My Time With Joe

When I started this website in 1999, I had no illusions of ever meeting Joe Zawinul. My goals were really quite modest. I started it mostly as a way to organize links to other Zawinul-related material on the web. I figured that sooner or later Joe would have an official site, but in the meantime, this one might do some good.

Then on July 6, 2003, one day before Joe’s 71st birthday, I received an email from Brian DiGenti, the editor of a relatively new journal called Wax Poetics. He had seen my websites about Zawinul and Weather Report, and wondered if I would be interested in writing an article about Joe’s pioneering use of electric keyboards. I told him no.

Let’s all say it together: “Curt, what where you thinking?!” To be fair, I had never heard of Wax Poetics, and my work commitments at the time made taking on a feature article, with its attendant deadlines and stress, a challenge. Nevertheless, Brian persisted, sending me copies of the magazine and asking me to think it over. When I got them, I was impressed. The production values were top notch and the depth and care that went into the content were equally impressive. It was evident that despite being a commercial product, Wax Poetics was a labor of love. The clincher was when Brian said that he would arrange for me to interview Zawinul at his home in Malibu. It isn’t often that we get to meet our musical heroes, let alone interview them. I knew then that this was a project I had to do. It was the start of my personal journey to Joe Zawinul.

It took a while to get things lined up, but in September I called Joe and arranged the visit. By then I’d read a lot of Zawinul interviews, and while he could be quite expansive, he could also cut things short if the interviewer failed to measure up. The day before I was scheduled to see him, I met with Jim Swanson, Joe’s keyboard tech during the later Weather Report years. He emphasized that the best way to ingratiate myself with Joe would be to talk about his current activities. Joe doesn’t like to dwell on the past, Jim advised me. That’s great, I thought. My article was supposed to take Joe all the way back to the sixties.

I stayed up late working on my list of questions and rehearsing in my mind how the in-terview might go. How would I get Joe to talk about the old days—the entire point of my article—without offending him? I thought maybe I could cleverly segue to Joe’s days with Cannonball Adderley by mentioning the tune “The Spirit of Julian ‘C’ Adderley” on his new Faces & Places album, and from there get into the Wurlitzer and Fender-Rhodes elec-tric pianos, neither of which he had used in decades.

We were supposed to meet at 9:00 a.m., but traffic was horrendous. As I crawled along the Santa Monica Freeway, the appointed time came and went. I knew I would have to call Joe and let him know that I would be very late. I was already nervous about meeting him, and I dreaded making that call. But unbeknownst to me, Jim Swanson had spoken with Joe the night before and put in a good word. So when I told Zawinul where I was, he was as gracious as could be. That was my first sign that this might go well.

When I finally got to his house high on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean, Joe greet-ed me in the courtyard and led me into his office—a large, oblong room connected to the main house. It had the untidiness of a place where things get done. On the wall just inside the entrance hung gold records for “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and Heavy Weather, as well as several Grammy nominations, most of them perched a tad crooked. There were also a number of framed Down Beat Readers Poll certificates. I pointed out that he must have many more. “Yeah, 29 of them,” he replied. “I don’t know where the old ones are.”

While Joe fetched me a bottle of water from the kitchen, I looked around the room. At the far end sat Joe’s grand piano, and on the wall behind it, a set of shelves. The upper shelves housed a collection of statues depicting musicians. They were arranged to tell the story of black music, from Africa to North America, ultimately evolving into jazz. Below them were half a dozen old accordions. When Joe returned, I asked him if they were the accordions that he played in his youth. I don’t remember for sure if any of them were actually his own, or just ones that he had collected later. (One of them was the one Jaco Pastorius gave him on his fiftieth birthday.) But my question prompted him to start telling me stories of his childhood in Austria.

We stood by the accordions while he talked, and I kept thinking that I should get my recorder out, but I didn’t want to be rude—my hesitation a sure sign that I wasn’t a real journalist. Finally, though, I interrupted him, pointing out that I had better start recording if he was going to keep going. “We always do that when we record,” he said. “Just turn it on and get everything on there.” We moved to the middle of the room and sat down across an old wooden chest that served as a coffee table. Underneath it was an oriental rug that appeared to be the same one pictured in an old Keyboard magazine article that I remembered. Joe sat opposite me on a stool. I turned the recorder on, and off we went.

For the next hour he told me of growing up under the Nazi regime during World War II; of life at the camp where he was sent as a twelve-year-old after a particularly heavy bomb-ing of Vienna; of the first time he heard jazz played on the piano; of having nothing to eat as the war wound down; of burying dead soldiers, barefoot and without gloves; of his first gigs after the war. I was mesmerized. Joe leaned into me as he talked, his eyes boring into mine with great intensity. I still remember the way his voice trailed off after he finished describing life at the camp, where he was forced to endure a regimen of war training and musical studies. “Man, that was rough,” he said, his eyes gazing elsewhere as he replayed the memories in his mind.

All the while I realized that none of this had anything to do with the article I was sup-posed to write. The few times that I tried to gently move to other topics, he told me no, he hadn’t finished the story yet. “This all connects very nicely,” he insisted, as though he was improvising a long through-composed piece of music. I grew concerned that at any moment he would declare the interview over and I would be dismissed without a single germane quote for my article. Sure enough, he wrapped things up and said, “I think you’ve got enough, don’t you?” I protested mildly that there were a few questions that I really needed to ask. So we continued.

At one point, Joe showed me some framed photographs that were displayed on a table. His favorite was the one in which he is hunched over a piano, head down in concentration, playing “Come Sunday” for its composer, Duke Ellington. Ellington was Joe’s musical hero. I knew the story behind the photograph, so I asked the leading question: “And what did Duke have to say about your playing on that tune?” To which a childlike expression came across Joe’s face as he replied, “Duke said I played it better than he did!”

Joe invited me over to his computer because he wanted to show me how he improvised his music. Since the Weather Report days, all of Joe’s compositions came from recording his improvisations at his piano or keyboard rig. Now Joe’s laboratory was a laptop running a MIDI sequencer connected to a little portable keyboard—-the kind with two or three octaves of small, toy-like keys. He played several pieces for me. Some of them were just single tracks played through a piano sample. Others were further along, with percussion and counter-melodies. All of them bore the unmistakable stamp of Joe’s rhythm and phrasing. As we listened along, he got animated. “That’s not something you can write,” he exclaimed at one point. “You can’t write this kind of phrasing!”

Afterwards, we sat down for one more session across the chest, jumping from one topic to another. On making music with samples: “Why not?! Make music. Let people express themselves. These kinds of things are like an instrument. It’s like a language.”

On how he consistently found such great bass players: “Because that’s my soul, man. Because actually I am the best bass player of all of ‘em in terms of concept.”

On composing: “It is all improvisation, therefore I never win [polls] as a composer, you know?”

On inspiration: “Oh, that’s no problem, man.”

On bebop: “Improvising on changes and playing on changes—to me that is nothing.”

On music as a universal form of communication: “It’s the music, it’s not me. I’m only a bringer. I’m only a presenter of the truth, not the truth.”

On recording Country Preacher with Cannonball Adderley: “It was fantastic. It was a Sunday morning, in the church. In a black church. Chicago. Beautiful.”

On the so-called young lions of jazz: “They know how to play their instruments very well, perhaps better than most, but without any trace of personality.”

On Japan’s love of soft [smooth] jazz: “It doesn’t bother me a bit, man. Let people enjoy what they enjoy. If soft jazz is what makes them happy, and they don’t go out there and kill somebody because they are so frustrated, then let it be the best music in the world.”

Eventually, we even got around to “The Spirit of Julian ‘C’ Adderley.” It was well after lunchtime when I finally turned off the recorder and we walked outside to the edge of the cliff overlooking the ocean. He nonchalantly mentioned how he had recently killed a couple of rattlesnakes in the yard because he didn’t want his grandchildren to encounter them. Then he took me into his state-of-the-art studio, dubbed “The Music Room,” which was housed in a large outbuilding. There we found Joe’s son Ivan setting up the keyboard rig, which had recently returned with his father from Paris. Ivan showed me around the studio like a proud parent, having designed it and installed the equipment himself.

Three and a half hours after I had arrived, I bid them both goodbye. It was a good day.

I didn’t complete the article until early the next spring. I sent Joe a draft, per his request, wondering how he would like it. He replied that he would have a few corrections, but I never heard back and we went to press. A few months later I caught the Syndicate at the Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz. Still not knowing how he liked the article, I went backstage after the show to say hello. Joe greeted me like a long lost friend, and we had a nice chat. I worked up the nerve to ask him the big question: Were we good on the article? “You wrote a hell of an article, man!” There would be no corrections.

Joe and I continued to correspond via email, sometimes by telephone. We did a few more interviews. I never wanted to come off as a fawning fan, so I was careful not to take advantage of our relationship. Initially, I never called him unless he agreed via email first. But later, he would ask me to call him because he had something he wanted to tell me for the website.

In September 2006, the band played at Yoshi’s in Oakland for four nights. I met with Joe for about an hour backstage between the Sunday matinee and evening shows. He waved me into the dressing room as he was finishing a call to his wife, Maxine. I’ll never forget the heartfelt way in which he told her that he loved her. Man, I thought, I sure hope I am that much in love with my wife after I’ve been married for 40 years. I didn’t pull out the recorder. Instead, we just talked. Joe had some ideas for a new website and we talked about that. I wondered if he intended to replace his official website, but he said no, just make another one. I explained that he should really have just one official website, but if he did make a new one, it would need a name. “Let’s see, my club is Birdland, my label is BirdJAM, how about bird…” As he paused, “birdshit” immediately crossed my mind, but not my lips. Not an instant later he exclaimed, “Birdshit! Call it that!” We had a laugh. I never told him that birdshit.com was already taken.

The last time I saw Joe was in February 2007. He and Ivan invited me to the house to gather information for the proposed 20 Years of the Zawinul Syndicate liner notes. Although I was aware that Maxine had been ill, it wasn’t until I arrived that I learned that she was in the intensive care unit at the hospital. I wondered if I should leave, but Ivan encouraged me to stay and I spent a couple of days with the two of them. We listened to the many tracks that Ivan was working on, Joe giving him occasional instructions for overdubs and the like, and interjecting comments for my benefit.

We ate lunch overlooking the Pacific and Joe told me the history of the Zawinul Syndicate. He loved many of those musicians like they were his own children. The mere mention of their names would illicit an “Ohhhh…” followed by a comment of praise. Gary Poulson: “His rhythm was absolutely devastating .” Victor Bailey: “Oh man, Victor is baddd!.” Gerald Veasley: “We knew he was the guy within two tunes.” Paco Sery: “His beat is so deadly. A musican who plays the drums, not a drummer.” Linley Marthe: “Just a phenomenon.” Sabine Kabongo: “A total original.”

I asked about Ivan, who had been Joe’s right hand man for something like 17 years, but had recently stopped accompanying the band in Europe. “He’s a great musician. He’s not a player, he didn’t study music, but he’s actually a great musician. Sometimes when he tunes up my instruments he plays some shit that blows my mind. For me, he was the most important member of the band. He created so many sound effects. “Introduction to a Mighty Theme”–that’s his, referring to the sampled vocal arrangement. I played the chords, but it is really his composition as well. I miss him very much because now he only works with me in America and Japan. I miss him so tremendously.”

Over the years, whenever he was asked, Joe tended to say that his current band was his favorite, but I do think the last version of the Syndicate was in fact his very favorite. They had been together for three years–Sabine, Linley, Aziz Sahmaoui, Alegre Corréa, Jorge Bezerra, Jr. and either Nathaniel Townsley or Paco Sery on drums–and he described them all in loving terms. And what a band it was. You could hear it–and see it–in their performances. The level of energy they brought to the bandstand was just astonishing.

When I saw Joe that last time, I remember thinking that he seemed tired. I assumed it was the strain of tending to Maxine; he was spending a lot of time at the hospital and taking naps during the day. Ivan confided his concern that Joe wasn’t playing his keyboards, something that wasn’t like him. I didn’t know that Joe had cancer. When it was time to leave, for some reason I was compelled to walk up to him and give him a hug. I don’t know if he was a “hugger” or not, but I’m glad I did.

In April I got one of Joe’s typically terse emails: “I need immediately a short biography of ’20 Years of the Zawinul Syndicate’ for the summer tour promotion.” Okay, but how short (or long) of a bio did he want, I wondered. I started writing. “Joe, I’ve got one page so far. Should I just keep going?,” I asked him the next day. His response: “Keep on writing.” So I ignored the word count and just kept going. At about 3,500 words, it was the length of a Down Beat feature article. A little long for a promotional bio, I thought, but after he read the first draft he asked me to put in more details, making it even longer. I posted the result here.

Joe and I talked a few more times after that. He wanted me to come down so that he could tell me the stories behind the songs that would be on the 20 Years set. But that got delayed because the exact set of tunes was still in flux, and he said we should wait until he returned from Europe. He didn’t come back.

Later in his life Joe was sometimes asked why he was still on the road. He seemed almost incredulous at the question, responding with words to the effect that as a musician, performing was life. Being on the road, performing with the band–that was Joe’s life. And he did it right to the end.

I treasure the times I was able to spend with Joe. I miss him, but I also feel lucky to have gotten to know him on a personal level. He led an incredible life. His spirit and music will stay with me forever.

2 Messages

  1. Christopher Cavallo Writes:

    Thanks for posting this article and sharing your experiences with Joe. It was a joy to read.

  2. Pete van Nuys Writes:

    Kurt, just came across this very moving piece; thanks for sharing it. Since Joe passed I’ve tried to find other musical sources, composers, performers who could keep me moving forward. Life is about moving forward. But I am drawn back to the pure creative energy and art that Joe gave us as HE moved fearlessly forward. Love of his wife and family were clearly part of that energy. Thanx again for the site, man.