Joe Zawinul and the Path of the Honorary American

by Zachary Fischman on April 29, 2015

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Joe Zawinul was an extremely accomplished an well known jazz pianist. He played with other renowned artists such as Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Yusef Lateef, Ben Webster, Dinah Washington, and many others. Despite being born and raised in Austria, he is considered an “honorary American.” Like many Europeans, he was classically trained, but he was always more focused on the feel of his music than his technique. His ability to swing in a way that most European players couldn’t do is what makes him an honorary American. This is the story of how Joe Zawinul became a significant player in the American jazz scene.

Joe Zawinul’s career as a professional musician began in 1953 when he made his first recording in Austria with Alexander Jenner, another pianist. Over the next four years Joe Zawinul made a name for himself in the Viennese circuit playing with the group The Austrian All Stars. Unlike most others, Zawinul didn’t stop there. Despite being popular in Austria his real dream was to go to the United States to learn from American jazz players and become one of the greats. So in 1958 he applied for a four-month scholarship to the Berklee School of Music in Boston. He was one of seven people to actually receive this scholarship. The next step for Zawinul was to claim his scholarship and enter the American jazz scene, which is exactly what he did.

Zawinul only attended Berklee for three weeks before getting an offer to fill in for Ella Fitzgerald’s piano player at a local club in Boston. The same night Maynard Ferguson’s ex band mate Jake Hanna was in attendance. When Hanna saw Zawinul perform he called up Ferguson, who was looking for a pianist at the time, and told him to look into Joe Zawinul. The next day Joe took a train to New York City to audition for the role. He was immediately hired. As a result, he dropped out of Berklee and began playing with Ferguson full time.

After six months of playing with Ferguson’s group, Zawinul was asked to leave the group. Immediately he was offered a job playing piano for Dinah Washington, a blues singer. He ended up backing Washington for two years. During this time he traveled all around the United States and met tons of other jazz musicians. One day after coming home from a gig he received a phone call. It was Cannonball Adderley. He wanted to hire Zawinul to play in his band. Over the next nine and a half years Cannonball, Zawinul, and the rest of the Cannonball Adderley Quintet were one of the highest demanded jazz groups around.

Zawinul’s career really took off during his time with Cannonball Adderley and he ended up writing and arranging a lot of the group’s songs including “Scotch and Water,” “Dizzy’s Business,” and “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.” Zawinul flourished in Cannonball Adderley’s group because his primary mission was to be playing innovative instrumental jazz. He loved playing, writing, and doing new things with music. He actually turned down a full time, higher paying gig playing with Ella Fitzgerald because in Cannonball’s group he would not just be simply backing up a vocalist. He wanted to do groundbreaking things with music and he did. His music was humble, yet innovative. He was a tasteful player but he was by no means a show off. That being said he could solo and write music in a way that displayed vast knowledge of musical structure and technique while maintaining a ear-catching soulful feel. His whole life leading up to success he strived to be a part of the African American jazz and bebop culture. Despite the odds against him he persevered and took every open door he could find into the scene. His soul shines through in his music because it reflects his story; the story of a lone outcast who pushes through every obstacle and emerges as an unlikely hero whose musical innovations would go on to help shape the genre. He never got sick of this. He played music up until his death in 2007. He played with Miles Davis on the album Bitches Brew after leaving The Cannonball Adderley Quintet. He went on to release a large body of solo work and also start the legendary jazz-fusion group The Weather Report. Zawinul became an important name in jazz, playing with the best of the best of American players. This is why he is worthy of the title “Honorary American.”




{ 37 comments… read them below or add one }

Alex Paspa April 30, 2015 at 11:30 pm

Joe Zawinul is a beast. He grew up in the WW2 which really shaped his personality. He had an aggressive style of playing. He knew from a young age he wanted to play with black people because he knew black people could play. When loved the synthesizer because like you said he played from feel and the synth could allow him to do that better. I agree he was very humble. He wrote a lot of Miles Davis’s later albums such as “In a Silent Way’ and did not receive writing credit. He was about the music and I really admire this guy and so did the world of Jazz. Great article.


Tyler Fisher April 30, 2015 at 6:18 pm

This article provided some nice condensation of information, didn’t feel like a bore to read. Towards the end of the article the sentence structure can be altered slightly so that it doesn’t seem like you’re listing all of his accomplishments but good job including all of them. I didn’t know he turned down Ella Fitzgerald.


Shawn Spitzer April 30, 2015 at 12:51 pm

I enjoyed this article very much and learned about the life of an influential jazz artist. I have heard of Zawinul but nothing to extensive. This gave me a nice look into his life and journey from Austria to becoming an important contributor in American jazz. I fully agree thy he deserves the title of honorary American, I mean he has played and toured with some truly iconic figures in the jazz world.


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