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Wayne Shorter, Explained

By Michael Vincent on March 6, 2023

Wayne Shorter
(Album cover: Wayne Shorter, Odyssey of Iska/1970)

Wayne Shorter, the legendary saxophonist, composer, and bandleader, died on March 2, 2023, at 89.

He was one of his generation’s most innovative and influential musicians, and his contributions to jazz music will be remembered for generations to come.

What made him so special?

  • Modal Jazz: Shorter was one of the primary architects of the “modal jazz” sound, which eschewed traditional chord progressions in favour of using modes, or scales, as the basis for improvisation.
  • Harmonic Complexity: Shorter’s compositions and improvisations were characterized by their complex harmonies and unexpected chord changes.
  • Structural Experimentation: Shorter was also known for his structural experimentation, which included using unusual song forms, non-standard time signatures, and other unconventional approaches to composition and improvisation.
  • Jazz Fusion: In the 1970s, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, which helped pioneer the jazz fusion genre.

The Miles Davis and Art Blakey years

One of the most significant periods in Shorter’s career was his Miles Davis period. He played on some of Davis’s most iconic albums of the 1960s, including “E.S.P.,” “Miles Smiles,” and “Nefertiti.”

Shorter’s compositions, such as “Footprints” and “E.S.P.,” became instant classics and are still widely performed and recorded today.

In the 1950s and ’60s, Shorter also joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, helping establish the group as one of the most important and influential ensembles in jazz history.

Contributions to classical music

While Shorter is primarily known for his contributions to jazz music, he has also written some classical music. One notable example is his “Concerto for Saxophone and Orchestra,” which he composed in 1995 and premiered with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1996.

Essential listening

Click here for a playlist of Shorter’s most impactful music via Apple Music.


  • Shorter originally started out as a clarinet player before switching to the saxophone.
  • He studied music at New York University and was a classmate of pianist Herbie Hancock.
  • Shorter’s composition “Footprints” has been covered by countless jazz musicians and has become a jazz standard.
  • Shorter is also a visual artist and has exhibited his paintings and drawings in galleries worldwide.
  • Shorter and his wife Ana Maria provided Tina Turner with critical refuge at their home for six months after Turner left her abusive husband, Ike Turner, in 1976

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