Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Zappa, Frank (Vincent)

Guitarist and composer Frank Zappa fused classical, funk, jazz, avant-garde, and rock n’roll to forge a sound that was all his own, and earned an international following. His compositions ranged from simple blues to complicated forms with detuned notes and modulating meters.

                     Frank Zappa, artwork by Suzanne Cerny

Zappa had a knack for spotting talent, and his bands nurtured, among others, George Duke, Chester Thompson, Jean-Luc Ponty, and Steve Vai. An outspoken foe of censorship, he served as an advisor to Czech president Václav Havel, who cited Zappa as an inspiration for that country's struggle against Communism.

Frank Vincent Zappa was born on December 21st, 1940 in Baltimore, Maryland. Zappa was one of four children born to Francis Zappa, a chemist, and his mother Rose Colimore. Francis Zappa was of Greek and Arab descent while his mother was largely of Italian descent. Growing up, Zappa traveled around the country as his father worked at various jobs in the U.S. defense industry.

One of Francis's jobs was at the Edgewood Arsenal chemical warfare facility in Maryland, a facility where mustard gas was stored.Young Frank suffered from allergies, asthma, and sinus complications among other ailments. He later came to believe that his early exposure to toxic and radioactive chemicals contributed to his illnesses, a subject he dealt with in his compositions.

Zappa’s family settled in Southern California when he was a teenager, and this is when his interest in music began to take shape. His first instrument was a drum kit, and his first band was called the Ramblers. Also during this time, Zappa began a lifelong infatuation with the music of modern classical composer Edgar Varèse. For his fifteenth birthday, Zappa’s mother let him call Varèse in New York, but the composer was in Europe. By the time his parents relocated to Lancaster, California, Zappa had immersed himself in percussion and composed several pieces for his high school orchestra.

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•   The Dozens: The Jazzy Side of Frank Zappa by Ted Gioia                                                

Following his graduation from high school, Zappa worked on a soundtrack for the movie The World’s Greatest Sinner. He also began working at Pal recording studios in Cucamonga, California. The studio was home to one of the era's few multi-track recorders. Zappa dove headfirst into the studio, and spent upwards of twelve hours a day there, which laid the foundation for his later work ethic when he began producing his own records.

In 1965, Zappa was arrested along with a female friend of his for recording a simulated sexual act and was charged with a felony, although it was later dropped to a misdemeanor. This event had a profound impact on Zappa and his distrust for authority. He also frequently challenged conventions through the use of sexually provocative imagery in his lyrics.

That same year, Zappa joined a local Los Angeles band, the Soul Giants, as a lead guitarist. Following his advice, the band began to play many of his original compositions. This eventually led to the band being signed to Verve Records by record producer Tom Wilson, who had previously produced music for Bob Dylan. In 1966, with Zappa and company now calling themselves the Mothers of Invention, they recorded their breakout album, Freak Out! The Mothers followed this with their 1967 album Absolutely Free, which introduced Zappa’s orchestral influences to the rock world.

The Mothers were invited to play an engagement at New York City’s Garrick Theatre, which eventually was extended for six months. As a result, Zappa and his wife Gail moved with the band to New York, where their shows drew large crowds. During this time, Zappa met guitarist Jimi Hendrix, who according to legend gave Zappa his first wah-wah pedal, an effect whose use Hendrix pioneered.

In 1968, Zappa produced We’re Only in It for the Money. This album ushered the band into a new arena as it received critical praise and performed rather well commercially. The album'[s cover art spoofed the cover to the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, and featured extended overdubs, all of which were recorded and produced by Zappa himself.

Solidifying his position as a genre-bender, Zappa produced, wrote, recorded, and engineered Hot Rats in 1969. This album was Zappa's first for Reprise Records, which was also Hendrix's label., and featured extended solos and written sections. Zappa’s trademark blues guitar was all over songs such as "Peaches En Regalia" and “The Gumbo Variations." The album featured alto saxophonist and keyboardist Ian Underwood and bassist Shuggie Otis, son of vocalist Johnny Otis.

This album marked the first for Zappa without the Mothers, which he had disbanded due to their lack of success in the U.S. A number of ex-Mothers continued to appear on his future releases.

In 1969, Zappa produced violinist Jean-Luc Ponty’s album King Kong: Jean-Luc Ponty Plays the Music of Frank Zappa. Featured on the album were pianist George Duke and Underwood. The album showcased Zappa’s music in a jazzier context on songs such as the title track, as well as a new piece exclusively for the album called “Music for Electric Violin and Low Budget Orchestra.”

Beginning in the early 1970s, Zappa began to focus his musical energies on instrumental compositions. He re-formed the Mothers in 1970 with Duke, drummer Aynsley Dunbar, altoist Ian Underwood, and Flo and Eddie, formerly of the rock band the Turtles. Zappa enlisted their services on the album Chunga’s Revenge, released in 1970. In 1971, Zappa directed the movie 200 Motels, which was recorded in London and featured the likes of Who drummer Keith Moon, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.

1971 however turned out to be a bad year for Zappa. In December a fan let off a pyrotechnic at a performance in Switzerland, which resulted in all of the band’s equipment being lost when the venue went up in flames. This event was immortalized in the song “Smoke on the Water” by the rock band Deep Purple who witnessed the event. One week later, while performing in London, a deranged fan pushed Zappa into an orchestra pit which left him with serious injuries including a larynx injury and broken legs.

This injury kept Zappa off of the road for several months, but while he was healing he produced some of his most jazz-oriented music. He recorded Waka/Jawaka, which was released in 1972. This was followed by The Grand Wazoo, which featured notable songs such as “Blessed Relief." This song became a staple in progressive jazz circles, and found its way into the earliest versions of the "Real Book," the popular bootleg anthology of jazz standards which was privately published by musicians associated with the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

In December of 1973, Zappa and company performed at the Roxy Theatre in Hollywood and the recordings became the album Roxy and Elsewhere. The album chronicled the band’s three days of performances and featured amazing musical solos by Zappa and keyboardist George Duke. The album also explored ambitious musical terrain on songs such as “Bebop Tango."

In 1974, Zappa released the rock oriented Apostrophe, which became his highest-selling album thus far, reaching number ten on the pop album charts. He rounded out the 1970s with a string of releases which included One Size Fits All, Bongo Fury, Studio Tan, and Sheik Yerbouti. Featured on Sheik Yerbouti was the song “Bobby Brown (Goes Down),” which became a hit in Europe but didn’t receive substantial radio play in the United States.

In the early 1980s, Zappa released the trilogy of albums Shut up ‘N Play Yer Guitar, Shut up ‘N Play Yer Guitar Some More, and The Return of the Son of Shut up ‘N Play Yer Guitar. He achieved his greatest pop single success in 1982 with the single “Valley Girl.” It was featured on the album Ship Arriving Too Late to Save a Drowning Witch.

The always outspoken Zappa offered the U.S. Congress his thoughts in September of 1985 when Senator Al Gore began organizing hearings that aimed to restrict the lyrics heard in commercial music. Zappa’s passion for politics even led him to an ironic run for the United States Presidency, as Dizzy Gillespie had done before him.

Zappa’s 1986 album Jazz from Hell, which was primarily composed on the Synclavier, won the 1987 Grammy award for Best Rock Instrumental Performance, the first Grammy of Zappa’s career.

Zappa always had many fans in Europe, especially in the underground culture of the Soviet bloc nations. In Czechoslovakia, a dissident rock group, The Plastic People of the Universe, took their name from a 1968 Zappa song, and the country's first president after the end of Communist rule, poet and playwright Vaclav Havel, asked Zappa to serve as a consultant to his government. Zappa enthusiastically accepted the post, but the U.S. government pressured Havel to withdraw the offer. Zappa however stayed on as an unofficial cultural attaché to the newly democratic nation.

In 1990 Zappa was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and it was deemed inoperable. He devoted most of his remaining time to composing. In September of 1992, he was honored along with modern composers Karlheinz Stockhausen, John Cage and Alexander Knaifel at the Frankfurt Festival, where his works were performed by the Ensemble Modern. Although extremely ill, Zappa managed to act as a guest conductor for several songs at the group’s performance in Austria. Frank Vincent Zappa succumbed to prostate cancer on December 4th, 1993. He is survived by his wife Gail and children Dweezil, Moon Unit, Diva, and Ahmet.

Select Discography

Freak Out! (Verve, 1966)

Absolutely Free (Verve, 1967)

We’re Only in It for the Money (Verve, 1968)

Hot Rats (Reprise, 1969)

Waka/Jawaka (Reprise, 1972)

The Grand Wazoo (Reprise, 1973)

Roxy and Elsewhere (DiscReet, 1974)

One Size Fits All (DiscReet, 1975)

Sheik Yerbouti (Zappa, 1979)

Jazz from Hell (Barking Pumpkin, 1986)

Contributor: Jared Pauley