A conversation with Wayne Shorter, jazz’s patron bodhisattva

Few names in jazz, or in the music world as a whole, command as much reverence and attention as Wayne Shorter’s. The 82-year-old NEA Jazz Master holds not only one of the most impressive résumés in the jazz field, having played in such titanic groups as Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis’ Second Great Quintet, and his own fusion band Weather Report. He’s also built a songbook full of standards. To just name a handful of tunes his pen brought forth: “Nefertiti,” “One By One,” “Speak No Evil,” “E.S.P.,” “Footprints,” “Orbits.” There are many great improvisers in any time, but Wayne Shorter combines his dexterous, flowing style with a composer’s sense and an ear for complex harmony unshared by many of his contemporaries and disciples.

Yet if you ask Shorter today about anything technically musical, he’s just as likely to jump into the expansion of the cosmos or the work of some great fantasy writer. Still, if you listen to him for a while, if you start to really hear what he’s saying, you realize that Shorter is talking about the music, just in more human terms. Since converting to Nichiren Buddhism in the 1970s, Shorter has shifted the focus of his music, and of his artistic thinking, to dwelling on human interaction and the human condition.

Hearing him speak is also like listening to a solo in progress; he may retread some older points and he may go far into left field, but you hearing how his musical voice and speaking voice are interwoven. It’s a reminder of the function of music on a basic level. It’s also the closest I’ve ever felt to receiving wisdom—revelation—from a truly enlightened being.

Wayne Shorter, along with an entire all-star cast of jazz musicians, plays at the White House this Saturday evening, April 30, to conclude the fifth annual International Jazz Day. I spoke with Shorter recently about the White House gig, our shared love of Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, and what he would like life to be.

CapitalBop: This will be the fourth year in a row that you’ve performed in the International Jazz Day concert. What makes you keep coming back?

Wayne Shorter: Coming back? Oh, coming back. Or maybe continuing.

CB: Yeah, continuing.

WS: Well, the way everything is in the world – not just today, but the way things have been going — [there is] so much history and so much changing history, rewriting and all that stuff. We’re trying, I guess, to play something called … improvisation in jazz. [It] is an effort to keep a constant, to keep something constant that can be relied on when a lot of things historically are re-written and moved around, in the world of something that’s temporary. There’s a temporary in the constant. That constant train goes by too many people historically, so the constant train has passengers on that trail last traveled. We could think of it as, I’m trying to continue something that’s reliable in life. This pursuit of reliability, attach that along to the pursuit of happiness.

‘I’m going for the unlimited; the constant.’

CB: Is happiness the main point of the reliability of jazz? What do you see as the reliability of jazz?

WS: Oh yeah! Well, what is happiness? To me, it’s a growing of—[pause] the courage to— [pause] farming. We farm a lot of things. We can farm ourselves and grow and reach into our potential, because I don’t go into this thing about “a beginning” and “an end” in life. To me there’s no beginning and end but there’s a potential, there’s a constant that’s right in front of us that’s missed. Being in the moment. When we improvise we’re in the moment. To me, the moment, one moment, is equal to eternity, and we have eternity to do what I call “the ultimate adventure.” Life is the ultimate adventure and [it’s] like, “If you don’t know your rights, you don’t have any.” Or like Mark Twain said, and it’s captured in The Equalizer–have you seen The Equalizer?

CB: I don’t think I have, no.

WS: Okay, it starts with a quote from Mark Twain. It said, “There are two important days or moments in one’s existence. One is being born and the other is knowing why.” So when we play music, it’s not just to play music, because if you talk about music all the time, that’s another way of saying, “Stay in your place.” So, what is anything for, music and all that? So jazz, and improvisation, that’s the challenge we have of going forward and also the courage to face the unknown and negotiate the unexpected. Learning how to improvise, to negotiate and deal with the unexpected, and have our egos serve us instead of us serving our egos. That’s why jazz musicians take solos; it’s an attempt to demonstrate equality in a constant way and not a temporary way. And moving forward and becoming more human and thinking we’re human because we’re looking like “human beings.” So now, the test I’m doing, the challenge is to become eternally more human. It’s a challenge. Why not go for it? We’re here. We’ve gone into some stuff that’s, [laughs] you know, killing each other, and all that stuff. Not going for that.

CB: I know you’re a longtime practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and a member of Soka Gakkai International. Has it affected the message you want your music to present? Has your practice influenced your approach to improvisation, and to how you hear your own music?

WS: Oh yeah, you know, because when I was young I was looking for like-minded people, who speak about something. In other words, I like when the scientists say, “We’re looking for a new number.” [laughs] Or, I had a cousin and every time he came to see us he’d knock on the door – since those were the ”knock on the door” days — and we’d open the door and he’d say, “Tell me something new.” And I heard this, things that I hadn’t heard before but that I was thinking about when I was younger, and trying to express these things.

And when I was younger, in my young teens, people would say, “We don’t know what he’s talking about.” Little kids and all, they were going to the movies, playing baseball and all that, and they’d say, “We don’t know what Wayne’s talking about,” and they used to call me Mr. Weird. They’d say, “He’s weird.” Then later on, when I turned 40 I started to see these writings, and all that, and meeting people who were hard to meet, you know, hard to come by in the general flow of interaction, you know? Have cocktailsfor two and all that, dating, and that’s cool. But then, I ran into these writings that—it’s actually termed, this practice is actually termed, “The unheard-of philosophy.” The most unheard laws, unheard and difficult to encounter. But since I’m encountering it, I have encountered it before in a distant past. And this is like waking, opening: the eyes opening up, that’s all. Not waking up, opening. The opening of the eyes, we call it, and the opening of our essence by not hearing something that sounds like everything else.

Because sometimes people we’re talking to, we talk about this philosophy and they say, “Oh, it’s like this, it’s like that. Oh, it’s just like what we do.” It ain’t. And I’m here to say that, because at 82, I have nothing to lose; I’m gonna say what I’m saying. Actually, I could have been that way when I was 15. But then, when I was young, most of us are hijacked from the cradle.

CB: Hijacked by what?

WS: Oh, by distorted history of what we’re told, what we hear and what we see. Everyone’s been hijacked from the cradle, but we all do the best we can–parents, and all that stuff. But not completely! Some of the baby turtles make it to the sea; they didn’t all get eaten.

But here’s what I like about this philosophy: Everyone will actually become—hit the road—that trail of enlightenment. Everyone, everyone who’s ever been born, we don’t think of someone as “gone,” anyone gone. It’s a journey. And part of the journey is to go on vacation and then come back and go to work. And life is like going to school for me. And also, nothing is thrown away, nothing is discarded, nothing is destroyed: From a discarded fingernail to someone who thinks they discard an ex-wife or husband or something like that. It’s gonna be meeting someone who looks different but they’re the same person because the person speaking is the same. [laughs] I mean the same, but not actually grown and added on, but that time will come.

Or like, the worst person you can think of will actually, they say, pay the dues and erase all of the dastardly, dirty things that they’ve been through in life and all of that. But what I like about it is, … you say, “If you have eternity, I have all the time in the world to redeem myself.” But, you know, not redeeming can go on forever, too. And it’s always up to the person. That’s what I like: It’s up to the person. It’s not up to some omnipotent power, puppet master.

You can go on forever doing dastardly things because you think you have forever to change. So that’s one of the great procrastinations that humanity as a whole, when they start following each other and never learning to be leaders, or what we’d call the producer, actor and scriptwriter in the movie of their own lives. That’s the challenge.

‘Do not be afraid to step into the unknown without your spacesuit.’

CB: You mentioned that what you like about this philosophy is that everyone can reach enlightenment. That’s a form of unity and that’s a form of harmony too. You’ve always been noted for having a more expanded ear for harmony as a composer: Has Buddhism expanded your harmonic ear or sense?

WS: Oh yeah, it expanded. Well the harmony of people interacting. Well, to me, there’s no such thing as a mistake. There are train wrecks, and the word “accident” is a— … Well, for instance some people live their lives according to the lyrics of a song. Mostly pop. And they would try to emulate that. The expansion of harmony [is] about the harmony in human life … Well, for instance, we’ve been invited to Stanford by the astrophysicists there, working in the laboratories there. And they’re talking about the collider in CERN, Switzerland—some people call it “finding out about the Big Bang.” But they don’t call it the Big Bang, they call it “The Unfolding.”

And the multiverse that’s beyond our universe, or our universe getting involved there, where the laws there have nothing to do with quantum physics in our universe. And they kind of punctuate it by saying, “Scary.” But interesting! So when they invited us there, and us meaning the band I play with – I never say “my band” – Herbie was there with his group and all that and wives and all that. And we were wondering why they invited us there. So they told us why they invited us. There’s a lady there, she’s in charge of dark matter, Dr. Risa [Wechsler] … My wife has been in the Amazon, up to Machu Picchu with the scientists two times: My wife, Herbie’s wife, Esperanza Spalding, the scientists and all that. They asked us to come there because they wanted to talk about improvisation: improvisation in science, a deeper, profound something about improvisation.

They said the mathematics only go from here to there; they said the mathematics become jokes. We were looking at some stuff on the blackboard and they said, “Don’t pay attention, those are jokes. We want to talk about improvisation.” So when we see them, we get together every once in a while, and we keep talking about improvisation. They gave us some 3-D glasses and we were looking into what we call infinity and watching galaxies, baby galaxies, kind of play with each other like babies and stuff like that. Another discovery was other dwarf planets, going around the Milky Way, but there’s more, and different-sized planets, and the birth of new stars and all of that. Supernovas and then mega novas and behemoth  novas! [laughs] And no end, no beginning – no end, but improvisation.

When we play, we hope the corporate world – some of the people from the corporate world – will start to take chances, at this time, this day and age, at improvising instead of relying on old strategy and formulas that used to work when they did their inventories. “Did we get a profit?” [Imitates sounds of accounting.] Don’t worry about the profit anymore, we can’t worry about profit anymore. Because becoming more human will have us do things; we are the money, we are the profit. Human being is the profit. We are the harvest, and when we find out more about improvisation and ourselves inventing what we call “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo:” to open and take off all of the layers of artificial stuff that we’ve submitted ourselves to. Because to me, our aura is an agreement. It’s like a dictatorial kind of something and it’s something that is submitted to.

So this submission is a change coming right now. And one of the fun things to do is play music about it, make movies about it, do poetry about it, do ballet about it, and when the business world starts to do business as if it’s about, “Hey, make a movie”—you know, they make a movie about Wall Street and business and everything like that and how it should go. And when the movie is over they continue like they’ve been doing. [laughs]

The movie companies, too. So the whole thing about diversity and all that, all that’s in the soup. The soup needs to be stirred, and we’re gonna see how we can just nudge each other and help each other and aid each other. Taking a look at [it] to discover the limited view that we have of how the world should be: We have a limited view of that, limited perception of that. I’m going for the unlimited; the constant.

CB: Is jazz a path to the unlimited?

WS: Yeah. The trail less traveled can take you more places than the one that’s overloaded with people. Because they’re all following each other, want to be each other, want to be: “I want to be like Jennifer Lawrence,” You know what I mean? I want to get my little place in Germany, I want to get my Swiss-chalet in Staad, Switzerland, I want to have my sailboat, I want to have that girl, and that girl and that girl and that girl! And the girls too, I want to have that guy and that guy. “I want to rule the world, dun-dun-duh-dun.”

This kind of culminates what I’m talking about. When we were kids, we used to play in a vacant lot, like when we were kids, like 9 years old, 10 years old, in New Jersey, where a lot of kids played in the 1940s–playing in a vacant lot. And that vacant lot became Mars, it became the ocean, it became sand dunes, it became another planet. And we would play in there all day on, like, Saturday or summertime, you know, no school, play in there all day while our parents went shopping or were still working. At that time we were old enough to have the key, so we can let ourselves in our own homes and everything. But after three, four, maybe five hours of us playing in the lot, and getting a little lunch here and there, they would come back home and would ask us, “What have you kids been doing?” And what I remember the most spoken, the most frequent response was: They’d say, “What have you guys been doing all day?” And we’d say, “Nothing,” [laughs]

Sounds familiar!

WS: I want to go find out what that nothing is, now! Because when we played together there was little, little, little, little, little, minimal conflict, fighting. It was mostly playing together. We were untarnished  by the scheme of being hijacked. We were allowed to actually think for ourselves in playing. I know psychologists–when we take psychology 1 and 2 and all of the others, they say, “Play is very important. It’s very important.” So why don’t you let people play?

CB: You know, you said in Osaka a couple of years ago that you love the work of the Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami, who’s also one of my favorite authors.

WS: Yeah, I have one of his books here with me now!

CB: Which one?

WS: It’s the one where he talks about starting writing. [Rustles around for the book.] It’s his first two novels, Wind/Pinball. He talks in the introduction about how he started writing. He said he didn’t know he could write.

‘I think the individual should deal in derivatives, not just the Wall Street banks and all that stuff…. Gamble without fear.’

CB: I’ve found that I’m drawn to the way he makes the very ordinary and everyday fantastical and almost surreal. Do you find similar aspects in his work? Do you hear something that he does in writing similar to how you approach music?

WS: Yeah, and some other writers too. I have wall-to-wall books at home: science-fiction. Not only science-fiction but I have historical stuff and all that. Maybe you should read–I don’t if you can get it and check it out, there’s a book called Antarctica by Kim Stanley Robinson, sci-fi writer.

CB: So what is it about Murakami and these writers that you enjoy? How does he resonate with you?

WS: Well he’s out there. There’s one book he did [1Q84] where there’s a lady in a taxi and the traffic is so thick, it’s in Japan. She gets out of the taxi and does what they don’t do in Japan. He writes about things that people don’t do. I haven’t seen the movie yet about—

CB: Norwegian Wood

WS: I’ve been traveling so much, I need more time to do this; to read and find those, the people who are not just like-minded but who are not afraid. They said, [affecting a Dracula accent] “Do not be afraid to step into the unknown without your spacesuit.” I can entertain myself sometimes. That’s why I can hold on. People say, “How come you don’t ever give up, you don’t get in line, you don’t follow?” You know? We played at a club one time—we don’t play clubs, but we played a club, and a Japanese lady owns the place. It’s called Yoshi’s, in San Francisco, and after all this time she’s checking me out, checking us out, and she said, “You still going for the unusual, the duh-duh-duh-duhh.” I said, “Yeah.” And then she said, “You must be very lonely.” She described the United States of America to me. You know, the United States of America and that kind of, “Somebody’s very lonely. There’s a lot of lonely people.” And not just lonely because of—I like what’s going on now with the young kids, they’re inventors coming along, you know? They’re happening, they’re growing up. Because this place makes it more conducive for innovative stuff. It’s so fertile here, right in front of our noses. The United States of America, the song “The Girl Next Door” is the United States. Nobody sees the girl next door, they’re beginning to. The girl and guy next door too.

CB: Two years ago at an interview for International Jazz Day in Osaka, you said that you want to play what you wish for. What is it that you wish for today?

WS: Ahh! What I wish for would be, “How you like life to be!” And how you wish the world to be can only maybe … be displayed or seen in someone’s every behavior. I don’t play “how to do music,” or like, “how to do book,” or “how to do this,” “how to find happiness.” It has to be shown in your behavior, daily behavior. And transcends all that political correctness stuff and people spinning something that everyone says, and living in what we call comfort zones, you know. I think the individual should deal in derivatives, not just the Wall Street banks and all that stuff. Gambling. But gamble without fear. … If you don’t have a passport, best start getting literature and all of that stuff from many other countries, or other planets.

Remember that little girl? She’s on the Ellen DeGeneres Show, she’s six years old, knows all the presidents. She knows all the names and all that stuff. And she says something like, “Well one president, they gave him some poison in his tea! They wanted to kill him!” But she was on one of those shows and Barack Obama was there, and he asked her, “Is there anything you want to ask me?” And she said, “Is there a little secret book that all the Presidents have?” [laughs] And I said, “Go, girl, go!” And all he did was laugh. A book about UFOs and all of that; things they can’t talk about. That’s Okay. We’ll play music about that stuff; close encounters of the third kind or the fourth kind. These things are coming about; and where the information comes from, where the inspiration comes from, it’s all in the greatness and the mystery of life itself. It’s part of the mystery of us.

But the main thing I like to leave with is, “We can’t blame anything outside of ourselves for what happens to us.” I don’t blame record companies for not marketing quote-unquote “jazz.” They’ll market the kind of marketable pop and rock and everything and Motown and all that stuff. We can say, “Well you guys are not in our corner and duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh, duh.” You know, I say there’s a resistance to the creative process because it doesn’t make money. There’s a resistance, resistance! But when I started practicing this philosophy, it came to me that you need resistance for an airplane to take off. So anything that’s resistive or blocking someone’s desires and all that, we have to examine to see what they key, where the gem, the diamond, exists in the roadblock. Not just tai chi but it’s from within ourselves… We do a thing called kendok yaku: You don’t avoid the poison, you change the poison to medicine. You put the thing that gave you polio, the vaccine has some of that in it. And that’s a start; then go deeper. That’s why I say nothing is really discarded in life, it’s transformed! And it will be transformed sooner or later. logo



About Jackson Sinnenberg

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Jackson Sinnenberg is a broadcast journalist and a freelance writer. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, JazzTimes, Downbeat, NPR Music, NPR.org, the Washington City Paper, On Tap/District Fray Magazine and the blog of Smithsonian Folkways Records. He began covering the city’s music scene for WGTB, Georgetown University’s radio station, where he was a show host, writer, and columnist. He graduated from Georgetown with a bachelor’s degree in American Musical Culture. Reach him at [email protected]. Follow him at @sinnenbergmusic.

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