Wayne Shorter, Artist of the Year


“I worked in a factory for a year, saving up money so I could study music in college,” said Wayne Shorter about his humble beginnings.

(Photo: Michael Jackson)

With Wayne Shorter’s passing on March 2, the readers of DownBeat wanted to honor him one more time by naming him Artist of the Year. A sentimental vote, to be sure, but also a well-deserved recognition, as Shorter was active right up to taking his last breath, penning and premiering the opera Iphigenia.

In memory of Shorter, a true genius of jazz, here are four select quotes from his conversations with DownBeat over the years.

On Creativity

Is creativity good, in the sense of originality? How can you be so original, when you walk a little bit like your mother or father, or have the color of your father’s eyes, or you make a gesture and someone says, “You did that just like your father used to do.” Charlie Parker, for example, said that when he was young, his idols on the alto saxophone were Rudy Vallee and Jimmy Dorsey. If you’ve heard Bird, and if you’ve heard Rudy Vallee and Jimmy Dorsey, I think you’d have to dig very deep, tear off many layers of wallpaper, before you could find any similarity in sound, approach or technique. I would say that the only thing which would confirm what Bird said about his admiration would be the sophistication of his approach. It’s the sophistication of Westernized music, Western scales. But let’s go back even further. Western scales came from around Greece, Jerusalem and Arabia. They’re world scales, really. People are taught music history this way, separating Western music from Eastern music, but I think it’s one big circle. It’s hard to keep from using labels. For instance, when I said that Bird idolized Rudy Vallee and Dorsey, some people’s minds would stop and they’d say, “Ooo, that’s who he dug!” But I tend to use those names as a springboard into history, going all the way back to the great explosion that started this planet. You can’t just go on what Mr. X said, you’ve got to do a little thinking on your own. —from “Creativity and Change,” by Wayne Shorter, DownBeat, Dec. 12, 1968

On Going to New York

I worked in a factory for a year, saving up money so I could study music in college, and during that time I played gigs on weekends, parties for wealthy people. I then went to NYU, graduated, and then got my greetings from the U.S. Army. I had just started playing jam sessions in New York. Everyone used to tell me how hard it was to get in these jam sessions — that you had to know someone. I was a bit worried about going in the service. I thought maybe my life was all over, even though it was peacetime then. So one day during this period, I went to the Cafe Bohemia and in that club were these people: Oscar Pettiford on bass; Kenny Clarke was alternating on drums with Art Taylor, Art Blakey and Max Roach; Jimmy Smith was there on organ; Cannonball Adderley; Bill Harman on trumpet; Jackie McLean; Walter Bishop on piano. I was standing at the bar by the door, and Max Roach, whom I’d never met, came up to me and said, “Hey, you’re the kid from Newark.” He’d heard about me through the grapevine. “Come on up and play,” he said. I did what I could but wondered what kind of contribution I could be making with all of these giants up there. I started to leave the stand, but someone grabbed me by the back of my shirt — I think it was Max — and he told me to play more. It was a great night for me. —from “The Wayne Shorter Interview,” by Scott Yanow, DownBeat, April 1986

On Miles

Here’s the way Miles would ask about somebody. … He’d hear about somebody that he should investigate. “Everybody’s talking about this new guy on the saxophone. You gotta check this guy out.” And Miles would say, “Well that’s all right, but can he see?” They didn’t know what he was talking about.

Because everybody who worked with Miles and Gil Evans, that big band stuff, you had to read. Philly Joe Jones could read good. Miles could read. But one night he was talking to Trane at the Blue Coronet in Brooklyn. We were up on the bandstand doing a new tune I wrote called “Paraphernalia,” and he read the music but was stumbling a bit in memorizing it. He stopped the band in front of the people — and this was the only time he had done this — held the music up and said, “Let’s start it again.” I mean, they called him a king, but that would have been considered vulnerable. He was a human being. —from “Wayne Shorter, The Final Interview,” by Michael Jackson, DownBeat, May 2023

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