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Duet for One

Since Wayne Shorter's wife died on TWA Flight 800, he says, she 'keeps helping me to open new doors.' As he releases his first album since her death, he reflects on her continuing place in his life and work.

June 29, 1997|Don Heckman | Don Heckman is The Times' jazz writer

The bright airy, home of jazz legend Wayne Shorter in the hills above Studio City has a comfortable, lived-in feeling.

It is a home in which the fashionable furniture, the relaxed, unstuffy environment, the thicket of framed pictures placed on top of a baby grand piano and the profusion of artwork all attest to a warm, family environment.

Seated on a sectional couch in his study, Shorter gestures around the room, noting its openness, a light-filled wall of French doors and the smooth integration of an electronics-filled workstation and screening room.

"My wife designed it," Shorter says. "Everything in here was her idea."

But Shorter no longer shares the home with his wife. On July 17, while he was in Nice, France, waiting for her to join him for a vacation in Europe, Ana Maria Shorter and their niece Dalila Lucien were killed in the explosion of TWA Flight 800 over Long Island, N.Y. And the numerous photos and paintings are constant reminders of that tragedy--as well as another, in 1986, when their 14-year-old daughter Iska Maria died after a grand mal seizure.

Shorter, 63, a medium-sized, stolid-looking man, elegantly dressed in a patterned silk shirt and conservative dark trousers, remains one of the most important jazz artists in the world today. For four decades--from a stint as musical director for Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers to a run with Miles Davis' classic quintet of the '60s, from the co-founding (with Joe Zawinul) of Weather Report to the leadership of his own numerous groups--the saxophonist has been a vital, creative leader in the jazz community.

Much of his long career was accomplished with Ana Maria--his wife for 26 years--at his side, and a sense of her continuing proximity, in photo after photo, is everywhere throughout their home.

"My wife still comes to me," he says. "That's the mystery. And it's like she keeps helping me to open new doors. It's as though she's prepared the way for me."

In a brief stroll through his living room, he displays other images--paintings and sketches, done by him, of Ana Maria.

The quality of the work is first-rate, but beyond the technique, each is an act of affection and intimacy, perfectly reflecting different aspects of his wife's essence.

Shorter points to a precisely articulated drawing in which Ana Maria wears a knit shawl.

"This one I did in one night, when I was on the road, staying in a hotel. And this one," he says, pointing to a larger, more detailed work, "just after we moved here."

Shorter, in his first lengthy interview since his wife's death, seems somewhat detached as he looks at the paintings. But the many photographs and artworks, the profuse indications of his wife's interior decorating touch, even the framed letters of sympathy that rest on a chair near his piano, all underscore his desire to keep Ana Maria's memory alive. His continuing connection with her clearly transcends her material presence.

It's not hard to understand why. Ana Maria Shorter was her husband's biggest fan.

"Ana Maria had been listening to jazz practically since she was born," says longtime friend and musical associate Herbie Hancock, "and she was already into his music when she met Wayne. And she was so much in love with his music--more than anybody--that she literally knew it from top to bottom, knew just what it was all about. It fit her perfectly, and she loved the man that the music came from, because Wayne's music perfectly reflects him."

Ana Maria's flight aboard TWA 800 was the first leg in a trip to join her husband for a European vacation with their niece, the daughter of singer Jon Lucien and concert producer Maria Lucien, Ana Maria's sister. When Shorter was informed of the accident, he immediately returned to Los Angeles. But he knew that he was faced--two weeks later--with making a previously planned Japanese tour with his group. Shorter went ahead with the tour.

"When my wife passed away," he says, "I was thinking, 'Oh, man, it's going to be hard to get back to the horn, to get back to the piano to compose, to go on tour. But I had to go on this Japan tour, right away, and I started writing something, to get back into that process of discovery."

Shorter uses the word "discovery" frequently when he discusses the feelings he has experienced since his wife's death.

"It was that discovery thing all the time," he says, "that mystery of discovery. I'd be stumbling through something and it was like I could sense the voice of my wife, saying 'Don't repeat, do something different.' Like a gate to eternity. It's almost as though she was saying, 'Do your work; that is the way we find each other, eternally.' And the fuel for that happiness to be eternal is in the work that you do, in the work that transcends earthly money and earthly finance."

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