Joe Zawinul – The Extraordinary Pioneer Of Jazz Fusion

Josef ‘Joe’ Erich Zawinul (born on 7 July 1932 in Vienna, Austria – passed away on 11 September in Vienna, Austria). He started to play on musical instruments from a very early age, as early as he was a kid, most notably on accordion. Zawinul was, later on, an extremely gifted and technical jazz and jazz fusion keyboardist and composer, performing at family parties or during holidays in his grandfather’s village in Austria.

Professionally, he started to become well known with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley and then with Miles Davis (although, at first, he was quite reluctant in collaborating with the latter). But Zawinul’s earliest collaborations date to the 1950s when he worked as a staff pianist for Polydor records and later on collaborated with Hans Koller, Friedrich Gulda, Karl Drewo, or Fatty George. As the 1950s were coming to an end, Zawinul went to the Berklee College of Music but dropped out very soon as he received an on tour invitation from Maynard Ferguson. Later on, he had also collaborated with Dinah Washington.

Subsequently, during the early 1970s, Joe Zawinul co-founded the legendary jazz and jazz fusion group Weather Report with distinguished saxophonist Wayne Shorter in 1970.

An excellent and extraordinary quote by jazz fusion pioneer Joe Zawinul. Image source:

On through a fulminating and incredible musical career spanning approximately 16 years between 1970 and 1986, Weather Report became one of the most (if not the most) well known, most beloved, and greatest jazz fusion band ever, being both critically and commercially successful. While in the beginning, according to Zawinul himself, Weather Report was mainly a joint project between him and Shorter, later on it was solely Zawinul who took the leadership of the entire group, throughout all of its future line-ups.

The amazing blend of musical genres in the cultural melting pot of Weather Report’s music made it possible for the band to create its unique, distinctive, magical sound which set it apart from other contemporary jazz fusion bands and paved the road for commercial and critical success to such an extent that it was very well reviewed by the specialized jazz-based DownBeat music magazine (with a sole exception at some point in time). On the other hand, DownBeat is also known for, rather mistakenly I dare say, reviewing the band with only one star at some point in time (more specifically for the studio album ‘Mr. Gone’ which was released in 1978). However, the prestigious American jazz magazine mostly awarded Zawinul’s group high star marks, as it deserved, naturally.

In terms of the music Weather Report played both in studio and on stage, the fascinating mixture of jazz music (which represented the roots of the Zawinul-Shorter composing duo) coupled with world music (in particular the enchanting elements of African music), rock, R&B, Latin (Latin jazz, to be more precise), and funk, reflected the eclectic backgrounds of all the constituent members of the group who stemmed from Europe, North America, insular Central America to South America, thereby establishing a solid magical sound which acted as the group’s stamp throughout all of its 16-year career. The band’s most successful studio album is ‘Heavy Weather‘, released in 1977, which also features legendary bass virtuoso Jaco Pastorius.

Joe Zawinul in 1980. Image source: Commons Wikimedia

After Weather Report came to an end in 1986, Joe Zawinul shortly founded a successor band to this amazing project entitled ‘Weather Update’ which was, unfortunately short-lived, and disbanded in 1987. Afterwards, Zawinul performed with another band he founded, namely ‘The Zawinul Syndicate’. Both Weather Update and The Zawinul Syndicate included musicians in their line-ups with whom Zawinul previously worked with in Weather Report.

Throughout his amazing musical career, Joe Zawinul has appeared both as a leader and as a sideman on numerous studio and live albums as well as compilations. He passed away in 2007 in his native Vienna at the age of 75. His noteworthy enduring legacy continues to live on to this day, not only through his music, but also through his family, and through the musical foundation which bears his name, more specifically the Joe Zawinul Foundation for Achievement (which some fans who supported it throughout the passing of time are rather angry about given the crowdfunding for a documentary which hasn’t yet seen the light of day).

Down below you can listen to two live samples of Joe’s creative musical genius while he was performing with his third band The Zawinul Syndicate! Enjoy and all the best!

Documentation sources and external links:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *