Joe Zawinul, keyboardist, composer and bandleader, passed away on Tuesday September 11, 2007 of Merkel cell carcinoma. He was 75 years old and had been hospitalized last month.
Zawinul, who was born in Vienna Austria on July 7, 1932 grew up in Erdberg, one of Vienna’s poorer districts during Nazi rule. His mother sang and his father, a clerk with the gas company, played harmonica. Like his mother, at a young age Zawinul had perfect pitch. Though he had no piano at home, Zawinul began playing the accordion, clarinet and violin at a young age. He discovered jazz at the age of 12 and later won the scholarship to the Vienna Conservatory. In 1959 Zawinul won a piano scholarship to the Berklee College of music and immigrated to the United States. He started playing with Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington before joining alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley in 1961 for nine years. With Adderley, Zawinul wrote several important songs, including “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” which reached the top on the Billboard magazine charts in 1967.
Zawinul was best known for his keyboard work on chart-topping Miles Davis albums such as In a Silent Way and Bitches Brew. Zawinul greatly influenced the “electric jazz” movement. Prior to the invention of the portable synthesizer, he helped to bring the Wurlitzer and Fender-Rhodes electric pianos into the jazz mainstream.
Miles Davis first approached Zawinul in New York’s Birdland jazz club. About ten years later, the two musicians got together and Zawinul wrote “In a Silent Way”—the title cut for Davis’s 1969 album, which is known as one of his first breakthroughs in the world of jazz fusion (a genre that draws on rock, R&B and other styles).
In 1970, Zawinul founded Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter. The group combined the electric piano and synthesizers with African and Middle Eastern rhythms, integrating this new music into a mainstream jazz setting. Weather Report released 17 albums, with their most famous song, “Birdland,” appearing on 1977's Heavy Weather. The track won three separate Grammy awards in three decades—one for the original version and two more for covers by Quincy Jones and Manhattan Transfer.
Weather Report broke up in 1985, but Zawinul continued his musical career with new groups Weather Update and later the Zawinul Syndicate, which toured Europe this past spring to mark its 20th anniversary. Zawinul's last album, Brown Street, was released by Heads Up International in February 2007. The two-disc set captured Zawinul and a few of his longtime friends in an electrifying live performance with a 15-piece big band. "Joe Zawinul was a true jazz pioneer," said 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."
In 1993, Zawinul composed a classical piece, “Stories Of The Danube," with pianist Friedrich Gulda. He also recorded a special solo project, Mauthausen, which was released in Europe in 2000 as a memorial for the victims of the Holocaust and was performed on the site of the Austrian concentration camp for which it was named.
In 1963 Zawinul married Maxine, who enjoyed the distinction of being the first African-American Playboy bunny, and the couple had three children together—they had first met at the Birdland club in New York City. Maxine died earlier this year. Zawinul died of a rare skin disease in which malignant cancer cells are found on or just beneath the skin and in hair follicles. He passed in Vienna, his city of birth. He is survived by his sons, Eric, Ivan and Anthony. Vienn