To keep up with 12-time Grammy-winning jazz saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter requires serious hustle. That has less to do with his age (88) and everything to do with his remarkable 60 years as a jazz innovator. During his career, Shorter moved from being a 1940s tenor sax bebop musician to music director of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers to playing soprano sax with and composing seminal works for the Miles Davis quintet. He went on in the 1950s and ’60s to make legendary jazz-rock Blue Note recordings as a solo artist and bandleader and co-founded the jazz-fusion group Weather Report with pianist Joe Zawinul in the early ’70s.
Along the way, Shorter picked up a Bachelor of Music Education degree in 1956 at New York University, served in the United States Army, and later wrote jazz standards such as “Footprints,” “Infant Eyes,” and “Speak No Evil” — works that continue to be studied and performed today. In the 1980s and ’90s, he took deep dives into funk, Brazilian jazz, electronic and fusion works, and more. In the 2000s, Shorter turned to symphonic improvisation and established himself as a classical composer, reworking 1980s compositions and other works for orchestras or chamber ensembles. Approximately three years ago, Shorter began working on a new opera, Iphigenia, with four-time Grammy-winning jazz artist and bassist esperanza spalding and theater director Lileana Blai.
In October, Shorter received a $275,000 Doris Duke Artist Award — Blai was similarly honored. The award is unrestricted and includes $25,000 to invest in retirement savings. It’s impossible to imagine Shorter retiring, especially with the opera that is a Cal Performances co-commission and arrives in Berkeley on Feb. 2, 2022 and at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica on Feb. 18–20. The fully staged work is performed by a 28-piece chamber ensemble, the rhythm section of Shorter’s quartet (Shorter himself no longer performs), a cast of nine vocalists, and a chorus of 10 singers. Clark Rundell conducts, and the renowned architect Frank Gehry designed the sets.
Here are excerpts from an hour-long conversation.
Let’s dive into Iphigenia, the opera based on Euripides’s play. You are composing and creating it with esperanza spalding, who is providing the libretto and performing the title role. How did that come to pass?
When I first met her, she was brought to me by a promoter. I saw her and we talked a little bit and she did something unusual. When she left, she’d left behind a little piece of music paper with a melody, a chorus, as a way of saying thank you, like a “nice to meet you.” Hmm, I thought, this is the first time someone has put a foot on the pedal. Usually someone doesn’t do that. Then I saw her in Europe backstage and she was doing interviews. Then I saw her on TV on the The Tonight Show with her band. She was playing the electric bass; music that she wrote and it was in-tri-cate. I noticed she was ambidextrous. I used to hear from guitar and even piano players that it’s difficult for them to sing and play their instrument at the same time — unless the words are parallel to the hand movements. But she was doing stuff that was juxtaposed.
I asked her how she felt about doing that difficult stuff when you get onstage. She said, “Scared to death.” Then we met periodically, crossed paths, and talked about life and stuff like that. I just told her I wanted to continue an opera I started when I was around 19 at NYU. She said why don’t you do it? Since I’ve been in and then out of the hospital. I’ve been not playing saxophone anymore. So about three years ago I started working on the opera I started when I was 19. [That] opera was about a motorcycle gang in Greenwich Village. Then I was drafted into the army, graduated college, and let it go. Then I heard Leonard Bernstein was working on West Side Story with the same kind of things, gangs, you know. Years went by and now, I said, is the time to have no regrets. I’m going to do this opera. Talking with her about the story (of Iphigenia), esperanza said she wanted to be the librettist and play the title role. During one of the first rehearsals in one of my houses, the doorbell rang. Opened the door and there was Frank Gehry. All he said was three words, “Count me in.”
What have you discovered about esperanza while working together?
She brings her whole being, her daring, fearlessness — and playing music that’s not virtual. She’s like Miles Davis. People who stood out in the art world. She stands out in the United States of America. She just did something with the orchestra in Finland that was really out there, futuristic. I told her we got a message on tour one time from the astronauts. We were in Japan and the astronauts sent us a message saying can you send us some music that’s more indicative of the future than all the stuff you’ve been sending us? That’s where we’re going. Regardless of the gatekeepers.
I listened to interviews with Joe Lovano when you were talking how Mozart, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms were akin to jazz composers. I’ve always heard your work as a conversation with composers and musicians from all sorts of eras and genres. What connections between your body of work and other music traditions, including opera, do you draw?
It’s not just a connection, it’s a “let’s go” mission to go forward; to break through the everyday stuff, the pop, pop, pop. People ask me questions like, “Who is Nat King Cole?” Or instead of asking, “What is a typewriter,” they ask, “Who is Humphrey Bogart?” So, we have to go forward and enlighten the path less taken. We have to stick to our guns about the future.
I was in a group called Weather Report and one time I was in the office of Clive Davis, the head of Columbia at the time, and he was asking what this new music (we were making) was going to be called. Joe Zawinul came up with a good answer. He said, “You could say folk music of the future.” We tried to be truthful. We knew it would take a long time to sell a record. Those marketing dogs, they didn’t bother us.
Since I was 15, I was always thinking about changing things; not just with musical sound, but with philosophical living. That last part was not until I was 40 years old. You travel around and think you’ve got it together. “I’ll take care of myself. “I had my own philosophy. It doesn’t work like that. You have to listen to the people less spoken about. What do you hear from them? Actual truth and someone speaking about something they’ve never spoken about. I started practicing Buddhism at age 40. That’s all I’ll say: I’m not making a commercial.
When you listen to those lesser-known voices now, what do you hear?
I hear things that people avoid speaking about to each other. You know how society interacts with complaining and explaining? Or at parties and dances people exchange ideas and some are polite-polite and some are rude, trying to force their views on social competitors or making fun of the whole idea of what is life?
When you listen to your own voice, I sense you’re always questioning even your own propositions. Is that true?
At age 15, I drew a science-fiction book. A guy saw my comic book and said wait a minute, you have astronauts in this spacecraft and it’s not commanded by a woman. Where did this come from? I had seen a (1950) movie called Rocketship X-M, there was one lady in there but she was not the captain. I wondered, why wasn’t she?
I was wondering why rhythm and blues and rock ’n’ roll came up but then when bebop and modern jazz came, why audiences were so small and why they wanted to take it off the radio. They wanted American Bandstand. You have Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Stan Kenton, June Christy. Where are the audiences? They came from Europe, Japan, and U.S. colleges. Young people graduating from high school were the only people I saw from America who were catching on and wanted to hear more of this new kind of music called modern jazz. People like Satie and Korsakov loved the way jazz sang. Whatever jazz is, it’s about improvisation. But then when you start to study music, you can do whatever you want to do.
Where does that push for innovation and energy to find new ways to perform and write music come from? Do you point back to your time with Blakey and Davis and Herbie Hancock? To current artists? A natural preset?
I was wondering when growing up in Jersey why people always wanted to do stuff that sold. If they were going to see a young modern jazz group coming onstage, they would be yelling for this blues singer, “Bull Moose Jackson, Bull Moose Jackson.” And I had snuck into the theater to hear Charlie Parker, playing with strings. Even with Ella Fitzgerald, they liked her, but “A-Tisket, A-Tasket” was a commercial thing they hung on to when Ella had other stuff too. They hung on to what they knew. In Europe, they grabbed new stuff immediately.
After they arrested Billie Holiday and closed cabarets and took jazz off the radio, they said people couldn’t play bebop because it sounds like chickens. I knew there was something behind those efforts. There was a history and they wanted to destroy artistic excellence. They didn’t want that to overtake the stuff they wanted to sell. They still sell it. That’s me observing America. But things are breaking and here comes esperanza.
You know, I worked with Miles Davis. He never talked about music with me. We never sat down and talked about music. He would call on the phone and say, “Next week we’re going to record.” I had a little book where I wrote stuff down. The first recording he made when I was in the band was ESP. In the studio, he looked at [the book] and said let’s try this. He named the album ESP. From that time on, he’d call and say, “We’re going to record ... so bring the book.” We started our own little firestorm of artistic excellence.
You worked on this opera before and during the pandemic. What was the ambient sound you listened to? Had it changed from previous work sessions?
I very rarely listen to music, although I try to keep up with what’s going on. Other than that, I have a movie or something playing and I write against what I hear. I hear something on the news and I write something that challenges what they’re saying. Miles Davis used to say, “You know how Humphrey Bogart throws a punch and knocks somebody out?” Can you say that? He’d talk about John Wayne, how he walks and turns around, swivels? Can you say that? Can you say how Cagney would hitch his britches and, he’d say, “I’d like to say that.” Observing life, no matter what’s going on, I can write music. I don’t say, “Turn the TV off, I have to write a score!” I’m like I guy I know who can work on scores for a movie with a big old party going on in the house.
Do you remember the original impetus for this work about questioning individual fate and collectively, asking who writes the stories that become our myths?
Iphigenia was the last play Euripides wrote. There’s controversy to the ending. Was it really a tragedy? I said, “Wait a minute.” I saw a move with Iphigenia as a young girl in dialogue with her father — about how it was OK to sacrifice her, kill her. Why write an opera? The people who started opera, not Verdi and those guys, but before them, they said, “Let’s do whatever we want to do.” People set them up financially and they started play-acting, not just making music. You’re looking for rules or regulations? The first guys and women who started it said there are no rules. You want to tell a story: Tell it. I just want to see what happens. Also, the world needs it. Not to worry about selling a million records. I like this description of faith: Faith is to fear nothing. That’s a big order.
I admire this phrase I heard you use in an interview when you talked about the importance of what is “before the beginning” of a piece. Tell me more.
What happens before the piece is something Herbie Hancock and I had conversations about. The physicist who just died recently, Stephen Hawking, he talks about in his book. Which comes first, the chicken or the egg? Or when something becomes nothing. There can be no nothing because something has to move out of way to fill something up. His answers to chicken or the eggs was neither came first, it was simultaneous. The Big Bang? Simultaneous. Did somebody strike a match?
This thinking drives me to be the mad scientist or the happy scientist of music. Or to discover what everybody could be, not everybody, but many — if unafraid — could be. Why make a lot of records and make a lot of money? I don’t say, “I’m going to put this track down, put that track down, and see how it works.” I don’t want to see how something works. I want to see what happens. That overrides seeing how something works. The unknown is a plethora of things coming from the unknown.
Do you have a memory of experiences that pushed you into uncomfortable places and yet resulted in great sessions or performances?
I listened to a show called New Ideas in Music every Sunday. I was about 14. And I’d look at foreign films and read the subtitles. I heard on NBC the New York Philharmonic with Arturo Toscanini conducting his last concert. All this is conjuring up things. People seemed to know less about movies from France and people named Toscanini. He put the baton down, turned to the audience, and said, “Adieu.” He was stepping down from the podium and the commentator is narrating his movements and Toscanini just walked away. When (American tenor) Mario Lanza was making those movies, people used to say, “He’s enlarging his voice with technology to make his voice sound big.” Toscanini writes about Mario Lanza and just said he was one of the greatest tenors ever. No matter what Hollywood critics say. I saw The American Caruso four times.
What put me in an uncomfortable place was everybody selling records. Little diddly bop, tiddlywink things, that became big hits. Nobody was embracing new, exciting music, science fiction movies. You can only hear new performers when you go out to the field, fly to someplace where the list hasn’t been occupied by the stuff that sells. It’s not about being uncomfortable at all. When we fuel daredevils to do what we do, everyone else is uncomfortable. Not me. They want me to be uncomfortable and they say, you should make a hit record. That will get him. I say, “Throw a record against a wall.” That’s a hit record.
Do you self-review and tell me, what do you believe will always be true of your work?
What will always be true is I will always, somewhere in the work, salute all the people who went down with the ship in the art world. The people who didn’t become as famous because of the commercial aspect. The people [whose names] you have to look up in the library. Also, I’ll salute people who can’t stay in this field and did what they could to advance open minds, open the humanity of hearts, to do something unfamiliar. With time, they will embrace the men, children, and women who have taken the trail less sought.
You know, esperanza and I talk about that a lot. Otherwise, I think she’d get kind of bored. She’s a champion of jumping into the unknown, but she has studied. She has studied. It’s not only cerebral, or like, “OK, people, I’m going to teach you about this now.” She has to have a good time. I’m going to salute people such as yourself, who transmit the stuff that’s needed in the world. The world needs to hear the most unfamiliar sounds, words, and sights they’ve never seen or rejected years ago. You have to talk to her, she’s a lot of fun.
Trying to thank him and saying I can’t find the right words, Shorter gets the last word: “You don’t have to. When it comes to me, mum’s the word.”