We watched the three-part documentary Wayne Shorter: Zero Gravity on Amazon. I highly recommend it. Shorter, who passed away last spring at 90 years of age, was imagination and creativity personified.
The film illustrates a point I’ve made countless times in my writing and speaking, that many people vastly underestimate the degree to which young lives are saved or shaped—or both—by art. I put myself somewhere on the vast list of the saved. I can’t think of an artist I would place in first position besides Wayne Shorter. The film recreates moments from the young life he shared with his brother Alan, how they would stay up for hours after seeing a movie to play a game they called “saying about,” painstakingly recreating every scene, line of dialogue, every note on the soundtrack, until the entire work was inscribed forever in their hearts and minds.
There’s a lot of talk about greatness in the film, which is understandable with respect to a person of enormous talent and generativity. But that’s just a hat-tip to the Zeitgeist. I don’t think it was Shorter’s exceptional qualities that animated his life. Much more than ego, he stood in awe.
Zero Gravity draws the clearest picture I’ve ever seen of how the profusion of stories, sounds, and images amassed over a lifetime forms the seed-stock from which values, character, and perspective are drawn. Each time the film shows Shorter drawn into a generative reverie by some B-movie image from the fifties or The Red Shoes, a favorite (in which the ballet master Lermontov asks the dancer Vicki why she dances, and she replies “Why do you live?”), I was reminded of the way my own mind works, roaming through an inner landscape of old songs, standing before a remembered painting, seeing myself sitting in a darkened theater, inhaling whatever is on screen.
In Zero Gravity, Shorter says something that suggests the voice of an inner guide. “There are two important days or moments in one’s existence,” he says. “One is being born and the other is knowing why.”
I’ve been asking myself that “Why?” a lot lately. In the lead up to the High Holy Days, we perform a cheshbon hanefesh, a soul accounting, exploring places we have missed the mark as well as those marks we hit. My husband and I went away over the Rosh HaShanah to Yom Kippur period, and although endless sunlit beach walks were anticipated, circumstances did not entirely cooperate, leaving us with plenty of time to mourn and hope, batter at stubborn resistances and approach acceptance. My own creative life as a writer and painter has been on my mind, what the past has meant, what the future I hope to be vouchsafed will hold.
Shorter at first inclined toward drawing, tracing comic book characters until he realized he could create them without tracing, that his hand had learned something his mind hadn’t yet clocked. He continued to draw throughout his life. But happy accidents of fate—a school that didn’t turn its back on him, a teacher who perceived the musical nature of his attraction to cinema—set him on his primary path as a composer and player.
An amazing thing about Shorter was his capacity to actualize so many aspects of his formidable creativity. I drew from the time I could hold a crayon, but I started out with another why, a secret one. I always wished I could sing, imagined a life shaped by voice. Music has been a big part of my life, and at key points, a chief consolation. I have a vivid image of myself after giving a talk walking in the rain along Broadway in Manhattan to the place I was staying. I was at the end of a long marriage, and Bettye Lavette had become the avatar of my grief and hope. “Let Me Down Easy” marched through my earbuds so many times it must have left footprints.
I could listen with all my heart, but sadly, I wasn’t genetically predisposed to perform. At home, before I was old enough to understand what was happening, I was asked to sing for company, always good for a laugh. At school, I was placed in the back row and told to silently mouth the words. In my forties, I took lessons with a former bel canto singer whose patience I tried, but who helped me to be able to join in “Happy Birthday” and singing prayers in shul without the overwhelming humiliation I’d previously experienced. But solo? Never.
Voice was my longing, but not my life. I’ve always known my why, even before I had the words to express it. As much as I’ve sometimes disliked its consequences, I’ve been propelled by the conviction that I am here to seek truths and speak them when they are discovered or even hinted at. That’s meant a fair amount of going against the grain, calling out emperors’ nakedness, questioning what the powers-that-be think should be seen as self-evident, natural, and timeless, pointing out who is harmed by their self-regarding certainty. Making images of people that showed something beneath the skin, the possibility and the pain. And like that.
It’s not that I’ve really had an alternative. I laugh out loud when I imagine myself going along to get along, impersonating compliance. Could I even sustain the performance? I haven’t got the art to do it.
But now I find myself questioning my why. Mostly it’s discouragement with the cultural climate. The signal-to-noise ratio is bad. People do extreme things to grab attention. Issues that ought to demand our focused and combined consideration easily degenerate into brawls. Civil discourse has to invite a range of opinions, include some that repel or enrage. But there is so much crazy shit out there. I can’t imagine making a list of all that beggars imagination; it would take days. It could be simply that I lack the wit or verve to call attention to what seems worth attending under the massive pile of rhetorical detritus swamping public discourse. But I’m fighting a fatigue that sets in when I try.
Shorter was a mystic. I think one reason he never waivered in his why was that his universe was so large that earthbound things couldn’t touch his core. He perpetually pushed the boundaries of his art and also his life toward a sense of eternity that transcended the tremendous loss and suffering he sustained: his daughter, his brother, and his second wife were all snatched from this world before time, a chain of tragedy that could have—would have—derailed someone who had spent less of his life looking toward the stars. For him, nothing was ever finished. In Zero Gravity, he talks about writing music against the headlines flashing across a TV screen above his desk. His Buddhist practice reflected his belief in a cycle of life that turns endlessly toward something he never stopped trying to grasp. Conflict was alien to his nature, questing and questioning were everything. He seemed always to be lifting up the people he played with, seeing each ensemble as a collective of composers rather than a supporting cast. “The reason why death happens over and over again,” he says in the film, “is because it is not the end.”
In my own art, I ask that spirit to infuse me, especially the parts of my nature that can be defeated by a dry spell or an ordinary unknown that goes on for too long. I want to shift course to a perpetual why rather than one that’s settled: the path of questions. No idea what may emerge from that in my writing or painting. I’m guessing that I’ll still be speaking truth to power now and again, even if power has its ears plugged. Wayne Shorter stayed awake, connected, until it was time to sleep. His story inspired me to see if in my own small way I can do the same.
Wayne Shorter, “Speak No Evil.”
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