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Wayne Shorter, Legendary Jazz Composer and Saxophonist, Dies at 89

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A man in a beige jacket holds a saxophone on stage, backlit
Wayne Shorter performs Miles David Tribute at L'Olympia on July 18, 2011 in Paris, France.  (David Wolff - Patrick/Getty Images)

Wayne Shorter, whose colorful compositional style and searching improvisations on the tenor saxophone altered the direction of jazz, died in Los Angeles on Thursday. He was 89 years old.

Known for his time performing in the Miles Davis Quintet, Weather Report and Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, Shorter was a commanding presence on stage and on record. But it was his compositions, such as his trademark tune “Footprints,” which pulled jazz into new realms.

Born in New Jersey, Shorter began making a noticeable mark on jazz in the 1960s, when he joined Blakey’s group. After the dissolution of Davis’ “first great quintet” with John Coltrane, Shorter joined the enigmatic trumpeter in 1964, the same year he recorded a trio of classic albums — Speak No Evil, Juju and Night Dreamer.

Wayne Shorter’s 1964 album ‘Speak No Evil,’ which featured his first wife, Teruko Nakagami, on the cover. (Blue Note Records)

Playing alongside Davis, as well as bassist Ron Carter, drummer Tony Williams and pianist Herbie Hancock, Shorter was able to bring his intellectual confidence and philosophical background to jazz’s most high-profile group.

This manifested not just in his flowery playing but his writing, with more angular tunes like “E.S.P.,” “Nefertiti,” and “Footprints.” While others left Davis when he went in new directions with early-fusion albums like Bitches Brew, Shorter stayed on for the ride.

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In the 1970s, Shorter joined Weather Report, the groundbreaking electric fusion band, with Joe Zawinul and Jaco Pastorius. He also collaborated with rock icons like Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, playing on recording like Mingus and Aja.

Age did not thwart Shorter’s imagination. In his late 60s, he formed a quartet with pianist Danilo Perez, bassist John Patitucci and drummer Brian Blade that pushed the borders of jazz yet again, winning a Grammy Award for Best Instrumental Jazz album in 2005.

During 15 years away from the studio, Shorter stayed busy, collaborating with the bassist Esperanza Spalding and performing at numerous tributes, including an 80th birthday celebration that filled the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles. At 85, Shorter released the massive undertaking Emanon, a three-disc set that also won a Grammy Award.

In his own spiritual life, Shorter was devoted to Nichiren Buddhism. In 2013, speaking with NPR, Shorter gave advice drawn from the religion: “Put 100 percent into the moment that you’re in, because the present moment is the only time when you can change the past and the future.”

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