Joe Zawinul helped bring the volume, distortion and electronics of rock to jazz through his work with Miles Davis and the group Weather Report. What came to be called jazz-rock fusion drew howls of protest from the purists. It also drew praise from others for helping to broaden the audience for jazz. Joe Zawinul died today in his hometown, Vienna, Austria. He had cancer.

NPR's Elizabeth Blair reports.

ELIZABETH BLAIR: One day, Joe Zawinul was working with a singer, fooling around with a piano riff. It went on to become one of the most popular tunes for one of the most popular jazz bands of the day.

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Mr. HERBIE HANCOCK (Pianist): For a white Viennese boy to write a song that's that black is pretty remarkable.

BLAIR: Pianist Herbie Hancock was friends with Joe Zawinul, when Zawinul recorded "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" with the Cannoball Adderley quintet in 1966.

Mr. HANCOCK: I mean, he just captured the essence of the African-American heritage in this - just the statement of the melody and the feeling of that song. In some past life, Joe must have been black.

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BLAIR: Joe Zawinul may have had the instincts of a jazz musician. But he also worked at it - hard. He came from a poor Viennese family. His twin brother died when he was four. Joe learned to play the accordion when he was six, was accepted by the Vienna Conservatory as a pianist, and wound up at Boston's Berklee College of Music. He didn't stay long. He was hired away by Maynard Ferguson, landed a job with Dinah Washington, and then joined Cannonball Adderley's group.

Even though these were some of the biggest names in jazz, Zawinul told NPR it wasn't easy.

Mr. JOE ZAWINUL (Jazz musician): We were struggling, very little money, bad hotels. But you'll learn how to play. I played on pianos without ivory on it, no microphones. When I played my solo, Cannonball held the microphone in there. Meanwhile, we were one of the top bands.

BLAIR: Eventually, Zawinul wanted to find his own sound, and the electric keyboard he used on "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy" pointed toward his future. He went on to compose "In A Silent Way," the title track for one of Miles Davis' earliest experiments in electronics.

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BLAIR: But in 1970, Zawinul founded a group with saxophonist Wayne Shorter that had a dramatic impact on jazz - Weather Report.

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BLAIR: Weather Report stormed concert halls at a time when rock had driven mainstream jazz to the margins.

Mr. ALEX ACUNA (Jazz musician): A lot of people came to see Weather Report. They were like The Beatles of jazz.

BLAIR: Alex Acuna played percussion with the band. He says Wayne Shorter and Joe Zawinul had a specific vision for where they wanted to go with their music.

Mr. ACUNA: The vision was really to make music with all the sounds that the world generates.

BLAIR: Pianist Joe Zawinul with an early adaptor of what came to be called world music. He worked with many African musicians. But as broad as his interests might have been, classical music wasn't really one of them. He told NPR it just wasn't him.

Mr. ZAWINUL: For me, music is not notes, not chords. For me music is atmosphere, and what you bring to it is your own life.

BLAIR: Joe Zawinul died early this morning. He was 75 years old.

Elizabeth Blair, NPR News.

NORRIS: And you can read more about Joe Zawinul and hear him live at the North Sea Jazz Festival. That's at our Web site, npr.org/music.

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