‘The Magic & The Marvel’: Shorter Among Kennedy Center Honorees


Saxophonist and 2018 Kennedy Center Honoree Wayne Shorter delivers a speech Dec. 1 at a State Department dinner in Washington, D.C.

(Photo: Tracey Salazar)

Over the course of his fruitful career, prolific saxophonist and composer Wayne Shorter has amassed numerous accolades, including an NEA Jazz Masters fellowship, induction into the DownBeat Hall of Fame and the Recording Academy’s Special Merit Award for lifetime achievement. Now, he is a member of the 2018 class of Kennedy Center Honorees—and according to his admirers in the jazz world, it’s about time.

“It’s long overdue,” said vocalist Dee Dee Bridgewater, walking the red carpet prior to the Dec. 2 Honors gala at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. “Wayne is a musical genius.”

Bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding echoed the sentiment: “It feels long overdue. I think we all recognize him every day, but it’s really beautiful to amplify his magic on this scale.”

Spalding was among the musicians who paid tribute to Shorter from the stage of the Kennedy Center’s Opera House, where the 85-year-old saxophonist was feted alongside his fellow honorees: country music star Reba McEntire, classical composer Philip Glass, singer-actress Cher and the creative team behind the musical Hamilton (writer-actor Lin-Manuel Miranda, director Thomas Kail, choreographer Andy Blakenbuehler and music director Alex Lacamoire).

The onstage segment paying tribute to Shorter began with an ensemble that included pianists Herbie Hancock and Danilo Pérez, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Tineke Postma, bassists John Patitucci and Alphonso Johnson, drummers Brian Blade and Terri Lyne Carrington, and percussionist Alex Acuña. The band, led by Carrington as musical director for this portion of the program, performed a medley of Shorter compositions, including “Footprints,” “Elegant People,” “Joy Ryder,” “Over Shadow Hill Way” and Spalding’s vocal arrangement of “Endangered Species.”

Opera singer Renée Fleming followed with a bravura performance of Shorter’s orchestral piece “Aurora” (with lyrics taken from Maya Angelou’s poem “On the Pulse of Morning”).

Pianist Jason Moran (the Kennedy Center’s Artistic Director for Jazz) and guitarist Bernie Williams also paid tribute to Shorter in short speeches from the stage. “Wayne Shorter is an icon,” Moran said. “Many of his hundreds of compositions have become standards. I can safely say that right now, at a jam session somewhere in the galaxy, a band is playing one of his pieces.”

More praise for Shorter came in video form, first through footage taken the previous evening at the State Department Trustees dinner, hosted by Deputy Secretary of State John J. Sullivan. At the dinner, honorees received their official medallions. “If jazz music traces and describes our voyage on Earth, then Wayne has written a colorful and fertile encyclopedia,” said Hancock, Shorter’s friend and collaborator of more than 50 years. “His interests lie way outside of the mainstream, and the word ‘safe’ isn’t in his vocabulary.”

In a separate video made specifically for the gala, tributes to Shorter were delivered by trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, guitarist Carlos Santana and keyboardist Donald Fagen (who collaborated with the saxophonist on the Steely Dan album Aja). “Wayne Shorter stays relevant,” said Marsalis. “In an era when computers and other things that are nonhuman are being elevated, [the fact] that a master can reconnect you with the magic and the marvel of a human being, with the poignancy and directness that Wayne Shorter does it, it touches everybody.”

“You can hear all of creation coming out of his horn,” said Santana.

Shorter, who used a wheelchair at the event, remained characteristically humble. Before the gala, he paused on the red carpet to reflect on what the Kennedy Center Honor meant to him: “It means that everything that the people who came before me have done, was not done in vain.”

During the tribute segment at the gala, Shorter could be seen wiping tears from his eyes.

Following the gala in the Opera House, a select group of attendees was invited to a large banquet. Tucked among the hundreds of dinner guests in the Kennedy Center’s Grand Foyer was a jazz septet featuring musicians from Washington, D.C. As diners enjoyed appetizers, the band played “Footprints,” with trumpeter Graham Breedlove and bassist Zack Pride offering impressive solos. It was yet another reminder of the scope of Shorter’s artistry.

The Kennedy Center Honors event was filmed for TV broadcast on CBS as a two-hour special, airing on Dec. 26 at 8 p.m. ET.

For more info on the honorees, visit the Kennedy Center website. DB

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