Wayne Shorter, enigmatic saxophonist who shaped modern jazz, dies at 89

The composer and performer was recognised as an innovator during an era of change in jazz

Wayne Shorter, the enigmatic, intrepid saxophonist who shaped modern jazz as one of its most admired composers, died Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89.

His publicist, Alisse Kingsley, confirmed his death, at a hospital. There was no immediate information on the cause.

Shorter’s career reached across more than half a century, largely inextricable from jazz’s complex evolution during that span. He emerged in the 1960s as a tenor saxophonist and in-house composer for pacesetting editions of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Miles Davis Quintet, two of the most celebrated small groups in jazz history.

He then helped pioneer fusion, with Davis and as a leader of Weather Report. He also forged a bond with popular music in marquee collaborations with singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell, guitarist Carlos Santana and the band Steely Dan.


Shorter wrote his share of compositions that became jazz standards, such as Footprints, a coolly ethereal waltz, and Black Nile, a driving anthem.

His recorded output as a leader, especially during a feverishly productive stretch on Blue Note Records in the mid-1960s – when he made Night Dreamer, JuJu, Speak No Evil and several others, all post-bop classics – compares favourably to the best winning streaks in jazz.

Since the turn of the 21st century, the Wayne Shorter Quartet – by far Shorter’s longest-running band, and the one most garlanded with acclaim – set an imposing standard for formal elasticity and cohesive volatility, bringing avant-garde practice into the heart of the jazz mainstream.

Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, on August 25th, 1933. His father, Joseph, worked as a welder for the Singer sewing machine company, and his mother, Louise, sewed for a furrier.

Wayne and his older brother, Alan, a trumpeter, joined a local bebop group led by a flashy singer named Jackie Bland.

Shorter earned a degree in music education at New York University. After serving two years in the Army, he re-entered the scene as a member of Blakey’s Jazz Messengers.

Shorter joined the second Miles Davis Quintet in 1964, with pianist Herbie Hancock, bassist Ron Carter and drummer Tony Williams.

Most of Shorter’s output on Blue Note unfolded while he was working with Davis. Speak No Evil, recorded in 1964, featured his wife, Teruko Nakagami, known as Irene, on the cover, and contained a song (Infant Eyes) dedicated to their daughter, Miyako. The marriage ended in divorce in 1966.

Together with Austrian keyboardist and composer Josef Zawinul and Czech bassist Miroslav Vitous, Shorter formed Weather Report, which released its debut album, called Weather Report, in 1971. Weather Report’s most commercially successful edition, featuring electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius, became an arena attraction, and one of its albums, Heavy Weather, was certified gold (and later platinum).

While in Weather Report, Shorter made precious few solo albums – but Native Dancer, a 1974 collaboration with Brazilian troubadour Milton Nascimento, inspired more than one generation of admirers, notably guitarist and composer Pat Metheny and bassist and vocalist Esperanza Spalding.

The idea of working with Nascimento had come from Shorter’s second wife, Ana Maria (Patricio) Shorter.

Iska, Shorter’s daughter with Ana Maria, died of a grand mal seizure in 1985 at age 14. Then, in 1996, Ana Maria and the Shorters’ niece Dalila Lucien were among the 230 people killed when TWA Flight 800 crashed shortly after take-off from Kennedy International Airport in New York.

In 1999 he married Carolina Dos Santos, a Brazilian dancer and actor. His wife is among his survivors, who also include Miyako Shorter; another daughter, Mariana; and a grandson. Alan Shorter died in 1987.

Shorter won 12 Grammy Awards, the last bestowed this year for best improvised jazz solo, for Endangered Species, a track written with Spalding.

He also received a lifetime achievement honour from the Recording Academy in 2015. He was a 2016 Guggenheim Fellow and a 1998 National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master. He received the Polar Music Prize, an international honour recognising both pop and classical music, in 2017. And he was among the recipients of the 2018 Kennedy Center Honors. – This article originally appeared in The New York Times.