Interview with Wayne Shorter

From April 2015, for the BBC’s Jazz on 3, but unfortunately that show concluded before this interview could be aired. Transcribed by Kevin Sun.

The following is heavily edited for clarity. One of the best previous interviews of Wayne was the first, collected in Black Music by Amiri Baraka.


Ethan Iverson: Mr. Shorter, I know you’re in town for a week and might need some reading material, so I brought you a gift bag from a science fiction store.

[The bag was full of used anthologies purchased from Singularity & Co. in Dumbo]

Wayne Shorter: Whoa. Uh oh, spaghetti-o! Now we’re talking! Thank you!

EI: My pleasure.

WS: Happy Father’s Day!

[After some time looking at the books]

EI: Well, so tell me about being young and in Newark.

WS: In general, most of the kids, during the summer — when they’re off from school or even after school — they were out playing baseball or football. Sometimes the kids would do wrestling matches in the gym, showing off for the girls and all that.

But I stayed in, sketching.

I started drawing when I was eight years old. There was a movie called Rocketship X-M, with Lloyd Bridges, and from there, I tried to draw a comic book called Other Worlds (I still have it now).

That’s what I was doing, that kind of stuff, and molding with clay. When I did go outside we had a vacant lot next to our house. My brother and I and some of the kids used that vacant lot.

That vacant lot became like the sand dunes, became like Mars. This old, broken-down, horse-drawn milk truck: that became the spaceship. We’d be pushing the brake back and forth; that became the place where we played.

EI: Was your brother playing with you?

WS: Yeah, my brother and there’s another guy who lived downstairs. We had a backyard, and some of the people in the neighborhood, and some girls from across the street. We were being charged by some enemy: “Send the women and children to the parish!” That was the kind of a setting for imagination building.

EI:  Was your brother older or younger than you?

WS: He was a year and nine months older.

EI: Who got into music first?

WS: I did. I got a clarinet at 15, he got an alto sax maybe when I was 16. Right around the same time, we both started listening on the radio to this new music called “bebop,” on Martin Block’s “Make Believe Ballroom Time.” He announced: “We’re going to play some new music for you listeners out there, and tell us what you think about it.”

We weren’t like consciously saying, “Oh, that sounds like some of that stuff in science fiction movies,” but I think, subconsciously, as I look in hindsight, it was sort of like that.

Things started to filter from the music that we heard called bebop. When we stopped reading comic books and superheroes and stuff like that, when I heard about somebody, Charles Christopher Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk, now I can see that they took the place of Captain Marvel. [chuckles]

EI: Sure, I understand. They were also superheroes.

WS: Yeah, they were daring, breaking the rules. Stravinsky was breaking the rules.

I went to an arts high school where I’m passing people in the hallways and they’re talking about Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, and Mozart. I used to go to the library after class and stay in the library ’til closing time. I’m laying on the floor, reading about Frédéric Chopin and George Sand and all that, reading some letters that Beethoven wrote.

It wasn’t just one thing.

EI: Now, I heard something about you: I heard that when you were a teenager you could play just like Charlie Parker.

WS: Oh, yeah. Well, actually a lot of us played like him. There’s a guy from Jersey City, what’s his name, Jimmy…he played really like Charlie Parker. It was a close match. He knew all the stuff, “Star Eyes” and all the breaks and all that.

But I kept hearing this thing about some of the older guys. You find your original voice. You get original, you know.

EI: Even those three men you mentioned—Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk—they’re very different musical minds.

WS: With Dizzy Gillespie, when I heard him play that break in “Manteca”—but there were other things, too—and he was climbing over the tessitura, you know, the bulk of the orchestral sound, 17 pieces or whatever they had, and that trumpet would go over top and come down and he was doing some crooked stuff. We didn’t have any words, we’d say, “He’s playing that crooked stuff!”—that stuff you don’t hear trumpets do.

And then Fats Navarro, and then Charlie Parker was squeaking, his horn was squeaking and some of the disc jockeys, they’d say, “There’s a lot of faulty stuff, squeaking,” and then we heard Miles Davis come along and they’d say, “Seems like this young Miles Dewey Davis…” they were saying, in essence, “What is Charlie Parker doing with this guy?” and he’s like hesitant when he…you know.

EI: Right, tentative.

WS: But it seems like honing in on the faults brought me and some of the other guys (only a few guys in Newark) closer and closer to what was behind the criticism. There was Walter Davis Jr., there’s another trumpet player named Al Armstrong—there’s only a few—Willy Wright, and what’s his name, the saxophone player—Ike Quebec and Danny Quebec. Those are the few people. The old-timers, we heard comments from them about, “Don’t pat your foot when you’re playing.”

EI: Oh, really?

WS: Yeah, don’t pat your foot. Your patting your foot keeps you in a certain era, the swing era. It gets in the way of your imagination. Don’t move, really, when you play. The movement is interrupting your imagination and you’re actually continuing something that a metronome does, and it continues what you call “music lessons.” You’re just playing your music lessons in variations. [chuckles]

I have a tape of Charlie Parker giving a music lesson, and the student’s about 16 years old and he asks Charlie, “Mr. Parker, do you mean I have to memorize all these scales? Every one?” And Charlie, the first time I ever heard his voice, he says, “Yes, you do…But after you memorize them, forget them!” [laughs]

Then we heard the drumming, Max Roach, then I listened to them. They said, “Okay, go back to Sid Catlett.” When they said go back to something, that’s when I was thinking, “Okay, let me see.”

When I was young, I was not yet into music. My father listened to Duke Ellington on the radio and I said, “It sounds sloppy.” Because I was hearing in the swing stuff, really, like Jimmie Lunceford’s band.

EI: They were tight.

WS: Yeah, they were tight, and my mother would say, “Well, Jimmie Lunceford: college education.”

EI: I heard that was the big sort of controversy, Lunceford versus Ellington.

WS: Yeah, and I saw both of them onstage at the theater in Newark and I was listening to Ellington a little more, but then I said to myself—I didn’t have to say, I was feeling—that both, they both have their own thing. I think I was getting into the apples and oranges thing without even describing it.

Later on I got to talk with Ben Webster.

I saw Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. We sneaked in the theater in Newark. Dizzy Gillespie’s whole band and Stan Kenton’s band together. They had the bands join together onstage. It was Norman Granz, Jazz at the Philharmonic thing, and Ella Fitzgerald and stuff like that, Django Reinhardt, and these two bands together. They would play “Peanut Vendor,” the whole trumpet section, both trumpet sections, they were all in one line, they had the horn that Dizzy has with the bell that points so that it leans toward the ceiling next to the high note man in Kenton’s band (before Maynard Ferguson): and it was like “that’s the way it was supposed to be.” The joining together of everybody.

Because with the bebop we heard, even then when we were young: this was a social movement. Modern jazz or bebop or whatever you call it is a social movement. It is a movement away from ragtime and the constrictions that were associated with ragtime like minstrel stuff.

This is being “cool.” Then I heard sometimes what you do on the bandstand is too cool. Like standing like a statue and just saying, “I’m pure imagination.” I like when Jimmy Heath says, “Hey man, that’s too hip, you know what I’m saying? That’s too hip!” [laughs]

Because he’s going to be chasing everybody away. It’s like being yourself.

I started hearing phrases from people like Art Blakey. Art would hear a young drummers and say, “You have a lot of technique. Everything you play shows me you’ve learned your lessons well, but where are you? What’s your story? Tell me your story.”

EI: Tell me about Art Blakey as a bandleader. That was an important gig for you.

WS: Art Blakey, his thing was: get to the point when you’re playing a solo. Get to the point, and when you start repeating, it’s time to finish your story. But he always said, “Get a band where you have somebody who can write.” He said, “I don’t write anything, but I have composers.” And he always said, “The main thing: get a band. When you leave the Jazz Messengers, you got to get your own band and don’t be clumping together and holding the horn to just this one band that you’re in because,” he said—I use the word “snipers”—they’re out there. And if we all stay in one group, like the stage coach goes through the gully, they’ll ambush you at the pass and get you all at the same time, but if you have a lot of bandleaders spread out all over, it’s hard to target you.

EI: You played with some of my favorite musicians with Art Blakey, like Lee Morgan.

WS: Lee. Lee Morgan. I miss him; I still miss him. We had so much fun. We used to argue about politics—not the word “politics,” but this and that. Not arguing, we’d discuss, have a dialogue on a lot of things. We both talked about going to Europe for the first time, which came from Art.

The first time we went to Europe, Art would say, “They might not remember this new stuff that we’re doing, but the one thing they’re going to remember is our behavior. You don’t go all the way to Paris, into a restaurant, wishing that you had one of those submarine sandwiches on Broadway in Philadelphia.” [laughs] And he said you end up playing that way on stage.

We’d go to the stores on the Champs-Elysees and Lee picked out a kind of fleece sweater and said, “That’s you, Wayne.”

I know Miles really liked Lee, because you kind of listened to who liked who. Lee was himself. He was 17 or 16 when he joined Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. He called me when he was playing with John Coltrane on a Monday night jam session in Newark.

We had talked a little bit, I was just getting out of the army, and then he was the one who ran across the field in Canada when Hank Mobley was missing, to ask me if I wanted to join the Jazz Messengers. I was playing with Maynard Ferguson for four weeks, and we were at a big Canadian exposition there with Ahmad Jamal, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, and the Messengers. I was listening to everybody. The Messengers played Thelonious Monk’s “Evidence.” Art said, “We’re going to play a piece of music called “Evidence” written by the high priest of bop…or the priest is high.” [laughs] “He calls it ‘Evidence,” so we call it, ‘Justice.’”

At some point Lee ran across the field and asked, “Hey, Wayne. You want to join the Messengers?” I said, “Yeah!” So he took me to the dressing room and Art said, “Let me know when you’re free,” and I was playing at Birdland with Maynard Ferguson, and the phone rings and Art was playing in French Indiana, called Maynard and was explaining to him that he would like to have me in his band. He said something like, “Wayne is a fighter pilot stuck in a big band.” And Maynard said, “Hey, if Wayne gets a replacement, it’s cool.” The guy who took my place, he was good. He died, what was his name…Herbie visited the hospital when he was sick and everything, a lot of guys went to the hospital to see him. He was…man, what was his name? He was good.

EI: White cat?

WS: Yeah, Italian-American, but man, no buts. And he got cancer. He played a little bit with Horace Silver and Clifford Jordan took his place when he got sick. Horace had that way of getting those good guys, Junior Cook and stuff like that.

[Later I realized Wayne was talking about Joe Farrell, although Farrell didn’t get sick until much later and I don’t believe Jordan followed Farrell into the Horace Silver group.]

EI: So this is a dumb question, Mr. Shorter, but when I think about you and Lee Morgan playing together, there’s a sound there, like the way you phrase the melodies together. How much did you practice that? Did you have to talk about it?

WS: Actually, we only had a little bit of rehearsal, Art would say, “We’re on the move.” And I would be in the hotel room working on memorizing the harmony parts to “Along Came Betty” and all that stuff.

When we started playing, it was like, they say not an imitation, but I’ve seen actors do that…

Patrick Duffy, a good friend of ours, he had dinner at our house. You know Patrick Duffy from Dallas? In his house, anyway, and he started doing different people, and he was saying, one of the things is an actor can dig into other people, not other actors, but he did some politicians, and some other actors I know they go right into Walter Brennan and all that, and he said, “That’s your equipment. You observe, we’re like that.” And I heard Miles saying Coltrane would be playing and all of a sudden he’d go into Eddie Lockjaw Davis, that helter-skelter, but with the sound and everything. Miles would say, “Man, he’d go right into Eddie Lock,” and the audience would go, “Whoa!”

The together thing and all that, the feeling of being together, and also I’d try to make the tenor, the horn, be like—I was thinking orchestral then—be like a trombone something with the…broaden, you know what I mean?

EI: What was the difference between playing frontline with Lee and with Freddie Hubbard?

WS: That’s adapting ourselves quickly, because when Lee left, Art would say, “Don’t get sad. Don’t be getting sad, because no one person is running the show in your life. Don’t get sentimental and sad because somebody’s gone.” He said, “We have a message to deliver. That’s the Jazz Messengers,” that’s part of training yourself to be another bandleader. Not one size fits all, but missing someone, there’s gonna be a lot of changes is going to be a testament to your sense of mission that you can’t really do this kind of work and be depending on somebody.

That’s why I never liked that song, “Lean On Me.” I think the song didn’t like it, this song’s actually hurt, “They’re going to play us again? Don’t play me!” [laughs]

EI:  Lee and Freddie: you make it happen with both of them, but they seem like different configurations.

WS: Oh, yeah!

People also ask me, how did you transition from playing with the Messengers, period, to Miles? And you and Miles had this shadow chasing little thing, little behind the front of each other and stuff.

EI: A very different aesthetic.

WS: Yeah. When I was about 15, I heard Miles with Charlie Parker, and I wondered, why was he with Charlie Parker? It seems like Charlie Parker would like someone like Fats Navarro. And then when Charlie Parker got Red Rodney, I knew something more about Miles, too. My brother liked to say this thing, “Hey, man. Red Rodney! Red Rodney!”

Because my brother said Bird knows what’s happening, Charlie Parker knows something.

EI: What does that mean, though?

WS: He said Red Rodney was sort of inside player, not blaring, “This is a trumpet.” Kenny Dorham was also inside, harmonic, inside-out kind of stuff, subtle.

EI: They were a foil for Charlie Parker.

WS: So Miles had that subtle thing from the get-go, and what he thought he couldn’t do, he actually built that into an art.

Both Miles and J.J. Johnson said the same thing about playing the same mouthpiece they played in high school. I made the last record with J.J. Johnson, and he told me his high school teacher said, “Don’t change the mouthpiece.” A lot of guys can get a bigger mouthpiece with a bigger bore, they have a bigger sound on the trombone, but that wasn’t J.J.

Miles said he’s using the same mouthpiece made for him by his teacher. He says, “Don’t change this stuff, man.”

I lost a mouthpiece one time. I’m crossing the street, McCarter Highway in Newark, a big highway. The case opens up and the mouthpiece rolled down into the sewer. You should have seen me, going to the store, trying to get a long stick, pushing the mouthpiece further away down the sewer. There was a restaurant on that corner where Dutch Schulz got it in the telephone booth. Lucky Luciano and those guys, boom! That mouthpiece is historic. A number 6 Meyer and it a good mouthpiece, too. [laughs]

To get into the racial thing: I was 17, I was playing a job with a band, you know, Saturday night job in the part of Newark going toward Elizabeth, New Jersey. It’s a mostly Polish area. My father worked at Singer Sewing Machine in the Elizabeth harbor. There was a dance there one time. I gotta say this.

EI: Please.

WS: This is back, 1951, I played a little dance, and guys said, “Hey, can you play with us?” And there were Polish workers there who worked at Singer there and all that, and there was this guy, drunk, and he was looking at me and he said, “Can you play something? Can you play something” He was asking us to play something. He was just drunk, he wanted to hear something, and I’m thinking, oh, here comes the thing, I was the only black guy, and I’m just starting on the tenor, I mean, then he came over to me and he said, “I see. You’re looking a little worried. Listen…” He was drunk! And he said, “I don’t care if you’re pinstriped. I just want to hear that,” some kind of song, it was one of those songs in the movies, nice one, not “Melancholy Baby,” and that whole night changed and I was saying to myself, “People are people.” You never know.

And that was back then, and so when people used to get on Miles earlier, “Oh, he’s this and that,” I said, “Nuh uh.” Miles knows what’s going on when he got Bill Evans to start Kind of Blue. Or Gil Evans and all that. He was not really about all that stuff, he was only cherry picking the people who were on both sides.

One time the guy came into his room, a reporter, and wanted to take pictures in the dressing room and Miles ducked and said, “Get the camera,” he told the lawyer, “Get the camera and get those pictures, because he thinks he can bust in here and take pictures of me because you’re white?”

Another time, a black guy came in and started intruding and wanted to get this and get that and he said the same thing: “You think you can come in here and intrude and everything because I’m black? And because you think you’re black and I’m…”

I said, “Ah hah,” you know.

Superficial stuff don’t mean nothing.

EI: Is this what you meant when you were talking about Dizzy and Kenton playing at the same time?

WS: Yeah! In fact, I lived in California right down the street, next door to Kenton’s secretary, Bill Holman, and my man Jimmy Rowles.

EI:  Jimmy Rowles was great!

WS: Yeah, we had lots of time together. And he wrote a couple of things, you know, “502 Blues.”

He said of me, “Son of Duke!”

I said, “Come on, Jimmy.”

Bill Holman wrote that thing, “Youngblood,” you know that?

I just saw Lee Konitz, we met in Germany kind of recently. Warne Marsh, and Lee Konitz, and Lennie Tristano! I got the book with Charlie Parker rehearsing with Tristano: he had his suspenders on.

That’s the thing, man. It’s not that music automatically brings people together: people go to war singing, beating drums and all that. But the reason for music… what is music for, other than entertainment, money, getting famous, and showing off how well you can do this and do that? What is it really for? What is the potential?

Actually, you know it’s what they were doing, Lennie Tristano and Lee…

EI:  I feel like you were influenced by Warne Marsh, just a little bit, in the way you play sometimes.

WS: Warne Marsh. Yeah.

[Bonus track: The following Wayne Shorter solo on “What Is This Thing Called Love?” is from the unreleased 1956 session with Johnny Eaton. (We did not listen to this together during the interview.)]

Sometimes I say, you know, Mozart was a jazz musician, too. Okay, here’s G Minor Op. 40 [hums figure, then hums ride cymbal pattern]. He was swinging.

Miles used to say, “Wayne, do you get tired of playing music that sounds like music?”

EI: This makes me think of John Coltrane. You practiced with Coltrane a bit, right?

WS: Yeah, I went to his house and the first thing he did—he had one of those upright wall pianos—he opened the lid and then he did like this, made a tone cluster, “GRRRRUNGGGH,” kept the foot on the sustain, “GRRRRUNGGHH,” and we had our horns out, and he asked me, he said, as the tone was still going, he said, “See how much of this you can catch. Let’s see how much you can catch.” And I heard the “GRRRRUNGHH” so I wasn’t messing around, trying to loop center tones and not so centered and all that stuff, and he asked me to do the same thing to him and I did “WRRRRRUNGH,” and he got his horn and he was all over the place, [mimes rapid playing] really soft because of neighbors and all that. He had a towel in the bell. [mimes rapid playing again] Then we’d do it back and forth on the piece that holds the music, the lyre or whatever, there’s a harp book there and I was checking the book out and it had the [rapid playing sound] and I said to myself, “Sheets of sound.” [laughs]

Somebody gave me a big German book, a violin book. She was a governess for Art Blakey, her name was Joelle, in fact, I wrote a song called “Joelle.” She said she was sitting on a park bench in the winter outside of Central Park West, and this man came by and he was coughing up blood in the snow and he had a big paper bag. He gave her the bag and he said, “Give this to someone sometime you think you might deserve it.”

I joined Art Blakey’s band, and one day, she came out of the room and she said [French accent]: “I think that person was Charlie Parker.”

And she gave me the bag, I opened it, and it had the record by Marcel Mule, [starts singing opening of “Concertino da Camera” by Ibert], and a German violin book with the precursor to sheets of sound. Charlie Parker and there was music in there with alternate chord changes to “Sentimental Over You,” and some other stuff.

I say, “I wonder if that really was Charlie Parker and he was practicing out of this book.” It was 1955 when she met that man, and Charlie Parker died right in there, ’55.

EI: This is another dumb academic question, Wayne, but, when I think about Charlie Parker and John Coltrane, it seems to me that the importance of thinking about scales really came to the fore with Coltrane. Did you talk about scales with John?

WS: No, he didn’t talk about that, he was playing some stuff. He was playing on his horn some kind of things that sounded like his sequences. He was sitting at the piano and playing these chords over and over and over, and it was “Giant Steps,” right in the middle. [hums “Giant Steps” bass motion] over and over and over, and he was playing intervals, quick, on the horn, and they were moving around, and he was saying, “I’m trying to make sense out of this, make some sense.” That’s the only thing, once in a while he’d say, and that was it. But he would say to me, he would say, “Every now and then, you’d be scrambling eggs. Scrambling them eggs.”

(I have a tape of him talking to an interviewer, too, and he mentioned the guy from Newark—he called me the guy from Newark—he said, “I wish I could do all three things right: play, whatever was the third thing, and scramble some eggs, too.”)

Then, his wife then was Naima, she was in the kitchen cooking some stuff and Trane was talking about, “Have you ever heard about Om?” He talked about Om. He said he was going to leave Miles, and he said, “I’m leaving Miles because the stuff I’m playing with Miles now is wrong, sounds wrong,” and he asked me if I would play with him one night at Birdland, and it was myself, Cedar Walton, Abdul-Malik the bassist, Tommy Flanagan, and in walked Elvin Jones, and that’s when he did [sings “Moment’s Notice”].

EI: “Moment’s Notice.”

WS: And the other one, [sings “Straight Street”], something like that.

Then, I have another tape of him talking when he left Miles and went to work with Monk at the Five Spot. He went to Monk’s house, Trane went to Monk’s house, and started working on stuff with Monk. The reporter guy, he asked Trane, “We noticed that sometimes when you played with Monk, Monk would get up from the piano and walk and sit in the audience and look at you. Was that because Monk was discouraged about how you took his music and went way somewhere else?”

And Trane said, “Where it went, it was the truth.”

And I knew that Monk was sitting there, enjoying himself.

EI: Did you work with Monk at all? No, right?

WS: No.

EI: Did you meet him, though?

WS: Yeah, I met Monk! We were hanging out with Monk in his room in the hotel in London, and him and Nellie and all that.

The first time I heard Art Blakey really was when he was the drummer in the Monk trio on the radio, going “ding ding-a ding,” I said, “Who’s that on them drums? Man, he’s got a sound on that.” He had that Chinese cymbal.

Anyway, later the Messengers were at the same London hotel. Art said, “Let’s go to Monk’s room.”

Art said, “Nellie, Thelonious is throwing money out the window,” and she looked down there and saw down in the street the police, the “Bobbies,” they called them.

Sometimes when Monk talked he’d grind his teeth together. He said, “The Bobbies need this stuff. They’re walking around without any weapons; they’re underpaid.”

EI: Just to be extra clear: Thelonious Monk was in a London hotel room, throwing five-pound notes out the window?

WS: Out the window. He had a Fu Manchu thing on, the Chinese robes and everything, big sleeves. Here comes the five-pound notes, flying out the window. Just letting them float down. “The bobbies needs them. They’re underpaid. No weapons.” [laughs]

[Wayne abruptly changes the topic to women in jazz.]

You ever hear of Marjorie Hyams? Her group was the precursor to the George Shearing Quintet. Armando Peraza was with her. But they chose to put a man as the leader of that group, also taking advantage that he’s blind. “Oh, hey, we got a sales thing here.”

But now, there’s some really nice people coming up all over the world. Growing up back then, we had a bad pianist with us. We had a dance band; I was still about 18, 19.

EI: This is in Newark?

WS: Yeah, Newark. We played at YMCA, got paid $1.25, and had a girl, her name was…forgot her name. And her father used to be a tap dancer. My mother would say, “Oh, that’s what’s-his-name’s daughter,” and she played like Bud Powell, because we were wondering if there were any ladies coming around, and we ran across her. A beautiful girl, not one-size-fits-all beauty, but then she got married and something like that, make her forget her contribution, you know.

But then, maybe she was talked out of it, like, “Hey, you’re going to look like you’re 60 more than 30. The road is gonna get you, the drinking, and so forth. You’re going to be lonely and I’ll take care of you and…”

EI: You mentioned Bud Powell a second ago. I heard your song “This Is For Albert” was actually for Bud Powell.

WS: Yeah, because Art said he called Bud “Albert.” He said, “Bud. Albert. Powell,” and I said, writing this song, “This is for Albert,” and actually he was saying something like that Bud Powell played at Albert Hall, and I just threw the Albert in there.

EI: Scrambling some eggs.

WS: One evening, he played with us in Paris, that’s on the record. Walter Davis saw him in the audience and said, “Come on now, Bud, come on. Hey,” and Bud played with us. So I went after to the hotel, the Crystal Hotel right across from the Club St. Germaine on St. Germaine-de-Pres, heh heh. Sonny Criss lived upstairs, and it’s three o’clock in the morning, and my door knocked, “boom boom boom.” There’s stairs leading up to the second floor, and I open the door and it’s Bud standing there. He had his beret on and it’s winter time, and that night we saw him at the Blue Night and we went to play, and he was in the audience, and that’s why he played with us—that’s how he played with us—but they said, “Keep your eye out for Bud,” because he’s going to ask you for money to get wine or whatever.

He came into my room. I had a night table full of those coins, you know, French coins, and he didn’t even look at the coins. My horn’s on the bed, and he sat down and took his coat off. He had his way grinding his teeth sometimes too, but he said clearly, “Play me something.” because we had played that night. So I took the horn, put a towel in the horn, and played “Dance of the Infidels,” just the head, the front part, just played it real soft and slow. [hums “Dance of the Infidels”], and I finished it and I put the horn down, and he looked at me and he said, “Uh huh.” [laughs]

He got up, walked to the door, and I said, “You all right, Bud?” He turned around and he said, “Uh huh,” and went down the stairs.

Then, years after, they’re doing the movie ’Round Midnight. His daughter was there, Celia, and she was a consultant, and she found out about that story, so Bertrand Tavernier, the director, asked, he said, “Celia, why did your father go to Wayne’s room?” He wanted to get all this in the movie.

She said, “Father didn’t go to Mr. Shorter’s room to ask for money, to get drunk.” She said, “They had just played together that night, and then later on my father went to Wayne’s room. He wanted to make sure everything was going to be all right.”

And he said, “What do you mean?”

She said, “The future.”

EI: How did you learn “Dance of the Infidels?” Just off the record?

WS: No, actually, when I was taking piano lessons, I was 18. I took some piano lessons; my mother got me a piano for graduation, and that was one of the things I got. Instead of doing [sings major scale pattern up and down], I got into, by myself, [sings “Dance of the Infidels”].

I used to see him at Birdland, we’d watch “Glass Enclosure” and all that stuff. I was sloppy on it, but…

EI: But you learned some of Bud’s music on the piano, is what you’re saying.

WS: Yeah, but also I started writing, seeing if I could write or arrange stuff when I was about 17, a song called “Vagabond Shoes.” [sings opening of “Vagabond Shoes”] I wrote about 28 arrangements for the band that we played with in Newark over the years.

EI: Now it seems to me that “Glass Enclosure” is a very futuristic composition that might have influenced you.

WS: I was glad to hear him do that. I was always thinking that across the board, let’s go forward! And as a group, we need each other to do this. When I heard this I said, “Hey, Bud Powell, he’s doing it!” Same when I heard Gil Evans doing this cluster stuff like Ravel, or Tadd Dameron.

EI: I also think McCoy Tyner must have been very important to you, musically.

WS: Yeah. McCoy… that the left hand, those solid something about, to visit all manner of harmonic…not how it comes in and how it’s not arpeggioed all the time, or how it’s not Scott Joplin-ed…

But I went to Tadd Dameron because if you don’t have an orchestra to write for and you’re a pianist…well, I think one of the great things about Beethoven is, when I hear his symphony, it doesn’t sound like he’s playing a piano. There’s a French horn [sings part], so the composer puts themselves in somebody else’s shoes.

EI: You think Tadd Dameron had some of that?

WS: Yeah, Tadd Dameron.

I think that’s also what Duke Ellington had.

That’s the difference between Beethoven and Duke.  We were at the Jazz Day in Paris, they’re announcing that they found 100,000 pages of unpublished music that Duke wrote and on a lot of the pages, the parts, he doesn’t have saxophone or trumpet, he has Johnny, Paul. Cat. The person playing the part is more important.

The old tradition: who’s the leader, who’s the contributor? But there ain’t no leader when you have real leaders. With Miles, you never had a rehearsal. Miles Davis Quintet, but you were on your own. It was like university and beyond.

When I said Mozart was a jazz musician: just the word “jazz,” just to take it apart, what does it mean? What does “classical” mean? It’s not in stone, but classical, get asked the word and it means “challenge,” and sometimes I’ve tried to stir it up by saying, “Jazz means ‘I dare you.’” [laughs] “I dare you!”

I think it gets better when the resistance is harder. As they say, when you get a lot of resistance, it means you’re getting closer. Some people give up the creative thing in jazz: “Oh, I’m going to conform and put food on the table.” Okay, I can respect that too, but: Don’t blame record companies, don’t blame the business mind for being a resistive force, instead try to learn how resistance can contribute to what you want to do?

I say, “Well, if you want to fly an airplane, it won’t take off without resistance.”

EI: Well, man, well growing up in Newark and loving science fiction is already a certain amount of rub, you know what I mean? Your music is informed by a lot of resistance.

WS: Well, you have a good reed, a good reed has the right resistance, you know. You don’t play a reed with no resistance!

EI: I don’t want to take up too much more of your time, Wayne; but I’d love to try to pin you down on McCoy again. Do you mind?

Okay, McCoy Tyner’s a pivotal figure with fourth chords and you have your song “E.S.P.,” which is fourths in a very different way. Just wondering if you have anything to share with us students of the music about how fourth chords and fourth intervals got into the music.

WS: I don’t know. It’s just, without even thinking, it’s something like a shape. What do you do with this? Like some people try to play a solo over a harmonic configuration and they play within the chord and they embellish over, you know, eighth notes and sixteenth notes, anything like that.

But there’s a melody, an implied melody.

It’s a Miles thing: He wants to improvise over the melody of something, which seems removed from the chords. He’d say, “But it’s not removed—it’s stretched.”

And Charlie Parker said something like that before he passed, “I want to play on top of the on top of the top of the on top of.”

But, that’s where Trane was in that kind of [hums rapid intervallic figure]. With fourths, you don’t hear many so-called “modern jazz” or those in the modal thing play slow, long tones.

I think, [hums “E.S.P.” melody], you might have to expose your tone if you have something that with a certain amount of length in the storytelling. The length of your tone discloses a lot.

Art said, “You can’t hide behind your instrument.” Some people write stuff that only they can skirmish. In ’Round Midnight, John McLaughlin played “As Time Goes By.” It’s the only time I’ve heard him play a ballad, and it was nice!

Miles looked at a lot of things. He looked at the kind of tone that you had, and he also looked at your behavior. He said, “Watch the way somebody walks. You can tell if they can play something if they’re walking funny.” He knew that you can be fooled by how people handle themselves. “I check out how somebody reach for something. Some people like this, and some go like this.” Without using any names, he’s talking about the president of some company—then it was Columbia, you know: “I was watching how he was doing like this with his hands on the desk.”

EI: Gestures, right.

WS: He said, “That’s telling you something.” [laughs] So, it has a lot to do with what you’re saying, the color, tone, the intention, and all—it’s multidimensional, but it’s also all one.

EI: There’s such a core to your sound and to Miles’s sound.

WS: What you’re asking about the fourths, I just think it’s also the saying in Star Trek: “Boldly go where no man has gone before.” Like leaving what you know and not being afraid. How’re you going to rehearse that? How do you rehearse the unknown?

Miles said, “You scared of going out there?”

A young kid was introduced to Sonny Rollins by the kid’s father. He said, “Go ahead, this is Sonny. Shake his hand.” Sonny put his hand out, and the young kid put his hand out, like slowly, and took the hand, then Sonny said,“Why are you sliding?” That’s a whole university right there, of confidence! What does sliding have to do with playing? A lot! Why are you patting your foot? Why are you hesitating? Why are you reticent about where you might think you want to go? Why are you sitting in the back row?

Miles liked to say, “I want to play the way Humphrey Bogart throws a punch.” Or when John Wayne does that swivel turn: “I’m gonna get ya, Jake.”

“Play that, man. Play that.”

You know, “Along Came Betty,” it’s the way Betty walked in the room.

Sometimes I hear something: “That’s John Wayne turning the corner, man!”

Somebody’s swinging: “Here comes Brando in that scene.”

“Uh oh, here comes Bette Davis.”

Or the whole movie of something. Hey, Interstellar on the stand!

EI: Did you like Interstellar?

WS: I liked Anne Hathaway’s character. I liked that that character was still willing to be out there in the unknown, not knowing if she’s going to be found or not.

EI: That sounds like you, all right.

WS: They told her, get back, “Hurry up! Get back,” but she was determined, She said there’s something that transcends all the laws of physics: “Love.”

And I said, “Ah, this is better than Les Miserables! Now I see Anne Hathaway.”

EI: I’m going to see Avengers: Age of Ultron later today.

WS: Oh yeah? I haven’t even seen the last Captain America yet, but I have it on my Apple.

EI: Well, maybe to finish, Wayne, give me your five movies that you would take to the desert island. What are your top five movies?

WS: The Red Shoes. It’s the “red shoes.” Lost Horizon, the original one, the Jane Wyatt one with Ronald Colman. The one where Ronald Colman has lost his memory and then Greer Garson…Random Harvest.

EI: What about a science fiction movie? I heard you loved Logan’s Run?

WS: Yeah, that’s a good one, Logan’s Run. But I’d really have to search the science fiction movies to pick only one.

To complete the five: Tarzan Finds His Mate. I like Maureen O’Sullivan, the way she played that part.

I have the book Jane, about Jane before she went and met Tarzan. She’s the only woman engineer at the college and all that. On the back, Jane Goodall wrote, “I’m jealous that this is a woman who wrote about Jane!”

EI: That makes me think of The Mists of Avalon, which tells the story of the Round Table from the women’s perspective.

WS: My wife read it and loved it but I haven’t read it yet.

EI: Yeah, it’s good.

WS: She’s given it to me a few times. I have about three copies of Mists of Avalon.

EI: Well, thank you for your time today, Mr. Shorter. I think we’ll call it, unless you want to say anything about what you’re doing this week with Jazz at Lincoln Center.

WS: Hey, that’s going to be an unknown. I think that’s going to be an adventure that was waiting to happen, an adventure between human beings and something that was proposed by Wynton, or Wynton’s organization.

Here’s what I can say, the last one: the road less traveled, the trail less taken can take you more places than the road most traveled.

EI: You like uncertainty, right?

WS: Yeah!

EI: That’s what Wayne Shorter digs. Thank you for your time, sir.

WS: That means faith. The definition of faith…What is faith? Faith is to fear nothing—not to be attached to some religion. Don’t fear the religion, don’t fear nothing.


Nah, just kidding.