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‘Off the page, without a net’: Dorsay Alavi on ‘Zero Gravity,’ her documentary about Wayne Shorter

Wayne Shorter
Wayne Shorter

Zero Gravity, the new documentary film streaming on Amazon Prime on the life of Wayne Shorter—released on the 90th anniversary of his birth—takes an in-depth look at the life of one of our most outstanding players, composers and visionaries in the jazz canon. From his childhood in Newark to his work with Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, as an integral part of The Miles Davis Quintet of the mid ‘60s, his contributions to the groundbreaking group Weather Report, his own groups, and writing for large ensembles, the message is clear: the openness he embraced throughout his life allowed for the genius to flourish. Recently, I chatted with the film’s director Dorsay Alavi about how she captured his fascinating life story, along with the all-star cast who contributed to his life’s narrative.

Listen to our conversation, above.

Interview transcript:

Gary Walker: You go back on this documentary to the early 2000s, maybe 2002 when you first encountered Wayne Shorter. First, why did you call the documentary Zero Gravity?

Dorsay Alavi: Well, it's a term that Wayne often used for when his quartet, when they played completely off the page without a net. Quoting his own album, “Those moments were an out of body experience where there was no need to conform to any mandate or to be on the page or have an anchor." I think that moment represented so much to Wayne. That's how he lived his life so it seemed appropriate to use that title because it says so much throughout the film. It's a theme that runs throughout the film. When I ran it by Wayne, he said, “Yes, it was the right title. It's perfect.”

Yes, indeed. There's one point in the film where Danilo Perez, who was part of his working quartet said to him, “Wayne, are we ever going to rehearse?” And he said, “How do you rehearse the unknown without a net?” You've done this documentary in three portals, which is a nod to Buddhism and also to the science fiction that Wayne was very fond of which is quite evident throughout the film. Take us back to 106 South Street and the vacant lot that was right next door to where he grew up.

On many levels the portals were designed to transport you into that time period so that you really felt that you were there. I didn't approach this like a typical documentary. His childhood had such a long-lasting impact on him which is why we circle back in Portal 3 with the vacant lot. For him, a lot began at the kitchen table with his mother, with the little clay pieces that she gave him, the movie theater, and the vacant lot. Those are the three things that he references often. And he always asks people, “Do you play enough?” He's always asking people, “Can you get yourself back to that state that you had as a child where everything was possible, where you weren't being influenced by anything and you were free?” Those ideas were very important to Wayne.

That vacant lot was so much more than just a vacant lot. It was a Martian landscape. It was the desert. It could be anything that he and his brother Alan wanted it to be, and they made it so. Dr. Strange and Mr. Weird, they called themselves later on, when they were young musicians playing. But Wayne's affinity for the fantastical was quite evident from an early age because he would draw. His drawing was incredible and he was a graphic artist. In fact, he did a couple of graphic comic books.

Yes, that's a rarity, isn't it? There are people that are very visual, but not very oral. Wayne had both. His music is very pictoral, so it was such a delight as a filmmaker to be able to put pictures to his music. It was so easy. It seemed like the right thing to do because he always said, “I'm making movies without pictures” so in many ways, he was still drawing when he was playing.

Filmmaker Dorsay Alavi
Filmmaker Dorsay Alavi

Absolutely. When did you first encounter Wayne Shorter? How did you become interested in Wayne Shorter?

It was 1995. My agent called me and said, “You're going to direct a video for this jazz legend.” To be honest, at that time, I only knew Miles Davis, John Coltrane, the obvious names. He said, “It’s Wayne Shorter.” I looked at him and I'm like, “Wow.” I went to his home and rather than do a typical interview, I don't know what compelled me, but I asked him crazy questions like, “If you were an animal, which animal would you be? And if you were in a dark room in a vessel with nobody there, what would it feel like?” He said, “Of course I would be an eagle and I would fly” and I went, “Oh, I love this guy.” We had so much fun. It was like a playful interview and then when I did the video, he loved it so much as did Verve Records. Wayne and I just became friends for almost three decades after that.

He was a very, very dear friend of mine. That's why in 2002 when he would call me and tell me about how excited he was with his new quartet and what they were doing with orchestras, I went, “Who's documenting this? Why isn't anybody documenting this?” And he said, “Why? I'm not going to ask you to direct my, do that for me.” I said, “I want to, let's make a documentary about your life.”

The radio was a big part of his life early on as a kid. He would listen to some of those serials that were airing on the radio late at night - Who knows which way the shadow knows.

What’s astounding to me is that he memorized the lines from a radio show that he watched when he was a kid.

As a kid, he would sneak away from school and rather than sit in class, he would go to the movie theater, the old Adams theater in Newark or one of the other theaters and watch movies all day. They finally caught him and they asked him why and he said, “I was watching movies and I was learning that way.” I guess as a form of redirection early in his life, they put him in the music department and that's where he discovered the tenor saxophone and man, did he embrace it. He became the Newark flash, which everybody around Newark knew him as. In fact, in the film, folks in Newark will know the Phipps name. Nat Phipps is an integral part of this film, along with an all-star cast that includes John Patitucci, Herbie Hancock, Terence Blanchard, Joni Mitchell and Sonny Rollins and Wayne himself, and of course, throughout the film, Danilo Perez. Also featured was Neil deGrasse Tyson. I would assume that he and Wayne became tight friends over the fantastical.

Wayne was a huge fan of Neil's and he read his books and knew so much about him. It was such a treat. When I reached out to Neil and asked, “Hey, would you like to be interviewed?” I think the two of them needed to meet which they did. His fun room was one of my favorite scenes in the documentary.

Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity - Official Trailer | Prime Video

Now to describe the fun room. It is something that you have to see. For those of you jazz fans who think you know everything about Newark's own Wayne Shorter, you have to take a visit inside the fun room and thanks to Dorsay, we're allowed to do that. The fun room had hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of little statues—superheroes from the science fiction days. He also had hundreds of fairies around the room surrounding him in his fun room.

Yes, he absolutely believed that fairies existed. He really believed that fantasy could be the reality and that our reality is maybe the fantasy. He was one to always question indoctrination or conditioning. He never wanted to be conditioned by anything. A lot of those characters represent the fight for justice, the fight for humanity. They're all representatives of his mission in life.

He was not cornered in the creative process either. For instance, when he walked into Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers in 1959, replacing Benny Golson, he brought with him a new tenor sound for the quintet. He also brought a prolific pen that allowed him to create so many anthems and tunes that we know fifty, sixty years later that were written and performed by Wayne Shorter. Also at that time in the wings, was Miles Davis because he always wanted Wayne and that kind of freedom, which was an integral part of his own band, wasn't it?

Wayne was a catch, but the thing about Wayne is he's such a loyal person so I'm sure there was a lot of thought that went behind that move from Blakey. He had a lot of loyalty to Blakey. But he also understood that he had to move forward. He had to take the next step and he saw that probably was the right choice at that time. But it took a while before Miles was able to get him. It wasn't that fast.

Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter
Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter

No, it took a few years actually before he actually became part of what is considered by many folks to be Miles Davis's best quintet he ever had. It speaks volumes—through Wayne's own testimony, through his own playing, but also through the testimony of friends, musical associates that not only knew him, but had the privilege to play with them. They looked upon that as a privilege, didn't they?

Absolutely. I always call Wayne this inconspicuous leader because he's not an overt leader. He's not guiding people directly, but by example, and people who are in his presence just rise to every occasion, every time they played with Wayne. In so many ways, I think that Wayne was teaching us how to be a great leader in the way that he led his own quartet.

In spite of the fact attention convention could arise at any moment, it was a significant portion of his life when he lost people who were very dear to him because he couldn't be near to them because he was on the road somewhere. I think for the normal human being, it might cause a crash of sorts, but somehow Wayne was able to manage through all of this - the death of his daughter and also the horrible, tragic death of his second wife, Ana Maria [in a plane crash].

That is where his philosophical belief system that's rooted in Buddhism comes into play—having that community, having the spiritual practice. He had his very close friend, Herbie Hancock, he had people around him who are very supportive, but he really embraced that philosophy, and he truly lived by it. There are so many people who are spiritual. They may practice, they may chant, but they actually don't really live by the principles. They do the work, but when it comes to adversity, they still can't handle it. Wayne really understood that adversity was an essential part of living and that there was always opportunity right around the corner. He lived by that philosophy to the very end and it was so impressive to me.

Somehow, he was able to maintain this yin and yang balance, this avatar of sorts, who we have been blessed with in the canon of jazz through the body and the spirit and the creativity of Wayne Shorter. He was able to balance that yin and that yang, with tributes to his daughter, “Odyssey for Iska” and also “Ana Maria"two very well-known compositions of his.

He had such a bird's eye view of the world. He had his personal life, but he was always in tune with what was happening in the world at the time so they went hand in hand. A lot of his compositions were personal, but they also were reflective of the times. That's why the pieces that I chose were the most obvious choices of what was happening in the world. What was he writing about? What was happening in his personal life? What was he composing then? I made those connections.

Later in life when he was working on some of those large projects, his collaboration with Esperanza Spalding and others, for example, his wife would walk into the room where he was, pasting pieces of a score to one another to build this amazing thing that he would share with us. But, overhead in front of him, blaring was CNN so he always knew what was going on around him, didn't he?

All day long, actually, he had that TV on. He didn't want to miss a beat. If I didn't know what was happening in the world, Wayne sure did. Every time I saw him, he would ask, “Did you hear about this? Did you hear about that?” He had all these different perspectives. I just thought, “Wow, it's amazing. He knows what's happening everywhere at all times.”

What are three things that you found out about Wayne that you think folks watching this documentary would enjoy?

One, we discussed his childlike wonder. He can speak to anybody at any age and have a dialogue with them where the person feels that they've learned something or they're inspired by the conversation. That has always been amazing to me.

Second, that he's interested in every single person's evolution as a human being. He wants you to succeed. He wants you to be a leader. Every conversation he has with anybody, the guy that's driving the taxi or taking him to the airport, he's having a nice, long dialogue about life with that person. I wanted the viewers to observe that. To get a sense of who he really was as a human being. The musicianship is very important, obviously, but it's an after effect of who he was as a human being.

Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, from 'Zero Gravity'
Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, from 'Zero Gravity'

It's always how you look upon something. There's a scene in the documentary where he's doing a master class at one of the colleges. He tells the trombonist, “You enjoy what a harp sounds like? Play your trombone like a harp, be that harp." The kid like looks at him like he's from outer space. Then he kind of embraces the idea and actually tries to do that.

It actually sounds kind of like one, doesn't it? It's amazing. It's where you put your head when you're playing the instrument. It's where you are in your consciousness. He was a big, big advocate of that—to raise your frequency, that your sound should emit that frequency to the world.

It all started on a vacant lot. South Street in Newark, New Jersey. I found that absolutely captivating because I've worked for the world's greatest jazz station for over 40 years and Newark's own Wayne Shorter would come by from time to time to visit. I thought I knew a goodly amount about the Newark flash. Until I watched this documentary playing on Amazon Prime, little did I know how little I knew.

You have done an incredible job with this documentary. It's just masterful. I would imagine that recently when they did the big tribute to Wayne out at the Hollywood Bowl in California, a lot of the musicians that are in this documentary were there that night. I'll bet you that that conversation included, “Hey, have you seen Zero Gravity? Have you seen that documentary about Wayne? Oh man, you’ve got to see it. It's really something special.” And it is something special.

Like you said at the front of our conversation, you really didn't approach this as a talking head documentary. It really moves you into his life. There are graphics that fly by in that MTV kind of way. Showing the way that Wayne Shorter would graphically illustrate some of his superheroes as he was growing up as a teenager in Newark, New Jersey.

Thank you so much. I think my subject led me in every way. I was a fly on the wall. I was a conduit. I really wanted to tell the story as if Wayne were to direct his own film, this is the way he'd do it. He wouldn't want a bunch of talking heads talking about music, or deep, long interviews. He wanted things to move in the same way that he moved through life.

Oh, and move they do. I would imagine as a documentary filmmaker, that working on this project probably inspired you to look at future projects in a different way, thanks to Wayne Shorter.

Yes, Wayne Shorter and I were very aligned in our aesthetics. He knew that I was already that kind of person. I was an independent art house filmmaker and he kind of liked that because I wasn't very Hollywood. I was always searching for something new and different and we just connected. I said, “This is the right collaboration for me.” I choose my projects very carefully. I'm not a gun for hire. These are things that I'm passionate about and this film is really close to my heart for many reasons.

You can tell. I have observed, and this is true not just for musicians but for a lot of people, for some reason as we grow older, we lose that childlike ability to look at the world and to respond to the world in kind. As Sonny Rollins says, “You have to have an ego obviously to create,” but that childlike essence that Wayne had as an integral part of him throughout his life really informed his creative process in a way that I think a lot of other people fall short. For some reason, we lose that I guess because in the school system, we're taught not to think freely, learn how to sit on the yellow line, coming up next, it's book time, and coming up after next, it's nap time, and then it's cookies and milk time. There's always a definitive process decided by someone else.

It's always conditioning, holding people. He always liked to use the analogy of handcuffs, of breaking free of the chains and the handcuffs of societal conditioning. It was always questioning and he wanted, I think, others to question authority. It's not that he didn't comply. He questioned it and he lived very authentically. I think real artists always should. They have to be the voice of their generation and Wayne certainly was that.

This conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

In jazz radio, great announcers are distinguished by their ability to convey the spontaneity and passion of the music. Gary Walker is such an announcer, and his enthusiasm for this music greets WBGO listeners every morning. This winner of the 1996 Gavin Magazine Jazz Radio Personality of the Year award has hosted the morning show each weekday from 5:00 a.m. to 9:00 a.m. And, by his own admission, he's truly having a great time.