by Mel Martin
- Reprinted from The Saxophone Journal
- Volume 16, Number 4
- January/February 1992
Wayne Shorter is one of the most unique and
influential saxophonists and composers performing today. He has spawned a
whole new generation of musicians whose musical efforts reflect his profound
and lasting influence. His career spans several generations, from his early
VeeJay and Blue Note recordings, through his work with Art Blakey and Miles
Davis, as well as his work with the seminal fusion group Weather Report, and
his own very creative groups. I was able to catch up with Wayne at a concert
with Herbie Hancock at the Shoreline Amphitheater in Mountain View, California.
It was the first time Wayne and Herbie had played together in an acoustic
setting in quite some time and was a delight to hear them as they explored
some well worn standards. They came up with some of the most interesting music
I've heard in a while. They were on the same bill as the Mike Brecker band
and some others. Wayne had just that day purchased a 75,000 series Mark VI
tenor and this was his first opportunity to try it out. In the dressing room
backstage Mike, Herbie, and I were all admiring this instrument which, for
all practical purposes, looked brand new with the original lacquer intact.
More recently, I heard Wayne performing with his own band at Kimball's East,
and once again was blown away by his absolute creativity in what is loosely
regarded as a "fusion" context. He was also playing a tenor which
he had previously owned, and had it gold plated. He was playing compositions
from different parts of his career with as much freshness and vitality as
one could. Wayne has a kind of poetic and creative way of speaking which I've
attempted to capture in print, however, one really has to hear the inflections
and tonal qualities inherent in his human voice to appreciate the full meaning
of his words: much as the way he plays. This interview covers a wide range
of topics including many reflections on his contacts with some of the great
saxophonists that were his mentors, as well as his views on making music.
The conversation begins, appropriately enough, on the subject of saxophones.
The Mark VII is a very heavy horn. It makes you use muscles that are not necessary.
Your muscles get tired; muscles that don't even lead to your fingers.
Johnny Griffin was telling that he was playing one and the sleeves of his
clothes would get caught in the side keys. He said it played good, but it
messed him up.
Uh-huh. And also the high register top notes had a tendency to crack. It's
just not a thoughtfully built instrument. The one I have now I just got today.
It was built somewhere around the late fifties or early sixties. That's the
kind of horn I had when I was with Art Blakey and Miles Davis. All horns are
different, but I heard this particular one had sat under the bed of a grandfather
for twenty years. A lady walked in the store with the horn and said, 'Her
grandfather's horn was up for grabs.' The store owner knew right away that
was one of those saxophones that has "it," whatever "it"
is. I think Coltrane had one of those horns.
He had a Selmer Balanced Action didn't he? But later on he got a VI. That
certain vintage of Mark VI was certainly a good one.
Yeah, it makes you feel like a violin player. It makes your hands feel like
you're doing something violinistic or pianistic. Other horns made today are
geared toward some kind of honking and rock 'n rollish, muscular chainsaw
results on the bandstand. Why not have that Stradavarius spirit with every
instrument? Every instrument should be a Stradavarius according to the desire
of the player. People have different desires. Some don't even care. It's good
to know that there is a workmanship that's equal to performance. Or there
was workmanship that existed that in my estimation is equal to the highest
performance that someone can do with or without an instrument. I don't know
what happened to all that. Maybe there were some patent arguments; people
wanting to copy that and not paying the royalties due. I bet if I look it
up there was a court suit and all that.
I don't know. I think maybe it has a lot to do with manufacturing costs
and the care it takes to make a good instrument. The guy making it really
has to follow it through.
The Mark VII I have is good. It has another kind of sound, heavy kind of sound.
The first horn I ever played was a Martin. I remember playing that horn on
a stage with Sonny Rollins in Newark, New Jersey at a place called Sugar Hill.
I was in the Army and I had a weekend off. This was when Max Roach and Sonny
Rollins were playing together, right after when Clifford Brown died. I walked
into the club in uniform and Max waved to me to come on up, but I went home
and changed clothes first (laughter). We played Cherokee real fast.
A guy named Pete Lonesome recorded that. What a name! He was from West Virginia
and as far as I know he still has that recording somewhere. Pete, please contact
this magazine. He put the mic right on the stage. Pete Lonesome. Anyway, the
saxophones I had were ripped off from me. Three times. One time I was with
Coltrane. We went from New York to New Jersey. He had a gig there with Miles
Davis and he wanted me to ride with him. He asked me to come over to his house
a lot at that time, and that night he had a gig. He said that the last time
he was at this place somebody stole his horn. It's a funny thing. I went into
that same place a later time with Art Blakey and The Messengers, and wouldn't
you know somebody stole my horn, Curtis Fuller's trombone, his raincoat and
his goulashes! He said, 'What would somebody want with my goulashes?' His
driver's license and all that was taken also. He didn't feel so bad when I
told him someone took 'Trane's horn too. Then he calmed down. When I was with
Miles' band somebody stole my horn from the limousine in which it was locked.
It was a professional job. They stole it, and relocked the car. Miles said,
(Wayne imitates Miles' raspy voice) 'That's the shit. Professional!' (laughter)
But he helped me to get a new horn. He laid some bread on me because we were
working non-stop then, and I got the horn. I paid him back real fast. He was
I remember one night you were playing with Blakey at the Jazz Workshop
in San Francisco and you had an old Bundy that was falling apart, with rubber
bands and glue and Art came over and asked me if you could use my Selmer,
which you did for a set.
Yeah, and that's when I joined Miles, with that Bundy. He called me and said,
'Come to California.' I was living in New York at the time. Miles said, 'Bring
what you've got.' He sent me a first-class ticket and I flew to California.
Within a couple of days we walked on stage at the Hollywood Bowl. But before
we walked out, he said, 'Do you know my music?' I said, 'Yeah.' He said, "Uh,
oh!" So we went out and the first thing we started off with was Joshua.
I played the harmony parts with him. We went through a lot of things and I
knew them all. I had worked on that music at home, plus I had been checking
Miles out since I was fifteen, as well as Bird. Including the body English
and the sound and how the two played together. I got a lot of my ensemble
work together with Lee Morgan and other people.
I've got your first record on Veejay Records, 'Introducing Wayne Shorter'
and Lee's on there, as well as Wynton Kelly, Paul Chamber, Jimmy Cobb. There
must have been at least four or five of your compositions that nobody's ever
heard since. Hardly anybody plays them, but they are really good compositions.
You're one of the most prolific writers. I went through my record collection,
knowing we were going to get together, just to think about things. I must
have more records with you on them than any other single player, and I've
got a large collection. You've had a very prolific career and I admire it
greatly. I've also been checking out your new records which are a whole new
step. Maybe you could talk a bit about what you've been doing with your own
bands. It seems to me that you're obviously having a great time exploring
the new technology and the new instruments which are available.
Yeah, just having some fun. What seems like new music is only what I already
thought of in the first place. The word "jazz" means to me no category,
but when you get stuck into wanting to do something the way it was with the
"jazz emblem" or logo chained around your neck, you play in a frozen
moment in time and you keep fermenting the 'fifties saying jazz should be
this way or that. Well, if jazz to me means no category, then I've got the
green light And if it sounds like.. sounds like.. sounds like, and keeps crossing
over, it's what I wanted to do in the first place. I like the way Stravinsky
and those guys did things. They expressed something, if not themselves. In
fact, some people talk about expression, but expression really doesn't mean
anything to me because there's a lot of work which goes into building a drama
and then it's up to other people to offer "expression." Expression
is such a nebulous thing.
I have seen some of your scores and it's some of the most detailed music
I've ever seen. So I know what you do is not a random thing that just falls
off accidently. It's some- thing that you've thought about in great detail.
I'd say composing is improvisation slowed down. I'm working on something now
that I'm trying to finish. If you want to call it classical, go ahead. I won't
even have to play on it. It's for full orchestra and we did part of it in
Japan already. Richard Stolzman was the guest soloist. He and I played together
with the New Japan Orchestra, which is Seji Ozawa's workshop or home orchestra.
In that orchestra there were Europeans and everything, all mixed, not just
people indigenous of Japan. We had fun, and they recorded it somewhere with
the microphone under the stage, so I've got the first seven minutes of it.
I'm working on it now and I'll complete it soon. When I was with CBS, they
were talking about Sir George Solti conducting this piece. I'm not with CBS
now. I had a manager who ended it while I was on the road. When the cat's
away, the mice will play type of relationship. That happens all over, managers
dealing and piling up contracts and they say, 'Well, we keep you working!'
Now I'm record contract free and manager free.
I'd be interested in knowing how you feel about a lot of the current generation
of; let's use the term jazz players, but there's a lot of young cats who are
really paying their obligation to you both in compositions and in playing.
I hear it a lot. There are older cats, too, but in my understanding, the young
generation, the "Marsalis generation" let's call it, is heavily
influenced by you. How do you feel about that? You must have noticed?
Well, it's almost the same as a lot of these classical composers who think,
where do you go after Stravinsky? In the world of music, you don't hear any
real explosive turn of events. I think the place where you might hear something
explosive like that would be in jazz action.
But there hasn't been any real explosions in jazz for at least twenty,
maybe twenty-five years.
Right, but I'm saying that should be a place where you can expect something
like that to happen. What I think was happening was in the whole spectrum
of musical styles and everything. There is an inconspicuous change that doesn't
always have to be explosive. I heard a song written and sung by Melissa Manchester.
I always liked Melissa, and this song she did at this five hour show called
our Common Future with John Denver, Christopher Reeves (Superman), Diana Ross,
Herbie and Joni Mitchell and those people. Melissa did a song early in the
program. I was just talking with her yesterday. She was saying she doesn't
write a whole bunch of music, what she writes is usually simple, and what
she's aiming at writing now is for adults. In this song she made the hair
on hairless people move (laughter). We didn't come on until last, so we went
back to the hotel to watch the beginning. The phone would ring, 'Did you hear
that?' We had a suite and people would knock on every door saying, 'Did you
hear that song by Melissa Manchester?' Later on my wife met her backstage
and my wife grabbed me and said, 'This is Melissa.' I said, 'Who wrote that?'
Melissa said, 'I did.' I gave her a hug and said, 'I want it!' She just sent
it to me last week. This song she wrote is a departure from her "Woodstock
Superstar Rock 'n Roll" stature. It's called Sometimes I Feel Sorry For
God. It's not recorded yet, so she sent me the demo. I think I'm going to
cover it. It's a moving song. It really touched everybody. So, it's that kind
of inconspicuous evolution that's going on. It makes it's mark just as much
as an explosion. If an explosion happens, it kind of means that everybody's
dumb because they didn't see it coming.
Musicians like yourself obviously were influenced by certain elements,
but your talents were fully formed by the time you hit the scene as far as
I could judge from your first album. And I heard you right along from when
you were first with Blakey through Miles. Your talent has always been there
as an individual. You're very identifiable as an individual in your writing
and in your playing. A lot of cats now are checking out what's gone before
them almost to the point of not developing their own individuality as much.
When Ornette hit the scene there was a real individual, like when 'Trane hit
the scene, and when Sonny hit the scene. You knew from the time those guys
were nineteen years old that they were strong individuals making strong statements.
You just don't seem to see that as much any more. There's some really strong
Most of the players, when they hit the scene, were really well versed in Charlie
Parker. Sonny Rollins still has the respect. I can hear it in the spiritual
respect that he adheres to when he was digging Charlie Parker and Bud Powell.
That's what Joe Henderson said, that in Detroit you knew every Charlie
Parker tune, even to just show up at a jam session. In fact, it goes back
to Lester Young.
The great players listened to Lester Young. I've been checking him out since
I was about fifteen. When I was in the Army I got ten days off, so I went
to Canada, and he was playing at the Town Tavern. During intermission he came
down to where I was standing at the bar, the place was packed, and he said
to me, 'You look like you're from New York.' I had a pin-strip suit on (laughter).
I was trying to get a drink at the bar and he said, 'Do you want some Cognac?'
I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'Let's go down to the wine cellar and get some real
cognac!' He grabbed two big water glasses and went down there. I went back
to camp and I told these people. They said, 'You were talking with Lester
Young?' And then about five weeks after that he passed away. I also knew his
niece, Martha Young, who has passed away. I also saw him walking in at a theater
in Newark, New Jersey. It was called The Grand Auditorium at that time, but
it's now called The Masonic Hall. He was late. Everybody was up on the bandstand
playing: Charlie Christian, Stan Kenton's band, Charlie Parker, and all that.
He was walking through the theater lobby with a kind of upward slope on his
pork-pie hat, a long coat with wrangling sleeves and what we called Studebaker
shoes, and he was moving just as slow as he wanted to, you know. He had the
look on his face like, 'Hey, isn't this the way it's supposed to be?'
You know Sonny Rollins, and you also knew Coleman Hawkins. Could you share
some interesting stories about these two jazz greats?
Sonny Rollins and I talked quite a bit when were on the road in Japan riding
the bullet train, the busses and all that. We didn't talk about music all
that much. We talked about health and being healthy. He'd say, 'you've got
to take care of your health!' We talked about the time he fell off of the
stage. His wife, Lucille, is always with him and was very concerned. He was
still carrying his tenor and soprano while getting on the bullet train. I
said, 'Sonny, haven't you got anybody to carry that for you?' He said, 'Instead
of eight weeks, I'll make it two weeks.' Sonny doesn't like to do long tours
Coleman Hawkins and I used to sit together all the time we were on the road
in Europe years ago. He'd say, 'Get yourself a mouthpiece made,' in a gruff
voice. He was into custom made mouthpieces.
John Coltrane was a big influence on you. You mentioned earlier that you
used to practice with him?
Yes, when I left the Army I was working with Horace Silver, like for a couple
of weeks. We were working at this one place in New York and this lady came
up to me and said, 'My name is Anita. My husband wants to meet you.' I was
back in the kitchen working on my horn and she went back and got her husband,
who was John Coltrane. She said, 'He likes what you're doing.' He said to
me, 'You're playing that funny stuff, all over the horn.' He invited me to
his house, so I went. It was very nice to meet him because I knew he was the
only one that was on to something musically that was moving. When I was in
the Army we used to go to DC and see Miles with 'Trane and Cannonball. So
I went to his house, and they wouldn't let me leave! They were cooking and
we'd sit and talk about life, and he'd play the piano, and then stop, and
then we'd compare horns. He'd say, 'That's a nice horn, but if you can get
one of those old mouthpieces ... I think you have to shake that horn up, separate
the molecules.' I later looked around horn shops for the kind of old Link
mouthpiece he recommended. Anyway, after that, John called me, Freddie Hubbard,
and some other people to work with him at Birdland on a Monday night. The
group opposite them was Cannonball's group. They were both still with Miles,
but that was their off night. People twenty-five years after that said, 'That
was a hell of a night!'
So it was you, 'Trane and Freddie .
Yeah, and Cedar Walton, Tommy Flanagan and George Tucker. And then who walked
in the door but Elvin Jones, so he sat down on the drums. We were playing
all this new stuff. We were actually playing Giant Steps.. John had written
Giant Steps by then. I was like walking through it. And then we did some standards.
Cannonball's group would come on with the rhythm and blues thing, then we'd
come back on with the new thing, looking to the future. After that, John said
he wanted to leave the Miles Davis group and move on. He told me, 'The gig
is yours if you want it.' But, that's about the time I joined Art Blakey instead.
You had been with Maynard Ferguson a little bit, right? Did you ever play
Hmm... maybe one time sitting in at The Five Spot with Art, but I can't remember
many details. I played with Bud Powell once at the Olympia Theater in Paris.
It's a recording.
Were those musicians much of an influence on you? To me, you are as individualistic
as Monk was. You're
both composers and idiomatic in your own right. Was Monk much of an influence
I liked what Monk was doing. It was very spiritual to state what you're going
to state and not just jump on a band wagon. Monk would say, 'Stick to your
guns.' Musical influence for me came from movies, the way people acted on
the screen or the stage. I would think, 'I want to do something the way Humphrey
Bogart did in that movie.' When Marlon Brando would do something I'd say,
'Wow, play that!' Or a total movie that was done well and got into your life.
I'd get so into the film I'd forgot I was in the theater. The idea is to transcend
music. And also to transcend the academia of music. Something else manifests,
something else takes place. Theoretically you can say that any sound is neutral,
but with the human element and the response or reaction, any song begs to
Then you're saying there's something beyond the mechanics of music. You're
looking to find that other element and to literally play to it.
Yes. Like when you get in a cab sometimes and people know that you are a musician,
they will turn to a music station right away. We were driving to the our Common
Future thing, and Andy Summers from the band The Police was sitting next to
me. When the driver turned on the radio, Andy said, (using a British accent)
'Would you mind turning that off please? I'd rather listen to the music of
life for a change?' I don't play music (recordings) when I am at home. One
thing I could never do is play something over and over again. If I have it,
I know it's there to be played over and over, but to actually confirm this
"something" the value of playing it over and over and over again
is like a web that's spun but you can't get out of it. When you become neutral
the music is more alive than you. That goes for anything, even eating too
much ice cream. The ice cream is very much alive, but you're dead. The same
with liquor, cocaine, and drugs, dwelling on something so that you have to
end up in an institution.
You don't want to lay that on the music. Some people get very attached
to what they are trying to do, and it's an easy trap to fall into; to get
so involved with that music.
Three attachments usually need to suffer. That's what a guy named Sokyamuni
said about three thousand years ago in India. I don't usually talk about music
that much. I'm doing a lot of drawing and painting now.
As I remember, you did cartoons as a youngster. I've seen these somewhere.
You had mentioned to someone I know that you had your original cartoons laminated
so they would be saved.
Yes, I'm doing a lot of that now as to make an effort to put 100% of myself
into all the other aspects of living.
- Photo of Wayne Shorter and Mel Martin by Catey Martin
- ©COPYRIGHT1992 Mel Martin