Shorter's publicist Alisse Kingsley confirmed his death to AFP, without specifying the cause.
The enigmatic jazz elder performed with fellow legend Miles Davis and went on to become a leading bandleader on both soprano and tenor sax, including with his group Weather Report.
He was one of the last living jazz greats to have cut his teeth in the genre's 1950s heyday when it was both the soundtrack at dance halls and gained ground in intellectual circles.
He won 12 competitive Grammys over his long career, the last of which came just last month, as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy.
Tributes quickly poured in, with keyboardist Herbie Hancock -- one of Shorter's best friends and regular collaborators -- calling him "irreplaceable."
"I miss being around him and his special Wayne-isms but I carry his spirit within my heart always," Hancock said in a statement released by Shorter's publicist.
Trumpeter and composer Wynton Marsalis hailed Shorter as a "giant of saxophone regardless of register" and a "jazz messenger," while jazzman Jon Batiste chimed in: "Truly one of one."
Early musical talent
Born on August 25, 1933 in Newark, New Jersey, Shorter expressed early interest in music and took up clarinet as a teenager.
He picked up the saxophone -- which became his instrument of choice -- shortly thereafter.
Shorter and his brother would play bebop, calling themselves "Mr Weird" and "Doc Strange" for their antics like wearing dark sunglasses in a dimly lit club.
"And we had wrinkled clothes, because we thought you played bebop better with wrinkled clothes," Shorter told The Atlantic in 2004.
"You had to be raggedy to be for real."
He attended New York University, where he graduated with a degree in music education in 1956, and spent two years in the army, where he played with jazz pianist Horace Silver.
"I knew that people start on instruments when they're five years old, so I did think I had a lot of catching up to do," he told The Washington Post before receiving the prestigious Kennedy Center Honor, celebrating the best in American arts, in 2018.
"But when things started to move, opportunities came at a pace I hadn't seen."
In 1964, Shorter left Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers -- with which he found international fame, touring for four years and becoming the band's musical director -- to join trumpeter Davis.
It was with Davis' Second Great Quintet -- which included Hancock -- that Shorter began flexing his composing muscles, channeling his innovative spirit within the traditional rules of jazz.
Davis often described the group's ethos as "time, no changes" -- allowing free jazz without completely scrapping strictures.
The collaboration delivered some of the 20th century's best known jazz, including the songs "E.S.P.," "Nefertiti" and "Footprints."
"Wayne is a real composer" with "a kind of curiosity about working with musical rules," Davis said in his autobiography.
"If they didn't work, then he broke them, but with musical sense; he understood that freedom in music was the ability to know the rules in order to bend them to your own satisfaction and taste."
'Eternity in composition'
In 1970, Shorter co-founded Weather Report, where he played a leading role in the development of jazz fusion -- which combined the harmonies and improvisation of jazz with developing forms of rock, funk and R&B.
Over the band's 16-year career, it adopted a new way of playing that dropped the standard format of soloists playing with accompaniment to instead encourage all band members to improvise simultaneously.
Weather Report also showed an interest in music's technological innovations, experimenting with electronic elements.
Already famous in his own right, Shorter's crossover collaborations with acts including Joni Mitchell, Steely Dan and Carlos Santana brought his talent to a wider audience.
His partnership with Mitchell was particularly poignant: Shorter worked on every album she released between 1977 and 2002.
"Just to hear them talking, my mouth was open. They understand each other perfectly, and they make these leaps and jumps because they don't have to explain anything," Hancock said of their work.
Mitchell also lavished praise on Shorter, saying the way he worked was "the difference between genius and talent."
A lover of comics and a long-time practicing Buddhist, Shorter in 2018 dropped "Emanon," a triple-disc tucked inside a 74-page fantasy graphic novel he co-wrote that details the adventures of a "rogue philosopher" who fights evil with truth.
"I'm looking to express eternity in composition," he had said more than a decade before, in his 2007 biography.
Shorter continued to tour well into his golden years, though chronic health issues eventually slowed his pace. He composed an opera with bassist Esperanza Spalding, which premiered in 2021.
As he struggled to pay medical bills, Hancock spearheaded a series of all-star tribute shows to fund the expenses.
Shorter is survived by his third wife Carolina, two daughters and a newborn grandson, his publicist said.
His second wife Ana Maria was killed aboard TWA Flight 800, which exploded and crashed off Long Island in 1996.
"To me, the definition of faith is to fear nothing," Shorter told The New York Times in 2018.
"I think that music opens portals and doorways into unknown sectors that it takes courage to leap into."