WBGO Playdate

WBGO's Playdate: Wayne Shorter Day 1982

dorthaan kirk and wayne shorter photo

This is a web extra from Playdate with Matt Wilson Show #1. To explore more from this show, head here.

Wayne Shorter Day 1982

By Alexander Ariff

Al Pryor (now with Mack Avenue Records) was the first live music producer at WBGO. In 1982, Pryor produced a major event to honor saxophonist, composer, and Newark native Wayne Shorter. WBGO, Newark Arts High School, and William Paterson College (now University) were partners in celebrating Shorter. Pryor says that this event put three year old WBGO on the map and Dorthaan Kirk played an instrumental role in organizing Wayne Shorter Day.

Shortly after this photo of Dorthaan Kirk and Wayne Shorter was taken by Bill May at WBGO, Al Pryor escorted Wayne Shorter to Newark City Hall to get the key to the city, and then to William Paterson College. There, Shorter worked with seven student combos and gave a performance with the faculty rhythm section.

One young trumpeter drove into New Jersey from New York just to hear Shorter at William Paterson. Wallace Roney was “a skinny kid…enamored with Wayne,” recalls Dorthaan Kirk.

During the clinic, combos played his music and Shorter critiqued them. Some of the responses were critical, but alto saxophonist Ruth Ahlers, who now lives and teaches in Connecticut, remembers Wayne complimenting her solo on “Witch Hunt.” Ahlers was having self-esteem issues with regards to her saxophone playing, but on the day of this clinic she tapped into something new. “I played like I had nothing left to lose,” she recalls. And it left an impression. After her solo, Shorter said, “She sounds like she’s going for it, with an attitude on the alto sax…” Roney too remembers the praise for Ahlers, but that Shorter had to remind some of the other players to learn more than the melodies to his tunes. Learn the harmonies too.

Ruth Ahlers attributes her positive experience at William Paterson to faculty bassist Rufus Reid. After the students performed for Wayne Shorter, the saxophonist joined Reid, pianist Kirk Lightsey, and drummer Steve Bagby (1941-2007) in a special performance for a packed auditorium. They played an up-tempo blues, “Witch Hunt,” “Speak No Evil,” “Footprints” and “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum.” Wallace Roney recalls the repertoire representing something larger than itself, as if Shorter were leaving giant footprints. Playdate features the full selections of "Footprints” (below) and “Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum” (at the top of this page.)

Rufus Reid listening to "“Fee-Fi-Fo-Fum" inside WBGO

A few months back, Rufus Reid came into WBGO, and we put the headphones on him to play him the tape from this special day. “One of the things I do remember Wayne saying,” Reid recalled, “was that you should always just play like it’s your last time…now that’s kind of heavy, and we hope that that’s not the case [but] there are no guarantees out here. So that’s what he was saying: give it up, every time you’re playing do your best, don’t try to hold anything back.”

Coming full circle, for Winter Jazzfest 2014, Revive Music presented Wallace Roney’s big band playing music that Shorter composed in the late 1960s for Miles Davis. I was there, and the sound of the big band was immense. The players’ ages spanned many decades, and the pieces were inherently Wayne Shorter compositions with dense harmonizations and melodic twists and turns.

Poster for Wallace Roney Orchestra's performance at WJF 2014

Before his death, Miles gave those pieces to Wallace, saying, “That music has to be put out there.” The titles have resonance too – “Legend,” “Universe,” “Twin Dragons” and an untitled 5/4 piece. They are “four separate orchestra pieces for Miles from the mind of Wayne Shorter,” says Wallace Roney, who has now performed them twice with conductor David Weiss, and hopes to move the project forward. 

Becca Pulliam contributed to this story.

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Support comes from the National Endowment for the Arts, New Jersey State Council on the Arts and WBGO.

Playdate funders

Produced for WBGO by Alexander Ariff,
with Becca Pulliam and Duke Markos, Executive Producer Josh Jackson.

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