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Footprints

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Mike Zwerin writes about Wayne and the "Footprints" biography in todays IHT. I thought the article might be of interest.

Shorter punches his way free

Mike Zwerin

Wednesday, February 9, 2005

PARIS In "Footprints," Michelle Mercer's important new biography of Wayne Shorter, she describes Carlos Santana's first take on her subject. "I didn't have words or facility to talk to him. It's the same thing with Wayne or Miles or Coltrane. You don't just stroll up and say, 'Hey man.' If you're sensitive in your heart and have some dignity, you don't approach them like that. So I admired him from a distance."

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"Like Herbie, Miles, Duke or Bird," Mercer writes, "Wayne has one-name-only status." She refers to the principals in her story by their first names or nicknames. This nominal informality is in fact the sensitive way to approach writing about jazz; it is one example of what sets jazz apart from so-called "serious" music. There is at least the fiction that it is family. It helps her set the right style for her task.

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Shorter can certainly seem distant. His voice is quiet and introspective, his ideas abstract. There is at times the uneasy feeling that a level is escaping you. Mercer holds that Shorter belongs in the elite line of jazz greats not only because of his compositional and instrumental importance, but also for the depth of his intelligence.

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Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Shorter has played with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers, Miles Davis, Weather Report, Milton Nascimento, Santana, Joni Mitchell and Steely Dan, plus a multitude of his own groups. A Buddhist, he has been known to answer the question, "Do you know what time it is?" with an essay about eternity.

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Shorter tends to speak in parables. He will ask his band to play "some stem-cell research music." He learned that sort of thing from Davis, who once told him to play like Humphrey Bogart throwing a punch. Shorter sees a lot of movies and reads a lot of books.

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Listening to him play the saxophone is a bit like watching a film by Eric Rohmer. His body language is introverted, his sound is soft and engulfing and he will never honk or screech without a good reason. You need to interact with, more than listen to, Shorter. Mercer writes that he has "produced one of jazz's great oeuvres, crowding out the likes of Ellington and Coltrane for space in the fake book, the collection of standards that is required study for most jazz students."

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"Music is like a piece of clay," Shorter once said. "You get inside it, make a cubbyhole and then punch your way out."

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Shorter wrote a composition called "Syzygy," a word he found by coincidence in a dictionary, meaning a straight-line configuration of three celestial bodies, like the sun, moon and earth in an eclipse. Shorter's wife, Carolina, said that he "wrote it while watching television the whole time. He likes to see what is directing people's minds."

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Shorter told Mercer, "When your wisdom is developed, anything and everything is a ways and means of creating something valuable." "Syzygy" was first performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as part of its Millennium Jazz Celebration.

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In December 1965, the Miles Davis quintet - Shorter was Coltrane's replacement - played a historic engagement at the Plugged Nickel club in Chicago. The rhythm section was young: Herbie Hancock, piano; Ron Carter, bass, and Tony Williams, drums. They had already worked together, but Davis had been sick, and now that he was ready to go, they realized that they were tired of playing hits like "So What" and "My Funny Valentine" the same old way every time. Williams suggested a solution: "What if we play anti-music? Like, whatever somebody expects you to play, that's the last thing you play?" On the seven-CD box, "Live at the Plugged Nickel," you can hear how the looseness of the form and the importance of the silences, and Shorter, would change the future of the music.

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In the early 1970s, Shorter co-founded Weather Report with the keyboardist and fellow composer Joe Zawinul. Although it was only a jazz-rock fusion band, they wanted to change the song form. Why did a song have to have eight bar phrases? Why not more or less? "We were talking about doing music that had mountains and streams and valleys and going over hill and dale," Shorter told Mercer. "We were trying to do music with another grammar, where you don't resolve something, like writing a letter where you don't use capitals."

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His return to acoustic music was big news in the 1990s. Mercer says that the scene has gotten to the point where "Wayne isn't just on the scene. He is the scene." Once he was rehearsing his composition "Water Babies," and his musicians wanted to know how he planned to establish the tune's tempo after its loose rubato intro. "Let's not set it," Shorter said. "We'd rather go for elusiveness than clarification."

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Decided to revisit this for some reason (I'm not being vague - there is some reason).

JohnJ - thanks for not letting the 1/19/05 posting be a thread-killer!

Youmustbe - your comment about Ana Maria Shorter is grotesque and tasteless. Regardless of how you feel about Wayne, Jarrett, Mercer, Wynton Marsalis, and all those poor saps who need to take viagra, it is totally uncalled for.

Bertrand.

Edited by bertrand

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An essay by Michelle Mercer, interview w/Wayne Shorter aired on NPR's All Things Considered this week.

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4520032

This book continues to get a great deal of press, perhaps since it was directed to a more general audience.

This brings up a question, for me anyway. Which books have done a good job introducing jazz to the uninitiated?

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You're asking us, "Which are the best jazz books for the uninitiated?"

Many of us simply cannot think that far back.

You might directly address those newbies who just recently got into jazz for answers about a good primer for their introduction.

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OK, I just borrowed Footprints from the University of Maryland music library (along with a few other things), so I will sit down and start reading this cover to cover after this crazy work week is through (expect a 'co-workers from hell' thread any day now). I have a two-month loan period, and I can renew things, so I have time to read it now. Might as well put my $40 a year alumni association fee to good use. I already pretty much skimmed through most of this at Barnes and Noble while my son was playing with Thomas the tank engine.

By the way, if anyone has comments (in addition to Mike's), please mention them on this thread. My understanding is that anything posted here may eventually lead to a correction in the forthcoming paeprback edition. By the same token, since I have been told there will be a paperback with corrections, I'll wait until that edition is out before parting with my hard-earned money.

Bertrand.

Edited by bertrand

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Tried to order this book today and it is proving difficult, anyone know if there is UK distributer yet

Che.

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I'm up to 1966 or so, and as a "personality study", it's proving to be a much better read than I had expected, keeping in mind that it's just one person's take on the subject.

As a "real" biography, it's lacking, to put it mildly, but it's a more "fresh" book than the cut-and-paste Zawinul bio. My only real problem is the use of unattributed "re-creations". The most glaring one so far is the account of how the band went into the Plugged Nickel in December, 1965 hell-bent, at Tony's instigation, on creating "anti-music", that is, music which had as its goal the most extreme defiance of any and all expectations by players and listeners alike. This on the heels of feeling a bit of creative stagnation setting in after returning to the Miles gig after several months layoff.

Helluva good story, makes sense, feels real too, but it's not really attributed to anybody. I guess I'm supposed to assume that this is information glommed from Wayne, but how do I do that? If it's good information, why create the opening for doubting it? And if it's not good information, fuck it.

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Anyway, I've always understood both Keith and Wayne wanting to go beyond just Jazz.  Keith went into Classical music, basically failed, had a nervous breakdown, and lo and behold, found that he could get the same thing, at even more money, $125,000 a concert now, recycling standards in a Jazz context to non Jazz fans, which makes up only slightly, for the envy he feels toward Wynton, which ruins his every waking hour.

$125,000!!!?? Is he playing stadiums? Where'd you get that figure?

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(His wife dying in the TWA crash and his  collecting all the insurance money, helped, especially with the hot new chick).

your post is ugly, vicious and malicious. and, last but not least, inaccurate! interesting that you don't even know what you're talking about!

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(His wife dying in the TWA crash and his  collecting all the insurance money, helped, especially with the hot new chick).

your post is ugly, vicious and malicious. and, last but not least, inaccurate! interesting that you don't even know what you're talking about!

Care to tell us a bit more?

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youmustbe's comments are malicious and best ignored.

As for the criticism of Mercer's unattributed "re-creations": it's called literature, or narrative nonfiction. We know she interviewed the living members of the Miles Quintet--Herbie, Wayne and Ron--as they're quoted elsewhere in the book. We can assume she pieced together their accounts of those nights at the Plugged Nickel, supplementing this material with information previously published on the dates. Jodie Christian is quoted as an audience member so we know he gave her his account as well. Additionally, if she did her job right (and there is every indication she did) she visited the space in Chicago that once held the Plugged Nickel and also researched the Old Town scene at that time.

If Mercer had quoted all her sources, it would have detracted from the narrative flow and made for a boilerplate bio.

Here's a quote from the introduction to The Art of Fact, an anthology of literary journalism:

"After-the-fact quotes, sound bites from the interview room, are antiliterary. They take the reader away from the moment in question to some vague and indeterminate present in which the quote is uttered . . . and they take away from the writing the deep-down appeal of once-upon-a-time storytelling. compare: 'I knew I had to get out of there,' said firefighter Ken Jones , with Jones knew he had to get out of there . The first is the boilerplate; the second a cobblestone in the road to art."

Mercer's knows something about storytelling. She only quotes her sources when they say something characteristic, profound, or juicy. Her account of the Live At the Plugged Nickel dates is vivid and highly readable. She chronicles the dramatic invention of that great quintet in a way few other writers have. Since Wayne and Herbie both read and vetted the book, it's safe to assume it's also accurate.

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You seem to have a full-time job here as the Michelle Mercer apologist - would you care to make your connection/identity known?

"If she did her job right (and there is every indication that she did)" - oh please, hardly. This book was put together in a couple of years and it shows.

Mike

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Since Wayne and Herbie both read and vetted the book, it's safe to assume it's also accurate.

It's not safe to make such an assumption. The vetting only means that these guys weren't displeased with anything that was in the bio.

Guy

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youmustbe's comments are malicious and best ignored. 

As for the criticism of Mercer's unattributed "re-creations": it's called literature, or narrative nonfiction.  We know she interviewed the living members of the Miles Quintet--Herbie, Wayne and Ron--as they're quoted elsewhere in the book.  We can assume she pieced together their accounts of those nights at the Plugged Nickel, supplementing this material with information previously published on the dates.  Jodie Christian is quoted as an audience member so we know he gave her his account as well.  Additionally, if she did her job right (and there is every indication she did) she visited the space in Chicago that once held the Plugged Nickel and also researched the Old Town scene at that time. 

If Mercer had quoted all her sources, it would have detracted from the narrative flow and made for a boilerplate bio. 

Here's a quote from the introduction to The Art of Fact, an anthology of literary journalism:

"After-the-fact quotes, sound bites from the interview room, are antiliterary.  They take the reader away from the moment in question to some vague and indeterminate present in which the quote is uttered . . . and they take away from the writing the deep-down appeal of once-upon-a-time storytelling.  compare:  'I knew I had to get out of there,' said firefighter Ken Jones , with  Jones knew he had to get out of there .  The first is the boilerplate; the second a cobblestone in the road to art."

Mercer's knows something about storytelling. She only quotes her sources when they say something characteristic, profound, or juicy.  Her account of the Live At the Plugged Nickel dates is vivid and highly readable.  She chronicles the dramatic invention of that great quintet in a way few other writers have.  Since Wayne and Herbie both read and vetted the book, it's safe to assume it's also accurate.

This entire post is amateurish and embarrassing.

Wayne is one artist I admire greatly from the last 45 years of the music, but you do him no favors.

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I'll go Guy one further - just because Wayne and Herbie wrote intros doesn't necessarily mean they read the book!

In this case, I suspect at least Wayne did, but remember Miles on 60 minutes when asked about a specific anecdote in the autobiograhy? He said he hadn't read it that far yet.

Bertrand.

Edited by bertrand

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I suppose, then, there's no chance of engagement here on the issue of how techniques of narrative nonfiction were used in the construction of this book?

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I'm totally comfortable with the use of the technique when used "neatly", but the formulation of the "anti-music" angle of the Plugged Nickel and beyong band ain't so neat. It's attributed to a direct quote from Tony Williams, in 1965, which seems a bit much, unless the author was present at the time, which is a scenario I seriously doubt. (And that's not the only use of such license being taken.)

I mean, it's a good story, and I've no reason whatesoever to doubt the gist it, but why not just frame it as a quote from the source? You know, something like, "Tony said, "blahblahblah", and we all thought, "yeah!"" or something like that. That keeps the drama and the narrative flow intact as well as having a helluva lot more credibility from the standpoint of historical accuracy, which I should think matters at least a little in a biography.

Some people who read books actually care about stuff like this. Hard to believe, ain't it!

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Just finished reading this, and it was better than I had expected, at least in terms of deliniating Wayne as a person. Serious musical analysis is severly lacking, as is an "objective" perspective (Shorter's tendency to lapse into seemingly narcissistic pronouncements - which seem to stem in equal parts from his take on Buhddism and his accrued "Miles Royalty" trip - go unchallenged and unexamined), but if and when somebody decides to do a Porter-ish/Fitzgerald-Cohan-ish comprehemsive biography of Shorter, there will be much to draw on in these pages. Previously stated quibbles about style and content remain, but not discouragingly so. It's a good read.

For what it is, recommended.

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Upping this for my own convenience.

Bertrand.

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The most glaring one so far is the account of how the band went into the Plugged Nickel in December, 1965 hell-bent, at Tony's instigation, on creating "anti-music", that is, music which had as its goal the most extreme defiance of any and all expectations by players and listeners alike. This on the heels of feeling a bit of creative stagnation setting in after returning to the Miles gig after several months layoff.

I'm a little dubious about the actions/statement attributed to Tony. At the very least, I'm guessing that it is being either taken out of context, embellished after the fact, and/or exaggerated in importance. The Plugged Nickel music wasn't a radical break with Miles's earlier music -- it was a very natural progression from what the Quintet was playing in 1964.

Guy

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It's been awhile since I read Footprints, but I found Mercer's research and writing style to be a bit shallow.

Her attempt to compare the output of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter to that of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn is laughable, not only did the latter pair put out a great deal more music but it has also made much greater impact.

The funniest thing was the bungled description of the musicians backstage following the San Francisco Jazz at the Opera House concert, issued as a 2 LP set by Columbia. Lew Tabackin and Jaco Pastorious, standing on either side of Charlie Haden, are listed as "unknown" and Denny Zeitlin, standing behind Toshiko Akiyoshi, is listed as Lew Tabackin. If Mercer owned a copy of this record, she would have known this, but all it took was to send a JPEG of the photo to a few jazz journalists and broadcasters and she would have had this information.

Like I said, it's been quite awhile since I read it. At least it was far better than Sharony Andrews Green's rotten bio of Grant Green.

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Rumor has it that a paperback release of Footprints is scheduled for February 2007. Corrections (based in large part on entries to this thread) and an inventory of Wayne's compositions are to be added to this edition.

:blink::blink::blink:

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