July 28, 1997 12:00 PM

AFTER 26 YEARS, JAZZ SAXOPHONIST Wayne Shorter was still deeply in love with his wife. “It’s not true,” he says, that when two people are together a long time, “the light wanes, the darkness sets in, and so much changes that you don’t know each other.” In fact, he adds, “the opposite was happening” in his marriage. But that love was cut short a year ago July 17 when Shorter’s wife, Ana Maria, and his niece Dalila, both en route to join him in Italy, perished on TWA Flight 800. While initially overcome with a sense of emptiness, Shorter, a three-time Grammy Award winner who played alongside such jazz greats as John Coltrane and Miles Davis, has learned to steel himself against sorrow. “I have no recourse,” says Shorter, “but to interact every day and continue. That’s the only way I’ll find her—and I will find her.”

Even now, Ana Maria lives on in his music. Shorter’s longtime friend, pianist Herbie Hancock (another Miles Davis band alumnus), says she is the soul of their newly released album, 1+1, a set of improvisational duets for piano and soprano sax recorded in seven days in Hancock’s living room. (“Intensely passionate [with a] deep undercurrent of emotion,” applauded the Los Angeles Times in a four-star review.) “When I listen to that record I hear Ana Maria all over it,” says Hancock. Adds Shorter: “She’s not in the album per se. She wants me to stand on my own. You know, I can hear her now: ‘Don’t start dedicating already!’ ”

Shorter, 63, was born in Newark, N.J., to parents who exposed Wayne and his brother Alan to artists from Toscanini to Doris Day on the radio. His father, Joseph, welded for the Singer Sewing Machine Company; his mother, Louise, sewed for a furrier. As a teen, Shorter began studying the clarinet (“’cause it looked like a little spaceship,” he says) and catching the acts of such greats as Count Basie and Duke Ellington. By age 17, after just two years of studying the saxophone, he was playing bebop with a local YMCA band for $1.50 a night. Going on to New York University in the heart of Greenwich Village, Shorter found his true education in the surrounding nightclubs, where the resident tutors included virtually every big name in jazz. “In the daytime,” remembers Shorter, “I was in school; at night I was in the clubs” to see Charlie Parker, Chet Baker and other major talents. After a two-year stint in an Army band ended in 1958, Shorter became musical director for Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers, then in 1964 moved on to trumpeter Miles Davis’s second quintet, a lineup that included Hancock, Ron Carter on bass and the late Tony Williams on drums.

Performing with Davis at the Village Gate in Greenwich Village one night in 1966, Shorter was introduced to a young Portuguese woman who had come backstage because her sister was married to Walter Booker, the bass player for another sax legend, Cannonball Adderley. “When I first saw her,” Shorter says of meeting Ana Maria, “I knew it. It hit me inside.”

Eight years before, Coltrane’s first wife, Naima, had told Shorter one night at dinner that for the creative odyssey on which he had embarked, he needed a life partner “with a lot of substance.” Says Shorter: “I never forgot that.” And when Shorter bunked with Ana Maria’s family for a Washington gig, he recalls, “That’s when the hammer hit my head, and I knew this was a woman of substance.” The couple wed in 1970, the same year Shorter and keyboardist Joe Zawinul founded the jazz-fusion band Weather Report. Ana Maria tried acting, even getting an invitation from family friend Jack Nicholson to visit the set of his 1982 film The Border. But Shorter recalls that she spurned acting to become his manager instead, deciding “the script of life is the greatest script, and I have to do that one.”

But the life script took some ugly turns in the ’80s. Weather Report broke up, and Shorter and Ana Maria’s only child, Iska Maria, died after a grand mal seizure at age 14 in 1985. Shorter’s mother passed away of old age the following year (his father had been killed in a 1966 car wreck), and his only brother, Alan, succumbed to a ruptured aorta at age 56 in 1987. “I was a lone wolf most of my life,” he says. “That seems to have been preparation for this bombardment.” His sole remaining close relative is his daughter Miyako by his first wife, Teruko Nakagami, who separated from him in 1964 and later married actor Billy Dee Williams. Today, Miyako, 35 and a pet groomer, says Ana Maria was “the love of my father’s life.”

Shorter may sound like the Job of the jazz world, but he doesn’t indulge in self-pity—thanks, he says, to Soka Gakkai International-USA, a branch of Buddhism to which Ana Maria introduced him in the ’70s (Hancock and Tina Turner also practice the faith). Chanting twice daily, Shorter believes his faith’s tenet that personal misfortune must be confronted and overcome. “The day [Shorter] knew for sure that Ana Maria was gone,” says Hancock, “he said, ‘I’m ready to take on all demons right now. They’ll never get me.’ ”

Near a set of French doors off the living room in his Los Angeles house is a shrine of flowers, two large white candles in hurricane glasses and framed photographs. One frame is inscribed with the words Amor Vincit Omnia: Love Conquers All. Shorter doesn’t doubt it. “Before we hung up the phone as she was going to get on the plane,” he recalls, “the last words we said to each other [were]: ‘I love you.’ ” He invokes the memory with gratitude, not despair.


STANLEY YOUNG in Los Angeles