Inheriting the Pentatonic Scale

by Andrew Wickenden ’09

“By birth and indoctrination, music was the cultural environment I grew up in,” says Woody Louis Armstrong Shaw III ’01. During his tenure as a 2014-2015 Hutchins Fellow at Harvard University’s W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute at the new Hutchins Center for African and African American Research, Shaw, is finalizing years of musical, historical and cultural research in preparation for the first book-length biography of his father, legendary jazz trumpeter and composer Woody Shaw P’01, the man NPR referred to in 2013 as “the last great trumpet innovator.”

Started in 1975 and directed by Alphonse Fletcher University Professor Henry Louis Gates, the prestigious fellowship annually selects top scholars to conduct research in a variety of fields related to African and African American Studies.

As the son of one jazz great and stepson of another (renowned tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon), Shaw was exposed to music of all genres and from various viewpoints at an early age. “The performance, practicing, the business side, the whole nature of that lifestyle: I was born right in the middle of it,” he says.

“I was traveling before I could speak or walk. I went to countries I can’t remember having gone to,” Shaw explains. By the time he was 12, he had lived in Paris and Mexico and traveled across Europe. “I developed a global outlook and always felt more comfortable in diverse environments. Jazz musicians, especially, have a naturally global outlook on life, a lot more tolerance and a natural curiosity of learning about the world and other people.”

This international perspective helped guide Shaw as a first-year at HWS, when he enrolled in Professor Emerita of Music Patricia Myers’ seminar on Mozart’s operas. The seminar piqued his interest in the intersection of art, music and culture, and while developing his individual major in ethnomusicology, Shaw studied in Vietnam at the national conservatory in Ha Noi, studied classical Indian music in India for 18 weeks, and honed his love and knowledge of his jazz roots.

Since graduating from Hobart, Shaw has been increasingly drawn to the legacies of his father and stepfather.

“Between 2001 and 2004, I took a really keen interest in my father’s music,” he says. “I’d done a lot of independent research on his life and music, which was undergoing a resurgence then, but I wasn’t yet knowledgeable enough to appreciate it. The discovery of his impact culturally led me to take on preserving his legacy at first as an avocation before it became a vocation.”

Shaw first learned the administrative side of the music industry from his mother, Maxine Gordon, a producer, road manager and curator of the legacies of Woody Shaw and Dexter Gordon, before Shaw assumed that responsibility himself.

After he received his B.F.A. from the New School of Jazz and Contemporary Music in New York, studying drum improvisation and composition, Shaw worked in production and wrote liner notes for Mosaic Records, Sony Music Entertainment and High Note Records. He has produced musical events for Tribeca PAC, the Jazz Standard and NPR Music. He is a recipient of the William Randolph Hearst Fellowship, the Helen E. Richards Scholarship and the Teachers College Scholarship, and has received support from the Michael Eisner Educational Fund. A master’s candidate in arts administration at Columbia University, Shaw holds professional certification in Intellectual Property Law from New York University and equivalencies for the Columbia University Business Certificate.

However, the Hutchins Fellowship, he says, “is probably my greatest achievement so far, both personally and professionally, in the sense that it is a direct product of my ongoing effort to preserve my family’s legacy. To be awarded one of the highest honors in the humanities at one of the most prestigious institutions in the world—not just Harvard University, but the W.E.B. Du Bois Research Institute—is both rewarding and extremely humbling as well as a great honor. It’s been a lot of work and sacrifice, but it truly feels like a logical progression, part of a continuum of my family’s legacy that now spans at least two or three generations.”

Both Shaws are named for Woody Shaw Sr. who was a gospel singer in a vocal group known as the Diamond Jubilee Singers. While at Harvard, Shaw will be documenting his grandfather’s musical legacy as well.

Now in the late stages of research, Shaw envisions the biography as “a narrative representation” of his father’s music and life. “[His life] can’t be separated from his music or his approach. A lot of his compositions have titles that reference certain aspects of his life, and I’m looking at how, as an artist, he cites his experience and uses the context of his story, his struggles as an artist, his references to his experiences and background. He was a conceptualist more than just an instrumentalist.”

Perhaps chief among the elder Woody Shaw’s contributions as a trumpeter and composer is his adaptation of the pentatonic scale—a five-note scale common among a variety of musical tradition across the globe— “as the basis for his own technical, harmonic, melodic, and improvisatory language specifically designed for the trumpet,” says Shaw. “This is something that had never been done before, and is one of the many reasons he is referred to as an ‘innovator,’ and perhaps one of the last on his instrument.”

Through years of international travel, a “very personal diasporic awareness and a deep cultural sensitivity,” the elder Woody Shaw developed a style influenced by “the musical cultures of Asia, Africa, and many of the 20th-century Eastern European classical composers who largely built their sound and style around this beautiful five-note scale,” Shaw explains. “In a way, the pentatonic scale is among the most human of all scales in that it is shared by so many musical cultures throughout the world. In this sense, it easily forms the basis of a universal musical language. I believe my father, like all artists, sought a level of human connection that required something so fundamental that it easily transcended cultural, ethnic, and linguistic barriers.”

In paralleling his father’s biography and his musical and conceptual processes, Woody III hopes to inform new interpretation, opening avenues to understand more fully the life and music of his father.

“I’m always listening to his music because there’s always something new,” he explains. “He had such a well-formed conception of how he wanted to articulate his ideas. That’s why he’s one of my favorite artists.”

Woody Shaw III is also Founder and CEO of The Dexter Gordon Society, a NY-based nonprofit organization that preserves the legacy of his stepfather, late tenor saxophonist and Academy Award nominated actor Dexter Gordon (1923-1990). To learn more about The Dexter Gordon Society, visit

In 2015, Shaw will also launch The Woody Shaw Institute of Global Arts, working in conjunction with The Dexter Gordon Society to consolidate his father’s life’s work and to continue his interdisciplinary research and creative work in the arts on behalf of his family’s legacy. Shaw will be stationed at Harvard University until June 2015. Until then, he can be reached at or at You can also visit www. to learn more about the music of Woody Shaw.


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