Army Veteran Wayne Shorter Was a Titan of Jazz

Obit Wayne Shorter
FILE - Jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter performs at the 5 Continents Jazz Festival in Marseille, southern France on July 23, 2013. Shorter, whose lyrical jazz compositions and pioneering saxophone playing sounded through more than half a century of American music and made him one of the most influential innovators in jazz, died in Los Angeles on Thursday, March 2, 2023. He was 89. (AP Photo/Claude Paris, File)

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, and grew up in the city during an era when it had one of the most vital jazz music scenes in the world. The saxophonist played in bands from a young age, and after he graduated from New York University with a degree in music education in 1956, he spent two years in the U.S. Army.

Stationed primarily at Fort Dix, New Jersey, about an hour from his hometown, Shorter continued to perform in New York City clubs during his service. Later in life, Shorter performed with the acclaimed bassist Esperanza Spalding, who told the San Jose Mercury News in 2014: "He was a sharpshooter in the Army, and that's how he is with everything he studies. He gets right on the mark of what he wants to convey." 

Shorter died on Thursday, March 2, 2023, in Los Angeles. He was 89.

After he completed his Army service, Shorter joined Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers and stayed with the group as it recorded albums that defined the bop era. He then joined the Miles Davis Quintet and stayed with Davis as the trumpeter made the push into the jazz/rock hybrid that would be known as fusion.

Shorter next teamed with pianist Joe Zawinul in the early 1970s to form Weather Report, a group that enjoyed massive popularity with fans of progressive rock as well as the jazz aficionados who followed the musicians into the new hybrid territory.

After Weather Report disbanded in the 1980s, Shorter formed his own groups and had a fruitful collaboration with pianist Herbie Hancock, with whom he had previously played alongside on a series of classic Miles Davis albums. More recently, Shorter collaborated with Spalding on an opera called "Iphigenia" that was based on the Greek myth.

If you're not a regular jazz listener, it may be hard to grasp Shorter's influence in his chosen genre. Still, most fans of rock music know his iconic solo on Steely Dan's 1977 hit "Aja," even if they didn't realize that Shorter was the musician behind the performance. The solo comes at approximately 4 minutes, 43 seconds into the eight-minute song.

Earlier in his career, Shorter composed the classic song "Children of The Night" for Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. The group recorded the tune in late 1961 for the LP "Mosaic," released in 1962 by Blue Note Records. AllMusic's review says, "Shorter's 'Children of the Night' is a fine example of the tunes he would compose for the Miles Davis Quintet a bit later. While it's a hard bop swinger to be sure, his use of modality and counterpoint between the soloist and the front line is exemplary and his solo bites hard and fast as he tears up and down the registers of the horn."

In 1969, Miles Davis was incorporating electric instruments into his band and was determined to draw inspiration from contemporary rock musicians like Jimi Hendrix when he took his band into Columbia Studio B in New York City that August. 

The result, “Bitches Brew,” was hailed as the album that introduced jazz to a younger generation at a time when many believed the genre was dying, one of its highlights is the Shorter composition "Sanctuary."

When Shorter and Zawinul left Davis' group to form Weather Report, the duo couldn't have imagined what a huge impact they would have out of the gate. The group's self-titled debut album, which featured multiple tunes written by Shorter, was named Album of the Year in the Downbeat Magazine Readers' Poll. "Tears" is one of the best tracks.

As music fans and historians define the history of jazz music in the late 20th century, Shorter will continue to be remembered as one of the most daring, innovative musicians of his era. As a composer and collaborator, this Army veteran had few peers.

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