The writer (left) with keyboard great Joe Zawinul in New York City in 2001.
The writer (left) with keyboard great Joe Zawinul in New York City in 2001.
courtesy of Paul Rubin

Remembering Joe Zawinul

It was the eve of the new millennium at Joe and Maxine Zawinul's beautiful place in lower Manhattan. The music of Marvin Gaye filled the home — "What's Going On," as I recall.

Zawinul had invited me to a small family celebration, and all my other plans for the big night had gone by the wayside. To me, a personal invite to hang out with a true music master (and an exceptionally cool guy, to boot) was a gift from the gods. Just before midnight, Zawinul retreated to his home recording studio and returned with an armful of percussive instruments.

"We used these on Sweetnighter," he proclaimed, referring to Weather Report's 1973 album, which is still about as funky as it gets (young funksters, do check out "125th Street Congress").


Joe Zawinul

Then, Josef Zawinul — keyboard maestro, phenomenal composer, incomparable bandleader, musically forward-thinking to the extreme — shouted at the top of his lungs, "Happy New Year!"

I had first spoken to Zawinul outside Catalina's Bar and Grill in L.A. on a chilly evening in the mid-'90s. His band, which included the incendiary African rhythm section of Paco Sery on drums and bassist Richard Bona, had hit on all cylinders, and Zawinul, a sternly intense guy on the surface, was standing by himself on the sidewalk, just smiling.

The next day, I visited Zawinul by the pool at his hotel, right across from the Hollywood Bowl. We hung out and BS'd for a few hours that time, one of many such visits over the next several years. The guy was one of my musical heroes, and I wanted him to know how much I knew about his tunes, his bands, and his remarkable history. Emboldened perhaps by the Slivovitz brandy that he often had on hand, I sometimes tried to sing to him melodies from his vast catalog, including "Mercy Mercy Mercy," a civil rights anthem he penned in the mid-'60s for his employer at the time, saxophone great Julian "Cannonball" Adderley. Zawinul would just laugh at me, shake his head, and mercifully jump into some yarn that had nothing to do with the price of tea.

A classical prodigy in his native Austria during Hitler's reign, Zawinul's career included a decade-long stint as keyboardist of the Adderley band, a musical relationship with Miles Davis that truly changed the course of music (Bitches Brew), and, of course, his enduring collaboration with Wayne Shorter, with whom he founded Weather Report in 1970. Zawinul toured relentlessly for the last two decades of his life, which sadly ended September 11, when he succumbed to skin cancer at age 75.

A few days after he died, I flew up to Reno for a fast-pitch softball tournament, and decided to play tennis one afternoon at the University of Nevada-Reno. I found an empty court abutting the football practice field, where the school's marching band was rehearsing for the next day's halftime show.

Suddenly, I heard the familiar opening notes of Zawinul's most famous song, "Birdland." Just about every marching band in the U.S. has tackled the eminently catchy (but deceptively tricky) tune, and the Nevada band was doing a nice job with it.

As I continued batting the tennis ball around, I thought about one of the last times I'd spoken to Zawinul in person. I'd wandered backstage at Catalina's after the first of two sets, eager to let him know I'd appreciated his reference during one solo to the melody of one of his most beautiful compositions, "A Remark You Made."

In the tiny dressing room, I hummed to Zawinul what I'd heard him play on the stage minutes earlier. He looked at me quizzically for a moment, then bust up laughing.

"Son of a bitch," he said. "That's the only time you've ever got it right, sucker."


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