Joe Zawinul: Inspiration to Miles Davis

by Alex Paspa on April 23, 2015

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Joe Zawinul is considered one of the most innovative jazz keyboard players of all time. He was a big pioneer of synthesizers in jazz music and was one of the first to play jazz fusion. His aggressive attitude permeated his music. His modern musical style and persona inspired many including the famous jazz musician Miles Davis.

According to Brian Glasser’s book In a Silent Way: A Portrait of Joe Zawinul, war was a normal part of Zawinul’s life when he was a young boy in WWII Austria. He did not know if he was going to live or die because he was bombed on a regular basis. According to Glasser, Zawinul’s father was a truck driver and got into a lot of trouble at beer halls. He was a boxer, weightlifter, and harmonica player. This lifestyle rubbed off onto the young Joe.

Zawinul loved the movie Stormy Weather. The movie was a huge inspiration for him that helped solidify what he wanted to do in his life. He wanted to play with black musicians, whose style and musicianship he admired. Zawinul would soon be learning Miles Davis tunes by listening to the records. He would eventuallymeet Miles Davis at Birdland Jazz Club in New York City Miles approached Zawinul and asked him to play on his upcoming album, which he declined. According to Zawinul this really tore up Miles Davis, who is not used to being declined by anyone. was impressed that the European, Joe Zawinul, did not glorify or idolize him the way many Americans did.Perhaps Davis admired the clear-sightedness that could only come from somebody who grew up in poverty during Word War IIJoe’s childhood made him tough, and that toughness came out in his music and in his interaction with Davis.

Zawinul boxe for fun on a regular basis. In his documentary, Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait, he said he used boxing to keep his body and mind in shape. The reaction and timing of boxing was really important for him and he incorporated this sensibility into his music. Glasser confirms this by noting that Joe plays as if he is boxing: jabbing, circling, ducking, combinations. Because this was Davis’s style as well Zawinul and Davis would become sparring partners both on the stage and in the boxing ring. Zawinul recalls that he would beat up Davis with his nasty left hook when they boxed.

Zawinul, who once told ’Down Beat’ magazine that “Miles ain’t shit (Glasser)”.was constantly putting Miles’ ego at check and pushing Miles Davis mentally and musically. At one instance in their relationship Miles gave Joe a bag of drugs and joe proceeded to flush it down the toilet. Miles was outrages at him for this but later thanked him for it. Zawinul wrote most of ’In a Silent Way’ analbum considered by many to be Davis’s best album and is his first experimental album using electronic instrumentation. The album marked Davis’s transition from traditional jazz into jazz-fusion. On this and following albums, Joe Zawinul’s influence can be heard not only because he wrote many of the tunes but also because Zawinul’s take on jazz and his jabs rubbed off onto Miles Davis in a very profound way.

Works Cited

  • “Joe Zawinul: A Musical Portrait.”Directed by Mark Kidel.
  • “The Miles Davis Story.” Directed by Mike Dibb.
  • “In a Silent Way: A Portrait of Joe Zawinul.” Brian Glasser. February 1, 2001

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

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Stephen Cibik April 30, 2015 at 10:38 pm

What a bad ass. Gotta love guys like this, unapologetic, opinionated. I think its funny he did end up collaborating with Davis, he just wanted to play hard ball. I guess you’d be pretty hardcore if you grew up getting bombed all the time, I wonder what kind of music this guy would play if he was born 20 or so years later. Nice read, concise and to the point, interesting facts.


Adam McDaniel April 26, 2015 at 1:08 pm

Very interesting article.
Zawinul’s relationship with Miles Davis is worth a full-length documentary. It would be interesting to trace any and all history between Zawinul and Davis to see what direct impact Zawinul had on Davis’s musical direction and development.
Was Zawinul’s use of synthesizers a break-through in the genre of jazz? It when synthesizers first showed up in jazz as opposed to other genres like roll ‘n’ roll. Also, did Zawinul have to bad ass mentality before he emigrated to the USA? I wonder if the bravado westerner vibe rubbed off on him when he assimilated to the American lifestyle. Perhaps Zawinul’s transition into full-time residency in America nurtured a preexisting attractive to aggression and boldness.


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