Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter

           With Wayne Shorter’s cooperation, writer Michelle Mercer has put together a hip and solid book, entitled Footprints, taking its name from one of Shorter’s most famous compositions.  Shorter himself was interviewed extensively for the book. Between the lines, readers will see that, if anything, Mercer succeeds in helping us understand the complex personality of a jazz legend who is, shall we say, far out.
            Now in his seventies, Shorter has been in the midst of a career renaissance.  Behind his so-called comeback might be a moment in 1991, when Shorter paid a visit to his longtime friend and creative collaborator Miles Davis.  Davis said what would be the trumpeter’s final words to his friend. “You know,” he told Shorter, “you need to be more exposed.”  From that point, you might say, Shorter has tried to find his way back to his jazz roots of composition, an eclectic interest in world music, and acoustic playing.  And that has made all the difference.  This fall’s release of a two-CD career overview, also entitled Footprints, is another part of this process of Shorter’s genuinely humble approach to staking his claim as being a living legend.
            Born in Newark, New Jersey in 1933, Wayne Shorter was on the fast track to becoming a jazz legend, it seems from the very start. Raised in a family that cultivated his interest in visual art, movies, literature, and music, Shorter was always confident in his creative abilities.  Growing up in Newark and studying music at New York University also meant that Shorter was as close to the most innovative music of the day – bebop – in his formative years.  In a sense, having his formative years coincide with those of bebop encourages in Shorter an ongoing drive in his music for finding new realms of music to explore.
            By the late 50s, Shorter was playing tenor and contributing his own compositions to Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, and from there he moved to the celebrated Miles Davis Quintet of the mid-60s – a band which featured, as most will know, not only Shorter, but Herbie Hancock, Ron Carter, and Tony Williams.  With Shorter writing for the group and serving, in Davis’s words, as the “intellectual musical catalyst,” the Quintet experimented with what they called anti-music, that is, improvisation with the idea of taking apart the structure of the song.  Listen to the Shorter composition, “Dolores,” on Miles Smiles and you’ll hear a hint of things to come.  Much of what the Quintet began exploring in those few memorable years led to Davis’s work on Bitches Brew and afterwards, as well as Shorter’s next group, the fusion conglomerate Weather Report.          When any discussion of jazz history gets to fusion – mercy, things get uncomfortable.  Fusion, as this book presents it, was a by-product of money, ego, and technology that, in the end, led to the dissipation of the talents of many jazz musicians.  Fortunately, Shorter did manage to play with his old Quintet buddies (along with Freddie Hubbard) in VSOP during those years.  But, Mercer’s biography is charitable when dealing with Shorter’s years among the stadiums, synthesizers, and studio services -- although he was always writing his own music, and, occasionally, recording.  It hasn’t been until recently that Shorter has found musicians – those relative youngsters in his current Quartet – who seem technically and creatively capable of keeping up with him in a live and acoustic setting.  Wayne, some of us have wanted to ask, where have you been?
            Of course, Shorter had just been getting on with his life, and there’s plenty of material other than music in this biography. We learn of Shorter’s interest in Buddhism, of his love of movies, and of his personal struggles and family tragedies.  But for Shorter, it seems, the footprints of his life never stayed far from the path of music.  The music, in the end, always led him back home.

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Dizzy: The Life and Times of John Birks Gillespie

            It’s a strange but true saying that nice guys finish last, and this saying applies, in some ways to the great jazz trumpeter, composer, and bandleader John Birks “Dizzy” Gillespie.  Although Dizzy in no way finishes last in any jazz conversation – you never get too far down the list of jazz giants before Gillespie’s name appears – he importance is often overshadowed by contemporaries such as Charlie Parker and Miles Davis.
            In a new biography by Donald L. Maggin, whose last book examined the life of tenor saxophonist Stan Getz, the legendary Gillespie receives his due share of historical reassessment.  Dizzy’s crucial importance in the history of jazz’s development may be overlooked in part because he made very difficult things look very easy, and, in part, it may be because his life story lacks the sordid or mysterious glamour of Parker and Davis.
            But biographer Maggin makes it very clear just how prodigal and ambitious Gillespie was from the very beginning.  Determined, with his family, to escape the sharecropping life in South Carolina, Dizzy quickly found that music was his magic carpet to ride to personal fulfillment and material success.  Barely more than 20 years old in 1938, Gillespie would find himself in New York City on the verge of developing – along with Kenny Clarke, Charlie Parker, and Thelonious Monk – an entirely new approach to playing music.  Gillespie and his colleagues called it modern jazz – although it came to be known as bebop – and it offered a wide-open and virtuosic style of writing and improvisation that made the prevailing swing music of the time seem slow and boring.  Historically, most people credit Charlie Parker with “discovering” bebop, but Dizzy more than anyone else was able to synthesize all the contributions of its founders into a coherent new way of playing.  And Gillespie was bebop’s public face and leading emissary in the new music’s struggle for mainstream acceptance in the years to come.
            An often overlooked contribution of Gillespie’s, too, are his approach to leading a band.  Dizzy insisted upon an extremely high standard of technical mastery from all those he played with – in fact, developing the idea of a “virtuoso ensemble” where everyone – all the horn players and the rhythm section – could play anything at any time and in any way imaginable.  In his big bands and small combos, too, he set up the idea – later copied by Art Blakey and Miles Davis – making his groups both a laboratory for developing new ideas from young talent and as a musical finishing school for those players.
            Gillespie, too, was central in bringing Latin elements into the vocabulary of jazz – first in his development of Afro-Cuban jazz with 1940s musicians Mario Bauza and Chano Pozo, into the 80s and 80s with Arturo Sandoval and Paquito D’Rivera.  Just as Gillespie was interested in expanding the harmonic vocabulary of music through bebop, he expanded the music’s rhythmic vocabulary as well with the infusion of Chono Pozo’s polyrhythms in his early Afro-Cuban music, which paid tribute to the Yoruba ancestors that both Gillespie and Pozo had in common.
            Some would argue that Gillespie lost his way a bit in his later decades when he became caught up in his role as sometime musical ambassador to the world, in participating in the civil rights movement, even in his half-serious campaign for president.  But Gillespie, who never succumbed as did his contemporaries to his darker demons, was a man of generous spirit and social conscience.  He remained, to the end, an expansive musical thinker, a bighearted teacher of his knowledge of music, and a champion of the universal appeal of the music he loved.

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