Wayne Shorter on Miles Davis, Kanye West, & the Music of the Future

Wayne Shorter
Keith Tsuji/Getty Images for Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz

Wayne Shorter performs on stage at the 2014 International Jazz Day Global Concert on April 30, 2014 in Osaka, Japan. 

Speaking with Wayne Shorter, whose prolific career has placed him solidly in jazz's canon, is nothing if not amusing. Legendary for his compositions and and compatriots alike (he's played with everyone from Miles Davis to Santana to the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra), Shorter approaches life (and conversation) with a unique blend of his adopted Buddhism and his passion for arts and culture. Over the course of our talk he alluded to Mo'nique, astrophysics, the NBA playoffs (he's pulling for the Warriors), Jurassic Park, and Kanye West (among other things). 

It's been 50 years since Shorter started playing with Miles Davis' now-classic Second Great Quintet -- Shorter and Davis alongside Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams -- yet he remembers his time with Miles like it was yesterday. "I used to talk to Miles all the time," he tells Billboard. "A lot of it was about health. 'You know my left leg, there's something wrong with it.' " (It's important to note that every quote comes with an accompanying impression -- his Miles voice is spot-on.) If the questions and answers seem unrelated, it's because Shorter is about 50 steps ahead of the rest of us at any given time, somehow embracing philosophical discussion and laughter equally. "I'm drilling for wisdom," he says. "That's the challenge. I have to play wisdom and make it fun -- not intellectual.

Q&A: Wayne Shorter

"Let's take all this stuff into account and have a good time on the telephone," Shorter told me during our interview. "As Ludacris says [yes, he quoted Ludacris], 'That's what I'm talking about.' "

How was it revisiting some of your older music for this Wayne Shorter Festival?

Music is just sound -- what's more important to me is behavior. I'm watching these play-offs -- basketball -- it's interesting to watch behavior, underneath all the movements and everything like that. They go into the audience and show some of the parents of the players and all that. I'm rooting for the team that has the kind of behavior that transcends great movement in the sport. If the athleticism is there, just like playing an instrument really well, but the behavior isn't...I'm looking at these Golden [State] Warriors a little bit now. 

[on Steph Curry] He doesn't beat his chest and throw threes and then stomp and make faces and fly like he's gonna be Superman -- he kind of reminds me of somebody my brother and I went to school with. We had a good friend -- and he looks like this guy too -- and his name was (dig this name) -- his name was Pete Lonesome. He was low-key, but he was avant-garde -- he had the quiet thang

What is it like now that a place like Jazz at Lincoln Center exists -- that jazz is kind of a part of the institution -- as compared to when you first started?

When they say jazz, I'm thinking of a word called "the creative process." It intersects every vein and tributary, avenue, path, that everyone's living. It crosses through there, but it's been contained. Remember when the first Jurassic Park movie started? This animal in this metal thing was making a lot of noise, and the voice said "CONTAIN HER!" The people who are containing it must seem to think that the creative process is like a dinosaur that needs to be contained -- for little animals who lay golden eggs. They seem to place a lot of value on those coins -- eggs. Every day is Easter. Jazz at Lincoln Center is something that is very necessary for the creative process, there's a couple of brothers running around New York trying to buy up the cultural places who shall remain nameless. Well, there's a lot of brothers -- pick any two. Pin the tail on the...they want to buy up stuff and steer the country a certain way.

We need more creative stuff in everything -- ballet, opera, all that. We need it. I knew what it would take to stay on this path -- I call it the trail less trodden, the non-pop path. I knew it -- I said, "This is gonna be a lifetime thing, so get ready."

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What are you working on right now?

Once I do what I'm doing, I'm going like this [breathes heavily]. Right now I have like 50 percent lung capacity. There's rehearsals, and going back and forth, and traveling to New York -- I'm still on tour, but I have to walk carefully, and make what I do count. We're working on [a record] now. We did the recording, and we're going to do the mixing and stuff now. It was done with the Orpheus Chamber Orchestra.

Who are you listening to?

When Miles and I talked, he would ask me a question. 'Wayne (in his voice), hey Wayne -- do you ever get tired of playing music that sounds like music?' Before I answered him, he said, 'I know what you mean.' Like, he's answering his own question. He could go everywhere with that one -- music that sounds like you've studied music. Are you going for something that's really unexpected and in the world that's unknown? It challenges people to be that way. Now, at a time where we really need to be fearless, and facing the unknown and the unexpected. Negotiating things that we have not been trained for.

That's what this music is about now. It's all about that one moment equals eternity -- the challenge to be in the moment is something else. When you get in the moment and you start improvising, it's hard to lie. You can tell a story, and the story don't have to be the truth, but it's not necessarily a lie. If we go on with that old formula that used to work -- businesswise too -- it ain't gonna work in this whole new "now you see me, now you don't" world.

Do you consider your music political?

I'm trying to do music which inspires the desire to transcend politics, which has a limited and selfish and egoist and unknowledgable end about what anyone knows about existence. A lot of what people are talking about goes from here to there -- there's a limit. I'm doing music that can awaken people to the fact that we've all been hijacked from the cradle. Have you seen The Equalizer with Denzel Washington? It starts with a quote from Mark Twain -- it says, 'There are two great events in our existence: one is being born, the other is knowing why.'

I watch everything -- I try to grab everything I can. Like Kanye West says, "If I say something that has a little bit of truth in it, what is everybody else saying?" 

Do you see a future for fusion, for people inflecting other kinds of music with jazz or vice-versa?

I think the future is based on anyone's behavior. How much someone knows, and is dedicated to -- not their music or their instrument, but their mission. Why they've been born. Not what anyone's been telling you or pulling you into or sugarcoating you with or intellectualizing -- giving us great awards for being a straight A student at Yale or Harvard and all that stuff, and still not knowing what in the hell is going on. Like Richard Pryor said, 'I'm just standing in that long line looking up at who's in front.' 

A lot of people say that the future of fusion, and the avant-garde -- a lot of people will give up doing that, because they say that the corporate powers-that-be are against us. Their grand plan is to keep us subjugated so they can go for the moneymaking stuff, the easy sell. 

The corporations serve as a resistance to the creative process. But if you really kind of think of it, an airplane cannot take off without resistance. We have to find the jewel in what we call the enemy. That's called wisdom. I'm drilling for wisdom. That's the challenge -- I have to play wisdom and make it fun -- not intellectual. You can get all convoluted with all this book stuff and academics. As Art Blakey would say, "That stuff you're playing sounds too clinical! Louis Armstrong didn't start off that way!"

Everything we're talking about, at this point, at 81, I see as the human-damn-condition. 

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How did you meet Miles Davis?

I met him on the telephone. I called him when I got out of the army. John Coltrane told me he was leaving Miles, and he said, "If you want this spot with Miles, you got it." 
Miles was still trying to hold onto John Coltrane, and he said to me on the phone, "Who told you to call me? If I want a saxophone player, I'll find one." He didn't know who I was. 

But later on that year, I had joined the [Jazz] Messengers with Art Blakey. Lee Morgan was on the bandstand sitting next to me, and he said, "Wayne -- Miles is in the audience." Miles was slick, always incognito. He said, "Miles is checking you out. Checking out the writing (they played some of my arrangements)." Then he called, shortly after that. I had just joined the Messengers, so I told Miles, "You know I've only been with this band, not even a year yet. I don't think it's cool to just run, and leave 'em. I don't think anybody likes a Benedict Arnold." He said, "I know what you mean. When you're ready, call me."

I was ready to say, "I did!" Then we hung up at the same time -- I was timing his rhythm. He said, "Call me!" and then click. Then he called again during a rehearsal. I was rehearsing with Art, and Lee Morgan. The phone rings, and Art's playing the drums over there kind of quiet because the phone rang. Lee said real loud (in front of Art), "Hey Wayne, it's Miles -- he wants to talk to you." So I did my diplomatic thing in front of Art Blakey. I forgot what I said, but whatever I said was real cool. Again he said, "When you're ready just give me a call."

Around 1964, when I left, that's when I called Miles. I was told to call him by his manager. Miles got on the phone, he was in California and I was in New York. He said, "You in New York?" I said, "Yeah." He said, "Come on."

He sent me a first class ticket, and a tuxedo made for me.

The first job I had with Miles, I flew to California and he was playing the Hollywood Bowl. I walked into his dressing room, and everybody was there -- Herbie Hancock, Tony Williams, Ron Carter, Miles and his wife Frances. The first thing Miles said to me was, "You know my music?" I said, "Yeah!" He said, "Uh-oh," like, "You think you bad, huh?" I had this book under my arm. He looked at the book before we went onstage -- I had a lot of stuff I was writing in there.

We went out onstage, and the first thing he played was something called "Joshua." It has a lot of stuff in it. We played, we played, we played. It was over, and I went to my hotel, and the phone rang. It was Miles. He said, "We're gonna record Monday." He hung up and I hung up at the same time again. I'm thinking, "He must have heard something worth recording." I brought the book with me, and he looked at the music. The first thing he saw was "E.S.P." He said, "Let's try this." So we did it. The next time he called about recording, he said "We're gonna record next Wednesday. Bring the book."

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Later on when Bitches Brew and all that stuff came out, everything transitioned. I had a lot of fun with Miles. This band that I'm with now, it's like the same kind of fun. Because you're on your own. You're a universe and beyond. If you wanna do something, you'd better stay on your toes -- you study your stuff, you sponge up whatever you can. 

He would call me and he would say, "Hey Wayne, come on over." We'd talk a little bit about opera, or a painter. [on operas] Certain sections, he'd say, "That section right there, somebody should be playing in there." He was talking about himself. Before he passed away, he called me and said, "Write something for orchestra for me. But when you get to the strings, put a window in so I can get out of there." 

The fun was never rehearsing, we never rehearsed. Nobody was ever told what to do or how to dress -- except for the tuxedo. But the tuxedo disappeared after the first year.

Wayne Shorter is performing at Jazz an Lincoln Center this weekend as a part of their Wayne Shorter Festival. He's also touring around the United States and Europe this summer, check here for dates.