In his youth, the jazz saxophonist Wayne Shorter was awarded the nickname “Mr Gone”, in recognition of his distant, otherworldly air. As he rose to prominence with the bands of Art Blakey and Miles Davis, with the fusion outfit Weather Report, with the singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, alongside the guitarist Carlos Santana and with his own groups, that sense of cool detachment helped him to create a musical microclimate that was unique and immediately identifiable.
Eventually Shorter, who has died aged 89, succeeded to the title of jazz’s greatest living improviser: a musician universally admired for his originality and breadth of vision.
Whether on Davis’s Bitches Brew, Gil Evans’s The Barbara Song, Weather Report’s Birdland, Mitchell’s Paprika Plains, Steely Dan’s Aja, Don Henley’s The End of the Innocence or James Newton Howard’s score for David Mamet’s film Glengarry Glen Ross, Shorter’s saxophone could materialise like a wraith of pale smoke through a door left ajar, curling gracefully around the musical furniture before evaporating as mysteriously as it had appeared, leaving an indelible afterimage.
He came from a generation of young black musicians who idolised Charlie Parker to the extent of learning complex, technically challenging improvisations by heart from 78rpm records. After the lessons in rhythmic subdivision and harmonic sophistication had been absorbed, Shorter’s own character emerged. Rejecting the alpha male approach that prevailed in much of jazz, instead he developed a more restrained and epigrammatic style based on oblique melodic angles, a porous tone and an instinct for dramatic understatement. He could fill space with squalls of sound, but silence was an equally potent weapon.
All these qualities were distilled into his compositions, which included Lester Left Town and Children of the Night for the Jazz Messengers, Footprints, Nefertiti and Sanctuary for Davis’s groups, and Blackthorn Rose and Plaza Real for Weather Report. His last album release, a triple-CD set titled Emanon, featured music for a chamber orchestra and live recordings of his quartet from a London concert, accompanied by a lavishly produced comic book reflecting his lifelong interest in science fiction; it won the 2018 Grammy award for the year’s best jazz instrumental album.
Describing his childhood in an interview with the pianist Ethan Iverson in 2015, he said: “Most of the kids during the summer, they were out playing baseball or football. But I stayed in, sketching.” His early inspirations were the characters featured in the Marvel comics, but eventually, as he told Iverson, the place of Captain Marvel as the boy’s superhero was usurped by Parker and the other inventors of the new language of bebop, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk.
He was born and brought up in Newark, New Jersey, the son of Louise and Joseph Shorter. Joseph, born on a farm in Alabama, worked for the Singer sewing machine company; his wife nurtured the creativity of their two sons with paints and clay. Both parents taught their children to be sceptical of received wisdom. The family attended the local Mount Zion Baptist Church, where the young Sarah Vaughan often sang.
Wayne and his elder brother, Alan, came to music in their mid-teens, taking up the clarinet and the trumpet respectively. By then Wayne had won a city-wide painting competition and was attending Newark’s Arts high school, the first of its kind in the US. After taking private clarinet lessons for a year, he switched to the tenor saxophone and played with his brother in a bebop combo before joining the locally popular big band of the pianist Nat Phipps. At a theatre in Newark he was able to hear regular performances by the bands of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Stan Kenton and others.
At 19, having spent a year pushing trolleys at the Singer factory to earn his tuition fees, he started a music education course at New York University, where his classes included psychology, philosophy and sociology. At night he could visits the clubs to hear Lester Young and Parker, and he began meeting other young musicians on the New York scene, including John Coltrane, a fellow saxophonist who was about to join Davis’s band and became a close friend.
Unusually for a musician of Shorter’s background, his ear was also taken by the cool approach of the improvisers associated with the pianist and teacher Lennie Tristano, notably the saxophonists Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh.
On his graduation in 1956 Shorter was drafted into the US army. During his two years’ service he practised assiduously and made the 120-mile round trip from Fort Dix, New Jersey, to New York for weekend sessions. Recruited on his release by the trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, whose big band also included a young pianist called Joe Zawinul, he was soon poached by Blakey to become a member of the Jazz Messengers. Four years with Blakey gave Shorter a significant presence on the jazz scene, resulting in a series of well-received albums under his own name for the Blue Note label, including Night Dreamer (1964), Speak No Evil (1966) and Super Nova (1969).
It was no surprise when, in 1964, he accepted an invitation to join Davis’s quintet. After Coltrane’s departure four years earlier, the trumpeter had hired and fired a succession of saxophonists before finding the voice he really needed alongside his own. Shorter’s sensibility was perfectly attuned to the riddles with which Davis shook his sidemen out of established patterns of thought. When he was asked, “Wayne, do you get tired of playing music that sounds like music?”, Shorter understood.
Into the new quintet Davis had brought three other impatient young virtuosos: the pianist Herbie Hancock, the bassist Ron Carter and the drummer Tony Williams. Together they took the music into uncharted regions. Using standard tunes and original compositions, they refracted melody, harmony and rhythm with a level of collective communication that came to resemble telepathy, and their albums – ESP (1965), Miles Smiles, Sorcerer and Nefertiti (all 1967) – were seized upon by other musicians as signposts.
By 1968, however, Davis was listening to James Brown and Jimi Hendrix, hankering for a new sound and the younger audience it might attract. One by one, the quintet’s members were dispersing to develop their own projects. Shorter was still by his side for two more key albums: In a Silent Way (1969), in which his introduction of the soprano saxophone unveiled a new approach to the instrument, and Bitches Brew (1970), a boiling and bestselling epic of psychedelic jazz.
In 1971, after a year’s break, Shorter reunited with Zawinul to form a quintet called Weather Report. To begin with, they were an effective combination: the businesslike Viennese and the unworldly American (“If you ask Wayne the time,” a friend said, “he’ll start talking about the cosmos and how time is relative.”) Their mixture of memorable themes and exotic textures – soundtracks for unmade movies, as someone put it – attracted a growing audience before a soaring tune by Zawinul called Birdland gave them a worldwide hit in 1977, shortly after the arrival of the bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius had introduced a third strong creative voice.
The extrovert tendencies of Zawinul and Pastorius marginalised Shorter’s sense of nuance and indirection
Initially managed by Sid Bernstein, the promoter who had introduced America to the Beatles, now they toured the world with all the pomp of a major rock band, but the extrovert tendencies of Zawinul and Pastorius were pushing Shorter, whose life and work were based on nuance and indirection, toward the margins. “For a long time in Weather Report, I abstained,” he said. “I elected not to do things.” In 1986 the band called it a day.
Shorter had resumed his solo recording career in 1974 with a Brazilian-inflected album titled Native Dancer, featuring the singer-guitarist Milton Nascimento. After Weather Report he toured with VSOP, a reunion of the Davis quintet with Freddie Hubbard taking the trumpeter’s place, and with Santana. In 2000 he assembled the quartet that gave him the scope for a long final flowering. The Panamanian pianist Danilo Pérez, the bassist John Patitucci and the drummer Brian Blade applied the scintillating interaction of the Davis group to a repertoire mixing Shorter’s compositions with those of Villa-Lobos, Sibelius and Mendelssohn, folk songs and medieval carols.
Nothing about Shorter, neither the innate intellectual curiosity nor the unspoilt love of fantasy worlds sparked when he read Charles Kingsley’s The Water Babies at the age of 12, was ever dulled by time. “We are living in an age of decadence,” Mitchell told Shorter’s biographer, Michelle Mercer. “But Wayne’s not. He’s still soaring.”
In the early 1960s he was briefly married to Irene Nakagami, with whom he had a daughter, Miyako. In 1970, after a divorce, he married Ana Maria Patricio, who introduced him to the Soka Gakkai form of Buddhism, which he practised for the remainder of his life. Their daughter, Iska, died at the age of 14 after a series of seizures, and in 1996 Ana Maria was among the 230 passengers and crew killed when a TWA jet crashed into the Atlantic after taking off from New York en route for Rome. In 1999 he married Carolina Dos Santos, a friend of Ana Maria; she survives him, as does Miyako and an adopted stepdaughter, Mariana.
• Wayne Shorter, saxophonist, composer and bandleader, born 25 August 1933; died 2 March 2023