Obituary: Joe Zawinul

Jazzman and founder of Weather Report, he had a crucial impact on world music

Joe Zawinul, who has died aged 75 of cancer, is one of a handful of people who changed the way music sounds. As a composer, jazz keyboardist, bandleader and hit-maker, he put his stamp on five decades of music - through his own bands, Weather Report (co-founded with saxophonist Wayne Shorter) and the Zawinul Syndicate, and also the tunes he wrote for Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis. He had a crucial impact on the sound of what we now call world music, working with Salif Keita and Trilok Gurtu, and championing talents such as Karim Ziad and Richard Bona, whose career took off after a spell in the Syndicate.

Zawinul was born to lower-middle class parents (his father was a clerk with the gas company) in a poor district of Vienna. His twin, Erich, died of pneumonia at four. He had perfect pitch, and his musical talents were clear from an early age, honing his self-taught keyboard skills on the accordion. He later described the synthesizer, on which he became an influential virtuoso, as the accordion's natural successor.

There was no piano at home (in a municipal flat), but the young Joe studied piano, violin and clarinet at the Vienna Conservatory, where he was given a free place at the age of seven. Later, he went to the Gymnasium Hagenmüllergasse, and discovered jazz through movies and radio.

In the 1950s, he began to play piano with leading Austrian musicians such as Hans Koller and the Fatty George group. His contemporaries included classical composer-pianist Friedrich Gulda (obituary, February 1 2000), later to collaborate with Zawinul on Concerto for Two Pianos and Orchestra, and he played for dances with Thomas Klestil, later president of Austria (obituary, July 8 2004).

Having friends in high places came in handy when he branched out into other interests. He opened a club, Joe Zawinul's Birdland, in Vienna, and also went into action to combat pollution in Senegal. This led to his appointment by the Austrian government as "goodwill ambassador" for 17 African nations.

After making a name for himself on the home scene, Zawinul won a scholarship to Berklee College of Music in Boston. Jazz composer Mike Gibbs, who arrived on the same day as Zawinul in 1959, told me: "He stayed three minutes and I stayed four years." Within a week he was offered a job with Maynard Ferguson's band and went on the road with the flamboyant trumpeter for eight months.

After Ferguson (obituary, August 26 2006) came gigs with Dinah Washington and a long stint with the highly successful band of Cannonball Adderley, who shrewdly gave Zawinul a chance to write. In 1966 he delivered the great soul-jazz classic Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, a commercial but subtle piece that demonstrated how successfully this white Austrian had absorbed the gospel-like idioms of black jazz.

He remained with Adderley until 1970, while young turks such as Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock grabbed headlines. Zawinul told me in a 2002 interview that a "little crisis" came when pianist Barry Harris congratulated Zawinul for sounding exactly like Harris on a record. For a few moments the former felt he had "arrived" - a Viennese émigré who could play like a native New Yorker. But after a little more reflection, he decided to forge a more individual direction.

First, he found a piano teacher, Raymond Leventhal. Then, he found his voice as a composer, bringing several tunes to the Miles Davis sessions in 1969 and 1970 that produced the groundbreaking albums In a Silent Way, Bitches Brew and Live-Evil. Wayne Shorter left Davis's band and teamed up with Zawinul in 1971 to form Weather Report, one of the great groups of that era.

Weather Report was a commercial and critical success, winning 15 consecutive Down Beat International critics' and readers' polls and a Grammy for their live double album 8.30. With a changing cast of characters on percussion, drums and bass (including the spectacularly talented Jaco Pastorius) over their 15-year career, the Weather Report sound was immediately recognisable and consistently creative in style and content. Zawinul and Shorter's band combined the exuberance and energy of rock and funk with the depth and musicality of jazz. Albums such as I Sing the Body Electric, Mysterious Traveller, Black Market, Mr Gone, Night Passage and Procession still sound fresh and full of ideas, while Live & Unreleased is testament to the uninhibited creativity of their live shows. Fans who attended Weather Report's concerts in the 1970s and 80s recall the warmth and spirit that infused those events.

Their most successful album was Heavy Weather in 1976, which included Zawinul's hit Birdland, a radio favourite later covered by Manhattan Transfer and Quincy Jones. Yet Birdland, an instrumental paean to the legendary New York jazz club, is a rich and complex composition, with more invention in one track than most jazz fusion artists manage on an entire album. Listen to a random sampling of Weather Report tracks and you can hear every kind of music, from contemporary classical and ambient through nascent hip-hop (125th St Congress) and tough post-bop (Night Passage) to emerging World Music (Confians, Badia), not to mention a masterly command of electronics, free-form improvisation, funk and ambient soundscapes, and the moving Cannon Ball, a beautiful elegy for Adderley. Zawinul called Weather Report "the last of the great storytellers", and those stories still have relevance for today's music makers.

After Zawinul and Shorter split in 1985, the former produced a solo keyboard record (Dialects) before briefly (and hastily) forming Weather Update and then founding the more serious Zawinul Syndicate, which undertook a heroic touring schedule for much of the past two decades. Zawinul ignored most of his back catalogue and wrote a library of terrific new tunes, including Patriots, Indiscretions, Lost Tribes and Borges Buenos Aires, bubbling streams of energy that ran naturally into the growing delta of world music.

Zawinul "discovered" Africa when he produced the album Amen, by Malian singer Salif Keita, and found it a revelation, along with its musicians. "Paco [Sery, drums], Etienne [Mbappe, bass] and me just played," he told me. "I was astonished by the way they played my music... When they were in Africa, growing up, they listened to Weather Report. Black Market was a theme song on Radio Dakar in Senegal." To forge his music, with its distinctively futuristic mix of electricity and ethnicity, he recruited many Syndicate members from far outside the mainstream of Euro-American jazz: Richard Bona, percussionist Arto Tuncboyaciyan, guitarist Amit Chatterjee, singers Thania Sanchez and Sabine Kabongo.

Over the past 15 years there were several projects alongside the band. He toured in a duo with Indian drummer/percussionist Trilok Gurtu, and there were further collaborations with Gulda. Stories of the Danube was a full-length symphonic work. His critically acclaimed double CD Brown Street, released earlier this year, returned to Zawinul's classic Weather Report tunes, arranged for the WDR big band by Vince Mendoza. A concert of these arrangements, performed by Zawinul with the BBC Big Band, had been planned for this year's London Jazz Festival in November.

Weather Report summed up their approach with the musical policy statement: "We never solo, we always solo." It was a feature of Zawinul's many achievements that, though driven by a powerful ego, he had the musical and personal generosity to bring out the best from his fellow musicians.

Zawinul often paid tribute to his wife, Maxine, who died earlier this year, and his sons Anthony, Erich and Ivan (also his tireless sound engineer). "I have a great wife, and I believe it takes a great wife to become a great man."

· Josef (Joe) Erich Zawinul, composer, jazz keyboardist and bandleader, born July 7 1932; died September 11 2007

· This article was amended on Friday September 14 2007. We said Joe Zawinul "often paid tribute to ... his sons Anthony, Erich (also his tireless sound engineer) and Ivan". In fact it was Ivan who was his sound engineer and co-producer. This has been corrected.


John L Walters

The GuardianTramp

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