Born in Austria, Zawinul attended the Vienna Conservatory and moved to the U.S. on a piano scholarship to Berklee College of Music in his mid-twenties. He collaborated with Maynard Ferguson and Dinah Washington before teaming up with Cannonball Adderley in 1961. Over the next decade, Zawinul wrote the chart-topping hit, "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy," and worked with Miles Davis, writing the title track for the trumpeter's album, In a Silent Way. He also composed "Pharaoh's Dance" in Bitches Brew, the exemplary jazz fusion album that restored Davis's position in cutting edge modern jazz.
In 1970, Zawinul and saxophonist Wayne Shorter formed Weather Report, which synthesized jazz improvisation with rock rhythms and Latin American and Afro-Caribbean traditions. The group's earliest albums did away with the conventional roles of jazz soloist and accompanist; its members created ever-changing textures and improvisations in place of ostinato passages.
Within a few years, the founding pair, along with original members Miroslav Vitous (double bass), Alphonse Mouzon (drums) and Airto Moreira (percussion), strengthened their fan base as they steered away from collective improvisation towards an emphasis on arrangement and a heavy pulse. By the mid-1970s, Weather Report had spawned a fusion movement that included Chick Corea, Herbie Hancock and John McLaughlin.
"Birdland," written by Zawinul, and its renditions by Manhattan Transfer and Quincy Jones, as well as Weather Report's own live 1979 album 8:30, all won separate Grammy awards. The lineup on 8:30 included Jaco Pastorius, the young and talented electric bass guitarist who joined the group in its most significant personnel change.
"Jaco was a fantastic player!" Zawinul told Scott H. Thompson, Jazz at Lincoln Center's assistant director of public relations, last fall. "It was a great, great group! For four people (including Shorter and drummer Peter Erskine) to play 'live' like that, I don't think there is too much around today to compare to it. I can say in retrospect : 'cause you never know when you're doing it : that was the height."
After Weather Report disbanded in the mid-1980s, Zawinul formed the Zawinul Syndicate and also delved into classical composition, writing Stories of the Danube for orchestra in 1993 and working with pianist Friedrich Gulda. He released in 2000 a solo project called Mauthausen in memory of Holocaust victims; the work was performed at the Austrian concentration camp after which it is named.
In 2002, Zawinul became the first recipient of the International Jazz Award, co-presented by the International Jazz Festival Organization and the International Association of Jazz Educators.
Early last month, Zawinul was hospitalized for an undisclosed illness following a six-week European tour during which he required a wheelchair. His deteriorating condition later forced him to cancel a September 6 reunion with Wayne Shorter at Jazz _ la Villette 2007 in Paris.
"As a person and through his music, Joe Zawinul will remain unforgettable for us all," said Austrian President Heinz Fischer, who praised his "unpretentious way of dealing with listeners" and said he wasn't "blinded by superficialities."
Zawinul was frustrated by jazz purists who condemned such musical developments as the electric keyboard and synthesizer, both of which he helped bring into the jazz mainstream.
"There is no difference between a Stradivarius or a beautiful synthesizer sound," Zawinul told Jazziz magazine this year. "People make a big mistake in putting down electronic music. Yes, it's been misused and abused, but that's true of every music.