Today is Wayne Shorter’s birthday, so I dug up a chat I had with him years ago regarding John Coltrane’s impact and the way the two seminal saxophonists shared ideas. I like the “Lockjaw” Davis and Chu Berry part. Wonder if Wayne can do a slick Dexter Gordon? Here he is in his own words. Click into Accujazz’s Shorter channel while you’re reading.
John’s wife introduced us in 1958. I was working with Horace Silver in New York. When I first saw him play, it was at Birdland; he was with Miles. He was doing lots of short phrases, all over the place. I knew there was something to that, that he was going to develop it, and as time went on those short phrases got longer and longer. Eventually they weren’t the same anymore. But that night with Miles, he was playing against everything, and when we talked about it later he said he was tired of playing against “Billy Boy” and things like that. After a while he stuck out like a sore thumb. So he had to go with his own band, where it would all blend in.
When he was stretching out those notes with Miles, he knew he had to move on because it’s the only way his playing could crystalize. It would work better if he was the only one in the front line. He was actually orchestrating by instinct by not having another horn player up there with him. He would have to navigate that band alone. At that time I called the rhythm section the vessel. John was the leader. McCoy would join in with the navigation. He and McCoy were the front line.
After we met he invited me to his house. He said he wanted to get together because we were playing…not the same way, but in the same areas of the horn. He said, “You’re playing some funny stuff.” He wanted to sit down and talk about it. He’d play, I’d play, we’d talk about it. He was playing piano mostly, I think it was the beginnings of “Giant Steps,” those augmented thirds over and over again. Then he’d get his horn and play two notes over and over again. Then two others. Then two others. For a long time. We also talked about doing impossible things with your instrument. Not just thinking of your instrument for what it is, but trying to do things that couldn’t be done on it – going beyond the limitations. Like what Paganini did, and since then what other violinists have done. We also talked about starting a sentence in the middle, and then going to the beginning and the end at the same time. Musical sentences and conversation.
Other people came by, too. George Tucker the bassist. Cedar Walton, Freddie Hubbard. They’d all leave and he’d ask me to spend the night. We’d cook food. Then he came to my parents house on Thanksgiving. He talked with Albert Ayler; he liked him. He wanted to check out what was going on with the scene. Not just tenor, but flute and other things. I think that’s why he grabbed the bagpipes towards the end. Music is all encompassing. Charlie Parker realized that towards the end, too.
He would never crack jokes. Miles said Trane’s humor came out early. In the dressing room before the gig he’d start playing like “Lockjaw” Davis or Chu Berry, or someone real comical. Miles said Trane could do that really well, and that’s the sign of a good musician, when you can impersonate someone with your horn. Obviously you try to stay away from that when you’re working your own thing.
From about ’55 on he had a sense of urgency, like he couldn’t get everything out that he wanted. I think he knew something about his health, even if he couldn’t pin it down. Maybe he went to the doctor and and the doctor said, “Hey, it might be soon.” Maybe he knew more about that around ’65. But I imagine he got a hell of a physical. Being a serious person he might have taken that prognosis and used it as a yard stick to see how far he could go.
I played onstage with him twice. After he and Lee Morgan did Blue Trane together. I was just home from the army and the phone rang – it was Lee saying, “C’mon, man, come play with us!” I went and joined them on “Night in Tunisia.” It was a long night in “Tunisia;” Trane was dissecting the tune, and Lee was playing in a way that he didn’t with the Messengers, because he considered Trane a hometown guy. He called Trane his “Philadelphia homeboy,” even though he was from North Carolina. He said, “We’re just going straight head tonight.” So I jumped in there with him. The next time we played together was a couple weeks later. He called for a Birdland gig, and I said sure. I was still out of work. He was trying out some songs he’d gotten together for another album after Giant Steps. We didn’t record, we just played the gig. It was Freddie Hubbard, Cedar Walton shared the piano with Tommy Flanagan, George Tucker, Trane and myself. I didn’t know who the drummer was going to be, but when we were at Birdland, in walked Elvin Jones. We rehearsed these new kind of harmonies with three parts. He knew we were all kind of onto the new tonality ourselves. We didn’t play with vibrato or anything. About 16 years later I was talknig to people in California and they’d been at the club that night and they’d never forgotten it. They were right; it was a bad night, a real sharing thing.
I like the later stuff. It’s a process that has to be done. Meditations and Expressions, those are the kind of things you can listen to once. He didn’t want to repeat that over and over. He was going on to “Nature Boy” and the bagpipe stuff. I don’t actually listen to those things anymore because I can hear the essence of them right now as we’re talking. I was never the kind of person to play a record over and over.
Miles told me that as a unit working together, the second Quintet covered a lot more ground, was more innovative as a group. The first Quintet, with Trane and Paul Chambers, made more individual contributions.
One of John’s legacies is that any melody has a flexability beyond the one that initially shows itself. Nothing is as frozen as it seems. He said that everything can be opened up. It’s a lot of work. There are people who say you have to do “Nature Boy” just the way it is. Or the “Star Spangled Banner.” Hey, you can really take the “Star Spangled Banner” out!
WHAT’S YOUR FAVORITE WAYNE SHORTER RECORD?
“Wayne’s tunes were always provocative,” Herbie Hancock told Ted Panken. Here’s a great Shorter profile circa 2002.