Wayne Shorter: Living legend on jazz, UFOs and the CIA

Wayne Shorter is a multiple-Grammy winning jazz legend who’s been at the forefront of the genre for over 50 years. He still creates masterpieces – and enjoys cracking jokes about UFOs and the CIA.

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus of 19 – 20 March 2011.

Wayne Shorter: Living jazz legend on jazz and the CIA

A music interview often begins by referencing musicians the subject has played with. Wayne Shorter, however, is the kind of living legend that other artists reference. He was born in New Jersey in 1933, and started playing clarinet at 16 before switching to saxophone, going on to win multiple Grammy awards (six, at last count, with 13 nominations) and earn Honorary Doctorates from New York University and Berklee College of Music, amongst others, and being declared a “Jazz Master” by America’s National Endowment for the Arts. Amongst his many collaborators are the likes of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Herbie Hancock and Jimmy Smith.

Shorter’s influence on modern music has been likened to that of Picasso on modern art, and Ingmar Bergman on contemporary film – and he’s still steaming ahead with both quartet and symphonic projects that critics consider to be amongst the most powerful of his career. It also transpires that the player and composer is as delighted and intrigued by life now as was the star-struck teen who snuck up a fire-escape at a Norman Granz Philharmonic show to hear Stan Kenton, Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and the clarinet-wielding Ilinois Jacquet. Turns out he also boasts a robust sense of humour.

“We have to express music that is a mirror… to reflect what’s going on in this planet in total today.”

– Wayne Shorter


Wayne Shorter presents a dilemma, though. What do you ask the man who co-founded Weather Report, the group that become synonymous with the first wave of jazz fusion throughout the ’70s and early ’80s, had his orchestra-meets-improvisation work with outfits like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw, is described as “having a feel for melody like Puccini [but with] harmonic complexity like Ravel” and is the subject of a hardcover biography, “Footprint” (Michelle Mercer; Tarcher/Penguin), named after his seminal composition for Miles Davis‘ band. Music seems the best place to start, with a question about what Cape Town audiences can expect to hear from one of modern jazz music’s most prolific composers?

“Actually, we have a challenge,” says Shorter with the slightest of chuckles, “We have to express some music that is a mirror. We have to reflect what’s going on in this planet in total today. To tell a story that talks of courage and of being fearless in the presence of the unknown. It’s the challenge that has always driven me and, in this country (America) at the moment, there is a hesitance to accept this challenge, and to express that musically. People try to give a definition of what jazz means, but my definition of jazz is not a fixed one. It’s an evolving definition that grows when it is fuelled by what people are doing and playing. Jazz is an eternal mission that transcends all strategy and all intelligence.”

“So many people have been denied so many things in the world,” he continues. “Your country had that, but your country came through, and the music we will be playing will be celebrating that as well. The other challenge of what we do is that we communicate without words, but with sound. We try to find something mystical about life; about what is life. We don’t know what life is, but we can try to answer that question without words, and to celebrate it. In this country, really creative music is still an alien concept. It’s like that’s the real UFO in the USA these days – being creative and moving forward without fear, and with courage. I like what Sonny Rollins said in one of those – what do you call them? – those documentaries on HBO. They asked him why did Dizzy and Miles and Charlie play bebop. Sonny looked at them and he said, ‘We played bebop to be human’.”


‘We played bebop to be human’

– Wayne Shorter quoting Sonny Rollins

Shorter has sometimes been described as “the Zen philosopher of jazz”, but closer attention reveals that, while there are great learnings there, his thoughts are less esoteric than might first be imagined. “Most audiences have been conditioned to believe that ratings will tell them what to do, and to try and find more of the same of what is being programmed,” he says. “Nobody should be telling you what to do based on record sales and writing hits. We have to be original and creative and fearless and be more that; we have to play, and to gather wisdom along the way. The hesitancy to deal with the unexpected – in other words, for things where there is no university or training to deal with them, like improvisation… In this country, in today’s world, that is much needed. That’s what I mean by courage.”

At some point in the interview, after Shorter bent his critical eye and sharp tongue to the music industry and the arts in America, I joke that he’d best hope the CIA aren’t tapping the conversation, or they’ll throw him in jail. At the close of the interview, conscious of the allotted time-slot already being over, I thank him for his time and generosity of conversation, and bid him farewell.


“Wait, wait, I have something more to tell you,” he says with a laugh and a twinkle in his voice. “You said CIA, but you don’t know what it means. For me, it means that I’m a Coloured Intelligent American, and you all better watch out! The resilience to listen to music that is different, or to go and see off-Broadway theatre rather than what is popular, or read something different… The Madison Square marketing companies will try and stop it, but it’s intrinsic to the spirit of human life. That’s what my CIA is doing.” We say goodbye and Wayne Shorter, the man Max Roach called “The Flash” and who Miles Davis specifically requested as sideman, is still chuckling to himself about that one.

The Wayne Shorter Quartet plays on both Friday and Saturday at the 2011 Cape Town International Jazz Festival on the Rosies indoor stage, for which an additional ticket is required after access to the festival proper (25 and 26 March, Cape Town International Convention Centre; tickets Computicket.com). Also at the festival are Earth, Wind and Fire; Feya Faku, Esperanza Spalding, The Flames, Youssou N’Dour, Don Laka, Patricia Barber, Hugh Masekela, Jazzanova, Simphiwe Dana, Cindy Blackman and more. Wednesday 23 March sees a free concert at Greenmarket Square featuring Hanjin, Gang of Instrumentals, Cape Town Tribute Band, Tortured Soul and Tribe Of Benjamin. See CapeTownJazzFest.com.

This interview by Evan Milton originally appeared in the Cape Argus of 19 – 20 March 2011.


One response to “Wayne Shorter: Living legend on jazz, UFOs and the CIA

  1. Pingback: Cape Town International Jazz Festival: 2013 final programme | Evan Milton: Words on music (and miscellany)·

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