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 the Berklee College of Music, among others.
He’s been declared a “jazz master” by America’s National Endowment for the Arts. His many collaborators have included 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’s on contemporary film, and he’s still steaming ahead with quartet and symphonic projects that critics consider to be among the most powerful of his career.
He is as delighted and intrigued by life now as he was as a star-struck teen who climbed 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.
He presents the interviewer with a dilemma, though. What do you ask the man who co-founded Weather Report, the group that became synonymous with the first wave of jazz fusion throughout the 1970s and early 80s, had his orchestra-meets-improvisation work with outfits like the Los Angeles Philharmonic and the Royal Concertgebouw described as “having a feel for melody like Puccini (but with) harmonic complexity like Ravel”? Perhaps the best place to start is 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 it, but we can try to answer that question without words, and to celebrate it.
“In this country (the US), really creative music is still an alien concept. It’s like that’s the real UFO in the US these days – being creative and moving forward without fear, and with courage. I like what Sonny Rollins said in a documentary. They asked him why did Dizzy and Miles and Charlie play bebop. Sonny looked at them and said: ‘We played bebop to be human.’”
Shorter has sometimes been described as “the Zen philosopher of jazz”, but closer attention reveals that 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 to 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; 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 today’s world, that is much needed. That’s what I mean by courage.”
At some point in the interview, after Shorter has 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 isn’t taping the conversation, or they’ll throw him in jail. At the close of the interview, 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. “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 Shorter, the man Max Roach called “The Flash” and who Davis requested as sideman, is still chuckling to himself.
l The Wayne Shorter Quartet plays on Friday and Saturday at the Cape Town International Jazz Festival on the Rosies indoor stage, for which an additional ticket is required after access to the festival proper (Cape Town International Convention Centre; tickets Computicket at 083 915 8000 or Shoprite). 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. On Wednesday there will be a free concert on Greenmarket Square featuring Hanjin, Gang of Instrumentals, the Cape Town Tribute Band, Tortured Soul and Tribe Of Benjamin. See CapeTownJazzFest.com