Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Zorn, John

Saxophonist and composer John Zorn has created a body of work that consistently challenges categories. Equally inspired by sports, spaghetti Westerns and Jewish mysticism, he has developed his own venues for recording and performance. The only constant in Zorn’s music is his desire to move forward and to experiment with sound in all of its manifestations.

John Zorn was born on September 2, 1953 in Manhattan and raised in Queens, New York. Zorn’s father was a hairdresser, and his mother a professor of education. Both passed on their love of music to their son: Zorn’s mother was a fan of classical music and his father loved jazz and French popular song.

Zorn first became interested in creating music at the age of nine, when he saw Sergio Leone's 1964 Western A Fistful of Dollars. The boy was fascinated with the film's score, by Italian composer Ennio Morricone, and with the concept of composing music for film.

Zorn started his musical studies on the piano at age seven, then took up the guitar and flute by ten. By age twelve, Zorn was composing, and wrote a piece called “Caevorrys” for clarinet, flute, piano, and a frequency generator. This piece, which he completed at age sixteen, was premiered during Zorn’s monthlong 40th birthday celebration at the Knitting Factory in New York in 1993.

Zorn attended the United Nations school in Manhattan, and began taking composition lessons with Leonardo Balada at age fourteen. Zorn became captivated by the works of Igor Stravinsky, Anton Webern, and Charles Ives, as well as Karlheinz Stockhausen, Mauricio Kagel, and John Cage. It was his Cage's aleatory music that stimulated Zorn’s interest in improvisation.

Zorn switched to the saxophone after listening to the Anthony Braxton albumFor Alto while attending Webster University in St. Louis, Missouri. A friend of Zorn’s furthered his introduction to jazz by giving him a few John Coltrane records and a two-cassette recording of the Jazz Composers Orchestra. While at Webster, Zorn studied under Oliver Lake, the alto saxophonist who cofounded the World Saxophone Quintet. At Webster, by some accounts Zorn practiced saxophone ten hours a day.

After a year and a half, Zorn dropped out of college. “I took what I needed, and I got out of there,” he recalled. Zorn moved to the West Coast, first to San Francisco, and then to Oregon with his older brother. In 1974, he moved to New York where he joined the city's vibrant improvisational scene in lower Manhattan, where he collaborated with musicians such as guitarists Fred Frith, Arto Lindsay, and Elliott Sharp. Zorn honed his performance skills at downtown venues including ABC, The Public Theater, and The Kitchen.

From 1980 to 1982, Zorn worked at the Soho Music Gallery, where he began to compose "game pieces." In these pieces, performers are allowed to improvise while following rules within the arrangement. Zorn named a number of these pieces after sports, including Hockey, Pool, Archery, and Lacrosse.

These compositions use rules, and specific strategies to contrast improvisations. On “Lacrosse,” animal-like moans and cries create a tense and unpredictable atmosphere. The instrumentation of violin, banjo and guitar completes this unnerving mix. Zorn’s use of space between moans and cries is equally important, as it gives the listener brief moments of relief before he attacks again, challenging the listener’s perceptions of structure.

In 1985, Zorn had a breakthrough of sorts with his debut on Nonesuch Records, The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone. Originally entitled A Fistful Of John Zorn, this album offered Zorn's reimaginings of Morricone compositions, including selections from A Fistful of Dynamite, Once Upon a Time in the West, Once Upon a Time in America, and The Big Gundown. These extreme versions, which Morricone himself endorsed, retain the melodies while openly exploring where instrumentation can take them.

On “Svegliati and Uccidi,” Zorn expands the film noir feel of Morricone's original by speeding up the tempo, playing with the dynamics, and adding distortion to the guitar. The result is an amped-up version Morricone's intended atmosphere of suspense.

The Big Gundown is an example of Zorn's "file card" compositions, in which he wrote down descriptions of the elements he envisioned for a song on file cards, then assembled them to form the piece. This method of organizing sound into an overall structure relied on the musicians he chose, and the way they interpreted what was dictated on the file cards.

In 1988, Zorn established the group Naked City, which integrated elements of jazz, heavy metal and punk rock. Named after a 1948 picture book by Weegee, the photographer of New York street life, the group experimented with improvisation within the configuration of a conventional rock band on track's such as "The James Bond Theme," from their self-titled 1990 debut album for Elektra Nonesuch.

On tracks such as "New Jersey Scum Swamp," the group demonstrates its ability to change genres at will. On “Reanimator,” also from the group's debut album, Zorn tests the range of his saxophone by playing with unbridled passion. Zorn does his best to mimic the sound of the distorted guitar with his saxophone. The result is an unpredictable deconstruction of the listener's musical expectations.

In 1993, Zorn formed a group to record a soundtrack for an independent film with drummer Joey Baron, bassist Greg Cohen on bass, and Dave Douglas on trumpet. Inspired at first by Miles Davis's atmospheric soundtrack for the 1957 Louis Malle film Elevator to the Gallows, the ensemble went on to record more than a dozen albums of what Zorn has called "radical Jewish music," which blends jazz improvisation with rhythms and scales from the Sephardic traditions of Mediterranean Jews. Zorn dubbed the group Masada to honor the history of Jewish resistance.

The group's core repertoire is “The Masada Book,” a set of around 200 compositions. According to Zorn, these works were an effort on his part to explore melody, a departure for a composer who had until then been known for his predilections for noise and chance. This repertoire has since been added to by a second Masada Book of around 300 compositions which have been interpreted by Zorn in a variety of musical configurations.

In 1995, Zorn established Tzadik, a not-for-profit record label to promote his works, as well as those of other experimental musicians. In 2005 he opened The Stone, a not-for-profit performance space in Manhattan's East Village. Zorn serves as the club's artistic director, and invites guest curators to ensure a lively and eclectic musical atmosphere.

Zorn has continued to compose film music, such as for Chilean director Raul Ruiz's 1990 film "The Golden Boat" and Sandy Simcha Dubowski's 2000 "Trembling Before G-d," a documentary about Orthodox Jewish gays and lesbians. Zorn's Tzadik label has rereleased many of these soundtracks in a series called "Filmworks," and has also rereleased his work with Naked City and Masada for labels such as Nonesuch and DIW.

In 2001, Zorn received the Jewish Cultural Award in Performing Arts from the National Foundation for Jewish Culture. In 2006, Zorn was named a MacArthur Fellow, an honor given to those who "show exceptional merit and promise for continued and enhanced creative work." In 2007, Zorn received the William Schuman Award from Columbia University's School of the Arts, an honor given "to recognize the lifetime achievement of an American composer whose works have been widely performed and generally acknowledged to be of lasting significance."

Select Discography

as John Zorn

Lacrosse (1977)

Pool (1980)

Archery (1981)

The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone (1985)

Spy vs. Spy (1989)

Elegy (1992)

Kristallnacht (1993)

Redbird (1995)

The Book of Heads (1995)

Madness, Love and Mysticism (2001)

Songs from the Hermetic Theater (2001)

I.A.O. (2002)

Chimeras (2003)

Moonchild: Songs Without Words (2006)

Astronome (2006)

Six Litanies for Heliogabalus (2007)

with Naked City

Naked City (1989)

Torture Garden (1990)

Radio (1993)

Absinthe (1993)

with Masada

Alef (1994)

Beit (1994)

Gimel (1994)

Hei (1995)

Vav (1995)

Zayin (1996)

Heit (1996)

Tet (1997)

Yod (1997)

with Electric Masada

50th Birthday Celebration Volume Four (2004)

At the Mountains of Madness (2005)

with Masada String Trio

The Circle Maker (1998)

50th Birthday Celebration Volume One (2004)

Azazel: Book Of Angels Vol. 2 (2005)

Contributor: Eric Wendell