RIP Wayne Shorter: A tribute and final conversation with the jazz pioneer

By LeRoy Downs

Wayne Shorter performs on stage at North Sea Jazz Festival in Den Haag, Netherlands on July 12 1988. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns. Photo by Paul Bergen/Redferns.

Almost a year ago to the day of Wayne Shorter’s death at 89 years old, KCRW DJ (and resident Jazz Cat) LeRoy Downs spoke with the pioneering saxophonist and jazz legend. The two were joined by Esperanza Spalding, who tapped Shorter as her collaborator through her Odyssean journey staging a new opera taking on the Greek myth of Iphigenia. While the show was in town for a brief engagement at The Broad Stage last year, the pair connected with Downs for an expansive conversation about how they came to know each other, their respective and shared approaches to creativity, and the way the culture of mythology has managed to remain present even in modern life.

We’re publishing the audio from that conversation for the first time, alongside the below tribute penned by Downs reflecting on Shorter’s overwhelming impact on both the world of jazz and the world at large. 


Wayne, in a word, epitomizes the ultimate search and seek for new discovery in music. Everyone whose feet touch the ground has certainly been influenced in some way by the great mind of Wayne Shorter. The world through Wayne’s eyes is a kaleidoscope of never-ending adventure and an exploration into the great galaxies of possibility, space, time, dimension, invention, existing in parallel universes. From the youngest of ages, Wayne Shorter not only composed beauty but shaped his imagination into melody, and each note was a character in animation that rose off the page and came to life.

Musicians that have played with him and in his bands have always been in awe of the genius that lay within. Symphonies of sound lie at the core of his vast imagination, and he transcribed those cinematic visions into the compositions that we cherish and which have continued to be the fabric from which our very lives emanate. 

From a career that spanned over six decades — certainly through the entirety of my life, and the life of many a young musician carving a path towards their sound, signature, and purpose on this planet — has bloomed the influence of composition, tone, relevance, space, choice, and simpatico with others that grace the stage, all relished by the shining example of Shorter.

Wayne is an individual that respects your intelligence. He dares you to be bold, of course, but he also does not give you the answer, because he is wise enough to know that the answers to all of our inquiries lie within. You can hear it in his phrasing. The way he plays gives you only part of the solution. Whether on stage or out there in the audience, as you listen, his sound is like a jigsaw puzzle, laying out a path that always takes you to where the road splits. You have to use your own intuitive nature to finish the journey, and those answers already exist inside you. Once you make your choice, a new branch of cognition is born, a new synapse fired, and the birth of a whole new beauty begins. In the end, you always find yourself in new places, and that existence, that place, was not an answer given to you — you were guided to new plateaus that you reached, activated and motivated by a Wayne Shorter breadcrumb.

I remember a story about Lee Morgan seeing Wayne onstage at a festival and dragging him over to where Art Blakey was playing. He basically told Blakey, “This is the dude,” and the next thing you know, a new blossom was formed. Wayne was not merely a member in all of the bands he was in; he was the glittering spark of gold that elevated each musical situation that he encountered — a sound maker, a money maker, a jewel to be treasured.

A 12-time Grammy winning artist, the last of which was just won a month ago for Best Improvised Jazz Performance on an album called Live At The Detroit Jazz Festival, which was produced by Terri Lyne Carrington and featured Esperanza Spalding and Leo Genovese. To tell the truth, Wayne’s entire life has been an improvised solo, supported by all of the musicians who surround him. This family of sous chefs know each other impeccably and work together to create an environment of trust and openness, allowing a natural flow of beauty and creativity.

As a man who lives and breathes Beyond the Sound Barrier, I think that, “In a Silent Way,” Shorter is a “Night Dreamer” and watches the earth from different perspectives, journeys into “Orbits” unknown with his “All Seeing Eye.” He “Speak No Evil” while researching the “Schizophrenia” of “Super Novas” and the Odyssey of Iska. Like a Native Dancer on New Soil, “The Soothsayer” of the “Second Genesis” discovers the Power of Three on a “Joy Ryder” to “Atlantis.” In the “Wayning Moments” of A Galactic Age, through the “Infant Eyes” of the “Children of the Night,” he realizes the Alegria does not reside in the “High Life” but starts, Ho-nim-yo, from this moment forward!

Master of the Musical Universe, we will miss your presence here on Earth but, your beauty, your passion, your cinematic philosophy vibrates and lives within us and now and forever!

Rest in Peace Maestro, we will continue your Power!

Love to Carolina,

—LeRoy Downs

LeRoy Downs with Wayne Shorter and his band following a Walt Disney Concert Hall show,  July 2011. (L to R: Brian Blade, LeRoy Downs, Wayne Shorter, Robert Hurst, and Danilo Perez) Photo courtesy of LeRoy Downs.