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Wayne Shorter's sense of musical self-rule rises and falls in the weight of his notes, in the shifting purr of his tonality, in the sound he hears in his head as a composer. That's why he was a Jazz Messenger. That's why guys like Miles Davis recruited him. That's why the jazz world is so excited about his current quartet. It's all about the melodic freedom.
The hunt for that "freedom" began early for the jazz star. When the 73-year-old Shorter was a freshman in high school, he'd regularly cut classes; his love of movies saw him spending entire days taking in double features in a small theater around the corner from his school in Newark, N.J. After a few weeks of missed classes, Shorter was summoned to the school's front office, where his parents were waiting. The absentee notes that he'd forged were fanned out on the principal's desk. Busted.
"They asked me where I went when I was playing hooky," Shorter says. "I said I went to the Adams Theatre to see a movie and a stage show."
For punishment, the principal sent the young truant to the school's music director, a disciplinarian. "He wanted to straighten me out by putting me into the music class," Shorter says, laughing over the phone.
The sentencing worked; music blew the kid's moldable mind. "When I took his class, things started to come together with me about the attraction to music and painting. So when I left the class, all kinds of stuff was going through my head like this may be a sign to let me get serious about this music thing."
Shorter did get serious. He found his freedom too, which is reflected in how he expresses himself. When Shorter talks about his life, he's upbeat and the conversation moves quickly, as if his mind is sprinting ahead of his words. He uses esoteric terms when chatting about his music, but he's a wonderful storyteller, and his memory is sharp.
As a kid, Shorter saw such star saxophonists as Illinois Jacquet, Ike Quebec and Gene Ammons and he sopped up every note. He took weekly clarinet lessons. He assembled a jazz band called the Group that mostly played school dances. Then sax great Sonny Stitt entered Shorter's life. Incredibly, Stitt offered the budding player a gig. Shorter was all of 16 years old.
"I had only been playing music for two years," Shorter says. "The phone rang and it was Sonny Stitt's manager. He wanted me to play with him in a place in Newark. That was the first time I played with somebody really famous. At the end of the gig, he asked me if I wanted to go on the road with him. I told him that I was graduating from school in June."
So Shorter took the "sensible" route and finished school, which he encored with a stint in the Army where he played in the band. While on leave he'd perform around New York City with the likes of Sonny Rollins and drummer Max Roach. He played with pianist Horace Silver, who'd call the commanding officer asking to grant Shorter leave to perform.
Shorter earned a music degree at New York University and worked for a while in Maynard Ferguson's big band. He got his big break when drummer Art Blakey invited him to join the Jazz Messengers, an opportunity that afforded Shorter the chance to perform the original compositions he'd been writing since college.
In the early 1960s, trumpeter Miles Davis was keen on recruiting him. "Miles called me three times before I joined the band. One time he called me while I was rehearsing with Art Blakey. The phone rang. Art picked up the phone and said 'Wayne, it's Miles.'"
Shorter eventually left the Jazz Messengers in 1964 to join Miles Davis's legendary quintet (with Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams and Ron Carter). It was a smart move; with Davis, Shorter really learned how to play freely. Davis' philosophy to which Shorter still subscribes was that there was no such thing as a mistake.
"The main thing with Miles was you were on you own. He expected a development to happen so that he could enjoy himself, and he wanted you to create right there on the spot."
While employed by Blakey and Miles, Shorter recorded a handful of stellar albums on Blue Note, including The All Seeing Eye, Night Dreamer, JU JU, Adams Apple and Speak No Evil.
Shorter changed with the times and got heavily into electric fusion, which Davis helped fashion. He co-founded the popular jazz-fusion band Weather Report. "Playing with Weather Report was turning another corner. We were going into places not tread on yet."
Since, Shorter hasn't stopped turning corners, particularly with his new quartet (with drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez). They've been around five years, and nabbed a Grammy in 2003 (for the acoustic-jazz album Algeria) along with a slew of other awards and accolades.
Shorter says his combo is all about freedom, and creating "in the moment" so in the moment that the quartet performs sans rehearsal. They don't need to.
"This band is actually the cream of the crop," Shorter says. "Everybody's a gentleman. There's no orneriness. This group has the knowledge of the evolution of [musical] things without talking about it. When they start playing and start doing things, all this history and knowledge is evident."
The septuagenarian shows no signs of slowing, and he's still racking up the awards. What you should remember is this: Shorter has written jazz standards in "Speak No Evil," "Virgo," "Armageddon," "Infant Eyes" and "Twelve More Bars to Go," among others. All he wanted to do since purchasing his first clarinet since getting punished for truancy, really has been to make great music. He's done it freely.
Wayne Shorter will perform with his acoustic quartet on Thursday, April 6, at the Max M. Fisher Music Hall, 3711 Woodward, Detroit; 313-576-5111. Showtime is 8 p.m.
Charles L. Latimer writes about jazz for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.