This story is written in celebration of Wayne Shorter's 83rd birthday on August 25.
The A Train
On a sunny New York morning 4 years and 4 months ago today, I took the A train from my Washington Heights apartment in the direction of the United Nations Headquarters on the Upper East Side to make it on time for my rehearsal with a dream band for the first ever performance of the International Jazz Day (April 30, 2012). I will never forget the feeling I was experiencing on the train: A mixture of anxiety and extreme happiness coupled with 15-year-old flashbacks of my bedroom in Beirut where daydreams of moments like this (way less than this in fact) would intercept my practice. At Times Square I transferred to the 7 train which crossed Manhattan to the east side. I got off the train and walked towards the UN on East 42nd street, showed my ID and got handed my artist badge. When I finally found my way into the Assembly Hall, I found Danilo Perez, Richard Bona and Joe Lovano in quasi-rehearsal waiting for Jack DeJohnette to arrive. My rehearsal was coming up next and I was supposed to be playing John Coltrane's "India" with Wayne Shorter on soprano sax, Richard Bona on bass, Zakir Hussein on tabla, Troy Roberts on tenor sax, Tineke Postma on alto sax and Vinnie Coliauta on drums. Notice that I said "I was supposed to be playing" cause at that moment, I was still seriously doubting this was really happening. While rehearsal time was getting closer and nerves were getting lighter, I spot Thelonious Monk Institute's Leonard Brown whom I met a couple of years earlier at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC at the Institute's 25th anniversary so we sat down and chatted about various things including how unbelievably awesome this hall was being filled with such radiating musicians. Few moments later, DeJohnette showed up and exchanged warm greetings with his fellows as he hadn't seen some of them in so many years. There was so much emotions on that day anyway and me sitting there looking at Jack DeJohnette's face glittered up after seeing his buddies from the old days and joking about how old they had become and how it had been 20 years since this and that was a scene I would never have thought to experience, let alone in this setting and in less than one year after moving from Beirut to New York.
On the seat to my right, there was Wayne Shorter conversing, if I remember clearly, with the late George Duke and my friend Kyle Poole. I finally broke into the conversation to introduce myself while I was rapidly thinking of a way to start an interesting conversation with him because this was a golden chance to get an up-close sneak peek into his fabulous mind. For those who don't know, Wayne Shorter has a mystique figure in the jazz world and is very famous for his playful wisdom and his intricate way of looking at life and music. When asked questions during interviews, Wayne usually answered in what seemed abstract and unrelated to the original question causing an effect of a delayed enlightenment, a phenomenon crucial to Zen Buddhism. Almost everybody reported that Wayne's answers were mysteriously understood at a later point, be it in minutes, hours or days. This was best expressed in the words of Herbie Hancock, in the foreword of Michelle Mercer’s book “Footprints: The Life and Work of Wayne Shorter”:
With this in mind, how could I not want to have a piece of that experience myself especially that the universe has placed me on the seat to his left?
What's my horoscope?
So here I went introducing myself, he asked where I’m from and I told him. Now it was my chance to trigger a conversation and I had many options to choose from. Wayne is known to have significant interest in planets, comics and superheroes, but before I started with any of these topics I remembered that I have heard somewhere that Wayne had the amazing ability to tell people’s horoscopes by just spending few moments with them. Not just horoscopes in fact, but he can pin down the exact date of birth. As I said, Wayne has this mystique figure so stories like this were easily circulated between jazz musicians. Somebody told me this and I have probably passed it on to other people myself. I figured that would be the best thing to ask as it would work well both ways: if it were true, I would get the chance to experience the magic of him guessing my date of birth; if it were false, the myth would be busted but he would know that these kinds of stories were circulating and maybe he’d like that.
So I asked him: “I heard you have the ability to pin down the horoscopes of people after spending few moments with them, is that true?”
“Where did you hear that?” he asked.
Meanwhile, Perez, Bona, DeJohnette and Lovano were vamping Monk’s “Think of One” which was arranged by Perez in 5/4 (if I remember correctly) and it was so much fun to watch them learn the arrangement by trial and error without looking at the charts.
Even though I do remember that a trumpet player who had played with Wayne told me this in 2009 during a tour, I looked back at Wayne and told him that I wasn’t sure who told me this, just in case Mr. A would like to remain anonymous. Regardless, Wayne’s reaction suggested that Mr. A’s story wasn’t true but even so, it was a cool thing for Wayne to hear about himself. After all, comics and superheroes were his passion so what was not to like about a jazz saxophonist who has the super power of guessing people’s hour of birth just by studying their character for few moments. This is a great power that could be used to fight evil and make the world a better place and therefore it could make a great comic.
Indeed, the fact that this story turned out to be a rumor was disappointing for both of us but it allowed me to see a distinctive spark inside his eyes and to experience a sense of imagination building up around the idea of the “what if I or you or whoever could”.
To be honest, I truly believed that he had this ability, partly because I believe in the limitless potential of human beings and partly because I trusted the source of information.
I decided to give it another chance; what if he had the power and didn’t want to uncover it because he was in the “Clark Kent” mode?
I asked him to give it a shot and try to guess my horoscope. I already knew that we were both Virgos so there was slightly more probability that he would guess it right. In general, people with similar horoscopes have similar traits so the more shared traits and the more time they spend together, guessing would become more imminent but in my case with Wayne, there were barely 5 minutes of conversation so him knowing my month of birth by studying my behavior would have been much less likely.
While I was waiting for his response, he gave me this gaze which felt like he was telling me something beyond the sound barrier.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Tarek”, I answered.
He said, “No, what’s your name?”
I didn’t expect that I’d be witnessing Wayne’s Zen-hood so fast but here it was happening and I was looking forward to an enlightening experience.
He said “your parents called you Tarek, but what’s your real name?” My name is not Wayne” he continued, “Nobody here knows his real name”.
He turned to the other side and started asking everybody what their names were and consequently started inducing grains of self-realization into our minds. No doubt, his question functioned as a koan and I immediately wondered if there were people out there whose real names were the same as their chosen-by-parents’ names and if so, they would be the luckiest people on this planet.
I suddenly started thinking about Elvin Jones. In fact, it was a fraction of a micro-second between my thought shifting from John Coltrane to Elvin Jones.
John Coltrane was born in the first day of Libra, had he been born a day earlier, he would have been a Virgo too. In astrology, people born on the last days of a horoscope share traits with the succeeding one and people born on the first days of a horoscope share traits with the preceding one. So John Coltrane is a Virgo in a way, at least to me he is.
But why did my thoughts shift in such a microscopic frame of time from Coltrane to Jones? It’s true that Elvin Jones’ drumming is integral to Coltrane’s music as well as Wayne Shorter’s. “Night Dreamer”, “Juju” and “Speak No Evil” wouldn’t have been what they are without the polyrhythmic machine of Elvin Jones but the way he came to my mind wasn’t related to music, it was related to something else. It was as if Wayne was taking his “Clark Kent” mode seriously and didn’t want to uncover his Superman in the middle of a Jazz Day rehearsal so he tricked me to think of Elvin Jones and I knew the answer will come later, just like the interviewer said.
It was finally our turn to rehearse. I went on stage and took a look at the piano. I never played a Fazioli before so I was excited to try it out especially that it was going to be warmed up by Herbie Hancock.
We were short on time for rehearsal so we made a quick run. When I was asked if I wanted to take a solo I shamelessly said YES as fast as light. I wasn’t going to miss out on that chance, especially that I knew so many dear friends were watching the live stream from around the world and they would definitely be expecting a solo.
Later that evening, midway into the 2h30mn long concert, Stevie Wonder and Hugh Masekela were finishing up their song and we were backstage ready to be next. While Herbie was delivering his speech and introducing the band, we were finding our places on stage.
Dopamine and adrenaline were fighting their way into my blood stream and the whole performance went like flash, if it weren’t for the video I wouldn’t have had the slightest clue about what happened.
After the performance we went backstage where everybody was hanging. I spotted Herbie Hancock taking a corner and reviewing the chart for his duo with Lang Lang, I wondered if he heard the performance so I approached him to see if he did and if so, what did he think. He gave me a compliment that was one of the most rewarding things I have ever heard. I know for sure that there was the phrase “the way you fly over the keys” while mimicking the gesture with his fingers in the air, but can’t remember what he said before or after. I answered that he was my main inspiration and most of what I play I learned from him, he shook his head in a humbling manner suggesting that I was exaggerating. I insisted that this was the absolute truth and left him in peace to focus on his performance.
After the concert we were shown our way to the space where the dinner was served. I hoped I would be seated on the same table as Wayne and Herbie but I was only one table away and needless to say, their table had a high volume of visitors but it felt good having dinner this close. I remember somebody coming my way (can’t remember who) and whispering to my ears asking me if I knew who the lady to my right was, I answered that I wasn't sure even though she looked very familiar. He told me you’re sitting next to Susan Rice, I expressed my gratitude to him and continued talking about random things with Mrs. Rice and the other non-musicians on our table.
That night was pure magic. It was a hell of a train ride back home, still high on emotions but I couldn’t stop thinking about whether Wayne was saying the truth or not and whether it was a coincidence that I thought about Elvin Jones when I asked him to guess my date of birth. I put myself in his shoes and thought: What would I do if I had a certain super power that I wanted to communicate without switching from my Clark Kent mode? I would certainly deny the myth but alternatively send a subliminal message and it would be up to the receiver to figure it out. By the time I got home I had already figured it out. Wayne had guessed my exact date of birth but instead of him telling me the day and the month he communicated the name of a jazz musician who was born on the same day as me. The moment I got out of the subway, I googled Elvin Jones and it came as no surprise then, I and Elvin were born on the same day and the myth got confirmed. Wayne Shorter is indeed not only the Newark Flash, he is also an undercover Superman.
- Tarek Yamani
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Wayne Shorter photo by Robert Ascroft, courtesy of IMN Network
Wayne Shorter photo #2 from "The All Seeing Eye".
Jazz Day Official Website: www.jazzday.com
2012 Jazz Day performance in full: http://youtube.com/watch?v=-bRjCsmN-Wc
"Footprints" by Michelle Mercer: http://goodreads.com/book/show/1084839.Footprints
Design by Tarek Yamani
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