Spirituality at the core of sax great’s sound

What is the nexus between spiritual bliss and wellness, and artistic success? About 18 months ago, I attended the 80th birthday celebration for jazz legend Wayne Shorter at the Antibes jazz festival on the French Riviera. Apart from a slight paunch, he looked like he was not a day older than 60. His face was unlined, he had a ramrod straight posture, and a full head of hair, without a speck of grey. He opened the set with Orbits, stroking the tenor saxophone like a painter at work, laying out the palettes which would later transmogrify into a resonant mosaic.

He was followed on stage by Wynton Marsalis playing with a sizzling 40-piece Lincoln Centre Jazz Orchestra, but I must confess, I could no longer hear anything else that evening. Shorter’s mellifluous tones on Orbits and Joyride lay on my mind and inner recesses like drying paint on a canvas. I was rendered tone deaf after that, totally subsumed and submerged into his artistic and improvisational aura. It was a quasi-religious experience.

In this regard, Shorter was no different from another saxophone colossus, the great Sonny Rollins, who had played the same festival a year before, at 82. Rollins had strode onto the stage like, well, a “colossus”. He proceeded to hold court for an entire two hours, and had everyone on their feet with his orgiastic rendition of his timeless Don’t Stop the Carnival.

In New York City, in the early 1990s, we used to wait with much anticipation for a Sonny Rollins “sighting”. He had made a ritual of playing every two years in one of New York’s premier concert venues – Carnegie Hall, the Avery Fisher Hall, the Beacon Theatre. He would invite any of the dominant saxophonists of the day, whether Branford Marsalis or Joshua Redman, on stage to jam with him, and would then proceed to give them a master class on the art of the tenor saxophone.

I remember a concert in 1995, where he jammed with the bebop great, Jackie MacLean, a childhood amigo of his, from the same Sugar Hill neighbourhood in Harlem. They went toe to toe, note for note, riff for riff, in a mesmerising jamming jamboree, and for once, Rollins did not land his usual knockout punch. On that evening, in MacLean, Rollins had met his match. The contest ended in a deuce. Seventeen years later he had lost none of his groove and swagger.

What both Shorter and Rollins have in common is a deep spirituality. Shorter is a practising Nichiren Buddhist, a spiritual practice credited for turning his difficult and painful life around. Rollins is a yoga practitioner who has dabbled in Zen Buddhism.

Shorter has had a particularly sad life. His first wife, Irene left him, and would later date and marry the actor, Billy Dee Williams, of Lady Sings the Blues fame, who had been a neighbour of theirs (go figure); his father died in a car accident while driving from his concert in the midst of this marital meltdown; and his daughter with his second wife, Anna Maria, was born with severe brain damage, a pain that would lead both of them to alcohol abuse. She died at the age of 12; if that was not enough pain for one individual, Anna Maria would perish on that fateful TWA plane crash in July 18 1996, off the coast of Long Island, New York.

By any measure, this was a challenging life. But encouraged by his friend, the pianist Herbie Hancock, and his wife Gigi, long-time Buddhist practitioners, Shorter began to find solace and equanimity with this spiritual practice, a wellspring for the resplendent glow that has been his hallmark lately, and the breathtaking creativity that prompted the New York Times to salute him as “jazz’s all-round genius, matchless in his field as a composer, utterly original as an improviser”.

His music with his long term quartet of Danilo Pérez on piano, John Patitucci on bass and drummer Brian Blades has begun to rival his fabled musicianship as the music director of Miles Davis’s iconic quintet in the 1960s, when he penned some of jazz’s most memorable compositions such as Footprints and Nefertiti.

Many had thought his work with Joe Zawinul as co-founder of the group Weather Report, following the Davis era, would be the swansong of his compositional and artistic valence. But he seems to be getting better, like proverbial vintage wine.

This brings me to another wondrous phenomenon – that of Hugh Masekela, who at 75 seems to be scaling the heights of his artistic prowess. He’s hipper, stronger and nicer. I recently had a chat with him about Tai Chi, which he has been practising for the past 10 years. He waxed rapturously about this practice, and its imprimatur was palpably evident in his wholesome disposition and exuberance, after years of self-confessed nihilism and hedonism (sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll).

Ditto with Abdullah Ibrahim, an eighth Dan martial arts expert, and devotee of Islam, who turned 80 last October, but can kick anyone’s ass, literally and figuratively. Watch him walk on stage, regal in bearing, serene in demeanour, looking “too cool for school” in his customary all black regalia, and then the music seems to ooze seamlessly from his fingertips.

But the one who would surprisingly elude wellness’s grip was Zim Ngqawana. I had known him since my return to these shores in the late 1990s. We were a group of “cats” who were part of the Bassline jazz scene and local food joints in Melville, Johannesburg. He was into yoga, meditation and vegetarianism. He combined a deep spiritual sensibility – an amalgam of Sufi mysticism and New Age syncretism – and an artistry that exploded from his entire being.

But by all accounts, after his farm in the south of Johannesburg was ransacked and his Steinway grand piano worth half a million rand was desecrated, his mood towards life would darken insuperably, a prelude to the stroke that would take his life at just 51 years of age. It seems all his spiritual and emotional resources, would prove supine against the silent seductions of the Grim Reaper.

The Ngqawana riddle notwithstanding, Shorter and Rollins’s example and Bra Hugh’s personal and artistic renaissance seems instructive for an artistic community under siege. From Kippie Moeketsi to Pat Matshikiza, Victor Ntoni to Moses Molelekwa, it’s been an avalanche of blues for this community.

One does not want to downplay the socioeconomic factors at the heart of these blues, and privilege a spiritualist reductionist logic. But there is ample proof to suggest that the spiritual bliss that devotional practice, wellness and meditation fosters, would be a critical resource for jazz’s “fight-back” against the demons of alcohol and substance abuse, poverty and the marginalisation of a society in transition, preoccupied with other concerns. Namaste!



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