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Josef Zawinul
Composer, keyboardist

Born: July 7, 1932 in Vienna, Austria
Died: September 11, 2007 in Vienna, Austria



Influential Composer, Keyboardist and Bandleader

Copyright © 2007 

A proud, visionary artist who considered his pioneering work in jazz as an evolutionary step in the Viennese musical tradition, Joe Zawinul died in his Austrian hometown at the age of 75. He had been suffering from Merkel cell carcinoma, a type of skin cancer, and had been hospitalized for the previous month.

Zawinul played accordion as a child, but soon moved to piano and into Vienna's famed music conservatory. Already a jazz fan, the teenaged Zawinul played in dance bands and then became a session pianist, working for a time as a house musician with Polydor Records.

At the age of 27, he won a scholarship to the Berklee School of Music and emigrated to the United States -- a trip he documented in his composition "Arrival In New York," which appeared on his self-titled album in 1970. He quickly landed a job with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, whose band included saxophonist Wayne Shorter. Zawinul left Ferguson to accompany singer Dinah Washington, and then formed a long-term relationship with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, in whose band he would remain for eight years.

The lyrical, soulful bent of Adderley's band was an ideal match for Zawinul, and he composed a number of influential pieces for the group, including the Grammy Award-winning "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy." Even more significant was his use of the Fender Rhodes and Wurlitzer electric pianos, which along with Zawinul's songwriting prowess, caught the ear of trumpeter Miles Davis. Davis began to feature electric piano in his own bands, and invited Zawinul to contribute music to the albums that would be released as In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew.

Taking Davis' use of electronic keyboards and dense rhythms as a cue, Zawinul, Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous formed Weather Report in 1970. Over the following 16 years, the group became the most popular unit in jazz, showcasing a large number of arresting, young musicians, including bassists Jaco Pastorius, Alphonso Johnson and Victor Bailey, and drummers Peter Erskine and Omar Hakim. Although Zawinul and Shorter remained titular heads of the group, Weather Report increasingly became Zawinul's compositional workshop as the saxophonist became more reclusive. The band's approach to group improvisation (summarized by Zawinul in his oblique phrase, "We never solo and we always solo") had enormous impact on the sound of small-group jazz. The band's popularity also spawned a growing number of imitators, including many with a notably softer edge who gave rise to the 'smooth jazz' genre.

In 1988, two years after the dissolution of Weather Report, Zawinul formed the first version of Zawinul Syndicate, which until his death would feature a revolving cast of international musicians.

Pre-deceased by his wife Maxine, who died earlier in 2007, Zawinul is survived by three sons, Erich, Ivan and Anthony.

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The Original Jay-Z, Remembered

Copyright © 2007

Reuben Jackson

The Original Jay-Z, Remembered by Reuben Jackson

Sooner or later, my father once said, all the signposts in your life disappear. The field where you played ball becomes a parking lot. Your favorite Mom and Pop store vanishes. He forgot to add music to his list.

Well, not music itself. It -- as the old cliche reminds us -- lives on. Its practioners, however, are another matter. More and more of the men and women whose artistry lightened my spirit and, yes, my wallet, seem to be leaving the building.

Or is that yours truly -- now a fiftysomething, card-carrying member of AARP -- am more aware of this? In late August, the phenomenal drummer-bandleader-composer Max Roach died. And on September 11th, keyboardist-composer Josef Zawinul, who co-founded the seminal jazz ensemble known as Weather Report.

With all due respect to Max Roach, whose contributions are enormous -- his encounters with other innovators such as saxophonist Charlie Parker was not the music of my generation.

Jazz was something my Dad and his friends listened to on Saturday nights. A beverage or two in hand. But Weather Report's heady yet accessible mix of jazz, funk and more than a few traces of what was eventually dubbed "World Music" was the perfect brew for a kid raised on Hendrix, Sly, James Brown and Duke Ellington, among others. You could dance to it, sign a long term lease, and reside in one of Zawinul's swirling, synthesized arpeggios. It was the perfect soundtrack for my years at the now defunct Western High School here in D.C.

I never understood why the band's music angered so many so-called jazz purists. Wasn't jazz about discovery? But Zawinul, the electric efforts of Miles Davis, Chick Corea and others, created a kind of funky line in the sand -- one a lot of critics and fans still refuse to cross.

And yet ensembles like Weather Report are now as much a part of the music's history as Billie Holiday or Count Basie. The angular, gutty work pioneered by people like Joe Zawinul has given way to the faceless pablum known as "smooth jazz."

Did I just say that? Oh goodness. There I go -- touting the glories of the good old days. Like certain critics, my father and his old school jazz-loving friends.

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