In the endless parade of departing musicians, now we’ve lost Joe Zawinul, dead of skin cancer at seventy-five. The obituaries are stressing his fusion work with Miles Davis on In A Silent Way and Bitches Brew, his partnership with Wayne Shorter in Weather Report and all the hits they had; “Birdland,” the Heavy Weather album and the Grammy for the one called 8:30. As Herbie Hancock is being quoted everywhere, Zawinul was a force. Whatever world music is, Joe took it into the realm of artistry.
Before he was a force, Zawinul was a nifty bebop piano player who came to New York from Austria in the late 1950s and captivated Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington and Ben Webster and Cannonball Adderley. He was with Cannonball from 1961 to 1970. After his “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” gave Cannon an enormous hit in 1966, the Adderley band was in New Orleans frequently, usually to perform, sometimes just to hang out with friends like Wilson Turbinton (Willie Tee) and his brother Earl and, always, to eat. During most visits, the band — or significant components of it–were guests on a radio program I did. Once, Joe came into the studio with Willie Tee. They played and laughed together at the Steinway, a pianist from uptown New Orleans and one from Vienna exchanging ideas and putting each other on in that fine southern way known as signifying.
Willie Tee and Joe Zawinul at WDSU, New Orleans, ca 1967
After the taping or after the Adderleys’ gig, we would all go in search of good things to eat, never a challenge in the French Quarter. Here’s a memory from the Cannonball chapter in Jazz Matters: Reflection on the Music and Some of its Makers.
One of his favorite restaurants in New Orleans was Vaucresson, a little place on Bourbon Street that specialized in a kind of Creole soul food, nicely spiced and very rich. It was just down the street from Al Hirt’s, in those days a jazz club with a name policy, where the quintet played at least twice a year.
After the gig, or sometimes between sets, Cannon and the band would install themselves at the largest table in the place, inevitably to be joined by fans, friends, family and assorted French Quarter regulars. The enduring image is of Cannonball surrounded by people, simultaneously laughing, expounding, questioning and consuming, inevitably taking time for just one more dish.
“Yes, Mama,” he’d tell the proprietress, “I think there’s room for the bread pudding.”
On one of those occasions, with Joe grinning and shaking his head, Cannon told the story of “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” They made the recording in a studio full of guests who were fed and served drinks as if the setting were a club. The issued take was not the one he wanted. He thought the band was better on an earlier version, the one that had a Zawinul solo so hot, so funky, that a woman in the audience yelled, “Play it, you little white darlin’.” A Capitol Records executive, nervous in the racial climate of the sixties, rejected the take.
Maybe they’ll put it on the memorial album. Joe would like that