Joe Zawinul, who died in his native Vienna on September 10th, was an egoist who had a lot to be egotistical about.
My songs are all improvised," he once told Down Beat magazine, “I sit down and compose an entire song from start to finish. I change nothing. I leave it the way it comes through the first time. Later, I might think of a hipper chord, but I never go back and put it in. I believe in nature and what nature gives me."
Saxophonist Wayne Shorter, along with Zawinul co-founder of Weather Report, one of the few jazz-rock fusion groups to outlast the style it helped create, and the group with which Zawinul achieved his greatest fame (he wrote their monster polyphonic hit “Birdland") said: “There are very few musicians who are able to improvise a composition on the spot and make it both entertaining and moving. Joe does that."
With Zawinul, every chord was an event. Born and raised in Vienna, he had Hungarian, Czech, and, he always made it a point to point out, Sinti blood. He was playing Gypsy tunes, “Honeysuckle Rose," and “anything else I could find" on the accordion by the age of six. He once stuffed a piece of green pooltable felt into his Hohner squeezebox, thus constructing, he said, with no discernable irony, “the original synthesizer. I loved that sound. It was so nasty."
Weather Report was a cocky bunch. If not the best, they were pretty close, and when they said “we’re the best band in the world," you saw no point in arguing. When an unknown young man from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, introduced himself, “Mr. Zawinul, my name is Jaco Pastorius, and I’m the greatest bass player in the world," he was on the right track.
Both Shorter and Zawinul were musical sons of Miles Davis, although Zawinul repeatedly denied it: “I wrote “In a Silent Way" [their benchmark 1969 minimalist collaboration]. “Miles only changed some of the chords," he said. “We were brothers, I was not his son."
“Joe is deep," the journalist David Breskin recalls Davis telling him in 1983 in a hotel room in Austin, Texas. “He called Zawinul his “collaborateur," pronouncing it the French way, like co-conspirator, but it seemed to be clear to him that he couldn’t keep him around too long because, he said with a sarcastic laugh: “I would have ended up plying in HIS band."
Zawinul also wrote the funk hit “Mercy Mercy Mercy" for Cannonball Adderley, with whom he also played piano. It is essential to imagine his Brooklyn-cum-Viennese accent full of hipsterisms and scatology. “I’m always sincere, man, “ he said. “Even when I’m full of it." [He did not say “it".] My goal was always to get on scenes where I was the weakest one going in and the strongest coming out," he said. “Like you learn from your daddy and then go a little bit further. The midget on the shoulders of the giant."
“I got a scoop for you," he told me during an interview in 1992. “The drummer with my first band, Thomas Klestil, just became President of Austria. We used to play music all night long, man. He was my best friend. After the war, we ran the streets together. We didn’t have no shoes. Sometimes we stole some food, because w didn’t have nothing to eat. We sneaked in to see ‘Stormy Weather.’ I cut a hole in the fence of a swimming pool and for one whole summer we went swimming for free.
“And then one day in 1948, we were walking in my hood and Thomas said: ‘You know, I’m tired of all this. I’m going to do something with my life. You’re a talented musician, you should do that.’ He studied economics, and I learned the piano. Later, when we were both in the States, I took him to Cannonball’s house to hang out with the brothers. He had no problems with any of them. Both our master plans worked out."
His band that followed Weather Report was a sort of Weather Update called “The Zawinul Syndicate." He took great pleasure from the mafia implication of the name. He wore an African skull cap on stage, and he tugged from an ever-present bottle of schnapps. On one tour, the Syndicate split a bill with the Malian singer Salif Keita, whose album “Amen" he had also produced. (“My band and Salif’s band, very strong baggage.") Despite generally negative reviews, “Amen" spent 13 weeks at the top of the Billboard “world music" chart.
“A lot of people thought it was too modern," he said. “Too many chords, not ‘native’ enough. But Salif hired me because of who I was. He could have made the record in Africa. I never listened to his old records. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the past. I’ve been playing world music all my life I knew we’d mix great. He felt the same. Neither one of us lost our culture. We made a great record. Absolute mindblower, man.
“I always use all my influences. I grew up with Hungarian Gypsy music, Yugoslavian music, polkas. Polkas can be a gas if you play them good. To play a Viennese waltz right is just as difficult as bebop. I’m influenced by folk music, classical music, Flamenco, African music, Oriental music. Plus I’ve been living with black American culture more than half my life, playing their music with the best cats. I’m not worried about Duke Ellington. Baby, I ain’t worried about nobody."