Given an accordian at the age of six, Josef Erich Zawinul began studying classical music at the Vienna Conservatory from the age of seven. After World War II, he became interested in jazz after seeing the film Stormy Weather, starring Lena Horne and featuring Louis Armstrong. In 1952, he began working with the Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller, and from 1953 to 1958 he worked with various leading Austrian musicians, as well as playing at clubs in Germany and France with his own trio. In 1959, he won a scholarship to the Berklee College of Music in Boston, and emigrated to America. Shortly after arriving, he joined Maynard Ferguson’s big band and toured with that aggregation for eight months. After working briefly with Slide Hampton, Zawinul became the accompanist to singer Dinah Washington from October 1959 to March 1961. There followed brief stints with Harry “Sweets” Edison and singer Joe Williams before he joined the Cnnonball Adderley quintet, becoming a key member of the group and remaining until the autumn of 1970. Toward the end of his tenure with Adderley, Joe also participated in four important Miles Davis albums -- In A Silent Way, Bitches Brew, Live-Evil and Big Fun.
From his earliest days in America with Maynard Ferguson’s big band and Dinah Washington to his tenure in Cannonball Adderley’s quintet (1961-1970) to his long run with the Grammy Award-winning Weather Report (1971-1986) and now the Zawinul Syndicate (1988-present), Joe Zawinul has imbued his playing with a remarkable depth of heart and soul. He is the composer of such timeless pieces as the popular anthem “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” (a Top 40 hit for Cannonball Adderley in 1966), the evocative “In A Silent Way”(which he recorded with Miles Davis as the title track of a landmark 1969 recording) and the joyfully buoyant “Birdland” (from Weather Report’s gold-selling album from 1977, Heavy Weather). From his Weather Report days, and particularly since the formation of the Zawinul Syndicate, his writing has taken a decidedly more pronounced shift toward incorporating world music elements into his own harmonically sophisticated and rhythmically pulsating language. The result is a dynamic hybrid that speaks to a multitude of cultures with joy, honesty and intensity.
In 1971, Zawinul formed Weather Report with Davis’ former tenor saxophonist, Wayne Shorter. Over the course of the band’s 15-year existence, there were several personnel changes while the direction of the group gradually shifted from provocative free improvisations to more strictly composed pieces in its middle and later periods. In it’s heyday, Weather Report was regarded as the premier fusion band with a huge international following. A host of great musicians passed through its ranks, including bassists Miroslav Vitous, Alphonso Johnson, Jaco Pastorius and Victor Bailey, drummers Eric Gravatt, Ndugu Chanceler, Chester Thompson, Alex Acuna, Peter Erskine and Omar Hakim, percussionists Don Alias, Dom Um Romao, Manolo Badrena, Robert Thomas Jr., Jose Rossy and Mino Cinelu. Likewise, the Zawinul Syndicate has seen its share of great musicians passing through, including drummers Cornell Rochester, Rodney Holmes, Paco Sery and Mike Baker; bassists Gerald Veasley, Matthew Garrison, Richard Bona, Victor Bailey and Etienne Mbappe; guitarists Scott Henderson, Randy Bernsen, Gary Poulson and Amit Chatterjee; percussionists Manolo Badrena and Arto Tuncboyaciyan.
Zawinul’s 1996 album "My People" was nominated for a Grammy and the 1998 double CD "World Tour" was also nominated for a Grammy. Other special projects were an exciting solo album by the name of "Dialects" (1986) and work as producer and arranger on SalifKeita's musical landmark "Amen" (1991). In the meantime Zawinul developed a further facet of his artistic life in the realm of classic composition, composing in 1993 the ambitious "Stories of the Danube" or through the cooperation with the renowned classical pianist Friedrich Gulda, who’s an old friend from early days. His very special solo project "Mauthausen", which was released in Europe in the year 2000, is a musical memorial for the victims of the holocaust, that was premiered at the Austrian concentration-camp, after which it is named.
Among his many prizes and awards, Zawinul has been voted "best keyboard player" 28 times by the readers of the magazine Downbeat. He has also received the prestigious Austrian jazz prize, the Hans-Koller-Preis. In category Jazz he won the Amadeus for the special project of "Mauthausen", the biggest Austrian Entertainment Award. For his live-album "World tour" he received the German Jazz Award.
In January 2002, Zawinul received the first International Jazz Award, co-presented by the International Jazz Festival Organization and the International Association of Jazz Educators for "his extraordinary contribution to the history of jazz."
The mayor of Vienna presented Zawinul with the golden Ring of the City. Wayne Shorter gave him the renowned "Bird Award" at the North Sea jazz festival for his life's work. Joe Zawinul celebrated his 70th birthday in July 2002. The publishing house Residenzverlag issued Gunther Baumann's biography "Zawinul - Ein Leben Aus Jazz" and in September 2002 "Faces & Places" was released, which received the German Jazz Award shortly thereafter.
Joe Zawinul is deservedly renowned for his pioneering role in the Jazz world combining the elements of world music rock and jazz. In fact, many of the worldbeat sounds we take for granted today, simply wouldn't exist without his revolutionary compositions and performances with Miles Davis in the late 60s, Weather Report in the 70 - 80s, and The Zawinul Syndicate in the 90s evolving into the year 2005.
At age 73, Joe Zawinul is still leading the way and has something fresh to say.
Stay tuned for upcoming Zawinul Syndicate tours this summer in Europe and autumn in the States. Until then, feel the heat of Joe’s most scintillating outfit to date on the live Vienna Nights, which was recorded in two separate week-long engagements at Zawinul’s Birdland club in his home town Vienna in May and September of 2004.