NPR logo
A Look at the Life and Work of Joe Zawinul
  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A Look at the Life and Work of Joe Zawinul


With an appreciation of a musical life, here's DAY TO DAY contributor David Was.

DAVID WAS: Of all the European musicians to have embraced jazz in the past half century, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, who died yesterday at the age of 75, was perhaps the truest to the tradition of blues-based funkiness as if he grew up on the streets of Philadelphia instead of Vienna.

(Soundbite of noise)

Unidentified Man #1: Yeah.

WAS: Then again, his years at the conservatory in Vienna studying classical piano and composition made him an alluring combination of brains and soul, qualities that found an employment with the likes of Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington when he arrived stateside in 1958. He would then come to prominence as part of alto sax master Cannonball Adderley's Quintet, where he wrote that band's biggest crossover hit "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy."

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: On that song and others of the time period, Zawinul was among the first keyboardists to break the voltage barrier and introduce the Fender-Rhodes electric piano to the jazz world.

Miles Davis, who was ever remaking his sonic image, hired Zawinul for his "In a Silent Way" album in 1969, where he joined future fusion jazz pioneers like Chick Corea and John McLaughlin.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Zawinul wrote the haunting title track a dirge-like tone poem that owed debts to both Duke Ellington and Jimi Hendrix.

(Soundbite of music)

WAS: Zawinul then struck out on his own, joining with Miles as saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous to form Weather Report, a forward-looking ensemble that embraced world music before there was such a category. On the album "Heavy Weather," Zawinul added a battery of analog synthesizers to the mix, creating a hybrid electric acoustic pallet that made mainstream headlines when his composition "Birdland" became a hit record in 1977.

(Soundbite of song "Birdland")

WAS: "Whether Report" eventually hit the skids, actually because when the band finished recording all the basic tracks, Zawinul reportedly retired to his home studio with a hefty bag of Cannabis Ridiculous, an overdubbed new parts ad infinitum. He would continue making groove-based world music until the end, even pausing to write a symphony. One of his stateliest compositions, "Dr.Honoris Causa," is a fitting way to honor Zawinul's capacious spirit and unbounded talent.

SMITH: Musician David Was, half of the group, Was Not Was.

(Soundbite of music)

SMITH: DAY TO DAY is a production of NPR News with contributions from

I'm Robert Smith.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

Copyright © 2007 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.



Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.