Joe Zawinul was a pretty good bebop piano player. Playing bop, however, was not his calling. Instead, Zawinul was called to be great at something else. Bebop piano playing would have been like wearing a borrowed suit-not necessarily ill-fitting, but not his own. Some people look dapper in their jackets and ties, while for others, dressy clothing looks stodgy and confining. Joe was most comfortable in a peasant’s patchwork jacket of his own making. To each his own.
Zawinul was first called to jazz music as a child prodigy watching black musicians in the 1943 film Stormy Weather. Becoming a jazz musician was as unlikely a goal as you could imagine for a kid growing up in World War II-era Austria. Despite the odds, however, Zawinul made it. A jazz life was his calling and heeding it resulted in a solid sideman career working with the likes of Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis.
Joe was not just called to something; he was also called away from something. He was called away from conventional acoustic jazz by a conversation with a piano-playing colleague, who said, “Hey, Joe, I heard a tune on the radio last night and I couldn’t tell if the piano player was me or you”: not a compliment.
By the time I had auditioned for Joe’s Zawinul Syndicate in his Malibu music room, all jazz orthodoxy had been exorcised out of him. He was a genre unto himself. What would you call the sounds that Zawinul made? Jazz? Yeah, but that doesn’t quite say enough. Fusion? Nope, that’s a dead language that doesn’t begin to take in Joe’s organic, free-flowing approach. Jazz-rock? No-not even close. World music, maybe? Now we’re getting somewhere.
Among Zawinul’s fans and critics there’s a well-worn story about a journalist asking Joe about world music. He allegedly replied, “World music? I invented world music.” I think this is a misunderstanding rivaling Al Gore’s infamous Internet quote. OK, Zawinul’s world music wouldn’t be found in an exotic section of a record store (remember those?); it’s simply music that came from Joe’s own world. He was the chief of his own village inhabited by people who understood his particular tribal language. This language has its own vocabulary, grammar and subtlety of meaning: a dialect of jazz. Some jazz lovers could understand and appreciate Joe’s dialect; some could not. To each his own.
It’s said that a prophet is not appreciated in his own land. Joe was an exception. He once sent me a postcard from Austria. The stamp had his face on it. When I lost my passport on tour with Joe, he was able to usher me through Austrian immigration and into France by providing an official with an autographed photo of himself. He was indeed revered in Austria and should have been revered here in the United States, too. No matter: He was definitely celebrated by the far-flung citizens of his global village. I once met one of his more enthusiastic villagers backstage at the New Morning club in Paris. He claimed to have come all the way from Russia, specifically, from the “Church of Zawinul.” The congregation believed Zawinul’s music was sent from God. This man was not kidding.
The main reason I finally left the Zawinul Syndicate, after nearly eight years, was that I felt I wasn’t learning enough about his tribal language. I wasn’t satisfied that I had been afforded a rare opportunity to pursue my own calling in the company of a musical genius. I wanted more. I thought I could grow artistically by handpicking the juiciest musical information from Zawinul’s brain. Meanwhile, it seemed all he wanted to do was tell stories and talk about life. The irony is that by traveling with Joe around the world, I was soaking up a lot about his world music and life as well. Quite a bargain.