that. An interviewer asked me what I would do if I didn’t do music, and I said it didn’t make any difference because everything is connected. But the way things are going now - what is considered top-drawer, what a lot of young people consider great in music, books and films, “towering” this and that…
Two thumbs up?
Yeah. I don’t see a lot of people in the science fiction section of bookstores. The imagination thing. You don’t have to be a bad person to use your imagination, but if you have an imagination you can be 10,000 steps ahead of a lot of bad people. And this country is the greatest country for having this open-door policy, open-end for thinking and ideas. Everything stopped with “classical,” modern contemporary, with Gershwin and Copland and Leonard Bernstein. We’ve got to keep going, but now guys are writing for movies: John Willians, Goldsmith, James Horner. But we need more than that from Hollywood, with its closed-door policy. If it’s racism, to hell with racism. We’ve got to keep moving. As far as the imagination, there are a lot of people slipping through the cracks who could be inspiration for the salvation of the whole planet. A lot of us will say, “Oh, I won’t do it, I can’t do it.” But go back into your little dream box that you were in as a kid, and hey.
I’m ready to kick ass. I’m going to be 70 in August 2004, and it feels like [in conspiratorial voice] “there’s a red door down there, waiting for me.” But before I go through that door, I’m going to go to the end of the line and stick with what I’m doing. But I’m bringing things in. My next record has music from the 13th Century, a Villa Lobos thing, something from Wales, something I wrote about Angola, something from Spain that Miles had given me the sheet music for in 1965 and said [imitating Davis] “Do something with this.” Also, music I did as an assignment in my modern harmony class in 1952. Maybe eight measures that I had put away and brought back out in 1997 and developed a little bit. Herbie and I recorded it. It’s about the lady in – I still call it Burma – Aung San Suu Kyi. So when I talk about recording as I go to the end of the line, for me it’s to celebrate everybody, all humanity, and the eternity that we all possess.
If you can remember the first thing of consciousness when you were a baby, if you can remember and can put a word to it…Some people can’t, but when I go back I can see the high chair. After that high chair there’s nothing, but there is a word, and the word that comes back to me now is always…I want to celebrate eternity. Celebrating eternity means to me to manifest all of the time as a human being. Eternity presents surprises. I’m celebrating life’s adventure. I like that guy on Oprah Winfrey who said that life is the story of everyone’s soul. It’s a one-time story, meaning one-time to me; but there are billions of stories, and they are linked. To be original, to me, is to want to celebrate something so hard that you want to give it a present. The more original you get, the deeper your confirmation of eternity itself. To celebrate oneself selflessly, not selfishly; to say that life is the damn religion. The entire alphabet can’t exist without A, a million dollars can’t exist without one penny.
Wayne Shorter, photo by Jos L. Knaepen
This is what I think about when I’m talking to myself, when I’m checking out movies, books. There’s a good book called Drinking Midnight Wine by Simon Green, another one I have. The guy, Glenn Kleier, wrote one book, what is its name…about a woman wandering around in the desert who is the sister of Jesus. She’s called Jeza, and she goes to Rome and says, “I come not to kiss the ring of St. Paul, but to reclaim it.” It’s called The Last Day, and it’s a damned good book. Some lawyers read it and said, “Damn, if they make a movie out of this one, everybody’s going to go to court.”
I have fun, I don’t get serious. [In haughty voice] “Oh, you take a minor third, and I use a Rico #4, I’m looking for a Mark VI.” I can’t get into that. I get into “what is anything for?” I don’t talk about music like “Me and my horn, me and my little saxophone.” I’m not the cellist who grows up hiding behind the cello, or some actors who hide behind their characters. That’s okay, you can hide behind them, because it’s never too late to come out. I think life is supposed to be a lot of fun. The reason for life is happening, it’s happening right now. I don’t like words like ‘beginning” and “end.” We lean on them for our sanity, but they are artificial, and they create a lot of other artificial stuff in our head, boundaries that we can tear down. People who stutter and want to break that habit, or bite their nails or twitch. I’m not making fun of that – but they don’t really stutter, it’s something they are determined to break through. I think playing music and hearing more variety of stories and celebration in music, instead of only seeing red, blue and yellow, or having just CBS and NBC, or people trying to control the internet…If we all had our own newspaper, how about that? It would be like Network, “I’m not going to take it anymore!” The internet is one breakthrough, but there is going to be another breakthrough, I think, in home entertainment. Soon we’ll have Laundromats in our homes, nursing homes with a robotic paramedic.
In the notes to Night Dreamer, you say that up to a point you created music out of your own experience, but now wanted to start connecting your experience to the world. I read that recently and was reminded of when Joe Zawinul told me that you were the first person he met with what he called “the new thinking.” Were there particular experiences that brought you to these turning points and revelations?
The first book I read when I was 13 was Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies. I just called London and talked to an old lady who has a shop near the Thames. I wanted an 18-something edition, and I got a book by Charles Kingsley’s son. She said [in halting, old voice], “I-have-a-1935-edition, but-I-think-I-have-an-older-one. I-just-have-to-look-in-the-cupboard.” And I was thinking, “Man, that’s where I want to be – with her, going into the cupboard.” I have about five or six copies. The first one I read had nice pictures; it was for children. It’s about what happens when the hero goes to the ocean to see what’s happening. There’s some stuff in there, wow.
Then, at 15, I read Occam’s Razor. What a nice title, though now it would be considered too Middle-Eastern. That book is about slicing time and walking through it. Then I crawled through Dune. Then I came to a screeching halt with The Fountainhead. Ayn Rand came to my school, NYU…I took a class in philosophy there, and the professor used to walk around, reach over you and put the final grade on your paper before you were finished. On the day of the final exam, he reached over my shoulder, put a mark on my paper – I’m not going to tell you what he gave me – said “Why don’t you major in philosophy?” and kept on going.
I really dig science fiction, or science reality. I did a record with a Japanese friend, and a friend of his used to escort Stephen Hawking around Tokyo. So when my friend did a record about galaxies, he got Stephen Hawking to open it, [imitating Hawking] “There are at least two hundred million stars in our galaxy,” and he goes on. Anyway, Hawking enjoyed the project so much that he sent my friend some lectures on quantum physics, and he opens one with a limerick:
There once was a lady from Wight
Who could travel much faster than light
She took off one day
In a relative way
And arrived on the previous night.
I read that and said, “Stephen Hawking, my man!” As to the lectures, I read them a line at a time, think about them, go back to a science fiction book or a movie. But that’s what’s going on. I seem to attract that kind of thing now. I was seeking it when I was 16. I used to stay in the library when it closed, back on the floor reading about Beethoven or something else.
With so many vivid interests, why did you choose to pursue music?
Music has a sense of velocity in it. There’s also a sense of mystery. But everything is really mysterious. I used to look at my hand and say, “What is this?” Everything in life is not down pat. With music, it’s another kind of meal, another dimension, not just a language but another miracle. It’s a gift – not to do music, but just that music is there. And what else is there, that we’re not harvesting? So move over Bill Gates and Albert Einstein.
[Question from the audience] What influence did your brother Alan have on you?
We were influencing each other from the beginning, hipping each other to something, checking things out while walking down the street. My brother just talked out and said what he thought. He saw constraints in life that he didn’t want to deal with, like the dating thing. He just skipped through all of that, and said, “Nobody’s ready for me.” He played an alto sax for a while, and he painted “Doc Strange” on the side of his case. People used to call us Strange and Weird, so I put on my clarinet case “Mr. Weird.” Then we had this band together, nine guys. Another band at the time in New Jersey had bandstands, uniforms, lights, girlfriends who would carry their instruments, everything. We’d go to the gig, and my brother would bring his horn in a shopping bag, and play it with gloves on. He’d wear galoshes when the sun was shining; and we’d take the chairs and turn them around and start playing “Emanon” or “Godchild” or “:Jeru” by ear, with newspapers on our music stands, making fun of people who read music. We made sure our clothes were wrinkled, because if you played bebop you were raggedy, not smooth. You didn’t go out on dates, you made it with your instrument.
[Question from the audience] What can we do to save jazz?
I think that taking chances is the beginning. Being unafraid of losing this and that, jobs, friends. You don’t have to have the extreme you see in biographies of Van Gogh, always being by himself or arguing with others, but you’ve got a lot of leeway. Knowing the difference between what you’re told and what you find out for yourself; starting as an individual, being alone. We don’t have to preserve jazz; we have to start preserving the stuff that comes before all of that.
[Question from the audience] Can you talk about playing with Miles Davis?
I had the most fun playing with Miles Davis, and John Coltrane told me that, too. Now, the same kind of fun is happening with John Patitucci and Brian Blade and Danilo Perez, and over the years I had fun playing with Joe Zawinul and Herbie Hancock. But Miles was a “source” kind of guy. You know how Captain Marvel would go to Delphi, to get his shazam stuff together? Miles was like that, and he was a buddy, too.
I stay away from calling people “best friends,” because best friends are always becoming; but Herbie, Joe, we’re all becoming better and better friends. There’s no end to this growth. We’re older now, we talk from time to time. I talk to Sonny Rollins on the phone once or twice a year, Horace Silver, Benny Golson. Gil Evans came to my home, unannounced, just before he passed away. I guess I’d better do a book, and keep it straight.