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Zawinul, Joe

Joe Zawinul

Austrian-born jazz keyboardist Joe Zawinul (1932-2007) helped create the rock-influenced modern jazz style known as fusion, and he is generally credited with introducing the electric piano and the synthesizer to the jazz genre.

The Daily Telegraph of London called Zawinul “the most influential European in jazz since Django Reinhardt.” Zawinul, like the Belgian guitarist, was descended from Gypsies (and specifically from the Sinti Gypsy subgroup). Zawinul's career encompassed several distinct stages, and he never settled into a fixed style or stopped experimenting. Best known for his years with the pioneering fusion group Weather Report in the 1970s and 1980s, Zawinul was already a veteran of stylistically significant interactions with saxophonist Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and trumpeter Miles Davis when he formed that band, and he went on to contribute to the formation of the world music genre after Weather Report dissolved. In the words of John L. Walters, writing on the Unknown Public Web site, “Many current forms of music, and the myriad sounds, samples and beats that inform them, were influenced or predicted by Zawinul, the grand old man of electronic world jazz fusion.”

Started on Accordion

Josef Erich Zawinul was born on July 7, 1932, in Vienna, Austria. Nothing in his background suggested the levels of musical accomplishment to which he would rise, but his mother was an enthusiastic singer and his father, a gas company clerk, sometimes played harmonica. Zawinul's first instrument was the accordion, on which he entertained his family and for which he retained a lifelong affection. The family had no piano in their small Vienna apartment, but by the time he was six it had become clear that his talents were well beyond the norm, and his family sought out classical piano lessons. The faculty at the Vienna Conservatory were so impressed with the youngster's skills that he was enrolled for free lessons in clarinet, violin, and composition over the next several years. Among his classmates was the experiment-minded classical pianist Friedrich Gilda. Zawinul also formed a dance-music duo with future Austrian president Thomas Lentil.

The key discovery of Zawinul's youth was American jazz, which, having been forbidden during the Nazi era, held a strong fascination for young people in Germanspeaking regions. Zawinul first heard jazz when he was about 12, and after the end of World War II he heard the playing of jazz pianists Errol Garner and Britain's George Shearing. It did not take him long to settle on a career. “I saw what I wanted to do with my life,” he was quoted as saying in the Daily Telegraph, “and that was to play with black musicians.” By 1952 he was backing Austrian saxophonist Hans Keller and touring Germany and France with a trio of his own. He was obsessed with the idea of coming to the United States. Fellow musicians teased him, at one point arranging a bogus phone summons asking him to join vocalist Ella Fitzgerald on the road; Zawinul, after learning the truth, then ignored a similar but genuine call from trumpeter Clark Terry.

Zawinul finally got his chance when he won a onesemester scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston in 1958, but once he was on American shores he found that he did not need it. Before even finishing his scholarship term, he was snapped up by trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, in whose band he remained for eight months. Zawinul played keyboards for vocalist Dinah Washington from 1959 to 1961. That year he began a nineyear stint with Adderley, whose music, in contrast to that of radical 1960s players like Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane, retained strong underpinnings of soul music and other popular African-American styles. The saxophonist, spotting how quickly the Austrian pianist had absorbed these idioms, encouraged him to compose, and Zawinul delivered the 1966 hit “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” as well as several other successful Adderley tunes. Zawinul's solo on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” was among the first uses of an electric piano on a jazz recording. Interracial bands were still not common in jazz, and Zawinul sometimes had to crouch on the floor of a car when touring with Adderley's group in the rural South.

Zawinul was a success by any standard, but he was troubled by the idea that he was simply imitating the styles of other musicians, however expertly, rather than functioning as a true jazz creator. Things came to a head when pianist Barry Harris complimented Zawinul on playing that sounded remarkably similar to his own. Zawinul was flattered at first, but after thinking the episode over, decided to pack up his jazz record collection and force himself to strike out in new directions. He enrolled for a new round of classical lessons with pianist Raymond Leventhal in 1966. After seven months of giving lessons, Leventhal stated that he had no more to teach Zawinul, and gave him a silent practice keyboard as a gift.

Turned Down Lucrative Gig

Newly married to his wife Maxine (also recognized as the first African-American Playboy bunny), and with a growing family (the couple raised three sons), Zawinul received a tempting offer in the late 1960s: the chance to realize his originally frustrated dream of performing with Ella Fitzgerald. Promoter Norman Granz offered him a salary of $1,400 a week to fill the vacant keyboard spot in Fitzgerald's band, a substantial raise from the $300 a week he was making with Adderley. But Zawinul by that time was closely following Miles Davis's new experiments in fusing rock and jazz, and he felt he had original ideas of his own in that vein. He asked Granz for five minutes to consider the offer and consulted Maxine, who, as Zawinul recalled to Walters, said “No. You do what you have to do. I can make do with $300 and I have time to wait until you have your thing.”

An energized Zawinul began to work on a set of new compositions that reflected the emerging fusion trend, and Davis, who had earlier taken notice of Zawinul's “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” solo and suggested that the keyboardist join his band, paid close attention. Zawinul's “A Silent Way” became the title track for a 1969 Davis LP, and the Zawinul pieces “Pharaoh's Dance” and “Double Image” were prominently featured on Davis's Bitches Brew (1970) and Live–Evil (1971), both regarded as jazz classics. Zawinul himself appeared on all three albums but never formally joined Davis's band, and when Zawinul released a solo album, simply titled Zawinul, in 1970, he refused Davis's suggestion that he appear on the album in turn, telling the trumpeter that his presence would be too powerful. Davis ended up endorsing Zawinul's effort with a set of liner notes.

By that time Zawinul, along with two Davis alumni, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous, were on the point of creating a new group of their own. Weather Report came together in November of 1970 and recorded its first eponymously titled debut album in 1971. Signed to the Columbia label, the group was successful from the start with both critics and fans, although the electronic emphasis of the music alienated some jazz traditionalists. Zawinul became increasingly important as a creative force in the group, beginning with the 1973 album Sweetnighter, moving from the electric piano to the rapidly developing synthesizer, and finding new potential in an instrument that until then had remained mostly in the pop sphere. Zawinul and Shorter remained the only constants in a revolving cast of group members, and Zawinul found new challenges as talented players such as bassist Jaco Pastorius signed on.

Weather Report's live shows, as captured on the album 8:30 (1979), were unpredictable freeform affairs, and their albums I Sing the Body Electric (1971), Mysterious Traveller (1974), and Night Passage (1980) were fixtures of fastgrowing FM radio, popular among jazz, R&B, and pop audiences alike. Most successful of all was Heavy Weather (1976), with its Zawinul-composed international hit “Birdland,” named in honor of a New York jazz club that was in turn named for bebop saxophone pioneer Charlie Parker, known as “Bird.” Zawinul himself opened a Birdland club in his hometown of Vienna.

Released Solo Albums

Weather Report continued to release albums regularly into the mid-1980s, but Zawinul (who was becoming increasingly interested in world music traditions) and Shorter began to evolve in different directions musically, and dissolved Weather Report in 1985. Zawinul released several solo albums, beginning with Dialects in 1986, that were virtually one-man shows recorded in his home studio in Pasadena, California. In these recordings, Zawinul gave free rein to his imaginative explorations of the possibilities of the synthesizer. In 1987 Zawinul formed a new group, the Zawinul Syndicate; he would tour with that group, which again included various members over the course of its existence, until the end of his life.

The members of the Zawinul Syndicate increasingly came from non-Western countries, as Zawinul became more and more interested in musical traditions from around the world. The influence went both ways: Zawinul discovered that the Weather Report tune “Black Market” had been used as a theme song on Radio Dakar in the West African nation of Senegal, and in 1991 he produced the Amen album of Senegalese star Salif Keita. Subsequently he recruited such musicians as percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, guitarist Amit Chatterjee, and singers Thania Sanchez and Sabine Kabongo. The genre of world music, often featuring local ethnic styles mixed into complex electronic textures, was in its infancy in the early 1990s, and Zawinul was ahead of the curve in experimenting with the cross-cultural mixtures that flowered over the course of the next decade.

Zawinul remained active on a variety of fronts in addition to his work with the Zawinul Syndicate. He performed with his old friend Friedrich Gulda in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and he returned to classical music on a large scale with the symphonic work Stories of the Danube in 1993. In 1994 he moved to New York City, and the move enabled him to make faster trips to Europe, where he had maintained musical connections all through his American career. In the early 2000s Zawinul released several new solo albums, Faces & Places (2002), Midnight Jam (2005), and Brown Street (2007).

That year, as the Zawinul Syndicate toured Europe to celebrate its twentieth anniversary, Zawinul was stricken with Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. After a month at Wilhelmina Hospital in Vienna, Zawinul died there on September 11, 2007. By that time, fusion jazz had achieved renewed popularity after a period during which it was eclipsed by acoustic styles, and Zawinul increasingly appeared to be one of the true musical prophets of the twentieth century.


Glasser, Brian, A Silent Way: A Portrait of Joe Zawinul, Sanctuary, 2001.


Daily Telegraph (London, England), September 12, 2007.

Fort Worth Star-Telegram, September 16, 2007.

Guardian (London, England), September 13, 2007.

New York Times, September 12, 2007.

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ), September 12, 2007.

Variety, September 17, 2007.


“Joe Zawinul,” All Music Guide, http:/ (January 1, 2008).

“Joe Zawinul Profile,” Unknown Public, (January 1, 2008).

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Zawinul, Joe

Joe Zawinul


Keyboardist Joe Zawinul was a pioneer of jazz fusion who brought the electric piano and synthesizer into the jazz sound, and who wrote many well-known songs that have become standards in jazz. He was also known for his work with Miles Davis and Weather Report.

Zawinul was born Josef Erich Zawinul in Vienna, Austria, in 1932. His father, Erich, was a clerk with the gas company who played the harmonica for his own enjoyment; his mother sang, and had perfect pitch. Zawinul's musical gifts were obvious very early: like his mother, he had perfect pitch. As a young child he learned to play the accordion, which he used to entertain his family. Vienna was a city that emphasized music; its dialect, Zawinul told John L. Walters in Unknown Public, "is a soft language, a musical language, it's like a walking bass line."

Zawinul's family lived in a poor part of the city and could not afford to own a piano, but Zawinul's talent led the Vienna Conservatory to offer him free piano lessons, as well as lessons in violin and clarinet. When he was 12, he heard jazz for the first time, and amused himself by working out harmonies to the songs on the jazz records he heard. He played as a jazz and dance band musician before working as a studio musician and broadcaster. In addition, he worked as the house pianist for Polydor Records. However, World War II had left Austria ravaged, and in search of a better career as a jazz player, Zawinul applied for a scholarship at the Berklee School of Music in Boston, Massachusetts. He won the scholarship in 1959, and emigrated to the United States to accept it. He lasted only a few weeks before quitting to play with Maynard Ferguson's well-known big band and go on the road touring with them. In that same year, Miles Davis offered him a job, but Zawinul told him it was not the right time. Someday, however, they would make music together.

Zawinul also played with Dinah Washington and Harry "Sweets" Edison. In 1961 he joined saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. He played with Adderley for nine years. During this time, however, the widespread appeal of jazz was eroded by the growth of rock and roll, which took over the airwaves. Adderley managed to hold onto his audience during this turbulent time, helped by Zawinul's huge hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." At some point during his Adderley decade, though, Zawinul began some introspective thinking about what he really wanted to do in jazz. Did he want to play like other master musicians, or did he want to develop his own style? At one point, bebop piano player Barry Harris congratulated him on a recording in which Zawinul played exactly like Harris. At first Zawinul was pleased that he, a European, could play bebop piano just like a native New Yorker. But then he decided that copying others was not what he wanted to do, and for a while he stopped listening to others' music so he could have a clear space to invent his own style. His wife, Maxine, fully supported all his career choices, even though the couple had three small children to raise. "I have a great wife," Zawinul once said, according to Walters. "And I believe it takes a great wife to become a great man."

He then joined up with Miles Davis, and wrote and played on two major albums that helped shape the birth of electric jazz: Bitches Brew and In a Silent Way. Zawinul never joined Davis's band, because he wanted to find his own way. When Davis wanted to play on Zawinul's solo, self-titled album, Zawinul told him, according to Walters, "If you're on the record, your presence will be so powerful I cannot find out what I am worth." He asked Davis to write the liner notes instead. Walters quoted Davis as writing, "In order to write this type of music you have to be free inside of yourself and be Josef Zawinul with two beige kids, a black wife, two pianos, from Vienna, a Cancer and ‘cliché’ free."

In 1971 Zawinul joined Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitous, who had also played with Miles Davis, to create Weather Report, a band that incorporated African and Middle Eastern influences into its music. The band had a somewhat shifting cast of characters-the bassists and drummers changed often-but produced the 1977 hit "Birdland." In Bass Player, Jonathan Herrera described the band as "a free jazz experiment, a world music pioneer, a jazz-pop blockbuster, and a seriously grooving funk band." According to Walters, jazz trumpeter Ian Carr commented that Zawinul's career was unusual because "instead of doing his most innovative work when he was young, the whole of his earlier life seems like a prolonged apprenticeship and preparation for the brilliant originality and sustained artistry of Weather Report."

In 1985 Zawinul and Shorter split up and Zawinul went back to solo performing, backed by keyboards and drum machines. He released a solo album, Dialects, and created a band called Zawinul Syndicate, which toured Europe. The Syndicate incorporated themes and elements of world music into their jazz style; these elements included Native American, African, Asian, and Latin touches. This was a difficult time in the jazz world. Many talented performers had died, and the genre was looking for a new definition for itself. Walters wrote that "jazz was about to enter an acoustic neo-classical phase that has dominated the genre for nearly two decades. … a whole turbulent era seemed to be shutting down." Jazz labels closed or were merged into other labels, and "smooth jazz" dominated the scene. Although other musicians hopped on the neo-classical, smooth jazz bandwagon, Zawinul continued to compose and play his own brand of jazz. In 2005 Zawinul received the Electric Keyboardist of the Year award from Down Beat magazine.

In 2006 Sony released a three-disc boxed set of Weather Report recordings, called Weather Report—Forecast: Tomorrow. The set covered the band's career from 1971 to 1985, including previously unreleased early work, and included a DVD of a 1978 concert performance. In Bass Player Jonathan Herrera wrote that for listeners who had only heard the band's popular work, "early Weather Report will be a surprise" because of its "restless experimentalism" and "ambitious embracing of new sounds, feels, and technology."

For the Record …

Born on July 7, 1932, in Vienna, Austria; married Maxine (died 2007); three sons. Education: Attended Vienna Conservatory as a child; briefly attended Berklee College of Music, but dropped out to play professionally.

Played with Maynard Ferguson, 1959-61; played with Dinah Washington; played with Cannonball Adderley; released Mercy, Mercy, Mercy (1966); released Money in the Pocket, 1966; released The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream, 1967; played with Miles Davis; released Bitches Brew, 1969; released In a Silent Way, 1969; released Zawinul, 1971; founded Weather Report, 1970; released Weather Report, 1971; I Sing the Body Electric, 1972; Live in Tokyo, 1972; Sweetnighter, 1973; Mysterious Traveller, 1974; Tale Spinnin, 1975; Black Market, 1976; HeavyWeather, 1977; Mr. Gone, 1978; 8.30, 1979; Night Passage, 1980; Weather Report, 1982; Procession, 1983; Domino Theory, 1984; Dialects, 1985; Sportin' Life, 1985; This is This, 1986; founded Zawinul Syndicate; released The Immigrants, 1988; Black Water, 1989; Amen, 1991; Lost Tribes, 1992; Crazy Saints, 1993; Stories of the Danube, 1996; My People, 1996.

Awards: Down Beat, Electric Keyboardist of the Year, 2005.

In 2007 Zawinul released Brown Street. The album was recorded live at his Birdland club in Vienna and featured electric jazz-rock classics that were originally played by Weather Report. A reviewer in Billboard praised the "refreshed exuberance" of the tunes, and deemed the album "highly recommended for musical merit." Zawinul died on September 11, 2007, from Merkel cell carcinoma, a rare form of skin cancer. His wife had died earlier in 2007; he is survived by his three sons.

Selected discography

(With Cannonball Adderley) Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, Capitol Jazz, 1966.

Money in the Pocket, Atlantic, 1966.

The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream, Atlantic, 1967.

(With Miles Davis) Bitches Brew, Sony, 1969.

(With Miles Davis) In a Silent Way, CBS/Sony, 1969.

Zawinul, Atlantic, 1971.

Dialects, CBS, 1985.

(With the Zawinul Syndicate) The Immigrants, CBS, 1988.

(With the Zawinul Syndicate) Black Water, CBS, 1989.

(With Salif Keita) Amen, Mango/Island, 1991.

(With the Zawinul Syndicate) Lost Tribes, CBS, 1992.

(With Trilok Gurtu) Crazy Saints, CMP, 1993.

Stories of the Danube, Phillips, 1996.

My People, Escapade, 1996.

Brown Street, Sony, 2007.

With Weather Report

Weather Report, CBS, 1971.

I Sing the Body Electric, CBS, 1972.

Live in Tokyo, Sony, 1972.

Sweetnighter, CBS, 1973.

Mysterious Traveller, CBS, 1974.

Tale Spinnin, CBS, 1975.

Black Market, CBS, 1976.

Heavy Weather, CBS, 1977.

Mr. Gone, CBS, 1978.

8.30, CBS, 1979.

Night Passage, CBS, 1980.

Weather Report, CBS, 1982.

Procession, CBS, 1983.

Domino Theory, CBS, 1984.

Sportin' Life, CBS, 1985.

This is This, CBS, 1986.

Weather Report—Forecast: Tomorrow, Sony, 2006.



Bass Player, October 1, 2006, p. 67.

Billboard, March 3, 2007, p. 45.

Daily Variety, September 19, 2007.

Down Beat, December 2005, p. 60.


"Joe Zawinul: Obituary," Times (London, England), September 12, 2007, (February 18, 2008).

"Joe Zawinul profile," Unknown Public, (February 17, 2008).

—Kelly Winters

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Zawinul, Joe


Born: Josef Erich Zawinul; Vienna, Austria, 7 July 1932

Genre: Jazz, Fusion, Afro-Pop, World

Best-selling album since 1990: Faces & Places (2002)

Joe Zawinul is not conventionally associated with either the Viennese school of composers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries (Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Ludwig van Beethoven) or that of the early twentieth century (Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern)yet he is a verifiable Viennese composer. Zawinul was born in Vienna, Austria, raised during the country's economic depression, affected by World War II and its dislocations, and drawn to jazz during America's postwar occupation of Germany. Emerging musically in late 1950s and 1960s America, Zawinul attained prominence as a founding member of the band Weather Report, and as writer of such electric jazz-rock fusion staples as "Boogie Woogie Waltz." Since the 1990s his music has increasingly reflected rhythms and harmonies from Africa, Asia, South America, and Eastern Europe, transformed through his electric keyboards and synthesizers.

Zawinul picked up the accordion as a child, practicing it backward and upside down to scramble its key and button sequences for greater independence of his hands. In his teens, he enrolled in the Vienna Conservatory to study classical piano and composition. Influenced by British-born pianist George Shearing and self-taught, exuberant Erroll Garner, Zawinul worked with Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller in 1952, then led his own trio in France and Germany. He was befriended by Austrian classical pianist Friedrich Gulda, with whom he made his recording debut playing four-hand in 1953.

Winning a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in 1958, Zawinul came to the United States but left school after one week to join trumpeter Maynard Ferguson's band, into which he helped induct saxophonist Wayne Shorter. While employed by Ferguson, Zawinul also met jazz great Miles Davis, who in the late 1960s solicited compositions from Zawinul that he performed for the rest of his life.

Zawinul accompanied soul-jazz singer Dinah Washington (in 19591961) prior to being hired by the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, one of jazz's few simultaneously successful and progressive bands. Zawinul wrote several songs for Adderley's book, employing a Wurlitzer electric piano he found in a recording studio hall on his biggest Adderley band hit, the gospel-derived "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Zawinul also accompanied mainstream musicians, including saxophonist Ben Webster, in traditional jazz piano style.

Though Zawinul recorded several times with Miles Davis (starting with In a Silent Way, to which he contributed the title track), he was never formally a member of Davis's band. He did, however, steal Davis's tenor saxophonist Shorter in December 1970 to establish Weather Report, an audacious ensemble that incorporated unfettered use of new electronic instruments and open-structured collective jazz improvisation along with African, Caribbean, and Brazilian percussion, bowed bass solos, and boldly declarative melodies. Under Zawinul's increasing direction, and especially with the addition of electric bassist Jaco Pastorius in 1976, Weather Report grew to emphasize grooves over unanchored electronic sound fields. Its best-known song, "Birdland" (1977), was covered by Maynard Ferguson's brass-heavy band and the vocal quartet Manhattan Transfer, among others.

When Shorter left Weather Report in 1985, Zawinul operated as a one-man band, overdubbing solo, rhythm, and chordal tracks in his home studio for Dialects (1986). The sound he continued to purvey with young musicians in his new band, Zawinul Syndicate, over a series of albums (including Lost Tribes, 1992) was similar to Weather Report's, though electric guitarists took on lead lines, and Zawinul emulated Shorter's soprano saxophone timbres and phraseology on his Korg Pepe wind synthesizer. He is master of techniques allowing overdubbed tracks to breathe, bubble, and swing.

Zawinul encourages a one-world political viewpoint, mingling musicians, as well as music, from around the world. He produced Mali vocalist Salif Keita's Grammy Awardnominated Amen (1991), adding an electric gloss without obscuring the music's indigenous authenticity, and employing Shorter and guitarist Carlos Santana as guest artists. Keita sang on Zawinul's My People (1996), along with a Siberian throat singer, Anatolian percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Venezuelan Thania Sanchez, the Turkish Burhan Ocal, Cameroonian Richard Bona, and background vocalists from Peru, Guinea, and the Ivory Coast.

Zawinul reflects on his European heritage, too, especially in his symphonic work, Stories of the Danube (1996), which he orchestrated for his keyboards and processed vocals, plus guitar, oud, percussion, and drums, all accompanying the Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra Brno, conducted by Caspar Richter. The seven-movement, sixty-three-minute work follows the river's meander from spring-head to sea, with reference to diverse historical eras and a fully orchestrated rendition of his "Unknown Soldier" from Weather Report's I Sing the Body Electric (1972). As Weather Report's reissues and previously unreleased material came out in 2003, coupled with Zawinul's touring and participation in major festivals worldwide and his release of new albums on his own ESC Records label (including the Grammy-nominated Faces and Places [2002]), the sweep and unflagging energy of his career gained hold on new generations of jazz, world, and electronic musicians globally.


The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream (Vortex, 1965); Zawinul (Atlantic, 1970); Dialects (Columbia, 1986); My People (Escapade Music, 1992); Stories of the Danube (Polygram, 1995); World Tour (Zebra, 1998); Faces and Places (ESC, 2002). With the Cannonball Adderley Quintet: Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at "The Club" (Capitol Jazz, 1995). With Miles Davis: The Complete Bitches Brew Sessions (Columbia Legacy, 1998); The Complete In a Silent Way Sessions (Columbia Legacy, 2001). With Weather Report: Weather Report (Columbia, 1971); I Sing the Body Electric (Columbia, 1972); Sweetnighter (Columbia, 1973); Heavy Weather (Columbia, 1977); Live and Unreleased (Columbia Legacy, 2003).

howard mandel

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