The pioneering American jazz musician Wayne Shorter, a longtime practitioner of Nichiren Buddhism and a member of Soka Gakkai International, who was renowned for his legendary musical collaborations with artists such as Miles Davis, Herbie Hancock, Joni Mitchell, and Carlos Santana, and as co-founder of the jazz fusion band Weather Report, died on Thursday in Los Angeles. He was 89 years old.
In a statement published on 2 March, Shorter’s record label Blue Note announced:
Visionary composer, saxophonist, visual artist, devout Buddhist, devoted husband, father, and grandfather Wayne Shorter has passed away at age 89, departing the earth as we know it and embarking on a new journey as part of his extraordinary life. Shorter was surrounded by his loving family in Los Angeles at the time of his transition.(Blue Note)
Born in Newark, New Jersey, in 1933, Shorter rose to prominence in 1959 as a precocious 26-year-old tenor saxophonist. Over a career that spanned 60 years, Shorter was credited with shaping much of 20th century jazz music, becoming a 12-time Grammy award winner, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2015.
Shorter was a pivotal figure in three landmark jazz groups of the 20th century: the Jazz Messengers, led by drummer Art Blakey; the second incarnation of Miles Davis’s quintet in the mid to late 1960s; and the legendary fusion group Weather Report, which Shorter cofounded in 1970.
“His music possessed a spirit that came from somewhere way, way beyond and made this world a much better place,” said Blue Note’s president, Don Was. “Likewise, his warmth and wisdom enriched the lives of everyone who knew him. Thankfully, the work he left behind will stay with us forever. Our hearts go out to [his wife] Carolina and all who loved him.” (Blue Note)
Shorter’s Nichiren Buddhist practice, which he adopted in the 1970s, infused his approach to making music. In a 2021 interview, he noted: “Years ago, record companies would sign somebody and if the music was . . . let’s say difficult to market, they became resistant to that creative stuff. They went for sellable stuff. And guys would cuss them out. In Buddhism, it says, ‘An airplane needs resistance to take off.’ To me, that means each person has to become aware of the resistance that’s in front of them.” (JazzTimes)
Nichiren is a Japanese school of Mahayana Buddhism based on the teachings of the 13th-century Japanese Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222–1282), with an emphasis on the innate Buddha-nature of all living beings, and a focus on the Lotus Sutra as the means for practitioners to attain enlightenment.
After his conversion to Buddhism, which he practiced Nichiren Buddhism for more than 50 years as a member of Soka Gakkai International, commentators noted that Shorter’s musical approach evolved to become more focused on human interaction and the human condition. This Buddhist infusion into his life and his art is illustrated in this excerpt from Shorter’s biography by Michelle Mercer:
“At this point I’m looking to express eternity in composition,” he says. “I’m striving to open up those people who aren’t used to thinking in those terms.” It’s a Buddhist thing. But in his practice he also seeks enlightenment through earthly desires, and that keeps him real. Backstage before a 2002 show, Wayne preformed his daily ritual chant, reciting the Lotus Sutra and “Nam-myoho-renge-kyo” with deep deliberation. When Danilo Perez thought Wayne was safely immersed in the chanting, he tiptoed into the front of his bandleader’s dressing room and rummaged around for the wine supply. Wayne always has the good stuff. Sensing the intrusion, Wayne finished his chanting. He slipped like mercury into the other room, grabbed the bottle of wine from Danilo, and knocked back a quick “shot” of merlot. He punched the wall a couple of times—in tribute to Miles’s love for boxing, he said—and then walked out onstage doing a James Cagney impression.
Mercer, Michelle. 2004. Footprints: The Life and Music of Wayne Shorter. New York City: Tarcher.
Wayne Shorter (1933–2023) (Blue Note)
Wayne Shorter: Other Worlds (JazzTimes)
A Conversation with Wayne Shorter, Jazz’s Patron Bodhisattva (CapitalBop)
Related news reports from BDG
Fo Guang Shan Founder and Leading Light of Humanistic Buddhism Ven. Hsing Yun Dies Aged 97
Revered Sakya Master Luding Khenchen Rinpoche Dies Aged 91
Gaden Trisur Rizong Rinpoche, the 102nd Ganden Tripa, Dies Aged 94
Renowned Filmmaker and Student of Buddhism Suresh Jindal Dies Aged 80
Revered Senior Lama Drikung Lho Ontul Rinpoche Dies Aged 72
Anti-Myanmar Junta Buddhist Monk Sayadaw Ashin Arriyawuntha Biwunsa Dies in Exile Aged 71
Japanese-Business-Leader-Turned-Buddhist-Priest Kazuo Inamori Dies Aged 90
Korean Seon Teacher and American Buddhism Pioneer Ven. Samu Sunim Dies, Aged 81