Wayne Shorter, one of the most admired and singular American jazz composers and saxophonists of the modern era has died at 89. At press time no information was available about the cause of death, but a spokesperson for label Blue Note Records confirmed to Billboard that the 12-time Grammy winner had passed in Los Angeles on Thursday (March 2).
After brief runs with the Horace Silver Quintet and the Maynard Ferguson big band, Shorter’s career began in earnest in 1959 when he joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, a four-year tenure that found him graduating to musical director for the group while blossoming into a multi-faceted composer and master of the driving, hard bop sound.
“Visionary composer, saxophonist, visual artist, devout Buddhist, devoted husband, father and grandfather Wayne Shorter has embarked on a new journey as part of his extraordinary life – departing the earth as we know it in search of an abundance of new challenges and creative possibilities,” read a statement from a spokesperson for Shorter. “Always inquisitive and constantly exploring – ever the fearless and passionate innovator – Shorter was 89 years young and had just won his 13th Grammy Award in February.”
“Shorter was surrounded by his loving family at the time of his transition and is survived by his devoted wife Carolina, daughters Miyako and Mariana, and newly-born grandson, Max. Most recently Wayne had been contemplating his next project, a Jazz ballet,” it continued.
He then moved on to a fruitful six-year run with jazz icon Miles Davis, first in his Quintet, where Shorter was able to stretch his musical wings and add layers to his already formidable talents, including on Davis’ landmark 1969 jazz fusion albums In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew.
A master on the tenor saxophone, by the time Shorter left the Davis orbit he had moved on to playing soprano sax in the 1970s and 80s with keyboardist Joe Zawinul, bassist Miroslav Vitous, percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Alphonse Mouzon in the fusion supergroup Weather Report; other members of the group of the years included genre-defining jazz bassist Jaco Pastorious, beloved session drummers Steve Gadd and Omar Hakim and Sly and the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico.
Born on August 25, 1933 in Newark, N.J., Shorter studied music at New York University in the mid-1950s, developing a style influenced by such jazz pioneers as John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins. In addition to helping to pioneer the fusion movement — which encouraged improvisation and the folding in of rock, funk and R&B styles and the addition of electric guitars and keyboards — the deeply intellectual Shorter also released a series of beloved solo albums during his tenure with Davis.
Among those albums are Juju — which featured members of Coltrane’s quartet — and Speak No Evil — with some of his Davis bandmates — the latter considered by many jazz critics to be one of the finest examples of both Shorter’s compositional brilliance and a foundational text for students and lovers of the post-1950s jazz era.
In addition to his stints in those bands, Shorter also collaborated with folk icon Joni Mitchell on 10 albums, Brazilian composer/singer Milton Nascimento, fellow former Davis bandmember Carlos Santana (on 1980’s The Swing of Delight) and, in perhaps his most high-profile non-jazz collab, he played the extended solo on the title track to Steely Dan’s 1977 Aja album.
Shorter continued to record and perform into the 2000s, forming his “Footprints” acoustic quartet in 2000 with drummer Brian Blade, bassist John Patitucci and pianist Danilo Perez, with whom he released four live albums, including the 2006 Grammy-winning album Beyond the Sound Barrier. He also toured with the supergroup Mega Nova in 2016, which featured Santana and Hancock, as well as bassist Marcus Miller and drummer Cindy Blackman Santana.
In the statement, Shorter’s friend of six decades Hancock said, “Wayne Shorter, my best friend, left us with courage in his heart, love and compassion for all, and a seeking spirit for the eternal future. He was ready for his rebirth. As it is with every human being, he is irreplaceable and was able to reach the pinnacle of excellence as a saxophonist, composer, orchestrator, and recently, composer of the masterful opera ‘…Iphigenia’. I miss being around him and his special Wayne-isms but I carry his spirit within my heart always.”
After more than half a century on the road and in the studio, Shorter retired from performing in 2018 due to health issues. Over the course of his career, in addition to the dozen Grammy awards, Shorter received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015, a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2016, the Polar Music Prize in 2017 and a Kennedy Center Honor in 2018.
Over his 70-year career, Shorter’s works were performed by a long list of orchestras and performers, including: the Chicago Symphony, Detroit Symphony, Lyon Symphony, National Polish Radio Symphonic Orchestra, Orpheus Chamber Orchestra, Prague Philharmonic and Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra, as well as ensembles including soprano Renée Fleming and the Imani Winds; he also received commissions from the National, St. Louis and Nashville symphony orchestras, the Los Angeles Philharmonic, and the La Jolla Music Society.
Shorter released his final album, Emanon, in 2018.
Listen to Shorter’s “Footprints” below.