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My Late Friend, Joe Zawinul

By  • 
Joe Zawinul (1932–2007)

Joe Zawinul first became known when he replaced Victor Feldman as pianist of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet, a fantastic band with music director Charles Lloyd on sax and flute. David Axelrod was the svengali who produced those timeless Cannonball Adderly sessions from 1964–75.

I remember buying Joe’s new Zawinul LP in 1971 and going over to a friend’s who had a good stereo system, and lying on the floor enjoying a cut called “Doctor Honoris Causa,” a piece Joe had written to commemorate Herbie Hancock for his having received an honorary doctorate. Few knew that it was Joe who had first received the call from Miles, and who had the audacity to decline the invitation. Herbie Hancock then joined the famous “E.S.P.” Quintet, so named because that was the first record this band (Herbie Hancock, Miles Davis, Wayne Shorter, Ron Carter, Tony Williams) released in 1963. It’s the album with Miles looking quizzically at his beautiful wife, France Taylor. (The backstory is that they’d just had a fight before the shot was taken.)

It was Joe Zawinul who was behind Miles Davis’ amazing album, In a Silent Way. Despite turning Miles down, Joe was a big influence on Davis in many, many ways. Joe grew up in a small town outside of Vienna. As a young piano prodigy, he absorbed the musical culture of Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler, and was shipped off to Prague to study with a master teacher.

Zawinul (1971)

Joe had been also recruited by the Nazis to perform at rallies as a demonstration of Aryan musical supremacy. He didn’t talk about it very much, but one day, while on tour in Europe with the visionary band Weather Report, which he’d formed with Wayne Shorter in 1972, Joe suddenly exclaimed “Hitler was the greatest rock and roll musician!” Peter Erskine and the others were dumbfounded, as Joe went on to explain that playing Hitler’s big rallies with the Luftwaffe Messerschmitt ME 109’s roaring overhead reminded him of the big arena rock concerts that the Rolling Stones do.

Joe was rather gruff and short with me when we first met, but he warmed up a lot as we got to know one another better. Our last interview took place when his wife, Maxine, was at City of Hope for cancer. He knew that she didn’t have much longer. That day, Joe told me a lot of heavy things he’d never mentioned before: the Nazi rallies; what it was like when the Russians arrived in Vienna, and how they had killed every German they found; having to slaughter horses blinded by the Allies’ phosphorous bombs for food. The Nazis never knew that Joe watched the film, Stormy Weather, 24 times, then received a Berklee College of Music scholarship, and came to America the old way—by boat—hoping to meet and marry Lena Horne. Instead, he married the first black Playboy bunny, Maxine, and they had several boys together in a marriage that lasted nearly fifty years. I wept walking to my car afterwards, feeling so blessed and fortunate to have known this amazing artist.

Joe was an innovator from the beginning:  as a kid he went to his dad’s pub and purloined some green velvet they had for the pool table.  He took it home and re-dampened the accordion for a different sound.  During the 1970s, he had his ARP 2600 keyboard re-wired so  that the notes would go down when the fingers went up, and vice-versea.  I’ve never heard of anybody doing that.

I, however, am a bit old school sometimes, or at least with Joe.  He came to LA around 1977 with Weather Report to perform a show at the Santa Monica Civic auditorium.  The lights dimmed and  we heard the sound of a berimbau;  Brazilian percussionist extraordinaire Dom Um Romao was moving down the aisles.  At the beginning of the second set, Joe played  the jazz standard “My One and Only Love” on acoustic piano.  Joe’s interpretation was a mix of old-school Vienna, avant-garde Vienna of modernists like Alban Berg, and the soulfulness of the American musicians he most admired.  It was a most felicitous sound.

God bless Joe Zawinul.   He pushed the boundaries.  That’s why Miles Davis loved him.

From the Café LA Archives: You can stream past interview clips with Joe Zawinul here from my 2007 tribute. 

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