Joe Zawinul, 75; Keyboardist Was a Pioneer of Jazz Fusion

By Matt Schudel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 12, 2007

Joe Zawinul, a musician and composer who pioneered the jazz fusion movement with Miles Davis in the late 1960s and led the popular jazz-rock group Weather Report for 15 years, died Sept. 11 at Wilhelmina Clinic in Vienna, Austria, where he had been treated since last month for Merkel cell carcinoma, a form of skin cancer. He was 75 and had lived for many years in California.

The Austrian-born Mr. Zawinul (pronounced ZAW-vee-null) made his name as the pianist with Julian "Cannonball" Adderley's quintet and in 1966 wrote one of Adderley's biggest hits, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." It was among the first jazz tunes to feature the electric piano, and in the coming years Mr. Zawinul would make electronic instrumentation a hallmark of his career.

In 1969, he wrote the title track of the album "In a Silent Way," which signaled Davis's switch from acoustic jazz to electronic music. The same year, Mr. Zawinul played electronic keyboards and composed a tune for Davis's "Bitches Brew," which some critics have called the most revolutionary album in jazz history for its blending of jazz and rock.

Joining forces with former Davis saxophonist Wayne Shorter, Mr. Zawinul launched Weather Report in 1970. The band attained rock-star levels of fame with its loud, freewheeling improvised music and its dramatic laser-light displays.

Weather Report reached new heights of popularity after electric bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius joined in 1976. The group recorded Mr. Zawinul's "Birdland" for the 1977 album "Heavy Weather," and the catchy tune became a ubiquitous disco hit of the late '70s. Later recorded by Maynard Ferguson, Quincy Jones and the vocal group Manhattan Transfer, "Birdland" went on to win Grammy Awards in three consecutive decades.

Weather Report made 17 albums in all and won a Grammy Award for the 1979 live recording "8:30."

Mr. Zawinul, who performed with a towering bank of electronic keyboards and synthesizers, won the "Best Keyboardist" award from Down Beat magazine 21 times. But his forays into electronica led some critics and musicians to accuse him of abandoning the traditions of swing, restraint and balance that are at the core of jazz.

In 1990, pianist Barry Harris said that groups such as Weather Report had "ceased to be jazz musicians."

"I know the cats like Joe Zawinul can play all the standards," Harris said, "but they haven't been jazz musicians for 10 or 15 years."

In his defense, Mr. Zawinul said he was interested only in "Zawinul music," not in conforming to any particular style.

"People make a big mistake in putting down electronic music," he said in 1986. "Yes, it's been misused and abused, but that's true of every music. There is nothing wrong with electronic music as long as you're putting some soul behind the technology."

Josef Erich Zawinul was born in Vienna on July 7, 1932, and began playing the accordion when he was 5. He said his mother was a Gypsy, and he grew up in a small town with many music-playing relatives.

At the age of 12, he entered the Vienna Conservatory of Music, but he and other students were sent to Czechoslovakia to escape World War II. One of his teachers casually played some jazz piano one day, and Mr. Zawinul was smitten. He listened to jazz on U.S. military radio broadcasts and idolized Duke Ellington.

"When [the 1943 movie musical] 'Stormy Weather' came out, I saw it 24 times," he said. "I decided that's what I wanted to do: I wanted to play music with black people."

After working with European bands in the 1950s, Mr. Zawinul moved to Boston in late 1958 to attend the Berklee College of Music. He left after a few weeks to join trumpeter Ferguson, then spent a year and half as the pianist for singer Dinah Washington.

In 1961, he became a mainstay in Adderley's quintet. He captured Adderley's Southern soul-jazz idiom on piano and in composing such gospel-flavored tunes as "Country Preacher" and "Walk Tall."

But Mr. Zawinul's most lasting partnership came with Shorter in Weather Report. The band broke up when Shorter left in 1985.

"Wayne and me could communicate like I've never communicated with any person -- in music," Mr. Zawinul once said. "Wayne and me out of music were almost like strangers. We hardly ever talked to each other when we were on the road."

Mr. Zawinul could be prickly and boastful and often criticized other musicians in blunt terms. Orrin Keepnews, who produced his early recordings with Adderley, once paid him a backhanded compliment: "Joe Zawinul is the best musician in the world. Just ask him."

"I'm a nice guy, but when it comes to music, I'm tough," Mr. Zawinul told Down Beat in 2005. "I tell everyone not to take it personal. It has nothing to do with them, me or anything else. All I like is making good music."

His wife, Maxine Zawinul, died this year.

Survivors include three sons.

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