Wayne Shorter was born in Newark, New Jersey, United States, and attended Newark Arts High School, from which he graduated in 1952. He loved music, being encouraged by his father to take up the clarinet as a teenager; his older brother Alan played alto saxophone before switching to the trumpet in college. While in high school Wayne also performed with the Nat Phipps Band in Newark, NJ. After graduating from New York University with a degree in music education in 1956, Shorter spent two years in the U.S. Army, during which time he played briefly with Horace Silver. After his discharge, he played with Maynard Ferguson. In his youth, Shorter had acquired the nickname “Mr. Gone”, which later became an album title for Weather Report.
His early influences include Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, and Coleman Hawkins. In 1959, Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers where he stayed for four years, and eventually became the band’s musical director. Together they toured the US, Japan, and Europe, recorded several recognized albums and he also composed pieces for the band. During this time Shorter “established himself as one of the most gifted of the young saxophonists” and received international acknowledgment.
Herbie Hancock said of Shorter’s tenure in Davis’s Second Great Quintet: “The master writer to me, in that group, was Wayne Shorter. He still is a master. Wayne was one of the few people who brought music to Miles that didn’t get changed.” Davis said, “Wayne is a real composer. He writes scores, writes the parts for everybody just as he wants them to sound. … Wayne also brought in a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules. If they didn’t work, then he broke them, but with musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste.”
Ian Carr, the musician, and Rough Guide author, states that with Davis, Shorter found his own voice as a player and composer. “Blakey’s hard-driving, straight-ahead rhythms had brought out the muscularity in Shorter’s tenor playing, but the greater freedom of the Davis rhythm-section allowed him to explore new emotional and technical dimensions.”
Shorter remained in Davis’s band after the breakup of the quintet in 1968, playing on early jazz fusion recordings including In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew (both 1969). His last live dates and studio recordings with Davis were in 1970.
Until 1968, he played tenor saxophone exclusively. The final album on which he played tenor in the regular sequence of Davis albums was Filles de Kilimanjaro. In 1969, he played the soprano saxophone on the Davis album In a Silent Way and on his own Super Nova (recorded with then-current Davis sidemen Chick Corea and John McLaughlin). When performing live with Davis, and on recordings from summer 1969 to early spring 1970, he played both soprano and tenor saxophones; by the early 1970s, however, he chiefly played soprano.