Joe Zawinul at 65, The Wire

Interview with Joe Zawinul, The Wire, 1996

© Howard Mandel 1996
Joe Zawinul has a loft in the Village, on the fifth floor of a modest elevator building that also houses the controversial human rights-monitoring law practice of a former U.S. Attorney General. On my way out the first time, a young heiress-type with a leashed dog in the elevator glanced through Zawinul’s open door into the raw-looking room beyond, and sniped, “Two years there and it’s the same as when they moved in!”
Well, there’s a piano, telephone, kitchenette, desk and chair–not overly cosy, perhaps, but veru cool. A weatherman’s station, from which he can tell which way the winds blow. What does his young female neighbor know?
Not much, probably, about Joe Zawinul, electro-acoustic keyboardist extraordinaire, international road-rat, premiere One World-jazz musician. He’s no longer the wiry, mustachio’d Master of the Universe who with saxophonist Wayne Shorter co-led Weather Report for 14 years, the genius who wrote basslines for Miles Davis’s epochal In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, the clean-shaven young man with the thinning hair, tab collar, narrow dark tie and pained expression vamping wickedly behind Cannonball and Nat Adderley and Yusef Lateef, breaking into solos borrowing from both Bud Powell and Bill Evans (see Jazz Scene U.S.A., a video from ’62). At age 64 he’s slightly thicker (though obviously still tough), somewhat mellower (yet casually coarse), friendly to the point of a merry twinkle in his eyes. In the past three years, besides touring with the no-apologies kickass fusion Zawinul Syndicate, producing and performing with Salif Keita (hear Amen) and Trilok Gurtu (Crazy Saints), returning from long residence in California to New York City, Joe Zawinul wrote and extravagantly realized a true Viennese symphony.
Stories Of The Danube, he calls it, and an ambitious work it is. Recorded by Phillips Classics, featuring soloists Amit Chatterjee (guitar, vocals), Arto Tuncboyaciyan (percusion, vocals), Berhan Ocal (oud, vocals, percussion), and the Czech Philharmonic Symphony conducted by Caspar Richter, the symphony dramatizes the rancous history as well as the end-to-end geography of the river of Zawinul’s birthplace, less as one person’s travails than as a far-flung peoples’.
“MY people were peasants and I’m working class,” Zawinul says, opening a conversation that ranges every bit as far and wide as the Danube. “My father was a worker, and growing up I spent time on my grandfather’s farm.” He proudly shows off his “porch”–the dark metal fire escape out his back door which opens on a vale of similarly vertiginous fire escapes, here and there green plants, a concrete canyonbed, lines crosshatched like late Modrian. Zawinal says living in Santa Monica was nice, but Manhattan–“The energy, man!”
There’s also the central feature of this loft, as far removed from the elevator’s noise and snoops as possible: a supremely professional sound studio with state-of-the-digital-art board, run by the youngest of Zawinul’s three sons, 25-year-old Ivan. We peek in. He tells Ivan he’ll be a while, then we move to the adjoining room full of books, memorabilia, and windows, he takes a chair at the broad worktable, and continues, “I’m part Hungarian, part gypsy–”
And a Viennese composer.
“Yes, I am!–though this symphony is all improvised. I always did that,” he says. “All the Weather Report stuff was improvised. I believe because of that it has a little more natural feel to it.
“I never could sit down and take the time”–as he supposes classical era composers would have even if they’d been able to document their own complex works on tape. “To me, sitting and composing pen to paper, is constrictive and analytical. When I make arrangements I have to do that, orchestrate–and I write every note myself, at the piano. I fuck with it for a long time. I don’t change any of the improvisation. But you know, you have 100 people to work with,” he shrugs, humbly conceding, “I cannot play everything myself.
“The way I compose: I lay out my idea, the nice little sound, the melody, then I improvise overdubs, nice lines–like those fast violins and the flutes you hear on top? Then comes the hard part, and my good friend Steven Barber helps me tremendously with the col parts, the repeats of parts for several instruments. That’s the way this symphony went down. Three months, the whole piece, and it was phenomenally many notes, really involved.
“I didn’t learn to compose in conservatory, no, what I learned there is what every kid in the world learns there: how to play the piano. But I was interested in instruments and music my entire life. I made instruments when I was a kid. I had seven accordions, up there,” he gestures vaguely towards photos of himself with a couple of them. “Only music is not instruments–instuments are something to make music with. An instrument is nothing unless it’s being played.
“Therefore I can never rate an acoustic piano above a synthesizer. They look alike, but have nothing to do with each other. That’s why there are very few synthesizer players, which gives the instrument a bad name. Even the good musicians don’t know how to play synthesizers; they play it like a fuckin’ piano, which you cannot do. It’s another thing: you have to approach its every sound with a different attack, a different feeling of playing, and then perhaps you’re playing synthesizer. The future will be different,” he’s confidently optimistic, “because the real young generation is going to be better.
“I mean, it started with electric guitar, electric bass–I was around when the first guy came out with electric bass and the great acoustic players said, ‘Hey man, that ain’t the thing.’ Then Monk Montgomery started playing with Lionel Hampton, some fantastic lines. Sam Jones was my best buddy, he says, ‘Joe, you was right.’ Because I’d said, ‘Don’t put it down before it has time to percolate. Everything has to have a little time. Music ain’t some overnight shit. You’ve got to let it grow.’
“That was after I joined Cannonball Adderley, in 1961. Around then I started using the electric piano. See, in Europe I’d played American military camps in the late ’40s, early ’50s, and they all had those Wurlitzer spinets. The electric Wurlitzer was the same thing. I’d been playing ‘Mercy, Mercy'”–Zawinul’s first big hit tune–“on acoustic piano with Cannon, but we went to Los Angeles to record. It was amazing then: we’ did everything live, rehearse in the afternoon, in the evening cut a fuckin’ record. Anyway, I said ‘Julian, see that little grey box down the hall? If it’s a Wurlitzer and in tune I’m going to play ‘Mercy, Mercy’ on it, and it’s gonna make a big difference in the way it gets over. Boom! It made a difference.
“Right after that Victor Feldman, my friend in Cannon’s band before me, called to say this guy just made a fine electric piano, check it out. Harold Rhodes liked the way I played, he gave me one of his electric pianos, and from that moment on I made it a part of my set up, so I had it next to me. I still played acoustic piano maybe 80 per cent of the time.
“I was also putting things in the acoustic piano back then–tapes, small tambourines, kinds of filters to change the sounds of different octaves of the piano for certain pieces of music. I can’t explain to you why, but I found the sound of an acoustic piano, over a long time, very boring. I feel the same today.
“I knew that John Cage was actually the father of that, because in Europe there were guys who fooled with doing that, too. But they were nuts, man. Most of them couldn’t even play.”
Didn’t listeners think Zawinul was equally nuts?
“Not really, because I didn’t play crazy music with it. I used that kind of thing when I built up a song for more folkloric feeling, usually. Preparing the piano really helped the songs get that feeling, people enjoyed it, and it helped what I wanted to do: bring out the character of the piece of music.
“Coming from the accordion, for me playing the piano was a pain in the ass, always. I do play it, and I play well–for several years I played with Friedrich Gulda, a serious classical musician, on the world stage, and we got incredible reviews for playing Brahms, Haydn variations, so forth. For that I like the piano sound, I really do.
“I like the sound Thelonious Monk gets, Art Tatum gets. But most piano players I don’t like. You can have beautiful touch on the piano, a personal sound, but all night long? I can’t take it.
“Even the accordion–when I was nine years old I stole some green felt used for patching billiard table covers. I didn’t like the sound on my accordion so I grabbed this piece of felt from a cafe and walked out, went home. My father had tools and glue, and I glued the material in the soundboard of my accordion. I got this sound–you know my song ‘Black Market?’ I got that same kind of nasal, vibrant sound–a sound with a feel to it. From then on I was always experimenting.
“Right after the war, ’48, ’49, I played for Americans who had a Hammond organ, and I started working with its stops every day. I played piano and B-3 with a big band. I studied other instruments: clarinet; violin, in the conservatory for about ten years; trumpet and bass trumpet and lead trombone, which I played in a big band. I have many great acoustic instruments, which I’ve used on my recordings. For me, the spectrum of the music depends on which sounds you use.
“Beside modifying my accordion, I turned it around. Instead of playing the melody with the right hand, I played melody with my left hand, comping with the right hand. That gave the bass part another texture that I enjoyed, and I got really quick with those little buttons. My left hand is a killer, man. I play melodies expressively with it. I’ve always been a bass man. That’s why later on, with synthesizers, I inverted keyboards–like putting a mirror on middle C, so B becomes D flat, B-flat becomes D, and so on; F sharps and Cs are the same, but nothing else.
“That made me put my mind to improvising with the chords. I had to think different, and it would throw me curves, but out of those curves would come some beautiful, natural things.
“I really know very little about the technology of these instruments,” Zawinul admits, “but I do know what their buttons do. I have a lot of analog instruments in my setup still, and I know if I turn this little button it gives me a little more brightness, for instance. So, when I sit down to play–which I do almost every day–the first thing I do is find me a sound. The moment I have a sound, I have some music. When I have a sound I really like, I have a couple drinks–you know, get happy–then play for hours and hours.”
How does he know when he’s got a sound he can work with?
“I knew all my life when I liked something,” he goes on. “And not the same sound as yesterday. But if I do like a sound very much, I keep it in the machine, lock it in the memory.
“My setup is phenomenal, man, I have to show you: 13 pedals, all for volume, to bring things in and out, not like piano sustain pedals. My main station is very small, and lets any instrument be the master instrument, so from each instrument I can play every other instrument. It’s very easy now, not like in the beginning with all the cables and plugs.
“I was still with Cannonball’s band then, and my friend Arnie Black who played violin with the New York City Symphony orchestra, told me, ‘There’s this thing coming out called a Sputnik synthesizer.’ You ever hear of it? It had one oscillator, a little square box, we wore patchcords around our necks. And whooo!–you got sound effects. No keyboards.
“Then I ran into Roger Powell, who was with Arp intruments. He liked the way I played and said, ‘Joe, you should try this.’ I told him, ‘Man, I’m ready for all that.’
“I went to Massachusetts to visit his company, and was knocked out. Arps had patchcords, too, but with a keyboard, and with this keyboard I did some memorable recordings, like ‘Black Market.’ The Arp got some nice sounds. Some very human sounds.
“It’s got to be human to me, you know, otherwise I through the fuckin’ shit out the window. The idea is to make a sound that has some human sense. You know, I play a lot on the symphony with the orchestra. You don’t hear it, because I play the same to make the timbres richer. Those wide open string parts in the third movement? I play with the strings–they dominate, no question–I don’t need no symphony orchestra if I’m in there all the time. Also in the first movement, those real low tones? There are certain things strings just can’t get. Of course, I play the solo on the ‘Gypsy’ section–that Turkish woodwind kind of sound.
“You realize I wrote that piece in 1967, as ‘Doctor Honorus Causa’ and the end of it was the end of ‘Pharoah’s Dance’ which I did with Miles on Bitches Brew. When I wrote ‘Doctor Honorus Causa’ for my first Atlantic album I already wanted to do it with orchestra–same with ‘Unknown Soldier,’ also part of the symphony, from Weather Report’s second album, I Sing The Body Electric. I used an extended group then already then. But I thought it’s a hell of a piece to do with an orchestra–and this symphony was a major event.
“We had 80,000 people on the shores of the Danube for its world premiere in the Bruckner fest–80,000! The entire piece was choreographed with lasers. Night on the Danube, ships going by lit up with special slogans–‘No Borders,’ things like that–and graphics. During ‘Gypsy’ seven barges heaped with straw drawn by catamarans with people wearing with big horseheads represented the gypsy caravans. At the end, when the section’s building up, they set fire to the straw, like burning the gypsies’ tents and wagons. Then for the World War II movement there was a bomb attack with fireworks, and giagantic aircraft searchlights, looking in the sky. It was fantastic.
“I think the piece is strong. I played it at the Salzburg festival, with the same student orchestra as in Vienna–lots of enthusiasm, bite–and in Sao Paolo, and in Basel, Switzerland. I hope to play it all over the world.
“Some of the tunes I play with my band. I don’t know whether you’ve heard us lately, but I got this little drummer Paco Sery from the Ivory Coast, he’s the best in the world. He was on the Salif Keita album. Arto plays percussion and sings. Matthew Garrison, Jimmy Garrison’s boy, is fantastic on bass, and I’m trying out Gary Paulson, this street kid from Brooklyn, on guitar. He’s raw, but I like that. It’s challenging to me, kids who are wild and live. We might make a few mistakes, but we play with the most beautiful art.
“We also got good rhythm. That’s the greatest strength Weather Report ever had. People were always talking about Weather Report being cerebral, but the secret of our success was we had good rhythm. Miles always said,” Zawinul switches into his hoarse Miles imitation,
“‘You got a funny rhythm, boy.’ It is funny. It’s different. It ain’t black, it ain’t white, but it’s totally original, and it grooves.
“That’s why I can play with the Africans as a natural thing. I mean, I’m not trying to play African music, I don’t really know anything about it, or South American music, or Turkish or Indian. It’s just a feeling I got–for people. I can go to Israel and play their music, to the Arabs and play their music. I just know how to do that.
“Same as my band played London last summer with John McLaughlin’s band with Joey Defrancesco and Dennis Chambers. John and me played a duet, it was nice and we made a big impact, I think. The music I’m playing now–I don’t know what you call it and I don’t care. It’s just music from the feeling. Good tunes, and we play them with a lot of accents: ensemble things that give us a lot of freedom on the other side, when they’re over. We can get loose, really explore and stretch out, but those accents and the good ensembles, when they come in, keep the music tight.
“You’ll hear that on my next record coming out, called My People. That’s like Duke Ellington said, ‘My people are the people.’ First you got to be people, to be my people.
“We’re mixing now, I got to go back to it when you leave, but let me tell you, man, the whole thing is very rhythmic, bone-hard dance music. Almost every track has a vocal. Now I’m gonna say this for myself: it’s a very intelligent record, not a stupid fuckin’ riff record. Very interesting motifs and counterpoint working together.
“I’ll tell you something: In my compositions each line has to exist as a line on its own, but not only horizontally. When I work on my scores, I look to see the lines work vertically, too. I don’t like to write harmony per se. Because of the single lines coinciding, here and there a harmony comes out. I think it’s very interesting!
“That’s how ‘Birdland’ worked–just simple things we could play in quartet, just me, Wayne, a drummer and a bass player–though it was the hardest thing I played in my life. All the parts, the arrangement in my left hand, all the soloing and extra parts in my right hand, a real split-head trip. Nah, I won’t play that anymore. It was a blessing to have a song like that, but I don’t go back, no more than Miles did–he said it would kill him to play bebop. It was fine for then, it’s time, but…You know what they do for me in Italy, where they know I won’t play ‘Birdland’? When I come onstage, the audience sings it for me! The whole crowd: ‘Bah-bah bah! Bah-bah-bah! Boom–va, va, va vah!’
“I love people, man, I do, and I respect everybody. But I don’t want no messages in my music. I just want people to enjoy my fuckin’ music. See, I’m a hardworking motherfucker; I worked my back off even when I was a kid. And the greatest thing I remember was I played a little accordion, the family was sitting together by candlelight, singing our little songs, and there was a happiness. We had nothing, hardly any food, but happiness.
“So I believe that poor people can be just as happy as anybody else. There’s a certain thing we have to give them, though: a little entertainment. You know, music can’t save the world,” says Joe Zawinul–who’s survived a world war, emigration, toured the segregated U.S. south with Dinah Washington as well as the Adderley brothers band during the Civil Rights struggles, helped forment the ’60s cultural revolution, and has had a hand in commercial-esthetic jazz developments ever since. “But music can make the world a little bit nicer.”
–originally published in The Wire

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  1. ex band member says

    from this interview, one would think that zawinul was a gruff but nice guy… nothing of the sort! he was a mean-spirited, abusive drunk who relished the chance to bully anybody he thought was “beneath” him as an artist. not many tears were shed with his passing… he won’t be missed! good riddance!
    HM I’m sure Zawinul was a man of many faces; I reported the one I saw at the time of the interview. He certainly had an ego. When I was an editor for Down Beat, I was sent to placate Zawinul after a Weather Report concert, and obediently addressed him in the green room of the Park West. He was furious about a recent 2 star award. “You do not give 2 stars to Bach!” he stormed. “You do not give 2 stars to Zawinul!”

  2. Rick Banales says

    I’m sure if Joe yelled at your ass, Mr. “ex band member”, I’m sure it was because he realized he made a mistake hiring you – the bitterness, pettiness and cowardace you show here in bashing a dead person anonymously must come through in your music and in your writing.
    …by the way, that IS my real name up there, and unless you have the balls to post under YOUR real name, just STFU.

  3. Barry The Gray says

    Zawinul is one of the best. The music speaks for itself. Zawinul Lives on. 1000 000 000 000 + stars to him. Thank you man and Miles, Bird, Trane, Shorter and Jaco and others too. Love you guys forever. Hope to meet you all some day in the afterlife. Peace and happiness to all.

  4. says

    I stumbled on this interview and what a fantastic way to get my day started. He really opened up to you Howard and the result was a glimpse back to one of the most significant periods in my life. That was the Zawinul I worked with for nearly eight years and the man I treasured a lot longer – uncompromising, focused and proud.
    I feel sorry for those who misread Zawinul’s apparent “bullying”. He was very much like all of us, the way he dealt with people was based on the lens through which he viewed his own life.
    What a life it was – unimaginable hardships of World War II, juxtaposed against rigorous music training in Vienna. For a village kid falling in love with Duke Ellington on the radio, the prospect of actually playing jazz with people like Miles, Cannonball and Dinah Washington was as improbable as hitting the lottery. But he did it. Talent, work ethic, courage – all ingredients of the American rags to riches mythology.
    No wonder Zawinul didn’t tolerate what he considered less than excellence in other people. He held others to the high standards that he imposed on himself. Unfair? Maybe, but as Joe told me about his misunderstood criticism, “It’s never personal, it’s about the music.”
    Bravo, Zawinul. Bravo.