Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter
Michelle Mercer
(Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin; New York)

Wayne Shorter                                                         Wayne Shorter Collection

an excerpt from:
Chapter 2: Bop Fiend: "As Weird As Wayne"

1949, Newark, New Jersey. 16-year-old Wayne has recently begun playing the tenor saxophone and has joined a bebop group called the Jackie Bland Band, which includes his brother Alan Shorter.

While the Jackie Bland Band gradually gained a grasp on bebop music, they wasted no time emulating the flashy style and hipster slang of the beboppers across the river in New York City, to the amusement and scorn of their classmates. Even in the late 40s, big band swing music was still overwhelmingly popular in Newark, and a local dance band, the Nat Phipps Orchestra, drew in the big crowds. Every night, Wayne and Alan would practice bebop charts for hours, until they couldn’t see straight. When they finally took a break, they’d indulge in their other favorite pastime: mocking the Nat Phipps Orchestra. After months of rehearsal, the most disparaging insult they’d produced was “Pretty Boy Band.” Nat Phipps was of West Indian ancestry and an impressive-looking young man, but their “Pretty Boy” slam was aimed at Phipps’ swing music, which sounded ornamental to them, like music gift-wrapped for society, for someone’s grandparents, or other “comfort-zoners,” as Wayne said.

The Shorters had good reason to be jealous of Nat’s group. “Over in the Terrace Room, when their band played, it’d be packed, with 200 or 300 people,” Wayne said. “They’d be playing ‘Harlem Nocturne,’ ‘Good Night Irene,’ ‘The Tennessee Waltz,’ or ‘An American in Paris.’ The Gene Kelly kind of stuff, but they’d play it so that you could dance to it, with some tempo. That’s what the girls liked. And they had the girlfriends. The girls would compete to carry their horns. It’s always about the girls, I don’t care what anyone says.“

The Jackie Bland Band was decidedly less popular than the orchestra. It wasn’t that Newark’s teenagers disliked bebop’s rhythms or melodies. Bebop’s critical flaw was that it flew in the face of music’s social function. “I’d go to a party and put ‘Two Bass Hit’ on,” Wayne said. “And somebody’d come along and you’d hear shhhhhtt—the sound of an LP being ripped off a record player. They’d put on Larry Darnell, Ruth Brown, you know, Meet a Girl music, a Get Close and Dance track. And they’d start arguing about it. ‘Keep it simple, now. Take that progressive stuff out of here.’ And that’s when I knew we were going to have a long way to go with this music.”

Alan and Wayne were discordant in more than their musical tastes. “The Shorters were always set apart,” Nat Phipps said. “Their attire was different. We might be dressed for a party, casual, but they’d come in looking like undertakers, in dark suits with three or four buttons. They’d be there, but not really mix. They’d be pulled off to side.” Alan and Wayne communicated in bebop-inflected, confidential way that could be as abstract as twin language. “They’d do a lot of sounds and grins and they’d be pointin’ and stuff,” Amiri Baraka said. “Almost like they didn’t want to say too much, didn’t want to let too much of themselves out free. They talked but they weren’t like ‘savage conversationalists.’ It was mostly gestures and signification. And if you were in, if you were used to talking with them, they had a certain notoriety.” Baraka also said the phrase “As Weird as Wayne” was bandied about to connote something especially “out”; Wayne was so determinedly eccentric that he inspired not a nickname but a simile for weirdness.

The Shorters reveled in their social estrangement: Wayne painted “Mr. Weird” on his horn case; Alan put “Doc Strange” on his. They embraced their band’s marginal status after hearing bebop demonized by radio DJs, who excluded it from their playlists. They resolved to make the same “chaotic” and “disturbed” music that Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Bud Powell were making across the river. “We’d play at the YMCA and we’d make like $1.50,” Wayne said. “There’d be 10 people there. And even they’d go home—saying you can’t dance to this bebop. We were a poor band, so poor we had the drummer walking across town with the naked drum set. We’d be walking along, somebody’s carrying the front of the bass and somebody’s got the back.” Wayne mocked his youthful idealism: “‘But we’re dedicated,’ we’d say proudly, raising our fists in the air. ‘We’re dedicated and we’re modern. We take chances.’”

Jackie Bland’s band went through some growing pains as it learned to balance bebop’s style and substance. “Jackie couldn’t play one note, but he acted like Dizzy Gillespie,” Wayne said. “So we got him to stand up front, wearing a leopard skin coat and horn-rimmed glasses; he had a goatee and he wore a beret like Dizzy. There were no trumpet players in Newark, or no section anyway. So when the trumpet players were supposed to go “BAM!” on “Manteca,” Jackie would sing “Wah.” I said ‘Hey man, what’s he doin?’ So we took our saxophone mouthpieces off and played those in place of the trumpets.”

Mr. Lamar, Wayne’s music teacher at the YMCA, noticed the rivalry between the orchestra and the bebop band, and began to stage battles of the bands between the two groups. These battles played out like teen parodies of the culture at large, mirroring the shift from swing to bebop that was happening in jazz. The face-offs unvaryingly resulted in victory for the swing band, but the young bebop group did gain some notice for its obstinate modernism, if not appreciation for its music. The battles drew such large crowds that Mr. Lamar decided to stage a more formal contest at the Masonic Temple on Belmont Avenue. Its downtown location attracted a broader audience, including townspeople as well as students.

Both bands rose to the occasion and exploited the new location, staging dramatic spectacles and playing as if their lives depended on it. Up on the balcony, Nat Phipps’ guys were models of upright composure. “We had just scored a gig opening for Nat King Cole,” Nat said. “So with the help of our parents we bought uniforms, and we were sharp.” In their powder-blue pants and rust-red coats, the Orchestra strove for the debonair style of the Cab Calloway or Duke Ellington Orchestras, though their synchronized horn sweeps and finger snaps were executed with such military precision that Duke or Cab would have swung the little soldiers offstage in two beats. They attracted a garland of admiring girls with waltzes and upbeat dance tunes like “Little Brown Jug” and Count Basie’s “Jumpin’ at the Woodside.”

The Shorters’ group arrived carrying their horns in shopping bags, having deliberately left their “bourgeois” horn cases at home. The underdogs set up below the orchestra down on the floor. Unlike the dance band, the beboppers played by ear. To flaunt that talent, the Shorters unfolded copies of The Daily News and placed them on their music stands in lieu of sheet music—also emphasizing the point that their sound was so fresh, it was taken from the day’s headlines. “Earlier that day we moistened our suits and crumpled them up so they’d be wrinkled, for that devil-may-care effect. We thought bop players had to look that way,“ Wayne remembered. “We even wore galoshes—and you know it wasn’t rainin’ outside.” Alan enhanced the zany effect of his attire by donning a dandy’s white and gray kid gloves—he put them on one finger at a time, with exaggerated slowness. Finally, the musicians perched themselves on backwards-facing folding chairs and began to play.

However cultivated the beboppers’ outré appearance may have been, their music was genuinely avant-garde compared to the swinging danceability of the big band. And there was no question whose talent commanded the band: Wayne’s solos were good, preternaturally so. “That group had more of Wayne’s influence than the leader’s,” Nat said. “Jackie waved the baton, but the little tenor saxophonist in the band was its strength.” Wayne was the Sy Oliver to Jackie’s Jimmie Lunceford, who was then the epitome of the charming non-musician big band leader.

After each group had played once, Mr. Lamar, in the guise of Master of Ceremonies, took the first vote. He pointed up to the balcony, and the crowd registered some heavy appreciation for Nat Phipps and Co. Mr. Lamar gestured towards the boppers down on the floor, and the applause was not as strong, but still respectable. As the night wore on, the big band’s extensively arranged swing music began to seem somehow cumbersome compared to the nimble quickness and flash of the Bland Band’s bebop. “We were surprising ourselves, and I think other people were surprised that we could play when we looked like we did, like freaks,” Wayne said.

By the third vote, the beboppers earned the loudest applause. Mr. Lamar promptly ended the contest and declared Wayne’s group the night’s winner. This decision was not without controversy. “We’d always won before, and it seemed a little funny to end right at that moment, but I guess it was their turn to win, ” Nat said. Mr. Lamar’s suspiciously abrupt conclusion of the contest was no doubt motivated by sentimental pride—the Shorters were now blazing through Dizzy Gillespie charts he’d heard them struggling with only months before.

Winning the contest gave Wayne a profile on the local scene, and his growing skill on his horn gave him the opportunity to make a little money playing private parties. A few months later Wayne got a job at a club in Elizabeth, New Jersey, just a few miles from Newark. His father drove him to the gig and dropped him off. Wayne went inside, took out his horn and warmed up, making small talk with the other musicians and checking out the club’s clientele, which was largely working class Polish-American—Wayne recognized some of his father’s co-workers in the crowd with their women.

Wayne felt peculiar about the room, and it was only after the band started to play that he realized why. He was the only black man there, onstage or off. So he wasn’t too surprised when a drunken man stumbled over in front of the band and singled him out. “Play that horn!” he said, in a voice that was slurred, but forceful enough to seem menacing. Wayne fixed his gaze down on the floor and played his horn, improvising on the tune as well as he could. Meanwhile, some frenetic poetry played on inside his head. I’ve had a lucky star over me, he thought, but now here’s the first confrontation. What the hell is going to come out of his mouth next? Where’s that goddamn lucky star now? The sky is cloudy out there! What time is this gig over? As the set ended, the drunk yelled even louder. “Do you know ‘How Deep is The Ocean?’” he bellowed, and then went back to the bar. Wayne knew about the gangsters who would call out for big hits, greasing their requests with big bills for musicians. But this heckler’s sense of entitlement was more intimidating—it was subsidized only by liquid courage. Wayne walked over to the bass player as coolly as he could and said, “If this is going to be one of those things where I’m going to have to fight my way out of here, I don’t dig it.” Word traveled back to the drunk that the “colored musician” was uncomfortable with “prejudiced talk.” The heckler hurried over to reassure Wayne. “You know what,” he said. “I don’t care if you’re fuckin’ pin-striped. I just want to hear a little horn. I like the saxophone.”

Wayne was relieved. In truth, the drunk may have singled him out because he was in fact the only black man in the club. Still, his flattering comment introduced Wayne to the possibility that talent alone might make him conspicuous. “It was like an artificial burden just went away,” he remembered later, and then joked: “And that's when I started saying ‘pin-striped’ instead of ‘negro.’”

Back in Newark, the racial balance was overwhelmingly in Wayne’s favor at Lloyd’s Manor, a jazz club above a bowling alley where musicians knocked around ideas at weekly cutting contests. In American Pastoral, Newark native Philip Roth depicted Lloyd’s Manor as a “place where few whites other than a musician’s reckless Desdemona would venture,” a club where white teenagers’ parents claimed they’d be “stabbed to death by a colored guy ‘high on reefer,’ whatever that meant.”

For Wayne, Lloyd’s Manor was simply the place to hear Manhattan’s best jazz musicians, who made guest appearances there on Monday nights. Just before Wayne graduated from high school, Sonny Stitt had a gig at Lloyd’s. In 1951, Stitt was a top bebop alto saxophonist—though he was prickly on the matter of his musical resemblance to Bird, whose pioneering flights cast shadows of insecurity over all saxophonists at the time. Stitt invited Herbie Morgan, a young local saxophonist, to join him for the show. Morgan had developed a reputation as someone to watch and Stitt meant to salvage the young talent from the wrong side of the river and spirit him over to Manhattan’s sanctuary of high bop. To heighten the show’s drama, Sonny decided to invite another young tenor saxophonist onstage. Someone recommended Wayne for the gig. Despite his mother’s repeated warnings to “stay away from that Lloyd’s Manor,” and notwithstanding his technical limitations—he could only play in three keys at the time: C, B Flat, and G—Wayne decided it was an opportunity he just couldn’t pass up.

Sonny Stitt was already there when Wayne arrived. “You ready, you ready?” Sonny asked. “Sonny always talked fast and said everything twice,” Wayne remembered. They went onstage and Sonny called a tune in the key of E-flat—not one of the keys Wayne had mastered. “He played the blues, all through the keys. I was struggling but I was thinking okay, I’m here, and I’ve got to play.”

Nat Phipps was at Lloyd’s Manor that night. “Wayne was always a very youthful looking person, and at that time he looked like he was twelve. He was quiet. Not shy, but retiring. So this unassuming kid came up and started playing, and then fifteen minutes later the house was crazy. The other players wanted to fade away.” Amiri Baraka heard Wayne at many cutting contests. “Wayne was precocious,” Baraka wrote. “I heard many pretty astounding things he was doing at seventeen and eighteen. Even then, when he couldn’t do anything else, he could still make you gasp at sheer technical infallibility.”

When they finished playing, Sonny excitedly pulled Wayne aside. “You want to come on the road with me, you want to go on the road?” he asked. Wayne explained that he would soon graduate from high school and wanted to go to college. Sonny replied so quickly that Wayne almost couldn’t understand him. “Shit, you got to get your education.” He only said that once.

He’s been playing so fast and talking so fast that he don’t know which is which, Wayne thought. He’s playing fast but it’s still Charlie Parker. It’s still Bird you hear echoed in every note. Maybe Sonny wants to enhance himself with two younger players. Working with Stitt would have been the next best thing to playing with Bird—a prestigious offer for an unknown 17-year-old from New Jersey. But as much as Wayne was enthralled by his hero’s style, he wanted to go to college and study composition; he wanted to create something original for himself.

In Wayne’s junior and senior years at Newark Arts High School, his absences were reduced from the 30 days of his sophomore year to a reasonable total of four days for the final two years. The music classes had succeeded in reforming the young cinephile and stage show zealot of his truancy. He earned straight As in harmony, theory, orchestration and band and was awarded the Sozio Music Award at his high school graduation, in 1951. That year the Newark Arts High School yearbook featured a “1001 Arabian Nights” theme. In an extravagantly mythic tone, the yearbook chronicled the “Tale of the Realm known as the School of The Arts.” Though the yearbook’s style was naïve and overwrought, the caption for Wayne’s senior photo hit just the right pitch. It was an uncanny divination:

In Wayne’s future could be seen a tour of the U.S. and Europe, possibly with a band. His esoteric expressions often escaped his listeners, but his musical ability spoke for itself, he also being a “bop fiend.”

Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter

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