Less than a month after Miles Davis died, one of the closest associates Wayne Shorter spoke with JAZZ FORUM to share his impressions and reminiscences of the great artist. Shorter was probably one of the last musicians to talk with Miles.
The interview, which took place at Warsaw’s Marriott Hotel, focused on Miles, his collaboration and relationship with the saxophonist and Shorter’s views on music and America, in general. In what is possibly this conversation’s high point, Shorter also recalls in detail the memorable reunion concert in Paris and Miles’ final performance at the Hollywood Bowl on August 25.
JAZZ FORUM: I interviewed George Coleman earlier this year and I’m interested to have your thoughts on what he said about leaving the Miles Davis group. He said he found it very difficult to stay with Herbie, Tony and Ron because they seemed to be trying to put him down in a sense… The reason was possibly his approach to the music. Maybe they found him “old-fashioned” in a way?
Wayner Shorter: I don’t know. Herbie, Ron and Tony never said anything negative about George Coleman. They were coming back from Japan at that time and Miles Davis’ manager then, Jack Whitemore, called me: “You wanna go with Miles? Miles doesn’t have a saxophone player. You wanna go with him? He’s in Los Angeles. He’s over at the Hollywood Bowl. If you accept you will fly out there first class. You gotta tuxedo? [laughs] And I said: “Yeah,” because Miles asked me more than once to join his band. Herbie had an apartment from Johnny Griffin’s ex-wife. We all rehearsed there and any time any conversation came up about me being in the band after George, no-one jumped in and said anything about why George was not there. But I did feel that at the time when anyone started to compare the saxophone players that played with Miles, George or John Coltrane or Sonny Stitt or me — Herbie, Ron and Tony would not let them get to the point of critical comparison. They would stop them and say, “Everybody’s different.” They were being very protective in a natural sort of way. They wouldn’t let anyone throw stones at their associates.
JF: I suppose Miles liked your compositions which encouraged him to drop standards from his repertoire.
WS: When I was playing with Art Blakey, Miles was coming to Birdland, and he watched us playing and Lee Morgan used to lean over to me and say, “Miles is watching you,” and he said, “He’s listening to you.” Miles was listening to the compositions that I wrote with Art Blakey too, and one time he called me to come to his house. He had a grand piano, and he asked me to play something I wrote, so I played The Children of the Night. Then I went on to something else. And then he called me and said [whispers imitating Miles], “Play that first one again.” I think he had it in his mind to explore a bit.
JF: I like your “Footprints” very much [a bluesy tune in 3/4]. How did you compose it?
WS: Well, at that time I think I was thinking about Africa, because before Footprints I wrote a song called African (and I pronounced it “Africane,” like ane). Horace Silver published it for me.
JF: Was it about the time you recorded “Ju Ju?”
WS: Yeah. In 1962, I think. So African, Ju Ju and Footprints are sort of related. I was thinking of something primitive in a sense and it just came very easily.
JF: In 1968 you started to play soprano. Was it Miles’ idea to use it in his electric music?
WS: No. I woke up one morning and I said: “I want a soprano saxophone,” and I went to the music store and got one. I wanted to go back to this feeling when I first played the clarinet. Now I have a Yamaha, which is a compromise between the feeling of playing a tenor and an alto and a soprano saxophone; it has a little curved neck. So now I might say I have been playing the soprano and tenor almost equally…for the last three years.
JF: The last record you did with Miles was “Bitches Brew.” Why did you leave then?
WS: Well, I had a time limit for myself in a sense. “Five years with a band — like with Art Blakey — that’s enough.” With Miles it was a little more than five years… Miles was saying [whispers]: “Don’t you think it’s time for you to get your own band?” And I had so many ideas, and the music was coming out like water and everything, and I said, “Yeah. I think it’s time. I think it’s really time,” and then we got Weather Report together.
JF: But it was a co-operative group so to speak. Didn’t you think about being a leader of your own group?
WS: Yes, I did. Jack Whitemore, Miles Davis’ manager, called around to the club owners in the United States, to see how they would react to having the “Wayne Shorter Quartet.” They wouldn’t say yes and they wouldn’t say no. They said, “Yes, we would like Wayne Shorter to come to the jazz workshop,” but if an agent calls and says, “Dizzy Gillespie’s free that week…” — they’re gonna get the well-known established musicians, to build that club up. He said if a club owner wanted to experiment with new talent they would have to have the kind of cash flow that would afford them to do that. The groups that were hot then were Miles, Dizzy, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Chico Hamilton and people like that, so you’d have to maybe get some work when everyone else was working, if there was an opening. Or a big hit record.
JF: Did Miles ever talk about Weather Report?
WS: Well, there were some songs written for Miles that we were playing extemporaneously and we thought, “Miles would be good on this.”
JF: Which compositions?
WS: There are some things that are not released yet. We could hear Miles doing things in there. But then again before we started Weather Report, we all had a chance to be with Miles. Miles was an inspiration for us to form Weather Report. Also Cannonball was an inspiration — Joe was coming from Cannonball’s group. Also Miroslav played with Miles a short time. He was inspired by the history of Miles and all that — Paul Chambers and everything. Me, the same thing; I was inspired by the piano players that he had, Coltrane, J.J. Johnson, Hank Mobley and Sonny Stitt. The approach to the piano that Bill Evans had, the orchestration implications he was doing, also gave inspiration to how the overall sound of Weather Report would move and this is all connected with Stravinsky and Bartok — it’s many people: opera too. A lot of the classic composers — Chopin. Beethoven, Stravinsky they had the spirit of what jazz means, you know. [sings] It doesn’t have to be syncopation but… Beethoven was syncopating in some places! The word “jazz” to me means “creative music.” Also the extended meaning means really no category. But I know when you’re talking to little children, you’re trying to teach music and this and that and you say, “We want you to learn this,” and you have to give this a name, so that the child will take dictation correctly and not get referred to the wrong material, you know what I mean? But people who make money they jump on that — without even knowing it. They have to put things in boxes and the real value takes a beating.
JF: What did the word “jazz” mean for Miles? At one point he denied that he was playing jazz.
WS:Yeah, I know, I think he was also saying that he denied that he was playing what people were selling — what they were trying to make jazz be for them so that they can sell something mediocre. If something’s too good they didn’t support it, so I think Miles was probably using reverse psychology [whispers] “…Support this. This is not jazz but it’s still jazz.” [laughs]
JF: You stayed with Miles longer than any other musician. What was he for you — teacher, father, master, idol…?
WS: He was a good friend. He was like a buddy and he was like an older brother. He was like eight years older than me — something like that. He had been through some things that I had not been through, but that I didn’t have to go through. He respected that I didn’t try to emulate in some dark corners of my life what Charlie Parker or somebody did; like go on to heroin or something. He was a good person to be around. He wanted to be around colorful people too. So you can see — like when a band stayed together long, there was a good feeling both ways.
To sum up Miles, I like to call him right now an original Batman. He was a crusader for justice and for value. He’d be Miles Dewey Davis III by day, the son of Dr. Davis, and at night in the nightclubs he’s in his lizard skin suits with the dark shades and he’s doing his Batman-fighting for truth and justice. But Batman had to be a dual personality too, like he knew the criminal mind. So Miles, whatever he did that was not criminal but like short-tempered or he cursed everybody out, and when he was younger he’d hit somebody, or like they say Miles treated some woman really bad, or something like that… I would say that Bruce Wayne, the guy that played Batman, he was capable of doing that too, that’s why he was such a good Batman. [laughs] That’s what they say about the Judge of the Supreme Court Justice. If he did do something, sexual harassment or immoral acts or something like that or verbalize, or whatever. Like they say, it is best to have someone in the Supreme Court who knows what the devil is like and what the angels are like. [laughs] A pure person does not know what defenses to use against the vampire!
JF: Jackie McLean told me Miles and him used to go to watch boxing together and also that they used to box together themselves. Did you also box with him?
WS: I didn’t go in the ring but I went to the gym with him and the trainer took me in front of a mirror and he was teaching me what he was teaching Miles and it was amazing. And then when he’d finished in the gym — we were there all day, they ate grapefruit and I was eating grapefruit as if I was training too, [laughs] so then I really felt like Miles was like a buddy…
Stan Getz said that to me before he died. I used to go see him. We had dinner, my wife and all had dinner at his house and he was taking treatments with ginger on hot towels — soaked in ginger; steam from like a juicerator and wrap it around our bodies and he would help clean out his insides and he asked me to do it too… Then he said — while we were relaxing and the heat was going through: “Now I got me a buddy.” Because I’ve been knowing Stan Getz since he was about maybe 18, seeing him on and off, but mostly I saw him before he passed away. So I think Miles felt that with both of us, with Tony and Herbie and all… buddies, friends… whatever.
JF: Did you ever discuss the subject of God with Miles?
WS: He never talked with me about it. He talked with my wife about religion, I think. In fact she spoke with him about it at the hospital. He started it, though. What they said I don’t know by the way…
JF: You played with Miles at that memorable concert in Paris. Can you tell me what it was like?
WS: Well, I think they are going to make a record from it so you could say the last record I made with Miles was in 1991. There were at least 16 or 17 musicians. Herbie, Chick Corea, John McLaughlin, John Scofield (plus Gil Evans’ group) and everything, so we all made the last record with Miles in 1991 doing Paris and Montreux. Unless Miles did something else after that.
JF: Miles played “Dig,” a Jackie McLean tune which they recorded together 40 years ago… How did he play it in Paris 1991?
WS: He played in the same style as when Dig was recorded. In fact, Miles had a piece of paper with all of the songs on it and he said, “You can play what you want. You can play on any number of songs you want to play on.” And that’s when I noticed Miles was standing up from about 12 o’clock to about 4 o’clock during the sound check. He sat down sometimes but I was saying, “When is he going to rest?! He’s gotta play tonight too.” And then he stood up all through the performance on stage. He had some steps, but he would not sit down. And when I went back to Los Angeles I was surprised to hear he was going to perform at the Hollywood Bowl because our tour was over. We were out eight weeks — Miles must have been out there even longer. I know that the bass player Darryl Jones who used to work with Miles said something to the effect that Miles was driven when he was there. He said, “He wanted us to keep going to work,” and he said, “All the young guys, they were tired.”
JF: Do you think Miles was pleased with that concert?
WS: I don’t know. Right after, Danny Glover the actor and all those people backstage all grabbed Miles… It seemed like he was not really focusing on the music, because we had a sound check which lasted from 12:00 to about 3:30 or 4:00 and then we all went to the hotel and we changed quickly and we came back around 6:00 or something like that, and then everything started around 7 or 8 and then Miles came on later. In other words this seems like it was an all-day affair. During the sound check from 12:00 to 3:30 we were sitting around — all of us: John McLaughlin, John Scofield, Chick — with Miles. We had chairs off the stage near the dressing room area which is still an open kind of an outside-inside structure, and we were sitting around having like a round-table discussion about different things. Now and then Miles would ask someone if they wanted to play this or that or something, but mainly, musical conversation seemed to dissipate and move onto something else. We all started to talk about different things. Some people were talking about business, and myself and Joe Zawinul and other people, we were sort of anticipating that this may be a time for anyone not to talk about business.
Joe Zawinul and I played In a Silent Way with Miles and then later on I played Footprints with Miles. Chick Corea was on keyboard.
Miles seemed like he was having a party because I heard that Miles did say something about having a dream. He dreamed about Gil Evans. This was told to me by some people who did talk with Miles, I don’t know who the people were, my mind goes a blank — but in the dream… you know how when people talk to you in dreams, they actually sometimes don’t talk, but it was indicated in the dream — Gil was telling Miles to get together with all the people who he worked with — the ones who were living. I suppose it was a setting for him to be with his, friends one more time.
I spoke with Gil Evans before he died on the telephone and we were talking about life — we didn’t talk about music at all — and he was telling me how he realized something. He didn’t know he was going to pass away, but he said he realized something and then maybe two or three weeks later he died in Mexico. That really hurt Miles. So I’m not surprised that Miles had a very profound dream about Gil Evans.
JF:Miles never looked back. He used to say that if you want to stay young you can’t go back. But in Paris he did. Don’t you think that this was a sign that he maybe knew something about what was ahead?
WS: I think he was seeing something about maybe the reality of life which takes precedence over profession. I think that maybe he was finding that that is a way of bringing you to the great realization of what life is about. And when you come to the end of that road there’s really no words to express it. So I think the closest thing Miles could do to expressing what he was feeling, was to get together with all of the people who were still alive. But Miles was never one to talk much about his motives.
JF:Did you realize he was so ill?
WS: I saw Miles on my birthday August 25 and my wife gave me a surprise birthday party at a restaurant in Los Angeles. We went to the Hollywood Bowl that evening to see Miles. We all went together, Joni Mitchell, my wife, Jimmy Rowles, some actors and a lot of people. We hugged each other and then he wanted to talk with me in his dressing room, all alone, just Miles, my wife and me. We talked very straight, it was warm, very warm. It was a kind of conversation that would benefit Americans in America who seem to have a tough time with recognizing the real long-term activity that has blossomed throughout the history of their culture and has been ignored. It’s been almost deliberately ignored, or deliberately made to be ignored, by tempting people with something I call a “take-out” culture. You know: fast food culture; order your food to go, order your clothes to go, or stay home and you have the fast culture delivered to your house — like pizza, television, situation comedy, MTV (I call it rock’n’roll rejects). I mean you really have to weed through rock’n’roll to really find something sincere, meaningful, valuable, artistic. And the same thing with going to a department store, or buying a car in America. So it’s no surprise that there’s a lot of trouble with the recession that’s happening in America. It’s part of this instant-gratification-disease in America, which has been allowed to run rampant, go wild. And you know, somebody’s not gratified about something, you take a gun and go shoot 22 people. That’s happened many times in American history.
I remember somebody got up on a water tower and started shooting people seven years ago. And then you have these serial killers and these demented tortured people who they’re finding out that they’ve been this way since childhood or been becoming that way. A lot of it is family neglect and also that the mothers and fathers want instant gratification with their lives. I guess maybe the United States may have one of the largest domestic adoption agencies. So what Miles talked with me about in the dressing room… led me to think about all those other things. It was a short conversation and it sticks with me, and sometimes when I do interviews in America I will reveal a little bit about the conversation but only the part that I think Miles really wanted me to reveal.
JF: It seems very strange that he should choose this occasion — your birthday — to have such a serious discussion.
WS: Right. And then when I went to my seat he played… because Miles entered the stage before and by the time I got to my seat he was playing Happy Birthday to me… I think they were playing an introduction to one of Miles’ current pieces of music. There was a contemporary harmony and something that was repeated. Then he superimposed over the harmony Happy Birthday — and gave Happy Birthday another life. He started playing it as soon as I walked to my seat (it’s a large place) and I walked down the aisle, and as soon as I got to my seat he started playing Happy Birthday. It was evening, it was sort of dark, but they had the floodlights on. Miles was always very aware of the dimensions of an area where he was playing. He knew how to find people very quickly.
At that time, on the 25th when I talked with him in his room I had no idea that he was that ill, but I did notice how frail he was. He had lost so much weight from the time I saw him in Paris in July when we played together. He had lost so much weight between July the 10th and August the 25th. Just enough to make it too much. But still he had a sort of an illumination around his skin, his face and everything: there was slight illumination emanating from within him — from within to without, and I could see there was something different. He looked very smooth, I can almost say like going back to a baby. I think at that point — as I think back retrospectively — it could be that he had turned the corner already between life and death, and was starting to go back to another beginning.
I had once experienced something similar before. There was a writer I knew, he gave a big party for himself because he knew he only had about a month to live: he had cancer. His name was Conrad Silvert and he was a very sensitive art and music critic and he died at the age of 34. He gave a big sort of “bash” and invited musicians like Sonny Rollins, Toshiko Akiyoshi, Lew Tabackin, Wynton Marsalis, Herbie Hancock, myself, Tony Williams and Sheila was there with her father and uncle. There were a lot of people there at the Opera House in San Francisco. Also some people walked on the stage when we were playing. Carlos Santana walked in and played. And this gentleman, Conrad Silvert, had a similar type of glow which came from within. After that — I will call it like a “fiesta” he gave for himself and the others. Maybe about three weeks later he died.
One thing Miles did say to me in the dressing room at the Hollywood Bowl: he was saying: “You play different. You’re playing different now.” He said [whispers], “You don’t play a lot of that [sings in whisper] Blblblbl stuff, anymore,” and I said, “No,” because when we played Footprints together he was facing me. I took a solo and he looked up at me like this [gesture]… It was very clear. I don’t know how it happened. I was just looking at Miles, and I started playing it. I hadn’t played with him in over 20 years and everything just went by itself.
But when I saw Miles in the dressing room and he talked about how I was playing, my mind went right back to Paris when we played Footprints together. Without saying it I got from him there was some progress, a lot of progress.
Anyway Miles talked with me on the phone maybe seven years ago and he said he liked that band that we had with Herbie, Ron and Tony. He said [whispers] “We covered a lot of ground, didn’t we?” [laughs]