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In 1959, Zawinul accepted a scholarship to the jazz-oriented Berklee School of Music, in Boston. He quit after only a few weeks, and went on the road with trumpet player Maynard Ferguson. That led to a job accompanying the great Dinah Washington, considered by critics to be one of jazz's most influential singers--the female equivalent of Ray Charles.
Washington's gospel-tinged phrasings and tonal variations soaked into Zawinul. His playing attracted the attention of Hall of Fame tenor saxophonist Ben Webster, with whom he recorded an album called Soulmates.
Zawinul says he turned down a lucrative gig with Miles Davis and, instead, joined Cannonball Adderly's less-profitable band in 1961.
"I don't grab things when they come to me," he says, somewhat enigmatically. "I don't reach for shit. That's also a law in boxing--don't reach. There were lots of reasons I went my own way. Miles didn't show up at the airport sometimes. Cannonball was a steady thing, a cool thing. I knew where I was going, and I just knew what I wanted to do. And I was full of that music that I'm doing today."
He stayed with Adderly for almost a decade, and played an integral role in the charismatic alto saxophonist's steady rise in popularity. The Adderly band toured incessantly, in the States and around the world.
But on one rare night off--Zawinul doesn't recall exactly what year--he sat in as an emergency with vocalist Ella Fitzgerald when the regular pianist got snowed in.
"Her people then offered me a big gig--five times the money I was making with Cannonball," he says, pointing to a large black-and-white poster of the Adderly quintet, circa 1966. "You know, I was only making $300 a week with Cannonball then, with three children, and had to pay my own hotels. My wife was always cool, and she said, 'We wait.'"
Asked if he stayed with Adderly out of loyalty, Zawinul snaps, "It had nothing to do with loyalty. It was what I wanted to do, man--I'm a musician. I love Cannonball forever, and I'm loyal--but the loyalty factor was not involved. I wrote a lot of modern stuff for Cannonball, but the best tunes I wrote for him didn't make it big--just some little licks. The point is, some of those little tunes are still paying some bills."
One of the "little tunes" was the soulful "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," which reached No. 11 on the Billboard pop charts in 1966. What thrust the eminently hummable riff into jazz history was Zawinul's funky yet understated use of the Fender Rhodes electric piano.
Miles Davis was tracking Zawinul's innovations. Perhaps jazz's only true "superstar," Davis ever was seeking new directions in his music. On the morning of February 18, 1969, Davis invited Zawinul to a recording session scheduled that day.
Zawinul brought with him a song called "In a Silent Way," which he'd composed in a Vienna hotel room overlooking a park as the snow fell outside. He played electric piano and organ on the date. The recording is ethereal, spellbinding, bluesy, economic, free. There had been nothing like it before In a Silent Way--that's what Davis would title the album--in jazz.
In late 1969 and into 1970, Davis recorded Bitches Brew, one of the biggest-selling jazz records ever. Zawinul contributed one song to the double album, "Pharaoh's Dance," and engaged in a musical conversation with fellow pianists Chick Corea and Herbie Hancock on that tune and others.
(To mark the 30th anniversary of Bitches Brew, Columbia Records last year released a four-CD boxed set, which included unreleased tracks from the famous sessions. Four more of Zawinul's tunes are included in the package.)
Davis wanted Zawinul on the road with him, but, as always, the keyboardist had his own direction in mind. In 1971, Atlantic Records released Zawinul, a massive achievement with snatches of Gypsy melodies amid state-of-the-art modern jazz.
That year, Zawinul formed Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, who had played with Miles Davis for years and also was eager to strike out on his own. The team of Zawinul/Shorter led a revolving door of bass players, drummers and percussionists for 15 years. It's fair to say that Weather Report proved to be one of the most vitally creative working groups ever in jazz.
Soon after the band finally broke up in 1986, Zawinul put his own group together and returned to the road.
In 1990, someone asked him if he'd be interested in producing a record by Salif Keita, a singer from the west African country of Mali.
"I had never heard of the guy," Zawinul recalls. "They sent me a cassette, and it was the only tune I don't like on the record. I told one of my sons it was some kind of corny little bullshit. 'Dad, check this guy out more. Please.' The next tune knocked me out."
Zawinul agreed to produce the record--"I said I would respect Salif's culture, but they couldn't touch what I did"--and recruited many of the musicians.
"The whole project came natural to me," he says, "because when the [west African] stars were kids, Malian kids, Senegalese kids, all they played was our stuff."