Joe Zawinul, A Short Biography


Legendary musician Joe Zawinul was one of the most influential jazz musicians of the twentieth century. He was a pioneer in the use of electronic musical instruments, bringing the electric piano into the mainstream, and possessed an unparalleled ability to make the synthesizer an expressive musical instrument. He composed some of the best-known standards in jazz, including “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” and “Birdland.” With Wayne Shorter, Joe founded and led Weather Report, arguably the most creative and successful band of post-sixties jazz. His unique combination of jazz fused with ethnic music from around the globe blazed the trail for what would later be called “world music.” Ultimately, Joe carved out a singular musical voice that is immediately identifiable and defies categorization. 

Josef Erich Zawinul was born July 7, 1932 in Vienna, Austria. His musical talent was apparent at an early age, and after his grandfather gave him an accordion, young Josef was often called upon to perform at family gatherings. At the age of seven, Joe was selected for enrollment in the prestigious Vienna Conservatory, where he studied classical piano, clarinet and violin. In the later stages of World War II, Vienna came under heavy Allied bombardment, and Josef and 28 of his conservatory classmates were evacuated to a large estate in the Czech Sudetenland, where he continued his studies while being forced to endure a regimented life that included war training under the direction of injured German SS officers. It was there that Josef heard jazz for the first time when a fellow student performed an impromptu version “Honeysuckle Rose” on the piano one evening.

After the war, Josef returned to Vienna and continued classical piano training while earning money by playing accordion in small combos. During the post-war years, Vienna was occupied by the Allied powers, and Joe began performing at clubs on American military bases, where his lifelong fascination with sound was spurred by access to a Hammond organ. In the fifties, Zawinul led his own groups and played in a series of increasingly high-profile Austrian bands, including the Austrian All Stars—the first bona fide Austrian jazz combo—and the Fatty George band. Yet, as his standing in the Austrian music scene rose, America beckoned to him. His contact with American culture via the military bases, American Armed Forces Radio, and the movies had whetted his appetite. But even more, he knew that he could only go so far as a jazz musician in Austria.

In 1958, noticing an advertisement in one of the few copies of Down Beat magazine to reach Vienna, Joe applied for a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Berklee accepted him, and on January 2, 1959, he boarded a boat for the five-day journey across the Atlantic. He carried with him his Berklee scholarship and $800 in his pocket. “I knew that it wouldn’t be easy,” he once recalled, “because I had no relatives, didn’t know a single person in America. But when I came over on the boat, I did it with the purpose to kick asses.”

Arriving in New York, one of Joe’s first stops was the famous jazz club, Birdland, where he experienced the American jazz scene for the first time. The club would hold special significance to Joe throughout his life. Not only was it symbolic of his arrival as a jazz musician, it was at Birdland that Joe met his wife, Maxine, with whom he would share over 40 years of marriage and raise three sons, Anthony, Erich and Ivan.

Joe’s stay at Berklee was brief. Within a few weeks, one of his instructors sent him to fill in as a substitute pianist at a local gig with bassist Gene Cherico and drummer Jake Hannah. Impressed, Hannah recommended Joe to the flamboyant trumpeter Maynard Ferguson that very night. The next day, Joe auditioned for Ferguson and landed his first job with a major US jazz band. Shortly thereafter, the Ferguson band needed a saxophonist. Among those auditioning was Wayne Shorter, who was hired in part on Joe’s recommendation. It was the first time the two would play together, but certainly not the last.

Joe stayed with Ferguson for eight months, playing on his highly regarded live album, A Night At Birdland, before getting hired by the popular jazz and blues singer, Dinah Washington. Joe immersed himself in the blues tradition that was Dinah’s bread and butter, and accompanied her on her biggest hit recording, “What A Diff’rence A Day Makes!” She would often travel with Ray Charles, and sometimes, when the house piano was not in good shape, Joe would play Ray’s Wurlitzer electric piano instead. It was Joe’s first significant exposure to the instrument, and he would put this experience to good use later.

While Joe enjoyed his time with Dinah, accompanying a vocalist was not his ultimate goal, nor was it the reason he took the risk of immigrating to the United States in the first place. His true calling was to be a jazz musician, and he knew that to realize that ambition, he would need to move on. He left Dinah after nineteen months and toured briefly with Sweets Edison and Joe Williams. Then, in the fall of 1961, he received the call to join the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, one of the highest profile jazz bands in the world. Joe would stay for nearly ten years.

With Cannonball, Joe got the opportunity to write, and in the fall of 1966 the quintet recorded one of Joe’s most enduring compositions, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” He conceived the tune while working with the gospel singer Esther Marrow. Leading up to the recording session, Joe played it on the acoustic piano, but as they drove to the recording date, he told Adderley that if the studio had an electric piano—the same one he had played with Dinah Washington—he would use it and they would have a smash hit. Sure enough, there was an electric piano, and as Joe predicted, “Mercy” was an instant success, reaching number 11 on the Billboard pop chart.

Joe’s relationship with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley was significant both on a musical and a personal level. The band members spent considerable time together, crisscrossing the country by automobile, and became very close. “He was family,” Joe once recalled. “He was my best man, my witness, when I got married. He bought bicycles for my kids. He was a great friend. He was like a brother to me.” Years after Adderley died in 1975 at age 46, he remained a presence in Zawinul’s life. “I miss him every day,” Joe reflected in 2004. “My wife and I, we talk about him somehow everyday.”

Joe’s later years with Adderley were ones of remarkable growth. He embarked on a rigorous practice regiment under the tutelage of Raymond Leventhal that culminated in Leventhal’s pronouncement that Joe had mastered the instrument to the point that he could play anything in the piano literature that he desired. In addition, Joe’s compositional voice blossomed and he became the band’s principal composer. Soul-jazz hits such as “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy,” “Walk Tall” and “Country Preacher” helped make Adderley a commercial success, while tunes like “74 Miles Away” and “Rumpelstiltskin” kept the band at the forefront of modern jazz. In all, Cannonball recorded over 50 of Zawinul’s tunes. Joe also found time to record two albums under his own name, Money In the Pocket (1965) and The Rise And Fall Of The Third Stream (1966).

All of this led to an increased interest from the legendary trumpeter Miles Davis. Miles was intrigued by Joe’s use of the electric piano, seeking out Adderley Quintet performances so that he could hear Joe play it live. It wasn’t long before Miles was demanding that his own pianist, Herbie Hancock, use the instrument. Miles was also attracted to Joe’s compositions, and in winter of 1968-9 he invited Joe to the recording sessions that produced the seminal album In A Silent Way, the centerpiece of which was Joe’s song of the same name.

Over the next year, Joe recorded with Miles several more times, playing on and providing compositions for the albums Bitches Brew, Big Fun, and Live-Evil. At the time, Miles’ regular saxophonist and principal composer was Wayne Shorter, and he and Joe began talking about putting a band together. Joe later said that he knew he would one day have a band with Wayne when he first heard the Miles Davis album Nefertiti a few years earlier at the home of Bill Russell, the famous American basketball player.

In 1970, Joe recorded his third album, the eponymous Zawinul, which Down Beat described as “the work of a complete musician who has transcended categories and is certain to have a profound influence on the direction music will take in the ‘70s.” Those words soon proved prophetic when Joe and Wayne formed the jazz super group Weather Report at the end of the year. The band’s first album was highly anticipated and released to critical acclaim the next spring. In his lengthy review for Down Beat, Dan Morgenstern wrote, “The music of Weather Report is beyond category… music unlike any other I’ve heard, music that is very contemporary but also very warm, very human, and very beautiful… The forecast, if there is justice, must be clear skies and sunny days for these four creative men and their associates.”

Weather Report became the most popular jazz band of its time, winning the Down Beat readers poll as best jazz band or electric jazz combo every year of its existence. Its rise coincided with the development of the synthesizer. Technological advancements during the sixties helped to move electronic music synthesis from academic and audio laboratories to recording studios. By 1970, synthesizer manufacturers were producing instruments that were small enough and portable enough to be incorporated into recording sessions and live performances.

Joe got his first serious synthesizer in 1971, an Arp 2600, given to him by Arp Instruments in the hopes of raising the company’s profile as it competed with its more entrenched competitor, Moog Music. Joe first used the 2600 on Weather Report’s second album, I Sing The Body Electric. One of the songs is “Unknown Soldier,” an ambitious work that was inspired by Joe’s experiences as a youngster in war-torn Austria. The Arp played a limited role, producing sound effects.

Weather Report’s third album, 1973’s Sweetnighter, marked a turning point. Joe brought in two compositions based on long grooves, and hired a drummer and electric bass player who were well versed in funk. The band was moving in a new direction, which was fully realized in Weather Report’s fourth album, Mysterious Traveller. The addition of bass player Alphonso Johnson cemented the band’s transition to one that combined elements of jazz and rock in a way that was unique and timeless. Joe’s orchestrating talents and mastery of electric keyboards truly came to the fore, and the band broke new ground with each succeeding album.

Enabled by new technology, Joe recorded his improvisations at home on a cassette deck (and later with MIDI in his home studio he and Maxine dubbed “The Music Room”), and then either used them directly as the tune’s base (as with “Nubian Sundance” and “Jungle Book” on Mysterious Traveller), or transcribed them note-for-note so that the band could play them as Joe originally conceived them. It was a method Joe would use throughout his life. “It is all improvisation,” he once said of his composing style. “All my tunes are improvisations. I’m a formal improviser. Even my symphony I improvised.”

For 1976’s Black Market, Joe recruited the electric bass phenom Jaco Pastorius, who introduced himself to Joe as “the world’s greatest bass player.” Pastorius lived up to his own billing, and is now regarded as the greatest innovator of his instrument. With Jaco in the fold, Weather Report recorded its most successful album, Heavy Weather, which included Joe’s breakout hit, “Birdland.” The album reached number 30 on the Billboard pop album chart, selling over half a million copies. In his January 2001 Down Beat retrospective on the band, journalist Josef Woodard said, “In 2000, Heavy Weather still sounds like a milestone in the cultural unconscious of jazz history. By some accounts, the album is the crowning achievement of the band’s recorded output, and therefore, by extension, a towering landmark of fusion.”

By the time Zawinul and Shorter brought Weather Report to a close in 1985, the band had produced 15 albums, including the Grammy award winning 1979 live double-album, 8:30. Weather Report was a perennial winner of awards in music publications around the world. The band left behind a legacy that noted jazz critic Stuart Nicholson once described as “one of the most significant bodies of work in post-1960s jazz.” Tossed into the fusion or jazz-rock category by writers and critics, the truth is Weather Report was a genre all its own. As Joe once put it, “Weather Report is the leader in a field of one.”

After Weather Report, Joe concentrated on some oft-delayed personal projects. He recorded the first album under his own name in fifteen years-Dialects-a tour de force in the use of synthesizers and drum machines, augmented by the human voice, most notably Bobby McFerrin. Joe also teamed up with the great classical pianist Friedrich Gulda—a fellow Austrian and long-time friend—for a series of duo performances, and likewise toured with the Indian percussionist Trilok Gurtu. In the early nineties, Joe crossed over to the classical realm, composing the symphony Stories of the Danube, which was commissioned by the Brucknerhaus for the opening of the 1993 Bruckner Festival in Linz, Austria. It was later recorded by Phillips Classics and released on CD in 1996.

But it was his new band that became Joe’s primary musical vehicle for the rest of his life. He called it the Zawinul Syndicate because “when you are in the Syndicate, you are not just in a band, you are in a family.” The Syndicate would evolve to include musicians from around the world, creating a musical synthesis unlike anything else. Formed in 1988, the earliest version of the band featured Gerald Veasley on bass and Scott Henderson on guitar, and recorded three albums for Columbia, The Immigrants (1988), Black Water (1989) and Lost Tribes (1992).

Meanwhile, Joe was asked to arrange and produce a new album by Salif Keita, the great Malian singer known as the Golden Voice of Africa. That collaboration resulted in the Grammy-nominated Amen, which became the best-selling world music album of 1991. It was a signpost in Zawinul’s musical journey. “I improvised the arrangements from the lead tracks that Salif sent, and then I went to Paris to rehearse it with the band. They loved the music immediately. We had so much fun. That was for me the most personal and nicest experience of all the records I’ve made. They were the kindest, the most open people. And I was struck by how well they played the rhythms, because I put my own things in there.” That Zawinul would find an instant affinity with these musicians was not a coincidence, as he would come to learn. “‘Black Market’ was for 20 years the theme song of the Radio Dakaur jazz hour,” he recalled. “They grew up with ‘Black Market,’ ‘Nubian Sundance’ from Mysterious Traveller, all the Weather Report songs.”

After Amen, the personnel of the Syndicate took on a decidedly international flavor, which was highlighted on Zawinul’s 1996 Grammy-nominated album, My People. Several years in the making, My People demonstrated Zawinul’s remarkable ability to fuse his own unique musical sensibilities with those from other cultures. It was a high point in the Zawinul discography, and marked the recording debut of a new edition of the Syndicate powered by the incomparable drummer Paco Sery from the Ivory Coast, who seemed born to play Joe’s music. When Richard Bona took over the bass chair in 1997, the Syndicate raised the level of intensity yet another notch, the results of which were preserved on the Grammy-nominated two-disc set World Tour, a triumphant album that captured the visceral energy of the band’s live performances.

In his later years, Joe continued to pursue special projects in addition to his activities with the Syndicate. In 1998, he was commissioned to compose a musical memorial to the victims of the Holocast, which he performed at the site of the Mauthausen concentration camp on the sixtieth anniversary of the start of its construction near Linz, Austria. In 2004, Joe realized a long-held dream by opening his own jazz club, Joe Zawinul’s Birdland, in his hometown of Vienna. And in 2006, he collaborated with Vince Mendoza and the WDR Big Band on a series of performances that revisited classics from Joe’s Weather Report catalog, resulting in the live double-CD Brown Street.

Joe’s final album, 75, was recorded live with the Syndicate on his 75th birthday at Lugano, Switzerland. By then, Joe was suffering from the effects of terminal cancer. His wife, Maxine, was also critically ill and passed away later that month. Yet, the performance is filled with the raw energy and creativity that were the hallmarks of Joe’s music. Late 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, music was life. Being on the road, performing with the band–that was Joe’s life. And he did it right to the end. Two months later, he died in Vienna, on September 11, 2007.

Zawinul was named Best Electric Keyboardist 28 times by the readers of Down Beat magazine and his albums won two Amadeus Austrian Music Awards. He is also the recipient of the 2000 Hans Koller Austrian State Prize; the 2002 Ring of Honor awarded by the City of Vienna; the first International Jazz Award, co-presented in 2002 by the International Jazz Festival Organization and the International Association of Jazz Educators; the 2002 North Sea Jazz Festival Bird Award, the 2003 Montreal Jazz Festival Miles Davis Award; and the Silver Medal for Meritorious Service to the Republic of Austria. Joe holds honorary doctorates from Berklee School of Music, Three Town College in New York and the Acadamy of Music in Graz, Austria. The Austrian Post honored him with a special stamp in 2004, and he was the official Austrian goodwill ambassador to seventeen African nations.

“My dad raised the bar in the music world as a true artist to his profession,” says Anthony Zawinul, Joe’s eldest son. “He never compromised his art. You either liked it or you didn’t. One thing is for sure though, you always knew it was Joe Zawinul. As a bandleader, he was able to pull out performances from his bandmates and take them to heights they never knew existed.”

5 thoughts on “Joe Zawinul, A Short Biography

  1. enzo lópez fedelli

    El mundo perdio un gran musico, que nos permitio conocer y escuchar una musica tan especial que solo El con su grupo Syndicate, interpreto en sus conciertos..

  2. Jamal St thomas

    ive alway tryed to play with the freedom of joe. I loved the way he composed song. you will alway live in my sprit joe ,R.I.P

  3. Jim Johnston

    Joe Z. started me on a journey lasting from about 1975 to the present. I can’t even put into words what his music has meant to me. I just have to try to live it in my own way as a musician. I dare not copy his style, but rest assured that his influence is still there as a subtle substratum underneath much of my improvisation.

  4. Karsten Schroeder

    Happy to come across these lines on a great man and milestone in music history. Thanks!

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