Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Zawinul, Joe (Josef Erich)

Joe Zawinul was at the forefront of bridging jazz with world music, and one of the first to introduce electronic sounds to the genre. He was instrumental in the formation of jazz-rock fusion, starting with his collaboration with Miles Davis on the albums Bitches Brew and In A Silent Way.

Joe (Josef Erich) Zawinul was born on July 7, 1932 in Vienna, Austria, and died in Vienna on September 11, 2007 from complications of skin cancer. Zawinul continued to perform through 2007, and is survived by three sons, Erich, Ivan, and Anthony.

                         Joe Zawinul, by Jos L. Knaepen

Pepe, as Zawinul was known as a child, spent his early years living and working on his family’s farm. His father was also a weightlifter, and his mother a self-taught mathematician, who had perfect pitch. She came from a family of sixteen siblings. Her mother was Roma or Gypsy, and as a child Zawinul learned Gypsy songs.

Growing up, he was exposed to the ravages of the Second World War and its aftermath. These experiences had a profound impact on his outlook, which he later documented in his compositions. One childhood friend was Thomas Klestil, who would go on to become president of Austria in 1988.

Zawinul began to play the accordion at age four. He moved on to the piano, and was formally trained at the Vienna Conservatory. His professional career in Austria included gigs playing in television bands and big band. From 1954 to 1957, he played piano and vibraphone in a band called the Austrian All-Stars.

In 1959, Zawinul moved to Boston with the aid of a scholarship to attend the Berklee School of Music. However, he left the school that same year to begin playing professionally. He soon joined trumpeter Maynard Ferguson’s band, where he met and befriended saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Zawinul recorded with Ferguson's 13-piece band on the album A Message from Birdland for Roulette, which featured trombonist Slide Hampton's arrangement of “Oleo.”

After being dismissed from Ferguson’s band for trying to exert to much control over hiring practices, Zawinul played with vocalist Dinah Washington from 1959 to 1961. Zawinul then joined alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley’s quintet, a working relationship that lasted for more than nine years. The Cannonball Adderley Quintet included Zawinul on piano, Cannonball Adderley on alto saxophone, Nat Adderley on trumpet and cornet, Victor Gaskin on bass, and Roy McCurdy on drums.

The band enjoyed commercial success throughout the 1960s, in large part thanks to Zawinul’s song “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” This song appears on the Cannonball Adderley album of the same name, was a top-ten hit in the spring of 1967.

In 1969, trumpeter Miles Davis invited Zawinul to join him in the studio to record the albums In a Silent Way and Bitches' Brew. Zawinul composed the title track for In a Silent Way., This album also features Herbie Hancock on electric piano, Chick Corea on electric piano, Dave Holland on bass, Wayne Shorter on soprano saxophone, Tony Williams on drums, and John McLaughlin on guitar.

On Bitches Brew, Zawinul composed the song “Pharaoh’s Dance.” It was on these sessions that Zawinul began to move beyond the traditional sounds of piano jazz, by incorporating the recently-invented Fender Rhodes and waveform synthesizers into his keyboard arsenal.

These albums achieved unprecedented sales and contributed to the rise in popularity of jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s and 1980s. Zawinul and Shorter, Corea, Hancock, and McLaughlin, all veterans of these sessions with Davis, would virtually define the sound of fusion.

In 1971 Zawinul released the album Zawinul for Warner Records, and Weather Report, a group album for Columbia. Weather Report’s first incarnation included Czech-born bassist Miroslav Vitous, who would stay with the group through three albums, as well as percussionist Airto Moreira and drummer Alphonse Mouzon.

Many of the compositions on Weather Report are free in form, and contain extensive use of both improvisation and group interaction, very much in the vein of Bitches’ Brew. The group’s second release, I Sing The Body Electric in 1972, built organically on this foundation.

One striking composition, “The Unknown Soldier,” recalls an encounter Zawinul and his brother had during World War II in which they buried a dead German soldier.

The group’s third release in 1973, Sweetnighter, still contained improvisation like the previous two releases, but focused much more heavily on compositional structures. After this album, Johnson replaced Vitous, and accompanied Zawinul and Shorter on the group’s albums Mysterious Traveler, Tale Spinnin’ and Black Market.

Bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius made his Weather Report debut on Black Market, playing on two of the seven tracks, with Johnson on the remaining five. Weather Report remained together until 1987 and achieved commercial success with Heavy Weather in 1977, which contained a hit single, “Birdland,”written by Zawinul. Following the release of Heavy Weather, the band produced the album Mr. Gone.

Zawinul formed a new band called Zawinul Syndicate releasing four albums from 1988 through 1998. During the 1980s he also released several solo albums including the Grammy nominated 1996 release My People. Zawinul continued his extensive use of technology and synthesizers on all of his post-Weather Report releases and performances. He primarily used Korg keyboards for the remainder of his performance career in the 1990s and the 21st century.

While Zawinul is largely remembered for his work in the jazz world, he was no stranger to classical music. In 1993 he wrote his composition “Stories of the Danube” and in 2000 wrote “Mauthausen” which was written about the Holocaust in his native Austria.

Selected Discography

with Cannonball Adderley

Nancy Wilson and Cannonball Adderley (Capitol, 1961)

In New York (Riverside, 1962)

In Europe (Landmark, 1962)

Jazz Workshop Revisited (Riverside, 1963)

Nippon Soul (Riverside, 1963)

Live! (Capitol, 1964)

Fiddler On The Roof (Capitol, 1964)

Domination (Capitol, 1965)

Mercy, Mercy, Mercy! Live at 'The Club' (Capitol, 1966)

74 Miles Away/Walk Tall (Capitol, 1967)

Why Am I Treated So Bad! (Capitol, 1967)

Accent On Africa (Capitol, 1968)

Country Preacher (Capitol, 1969)

In Person (Capitol, 1970)

The Price You Got To Pay To Be Free (Capitol, 1970)

Experience In E, Tensity, Dialogues (Capitol, 1970)

as Joe Zawinul

The Rise And Fall Of The Third Stream (Vortex, 1965)

Money In The Pocket (Atco, 1966)

Zawinul (Warner, 1971)

Di-a-lects (Columbia, 1986)

My People (ESC-Records, 1996)

Stories of the Danube (Polygram, 1996)

Mauthausen - Vom großen Sterben hören (ESC-Records, 2000) [3]

Faces & Places (ESC-Records, 2002)

Brown Street (2006)

with Weather Report

Weather Report (1971)

I Sing the Body Electric (1972)

Live in Tokyo (1972)

Sweetnighter (1973)

Mysterious Traveller (1974)

Tale Spinnin' (1975)

Black Market (1976)

Heavy Weather (1977)

Mr. Gone (1978)

8:30 (1979)

Night Passage (1980)

Weather Report (1982)

Procession (1983)

Domino Theory (1984)

Sportin' Life (1985)

This is This! (1986)

Live and Unreleased (2002)

with Zawinul Syndicate

The Immigrants (Columbia, 1988)

Black Water (Columbia, 1989)

Lost Tribes (Columbia, 1992)

World Tour (ESC, 1998)

Contributor: Jared Pauley