Joe Zawinul’s Musical Epiphany

Listeners to my radio shows over the years will already know that I’m a huge fan of the jazz keyboardist and composer Joe Zawinul (1932-2007). I bought all his early LPs on the short-lived Vortex label, and also listened to his recordings with Cannonball Adderley, Ben Webster, and other musicians in New York City after he got off the boat from Austria. (And yes, he took a boat, not a plane, to get to New York.) When I first asked Zawinul for an interview, I was rebuffed: “Go talk to them,” he said, pointing to his managers. But I was eventually honored to interview Zawinul a number of times on KCRW, and we became friends beginning in the early 1980’s.

I have been listening to Zawinul’s first two solo pre-Weather Report LPs from the mid-late 1960’s: Money in the Pocket and The Rise and Fall of the Third Stream. Zawinul, born and raised in the old-school classical music traditions of Vienna, discovered jazz after World War II. He never looked back. He loved the American sound, but there was always a touch of Viennese classical elegance in this style. In his version of “My One and Only Love,” you hear his love of Errol Garner but especially Art Tatum, who also had a classical background. You also hear an occasional touch of stride piano and a bit of Ahmad Jamal. Clearly he was listening to all the jazz piano greats.

I remember first seeing Zawinul in 1966 with Cannonball’s group at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. I later saw him perform with Weather Report at the Santa Monica Civic Auditorium around 1980. Back then, he would return to the stage after intermission and play a classic jazz piece like “My One and Only Love” on the Steinway grand. I loved his touch on the acoustic keyboard, his chord voicings and alterations, and just about everything. Then he completely stopped playing acoustic keyboard, much to my disappointment.

I never really knew why Zawinul abandoned playing acoustic piano and simply attributed it to his interest in the new electronic keyboard innovations and synthesizers that came out in the 1970’s. But I recently discovered a 2007 BBC documentary called “Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait” that revealed the reason. I thought I knew everything about my hero but it turns out I didn’t. Zawinul told the filmmaker that he took LSD once and decided then and there that he would never again play any musical phrase that he had played before. It was an epiphany. At that moment he changed his identity and began writing only his own material, including “In a Silent Way,” “Bitches Brew,” and other classics for Miles Davis. Davis esteemed Zawinul and once asked him to be in his band, but Joe declined. He wanted to do his own thing and formed Weather Report with Wayne Shorter.

Interestingly, some other luminaries have experienced similar transformations after LSD or other hallucinogenic experiences. To name just two examples—French philosopher Michel Foucault in the California desert and English novelist Aldous Huxley (Doors of Perception), who took LSD on his deathbed to fully experience his demise. Anyway, I wasn’t totally surprised to learn about Zawinul’s musical epiphany because he always searched for new sounds and a fresh approach, even in childhood. As a kid, he stole a bunch of green felt from a billiards den nearby his home in Vienna and inserted the felt into his father’s accordion to change the sound. In the early 1970s, the state-of-the-art electric keyboard was the Arp 2600. Zawinul inverted the wiring on his keyboard so that when his hands went up the keyboard, the sound went lower, and vice-versa. He wanted a new and original sound, and he certainly achieved that goal.

Here is a clip of the aforementioned BBC documentary. We see a rare glimpse of Zawinul in his childhood home of Vienna, with him recalling his childhood during the Allied bombing that devastated the city and killed some of his childhood friends.

Banner image above: Joe Zawinul in 2006. Photo by tom.beetz (CC BY 2.0) via Flickr.