Wayne Shorter, "The Newark Flash," Recalls His Formative Years in the Ironbound and Beyond

Apr 20, 2017

Growing up in the Ironbound District of Newark, New Jersey, Wayne Shorter savored almost nothing more than the suggestion of a daring escape. “When we got our bicycles, we would go down to the marshes, where Newark Airport is now, and ride the bikes a little bit into the soft earth, and in those tall weeds,” he said. “We’d go as far as we can — like, dare each other: 'How far can you go?'”

At 83, Shorter is one of the most revered creative musicians of our age: A saxophonist, composer and bandleader of incalculable influence; an NEA Jazz Master and 10-time Grammy winner; recipient of the 2017 Polar Music Prize. You might say that an intrepid, boundless urge — How far can you go? — has been an aesthetic constant in his work, which continues at a breathless pace.

Credit ROBERT ASHCROFT / Courtesy of the Artist

When Shorter is asked to reflect on his life, the conversation usually revolves around the breadth of his achievements and the caliber of his associations.

He doesn’t often field specific requests to reminisce about Newark, where he grew up on the southwest edge of the Ironbound: “One block from Pennsylvania, where the railroad trestle crossed South ­Street, going downtown and on into New York.”

But heading into a festival of his music at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, Shorter recalled his formative years with enthusiasm, in mostly fond and vivid terms. His Newark, he said, “was a place that conjured up a lot of imagination.”

Shorter’s family was blue-collar but creative: His father was a welder at a Singer sewing-machine factory, and his mother worked for a furrier. Wayne and his older brother, Alan, were encouraged to daydream. “In the inner sanctum of the Shorter household,” wrote Michelle Mercer in her 2004 biography, Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter, “Wayne’s imagination flourished until it took on flamboyant forms and an almost absurd magnitude.”

That characterization rings true even in Shorter’s telling. “There was a vacant lot next to our house,” he said. “The kids in the neighborhood, some of us almost religiously played in that lot. That lot became like an ocean, a savannah, the plains. Or Mars, or something like that. There was a horse-drawn milk wagon, and that became a space craft, or a B-17 bomber during World War II.”

Shorter also remembers dashing past the factory archways on Oliver Street, and leaping from rooftop to rooftop with the other kids. But his most powerful recollections involve the movies and radio shows that he eagerly devoured, along with comic books and science fiction.

Two of his favorite radio serials were Lights Out, which trafficked in supernatural horror, and The Mysterious Traveler, which opened with the whoosh and clack of a train pulling into a station, and a note of welcoming intrigue: “This is the Mysterious Traveler, inviting you to join me on another journey into the realm of the strange and the terrifying.” (Shorter later paid homage with his title track to a 1974 album by Weather Report.) 

Shorter chuckled as he mimicked the announcer’s plummy formality, and the Foley effect meant to evoke the train. Summing up his childhood in general terms, he said: “I was kind of like the odd man out. I was looking for what other people did not look for.”

At age 12, Shorter won a citywide art contest — a distinction that led to his first mention in a newspaper, the Newark Star-Ledger. More consequentially, his honor prompted a teacher to recommend that Shorter apply to Arts High School, the first of its kind in the country. He enrolled there as a budding visual artist, with no intention of pursuing music.

“I walked to school,” Shorter recalled, “and often found myself walking past the school, going around the corner to where the Adams Theater was, to go see a movie and a stage play. I would skip some classes, but not the whole day: I went into the school building when I knew it was time for a certain class.” 

Shorter forged doctor’s notes and parental excuses, fooling no one. One day during his sophomore year, the vice principal called him and his parents in for a conference. Asked where he’d been going when he played hooky, Shorter told the truth. He found himself sentenced to an inspired form of detention: an introductory music theory class, taught by a conscientious educator named Achilles D’Amico.

On one of Shorter’s first days in this class, D’Amico declared that music was going to go in three directions, brandishing three records to illustrate the point. “The first record he held up was a record by Yma Sumac, the singer from Peru,” Shorter recalled. “The second record he held up was The Rite of Spring: Igor Stravinsky. The third one he held up was by Charlie Parker.”

Bebop was already a blooming obsession for Shorter. Newark happened to be the home of Savoy Records, and the Adams Theater was a regular stop for Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, among others. Shorter had been taking private clarinet lessons, and he soon picked up a tenor saxophone. Along with his brother and a few other local players, he joined a combo that strained in earnest toward a boppish ideal.

Dizzy Gillespie
Credit William Gottlieb / Library of Congress

The front man of this band was a charismatic football star named Jackie Bland, who didn’t play an instrument. “But he would dress up like Dizzy Gillespie, with the leopard-skin jacket, a French beret and horn-rimmed glasses,” Shorter said. “We had him stand in front of the group and wave his hand like Dizzy Gillespie. People remember it as the Jackie Bland Band – no, it’s not his band. We called it The Group.”

Among the core priorities for The Group was a certain attitude — the renegade bohemian sensibility that the cultural historian Eric Lott persuasively pegged as “bebop’s politics of style.” Shorter remembers taking pride in his wrinkled clothes and outré behavior. He and his brother occasionally performed with a newspaper propped up in place of sheet music, “like we’re reading the news and playing music at the same time.”

This all probably had some bearing on the assessment that Amiri Baraka famously rendered in his book Black Music, about “the two ‘weird’ Shorter brothers that people mentioned occasionally, usually as a metaphorical reference: ‘…as weird as Wayne.’”

Shorter, who painted the epithet “Mr. Weird” on his saxophone case, obviously took that reputation in stride. “We did crazy stuff,” he said. “We’d play these dances at the YMCA, and maybe 10 people would come, trying to dance to this kind of stuff. Alan would bring his horn in a shopping bag, an alto, and he’d play with his gloves on. We’d play a dance on Saturday night wearing galoshes when it wasn’t raining. We would say that’s what bebop was about.”

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Shorter had another impactful brush with music pedagogy at Arts High School, courtesy of a music theory teacher named Isabella Prepara, who would do things like play an interval at the piano, and ask the students to identify it.

“We had a final exam in her class,” Shorter recalled, “and she said: ‘When you finish the exam, if you get up to leave, you can’t sit back down.’ There were a hundred questions on this exam. When I finished, I jumped up, and I saw everyone else was still sitting down.” Unnerved, he felt he must have done something wrong.

“And then she said, ‘Wait a minute. Class, look up.’ And she held the paper up, and said: ‘This is a perfect exam. I want you to think about this.’ When I walked out of the class, it was a whole life-changing something going on, with no name. I can’t name it. But it was like —” Shorter hummed a sort of low, buzzing drone, like one of the chants heard in his Nichiren Buddhist meditative practice. 

Shorter earned a degree in music education from New York University, playing around Newark and New York City all the while. His startling proficiency earned him his sobriquet, “The Newark Flash.”

His career took off in earnest after a stint in the Army: Almost any serious jazz fan can rattle off his highlight reel, which includes a formidable stint with Art Blakey & the Jazz Messengers, an indelible tenure in the Miles Davis Quintet, and the blazing comet trail of Weather Report. Then of course, there are his epochal Blue Note albums of the 1960s, including JuJu and Speak No Evil.

There have also been special honors and occasions, like a 2015 collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, which formed the subject of an episode of Jazz Night in America. 

Shorter’s fiercely intuitive quartet — with Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and Brian Blade on drums — has been a working unit for the better part of 20 years. The quartet will perform at NJPAC on Sunday with a special guest: pianist Herbie Hancock, who has been one of Shorter’s closest compatriots since their time with Davis.

This week’s series also includes a performance of “Universe,” a concerto that Shorter composed for Davis, as carried out by trumpeter Wallace Roney (Thursday night); “Weather Report and Beyond Reimagined,” featuring saxophonist Joe Lovano, keyboardist Rachel Z and others (Saturday night); and a bass duo featuring Esperanza Spalding and Christian McBride (Sunday afternoon).

Shorter remembers an insight he had during the height of his forays to the Adams Theater.  “I saw Jimmy Lunceford’s band, Duke Ellington Band, Count Basie,” he said. “Dizzy and Stan Kenton’s band together, on one bill. And I noticed that the theater was not crowded. There were people there, but it was only sold out when you had rhythm and blues and pop: Bull Moose Jackson, Larry Darnell, Ruth Brown.”

Here was the insight: “This is gonna be a loooong battle, trying to get people in this city interested in something different, going beyond the familiar.”

In one sense, then, Shorter has outlasted his own prognostication: He’ll play to a full house on Sunday night, and few in attendance seem likely to balk at how far he’s prepared to go.