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Joe Zawinul, Jazz Keyboard Master and Fusion Pioneer, Dies at 75

Joe Zawinul, the Austrian keyboardist whose work with Miles Davis and Weather Report helped define jazz-rock fusion in the 1970s, died today at his home in Vienna. He was 75 and had been hospitalized since August. The cause of death was Merkel cell carcinoma, a skin disease.

Heinz Fischer, the president of Austria, remarked that Zawinul’s death meant the loss of a “music ambassador” who was known and cherished around the world. “As a person and through his music, Joe Zawinul will remain unforgettable for us all,” Fischer said.

Born in Vienna on July 7, 1932, Josef Erich Zawinul began his musical involvement at age 6 by playing the accordion, and later studied classical piano and composition at the Vienna Conservatoire. Drawn toward jazz, Zawinul joined Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller’s group in 1952 and subsequently formed his own trio, which performed around Europe.

But Zawinul, influenced by the great American jazz pianists, among them Duke Ellington, Erroll Garner and George Shearing, had his sights set on the United States, and he landed here in 1959, a scholarship for the Berklee College of Music in hand. He stayed in school exactly one week before hooking up with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, in whose band Zawinul remained for eight months. A two-year stint with Dinah Washington was followed by a nine-year residency with Cannonball Adderley’s quintet. Zawinul is largely credited with modernizing that band, which enjoyed a major hit on the pop charts in 1967 with Zawinul’s composition “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Zawinul also penned “Country Preacher,” a 1969 Adderley recording that honored the Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Zawinul’s impact was only just beginning as the ’60s came to a close. By that time he’d become a staunch advocate of the newly evolving electronic keyboard, and his next gig, with Miles Davis, would allow him ample opportunity to explore the sonic possibilities of the instrument. Zawinul contributed organ and Fender Rhodes electric piano to Miles’ two 1969 proto-fusion masterpieces: In a Silent Way, whose title track is co-credited to him and Davis, and Bitches Brew.

The latter album, one of the undisputed landmarks in jazz history, is largely credited with sparking the big bang known alternately as jazz-rock or fusion. Its influence on both jazz and rock, as well as R&B, was incalculable; conversely, the album itself owed a great debt to the post-psychedelic rock and funk of Jimi Hendrix, Sly Stone and other contemporary innovators. Several of its participants-Chick Corea, Jack DeJohnette, John McLaughlin, Wayne Shorter and others, in addition to Zawinul-went on to become legendary jazzmen on their own. (Zawinul did not play live with Davis until 1991, however, and then only for a one-time event.)

Zawinul could not be contained even within such a revolutionary setting, though, and in 1970 he formed Weather Report, borrowing saxophonist Shorter and percussionist Airto Moreira from the Bitches Brew sessions and filling out the new outfit with bassist Miroslav Vitous and drummer Alphonse Mouzon. The lineup would shift often over the years, with only Shorter and Zawinul remaining until 1985, when the band wrapped things up.

Along with Corea’s group Return to Forever and McLaughlin’s Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report forced jazz in a new direction, focusing on blistering, electronic improvisations that brought millions of new, young fans into the fold while alienating many of the older, acoustic-centric purists. Zawinul also incorporated into the mix elements of what would today be called world music, opening up the brave new world of jazz to international rhythms and textures rarely considered before.

Zawinul increasingly relied on synthesizers as his major creative tool as the ’70s wore on, and came to be considered one of the most important proponents of the instrument. The portability of the synth, which in its developing years had been too cumbersome to take on the road, allowed Zawinul to experiment onstage in ways that had previously been impossible. Unlike many other synth players in those early years of the instrument’s popularity, Zawinul never treated it as a toy-to him it was a legitimate musical vehicle capable of widening the sonic palette, and his innovations brought respect to its properties that might otherwise have been ignored by serious keyboardists.

Among the notable musicians passing through Weather Report’s ranks was the late bassist Jaco Pastorius, who joined in 1976. Pastorius was present in a formidable way on 1977’s Heavy Weather, the band’s most popular album, which opened with the Zawinul composition “Birdland,” now considered a jazz standard of the era, covered by Manhattan Transfer and others. Weather Report ultimately placed 15 albums on the Billboard chart.

In 1987, following Weather Report’s split, Zawinul briefly toured solo and with a band he called Weather Update. Next he formed the Zawinul Syndicate which, like Weather Report, recorded for Columbia Records. While neither as progressive nor as popular as Weather Report, the group provided Zawinul with an outlet to continue expanding his reach-in particular, he made further use of world music elements. He also released a number of solo albums, first for Columbia (1986’s Dialects was the best known) and later for numerous other labels. Zawinul’s last album, the live Brown Street, was released by Heads Up International in February.

Zawinul also busied himself in his later life producing other artists (including African singer Salif Keita) and composing classical music.

“Joe Zawinul was a true jazz pioneer,” says Dave Love, president of Heads Up. “He was an artist who was always looking forward. He was respected for his innovative style, and the jazz fusion community will be indebted to him forever for his contributions.”

(Photo by Holger Keifel; C/O Heads Up)

Originally Published