Wayne Shorter, Icon of Jazz Saxophone, Dies Aged 89

Wayne Shorter obituary
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Wayne Shorter obituary
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Photo Credit: Jose Nieto / CC by 2.0

Wayne Shorter, one of the greatest American jazz saxophonists, has died in Los Angeles, aged 89.

A central force in the 20th-century jazz scene, Wayne Shorter’s career as a saxophonist spanned bop, fusion, and other eclectic jazz movements. His publicist confirmed that he died in a Los Angeles hospital, aged 89.

Shorter was a member of the Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey, the second iteration of Miles Davis’ quintet in the mid-to-late ’60s, and the widely successful ’70s fusion group Weather Report. He also enjoyed a long collaborative partnership with Joni Mitchell, appearing on 10 of her albums, and worked with rock artists such as Carlos Santana and Steely Dan. Shorter is an 11-time Grammy award winner and a recipient of their lifetime achievement award.

Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Wayne Shorter began playing clarinet at 15, later focusing on tenor and soprano saxophone. Along with his brother Alan, who later became a jazz trumpeter, Shorter was enchanted by the bebop music they heard on the radio growing up.

Shorter studied music education in college, and after two years in the army, he played with bandleader Maynard Ferguson before joining the Jazz Messengers in 1958. He composed numerous pieces for the group, playing alongside Art Blakey, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and many more, and eventually became the band’s musical director. 

In 1964, he joined Miles Davis’ First Great Quintet, with Herbie Hancock on piano, Ron Carter on bass, and Tony Williams on drums. Shorter contributed numerous compositions, including the title tracks of albums Nefertiti and ESP. He stayed on after the quintet parted ways in 1969, working on Davis’ masterpiece, In a Silent Way, released later that year.

His Joni Mitchell collaborations began in 1977 with her album Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter. Of the experience working with her, Shorter said in 2013 that “she had a sense of feeling that I was joining her as a painter. She likes to paint, and I majored in fine arts before music, and she said, ‘You’re playing like you have a paintbrush, you know.’ She would choose from different takes to edit in, as if using a paintbrush.”

In 2017, Shorter received the Polar Music Prize; in 2018, he was named an honoree by the Kennedy Center. In 2013, he was honored with a lifetime achievement award from the Thelonious Monk Institute of Jazz — now known as the Hancock Institute of Jazz — telling the audience of the creative process, “Try to create how you wish the world to be for eternity; taking off the layers and becoming what we really are, eternally.”