The mailing list posting on from the Jazz Programmer’s Network on August 5th couldn’t have been more ominous. It simply said Joe Zawinul had been hospitalized in Vienna with an undisclosed illness. It was the “undisclosed illness” part that was the most troubling. That phrase is not meant to instill hope; it’s meant to tell you to prepare for the worst.
Personally, I wasn’t prepared for the worst. I first saw Zawinul’s name on the liner notes for Cannonball Adderley’s album with Nancy Wilson in the late 60’s. He really got my attention with the hit he penned for Adderley, “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy”. I shared the same question with many jazz fans. Who was this strange little man from Austria whose self-admitted dream as a teenager was “to come to America and music with Black musicians”? Zawinul realized that dream in 1958, went on to become one of the greatest keyboard players in the history of the music.
Maynard Ferguson hired Zawinul right out of the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He went from there to playing with Dinah Washington before joining Cannonball Adderley’s band. It was with Cannonball that he became noticed. From there, he went on to play with Miles Davis. It was his writing and playing on “In A Silent Way” and one of the two best selling jazz albums of all time, “Bitches Brew” that would cement his name in jazz history. For Zawinul, he was just getting started.
In 1970, Joe Zawinul and another Miles Davis alum, Wayne Shorter, started the band Weather Report. For 15 years, Weather Report set the standard for what a jazz-fusion band should sound like. Zawinul’s compositions and self-designed keyboard sounds introduced jazz fans to what would eventually be called ‘world music’. Many of the members of Weather Report would go on to become legends in the music as well. Following the breakup of Weather Report, Zawinul picked up where he left off with the band he would lead for 22 years, the Zawinul Syndicate. Over the course of his carrier, Joe Zawinul would be voted Best Keyboardist, in Downbeat Magazine’s annual Critic’s Poll, an incredible 30 times.
All that describes the Zawinul everyone knew. Upon hearing the news of his hospitalization, I thought of the man that looked a bit like Albert Einstein. Considering the genius of his compositions, how he conducted his band, and how he played, the analogy fits perfectly. The sparkle in his eyes and his mischievous smile let you know he was up to something. That something was what he planned to bring to his audience, the next time he was on stage.
There was the highly customized keyboard rig that included four physical keyboards, and an unknown number of rack mounted synthesizers. Keyboard players, both amateur and professional, would arrive early to Zawinul Syndicate shows to marvel at the setup that also included three homemade boxes of unknown purpose with a variety of knobs and switches. Then there was the arc of nine separate volume pedals for precise control of the dynamics of his sounds. Those sounds were programmed by Joe to provide very specific voices and sounds. Some were meant to emulate the very first instrument he played as a young boy in Vienna, the accordion.
This was the man I shared more than a few bottles of wine with backstage at Yoshi’s, along with Gary Poulson, Victor Bailey, Manolo Badrena, and Paco Sery. It had to be fate that my wife and I decided to have dinner at the sushi bar in Yoshi’s before his Friday night show. We sat down and looked to our right, and there was Joe. No entourage, no security or special seating, just Joe. We talked for what seemed like forever about his early days, and of playing with Cannonball and Miles. Although he was a big part of creating that music, he spoke of it with the passion of a lifelong fan. He made a rare mention of his wife of over 40 years, Maxine. He spoke of their wonderful vacations on his infrequent gaps between tours. I remember his recommendation to visit Porto Maurizio, Italy, his pick for one of the most beautiful places on the planet.
He talked of his new band that featured former Zap Mama vocalist, Sabine Kabongo, drummer Nathaniel Townsley, and bassist Linley Marthe. He spoke with glowing praise, not unlike a proud parent. He loved nurturing and presenting young, talented musicians. That was his way. I would see him just once more, at the 2006 SF Jazz Festival. On that visit, I couldn’t stay for the second set, and didn’t get to spend time with him as I usually did.
After five weeks of no news at all came the news the jazz world dreaded most. The mad scientist of fusion had been called home, joining his beloved Maxine who made that journey earlier this year. Josef Erich Zawinul was born on July 7, 1932, Earth time, and again on September 11, 2007, Eternal time. The void created by the passing of his physical presence may never be filled. His music, his passion, and his influence on generations of musicians that affectionately called him “Pops”, lives on.