“Jazz shouldn’t have any mandates. Jazz is not supposed to be required to sound like jazz. For me, the word ‘jazz’ means ‘I dare you.'”
Wayne Shorter passed away this morning at the age of 89. I’m still letting that sink in as I write this. What a remarkable career he had. He was an absolute giant in the world of jazz. The legacy of music he leaves us is vast. There’s no question that musicians and listeners alike will never cease to find new inspiration from Wayne’s recordings and compositions.
My social media feeds have been flooded with memorials and tributes to Wayne from fans who love his music, as well as those who were fortunate enough to work with him or call him a friend. I did not know Wayne well. I interviewed him twice. The first time was in conjunction with liner notes I was asked to write for a CD reissue of Weather Report’s album Tale Spinnin’.
Before we got around to discussing the individual tracks in detail, Wayne spoke from a more expansive perspective. The interview took place in December 2008, when the world was coping with the aftershocks of 2007-8 financial crisis. Barack Obama had been elected president of the United States the previous month. Here is the initial portion of that interview, which I have never published.
Wayne Shorter: This is what should have been done way back in 1971 [referring to my speaking with him about the album]. They didn’t do any real promotion for those fourteen years we were with them. But then again, they were resistant to the creative process. So just like an airplane needs resistance to take off? That was their main function, to be the resistance so that we could take off in ways that transcended making money. (laughs) That’s their real function. The real function of wealth is to be so resistant that it wakes people up, so people can be creative enough to do things that they wonder, how do you do things without money? How’d they do that without us?
Curt Bianchi: That’s a good way of putting it, especially with the record company.
WS: Everything! Everything. Creative diplomacy, everything. And then you have to have a certain life condition to be reciprocal to that. You have to have a higher life condition. That’s why when people negotiate stuff they come to a stalemate, because their life condition is low. They are parlaying from a position of greed, anger, and animosity. I’m speaking Buddhism now.
CB: Those words are interesting given the current economic conditions we find ourselves in.
WS: Right. Now Tale Spinnin’…
CB: I’ve owned this album since it came out as a record. I was a teenager at the time. In our household we used to buy Weather Report records when they came out. So I’m really glad to be able to do this and to speak with you, too.
WS: You know, that title tells about the content of the album. We used to sit around in the studio trying to think of a title for the album, and we talked about how people told tales in the old days—folk tales—and we actually started talking about these stories. Like Joe Zawinul talked about when he was a kid, talking about werewolves and things. And there were the old people, the grandfathers and great grandfathers, who said if you weren’t good the Krampus would come and get you. And I asked, what is Krampus? He said it was somebody who transformed into some kind of animal, like a large bunny rabbit or something, but so large that it would be frightening to a kid. And that was the word, Krampus, in Austria, in folklore. And we went on from one story to another, and everybody started contributing, bringing stories in, and we arrived at that name, Tale Spinnin’.
CB: You anticipated my question about that title. But also, you know how people always tried to describe Weather Report’s music, assigning it a term like fusion, but the term never actually worked very well. So I wanted to ask you about this idea of storytelling. Would that be a more accurate way of describing Weather Report’s music than a specific genre?
WS: Well, actually, the name Weather Report is the key, because the weather is unpredictable. And it’s hard to control the weather. When we were sitting around in Clive Davis’s office—he was the head of Columbia at the time—we were thinking and thinking and thinking. And somebody said, “Let’s call it a group. The Audience.” No, no, no. (laughs) There were a lot of people in that room, sitting on the floor, you know. Actually, that’s the only creative process that happened between us and the executives.
And I was thinking, “They have the news about the weather every evening, and the weather is something that nobody can predict. And this music we are doing has something about not being predictable or something like that,” And I said, “How about The Weather Report?” And we took the “The” off it: Weather Report. And everybody said, “Yeah!” And it all clicked.
The weather report can be an analogy to almost anything if you stretch it out. Like, when somebody says they are going to tell you a story, you don’t know what they are going to tell you until they start talking. You listen to them. You sit around the fireplace, “Let’s tell stories.” And the anticipation of not knowing what’s going to happen adds to the excitement. So that’s what we tried to do with every album, including Tale Spinnin’.
It’s almost like musicians taking photographs totally without their instruments. The photographer asks, can I get a shot of you with your horn, or your piano? No. (laughs) The thing is, we would say we were born without our instrument. (laughs) We were trying to force them to portray us as personalities—they do that after you are well known, but we started out that way—and not as a way of marketing the music, the ways that they thought were guaranteed so that you would have to conform to, and actually, do what they did by—like disrobing, like leaving your integrity at the door.
CB: So how do you manage to maintain your integrity through that process? This was a band that was together for a long time.
WS: Yeah, thirteen, fourteen years. We just kept doing what we did without asking anything, and we knew that it would take a long time for anything to start clicking. And they would kind of throw a tease in there. “Well, you know, this group Genesis, it took them nine months to click.”
CB: That wasn’t just a tease, that was a dig, wasn’t it?
WS: Yeah. And other things. They wanted us to simplify the music, to make it A-B-C. And I’m thinking, hey, life ain’t simple!
CB: What was cool about those Weather Report records was that each one was different, as you suggested. It was like the musical universe expanded with each one. Tale Spinnin’ was different from Mysterious Traveller, Black Market was different from Tale Spinnin’, and so on. It just seemed like there was a lot of creativity and expansion in those records that was really remarkable.
WS: Yeah. And it’s a funny thing. Those records like Tale Spinnin’ and stuff, right now there’s a sort of a call in those records to, at this time, to really be creative in the midst of a financial meltdown and all the fears that people have. When you are really scared, that is the time to muster the courage to create with no money. And the sincerity of creation will activate the ultimate law of cause and effect.
I don’t call it the beginning of creation—to me there is no such thing as the beginning—but it activates what I call eternal potential. And that potential emanates through every living being. And when things happen that you don’t understand, you say, “How the hell did that happen? How did Obama come to be?” You know what I mean? Or a simple lottery, somebody wins. In many circumstances it just seems like this thing happens. And the many become less-many and more large—instead of micro, more macro.
Back in the fifties, besides the process of payola, when something became a hit that didn’t sound like the usual ding-dong three-chord changes or four-chord changes—“moon June swoon, I love you, my baby left me,” and all that shit—they said they didn’t know why something became popular when it wasn’t supposed to be popular. And I think it’s this whole thing of cause and effect, where something profound strikes the dormant profundity in people. It’s dormant most of the time, but some of the time it wakes up a little bit, you know?
CB: And do you think that in times like now, when a stressful situation exists for many people, that it awakens that quality that you are describing?
WS: Yeah. Or somebody might call it your spiritual enlightenment beginning to take definite form—the path of enlightenment. Your wisdom has been waiting to grow. The potential is there, but it is waiting to burst through all these layers of bullshit. But you need the bullshit in order to grow! (laughs)
And there’s a great example of that: the lotus flower. The lotus flower only thrives in a swampy area, in jungles, in murky water. And when the flower blooms, the murky water around it becomes clear. So the murky water equates to the world that we live in—the spice and all that—and when enlightenment happens, the clarity starts. There have been many examples of that, and then it gets covered up and starts again, and covered up. And more people wake up to their eternal potential.
I’m not spinning a tale right now, but I guess in music we try to do that without having that kind of philosophical base. I hadn’t had that until I arrived at investigating it at age forty [when Wayne began to study Buddhism]. You know, “What in the hell is all this for? What is music for? What is anything for?” And sometimes we discussed that in other words. And those album titles, and the music that we did in Weather Report, were what you might call an instance of transcending business as usual, and having the music become interior decoration rather than just decorative stuff to reminisce with.
CB: Well, the fact that they’re putting this album out again thirty years later means that you had some success in that regard, right?
WS: Yeah. But in relation to the creators and their families, the heirs of the people—I’m not talking about anything financial—but something greater than music can grow out of that thirty years later. Music can be kind of like a flashlight into this unknown. (laughs)
But anyways, Tale Spinnin’, I don’t know how you can put this, but we were telling stories, a lot of stories. And the guys in the recording room, in the studio, were bringing their version of folk tales and ghost stories, and all that stuff. Incidents that are not mysterious or ghostly, but something akin to small miracles—very interesting anecdotes. And you try to, as Miles Davis said, (imitating Miles) “You know all those stories you talk about? Try to play that.”
CB: Joe always talked about how he was a storyteller.
WS: Well, Joe and I spoke a lot about things, and he and I talked about how his family got started. And when Jaco came on the scene, Jaco would add things to it. Peter Erskine had things to say. Alphonso [Johnson] had stores to tell us; not just stories, but things that really happened. And we would kind of polish off a recording session with that kind of thing simmering at the completion of the record. That kind of stuff would be simmering. No conversation, no words. That idea that nothing is wasted in life. Good or bad, negative or positive. Nothing is really wasted. Everything goes somewhere to become fertilizer for something else.
Rest In Peace, Wayne. Thanks for the music, your words, your being.