Joe Zawinul (b.July 7, 1932-d. September 11, 2007) was one-world oriented long before digitization and Internet. In the spring of 2002, I had two chances to speak with him by phone, once while he was on the road with Zawinul Syndicate, his working band, and later during some down time at his Malibu home, as he geared up for the summer European festival circuit and a fall tour backing a new album called Faces and Places [ESC]. It was the latest in a string of deeply personal dates on which Zawinul refined and elaborated the signature sonic blend — memorable melodies, mighty grooves, trippy textures and virtuosic instrumentalism — that he first established during the ’70s with Wayne Shorter in Weather Report. Famously unwilling to dwell on his past, Zawinul lately had retrospected at length on his crossroads years, prompted by Sony Legacy’s spring 2002 single CD reissues of Mysterious Traveler , Tale Spinning  and Black Market , and by the fall 2002 appearance of Live and Unreleased, a long-awaited collection of 18 bristling selections culled by Zawinul from six concerts by different editions of the band between 1975 and 1983. A native of Vienna by way of the Carpathian Forest, Zawinul at 70 retained the indefatigable, aggressive persona that helped him make his bones in the jazz business from almost the moment he arrived in New York from Austria in 1959.
The piece, which appeared in Jazziz, was a fairly brief Q&A that distilled these two lengthy conversations, which I now present in their entirety. Please forgive some of the repetition between the April 22 and June 7 texts.
Joe Zawinul (4-22-02):
Your history is one of looking forward, thinking to the next project, not looking back. But you seem very involved with this series of Weather Report reissues and the double CD of live, unreleased material that will be released in the fall. Why?
The only thing I would like to say is that it’s a couple of generations since we played, a lot of young people never heard of us, and because of that it is really important. The music sounds fresh and new, to me newer than what I’ve been hearing these days. It can be almost a second career for a band like we were.
During the life of Weather Report you became a master of using the studio in constructing an album. Can you address the contrast between live Weather Report and studio Weather Report?
One thing was very important, and Wayne and I were in total agreement with this: We did not want to go on the road and play the concerts, and have the records beat us. We always were concerned that we make music in the studio which was playable on stage, without any help other than what we had. And I think we were very successful doing this. People were often shocked that the live performance not only sounded better in terms of the instrumentation, but had also this added fire which you very often don’t really get in the studio.
Can you talk about the impact of the increasing sophistication of technology in the ’70s and ’80s on your composition and performance?
Well, I am an improviser, and I improvise off sounds. My normal procedure is, I find a sound which I enjoy to play with, and I will have some music. There is no question. There are thousands and thousands of different instruments and thousands of sounds. It depends on what your taste is. I use them as tools and nothing else. For me it is like a hammer and a nail. For me an instrument is meaningless until somebody plays it.
But that being said, one reason why Weather Report had the impact it did was the newness of the sounds.
Those were the sounds I chose. I used hardly any factory programmed sounds, because I couldn’t do much with these. I tried to modify everything there was for my taste. As a matter of fact, for my own satisfaction, I could not let myself have always the same sounds. I just knew very well how to dial stuff up and get myself a nice timbre I could feel good with.
So you did a great deal of research and investigation into the properties of the instruments you were using.
I was very fortunate. I had a great company for many years — the Korg company — which supported me. Here again, I hardly ever used any factory sounds; they always had something missing for my taste. That doesn’t mean that they might not be good for other people. But I learned how to modify things, so it would come to that point where I say, “Hey, this is me.”
Weather Report started off as more or less an acoustic band in the first couple of records…
That is not entirely correct, because we actually were never an total acoustic band. I already had played electric piano with Cannonball Adderley a few years before Weather Report started, and from the very beginning I had with Weather Report an electric piano with a couple of attachments. I had a ring modulator, for instance. I had a wah-wah pedal. I used to prepare the acoustic piano; I had tapes in it or sometimes put tambourines in it, all kinds of little things to make the acoustic piano sound different than it sounded. This is my trip. I’ve enjoyed fooling around with music since I was a very little guy, and I’m still enjoying it.
You mentioned in one of the interviews that you met Wayne Shorter right after you arrived in New York.
I met Wayne when I was just starting with Maynard Ferguson’s band — we played together for five or six weeks, before Art Blakey hired him. I immediately knew this guy is somebody special. We were talking at a bar right next to Birdland, which was called the Green Lantern, and Wayne sang for me an opera he had written when he was 17 years old — at that time he was 26. So I said, “Damn! This guy is really special.” Then I heard him play. I always thought Wayne Shorter was just on another planet. Wayne was very familiar with the Classical masters, from Bela Bartok and Shostakovich to Brahms and Beethoven. He’s a very educated musician, and he had also the street smarts. From that time, we discussed that one day we would have a band. Then I met Wayne again in the studio when I wrote that song for Miles, “In A Silent Way.” We had met off and during the interim also, while I was with Cannonball and he was with Miles. But at that particular time, Wayne was not in Miles’ traveling band any longer, and he told me he had tried out a band that didn’t work out. All of a sudden, we decided to make our own band. By that time, I had spent 9-1/2 years with Cannonball, and I had written a lot of music, and I was kind of ready. I wanted to interpret my music as I wanted.
I guess you both were ready to do your own music and stop being sideman.
That was not the issue, the sideman thing. I think neither Wayne or myself were on a particular ego thing. It was just a matter of when you have a lot of your own music, there comes a time when you want to interpret it exactly how you feel it. In all the things I wrote for Cannon (and very often, it was a really good interpretation of that music), it was never exactly like I would have done it if I would have done it totally as I wanted.
Within the various iterations of Weather Report, how much of what you were writing was tailored to the personalities of the band?
Pretty much everything. Because I had Wayne’s tone in mind. In the beginning, I used the tone and the facility of Miroslav Vitous, who was an excellent contrabass player. Later on, we had even more personalities, like Jaco Pastorius, who had such a tremendous individual sound. It was very easy to write for people like that.
The three album reissues — Mysterious Traveller, Tale Spinning, and Black Market — represent the period when you switch from Miroslav Vitous to Alphonso Johnson, and therefore, the switch from acoustic to electric bass.
Miroslav played also well electric bass. But we thought when we heard Alphonso that he would be the right guy for this band. I told Wayne: That direction we were going was fine, but now we want to do something else. We want to go ahead. I wrote songs like “Boogie Woogie Waltz” and “125th Street Congress,” on which we played for the first time a beat that a lot of hip-hop artists have. I have about 50 recordings of that beat being sampled.
Do you play the drums yourself?
Yeah. I’ve played drums all my life. I’m not a drummer, but I play the drums.
So in constructing rhythms, which is so integral to your compositions, you have a very specific notion of exactly how you want that drummer to be.
Oh, there’s no question about it. We were a rhythmic band. We had our grooves which took us over, which brought us to where we were. Nice grooves with a lot of space, and of course with phenomenal players.
Were you teaching the drummers the grooves?
In other words, how much personality would the drummers be bringing into interpreting your pieces?
Pretty much. A lot. We never liked yes-guys, you know, who agree with everything, and who wouldn’t be able to offer something on their own.
You’ve commented in a few instances that jazz drummers per se, for instance Tony Williams, wouldn’t necessarily have been the best drummer for Weather Report.
No, he wouldn’t have.
What’s the difference between what a jazz drummer would do and what a Weather Report drummer would be?
That’s very difficult to say. Our first drummer, Alphonse Mouzon, for instance, was an excellent drummer. He could groove in a jazz way, he had played R&B, and he was an extremely good reader who had played on Broadway shows. The next guy, Eric Gravatt, he was my favorite, because he could do many, many things. But someone like Tony was too much of an individual, with too much of a heavy ego. Nothing wrong with that, believe me. But if I have serious good ideas for rhythms, and if somebody who doesn’t want to do that, you don’t have that music any more. I think Tony was a genius, but he wouldn’t have been the guy for us.
What percentage of Weather Report music was composed and pre-thought-out, and what percentage of it was improvised?
In the beginning, everybody brought a few lines in, and we just improvised over that. Then I wanted to get a little more system in it. We were either magic or we were not happening, and that bothered me. I thought we should have both, where we have that magic but can always fall back on a solid structure of music. Wayne and I, of course, agreed. I must tell you that in the 15 years of working together, we never had an argument about either money or business decisions or the music. It was a great relationship. Anyway, we started to create…bring more structure into the music with Mysterious Traveller — and for this, you need different people. Slowly, we developed into a serious band.
But one thing I must add is that all of my compositions are improvised. All the compositions are improvisations. One talent I do have is that I am a form improviser. I can improvise for long stretches, and there is a form to it.
Have you always been a form improviser, from your conservatory days in Vienna?
Yes. I didn’t even think about this. When I started improvising symphonic pieces, then I realized things are happening like they were really thought out. But when you improvise, there is no thought.
I’m assuming you have perfect pitch.
Is playing Classical music, say the music of Brahms, similar to improvising for you?
No, not at all. It’s the opposite. When you play a composer’s music, it is set. It can be interpreted different. But there will never be a change of any kind of note in this composition. It’s not that I can play paraphrases on these composers. That music had to be played as it was composed. So you cannot compare it to that thing when you sit down and you improvise. But I do enjoy and I did enjoy playing Brahms quite a bit. He lived in Austria all his life, and he was a similar guy, like I am, in loving nature and going hiking and looking for mushrooms in the forest, and drinking a lot. He was cool, man. For some kind of reason, I didn’t know that when I had to study music in those days. I didn’t like to play Mozart. I didn’t like to play Bach. They didn’t really do nothin’ for me.
Why not Mozart? He was also Austrian.
Yeah. I love Mozart. I cannot tell you why. It’s just a feel. For me, it really did nothing for me playing it. For some reason, when I play those Rhapsodies of Brahms… Later on, I played with Friedrich Gulda the Haydn Variations on a world-class setting, and that was really some wonderful, wonderful times, man, to play Johannes Brahms on two pianos with a fellow who is one of the great ones of all time.
When you practice, Mr. Zawinul, do you do it on the electronic instruments or on the acoustic piano?
On the acoustic piano. I play music every day, but I play a lot of acoustic piano.
What is your attitude to practice?
My attitude to practice is that practice is a lot of physical stuff. I like to sit down, especially… On Wednesday I’m going on tour. I’ll do a lot of stretch exercises. There was one teacher I played for. His name was Dr. Paul Weingarten. He had to leave because of the Nazis, and I still had one lesson with him. He was then the Director of the Vienna Conservatory. He was a Liszt pupil, the last pupil of Franz Liszt. He taught me some exercises, and I am doing them still. They are stretch exercises. It’s like an athlete, man. You have to have your fingers really together. And then I just play. I do play Bach sometimes. I enjoy playing “The Well-Tempered Piano,” some pieces. It’s a good thought exercises, and there’s a lot of clarity in this music. And I play exercises by Pischne, and they are just exercises where you hold four fingers down and one plays, and then you hold other fingers down and the other plays. They are rather difficult, but they are very good for you. I’ve been playing all my life, they are not difficult to play, but if you don’t play for a while, these things… I always find them challenging.
You have to keep your muscle memory.
You’ve got to have the muscle memory. It is great. Then I just…how do you say…an attack… You have to attack it in a different way. That I do miss on some… I wish there would be more synthesizer players out there who play synthesizers as what they are. Synthesizers. Not pianos.
So for you, a synthesizer is a synthesizer and a piano is a piano.
Exactly. And a lot of the guys out there (and they may be great musicians) I feel are playing too much piano on the synthesizers, and it doesn’t sound good. Each sound needs another technique, another way of attacking it, a different way of playing legato, playing staccato. So it’s a matter of dealing with sounds. I love to deal with sounds, and all of my sounds are played differently.
Within your composition, are you thinking of rhythm first, or harmony first…
I think of nothing. I just sit down, and I turn my tape recorder on, and I’m gone. And that’s it.
Is that with the acoustic piano or the synth?
It doesn’t matter. The instrument doesn’t matter to me.
When do you first recall becoming aware of the Moog or the Fender Rhodes?
Well, electronic pianos I started playing rather early. I did my first tour I think in ’49, in a hillbilly band, and we played in this hotel (in Austria, this was), and it was an American officers hotel, and in the basement of this hotel was a chapel for the American officers, and they had a Hammond B-3 down there, and they allowed me to go and practice there every day. So that was my first experience with organs. But even before that, I was very early in my life an accordion player, and as you know, accordions have those different…we call it registers, where you have different stops, each stop represents a different sound. So even in those days when I was a kid, I was fooling around with these different timbres. As a matter of fact, one time I stole a little piece of a billiard table cover, that green felt, and glued it into the sound-board of the bass side (is it the left side) and on the right hand side in the sound board. And the sound I got out of it was very similar to the sound I had when I played “Black Market.” So it started with playing in American clubs in the camps after World War Two, in 1949, ’50 and ’51. There were a lot of Wurlitzer pianos, and that’s where I started playing the Wurlitzer which I later on used on “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy.”
In almost every interview people talk to you about Cannonball Adderley, and you usually don’t even address him musically. It was such an amazingly diverse band. It was so conceptually rich. Looking back, it’s astonishing how much music was accomplished in that decade. What sort of bandleader was he for you?
You know what? When you talk about Cannonball to me, you’re talking to me about my brother. This guy was such an incredible human being. He was a phenomenal musician. Cannonball Adderley was the most underrated great musician ever.
Why do you think so?
I don’t know. Maybe because some of the music we played was maybe too much geared for… We had fine music, believe me, in this band. But sometimes the band relied too much on playing the hits. About this we had quite a few arguments during those years, especially with Nat. I used to say, “Hey, man, we are the hit, not the hits.” The band was such a good band. We had so much to offer, we didn’t have to play “‘Dis Here” and “Dat Dere” and ‘Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” all the time. You know what I mean? When there was so much other good things. There were times during the last two or three years I was in the band when they often told me to put the set together, especially when we played the big concert somewhere, at a convention or something, and we only had 30 or 35 minutes to play. I always put the set together. That’s I think when we really opened up. Cannon played a little bit of those hits and showed what the band could do, and it was very nice.
Was he a bandleader who encouraged your personality to come out at all times?
We never talked about this kind of stuff.
It just was.
It was, yes. But I had the great fortune… We used to travel in those days still a lot with cars, and I was always with Cannonball in the car. We had the contrabass in the station wagon, and the other guys were in the other station wagon. To talk to Cannon all those hours on the road, it was amazing. He was very educated.
He was a schoolteacher, a professor.
He was a professor. He was brilliant. He taught me about Austria and old history and stuff like that, about the Vienna Congress, and Metternich, the great political figures in those days.
He was a student of history.
Yes. You could talk about everything with Cannon. He was not only one of the great, great musicians I’ve ever had the honor and pleasure to play with, but also an intellectual actually, with the street wisdom.
A highly educated man.
Highly. But loose, you know. Down to earth.
And somewhat Rabelaisian in his habits. I’ve heard stories about his chowing down.
He was chowing down, all right.
You have a piece on World Tour, on the double album, called “When There Was Royalty.”
I guess it’s one of your improvisations that got recorded. And I can hear how much you listened to Art Tatum.
Can you talk about some of the great jazz pianists you admired?
Oh, man. We’re going to have to sit here for another 3 hours.
Well, I could sit here for 15 minutes anyway.
I’ll tell you. For me, Art Tatum is about as great a musician as ever lived. For me, Duke Ellington was a great piano player. Because of his greatness as a composer and as a bandleader, it was such that many people forgot, or didn’t recognize what a great piano player this guy was. But for me, Art Tatum was a guy…it was unbelievable. I don’t think there has ever been one who could play the piano… Yeah, technically there are people who can play the piano. But what he did with it, it was just unbelievable, and you hear it today and you heard it yesterday and you’ll hear it in a hundred years. It’s going to be always the major force in jazz piano playing.
I hear bebop in that piece as well. I hear certain Bud Powell things as well. Were you very involved assimilating him and Bebop?
I was involved in everybody, man. I started with George Shearing, and I still admire George Shearing and love his music, and his touch. And Erroll Garner was one of my big, big favorites. Bud Powell. Art Tatum, of course. Unreachable. I fooled around with this stuff. Ben Webster shared an apartment with me at one time, and we used to practice a lot, and he played with Tatum, and he knew how to play the piano, and he showed me a few things.
He was a good stride pianist, right?
He was a HELLUVA good stride piano player. He knew all that little inner stuff. You know, I can hear pretty much everything anyhow. But he showed me how he did it, and it was very interesting. But anyhow, to come back to this “When There Was Royalty,” on the very day I picked this tune, at home I just brought my Walkman up and played. Because I read this “Downbeat” interview Ben had done in 1963 or sometime, and he was talking about, “Yeah, today’s piano players, they ain’t having no fun. In the older days, like Fats Waller, they used to smoke and they used to drink (Art Tatum was a big drinker), and talk to the people and played the shit out of the piano.” And I thought to myself, “‘You know, I am this kind of guy, actually.” I can talk to people while I’m playing. I do some overdubs sometimes, and have a conversation. “But let me just do that, man.” I turned the tape recorder on and I played this, and that’s what I left on the record. It was one of those real instinctive kind of, “Come on, man, I can do a little something.”
You used to live on East 12th Street, right?
Did you ever go to Bradley’s?
Yeah! A lot.
That was a place where piano players had a good time and drank and so on.
Back to Weather Report. Did you break with your past in a very deliberate way, or do you see that as of a continuum with what you were doing up to the age…
I think everything in life is for everybody. It’s not just me. You cannot step out of your own shadow. I just felt like I was a musician who was always able to grow. And I am a much better musician, if I may say that, than I was when I was with Weather Report, when I was co-leading this band.
But it’s all a continuum.
But in summing up with Weather Report, you said towards the beginning of this conversation, that you thought the music sounds new, almost newer than what people are doing now.
There is no question.
This I don’t know. Because for some kind of reason, with the return to bebop, it has stopped being played… The music has not developed in any kind of way. Because record companies put this in front of the people so much, this return of Bebop, that it almost was bad if you played anything electronic or something like that. You know what I mean? And not being played on the radio, I think what it did is a lot of people don’t have any idea what this music was all about. Now, I think, in all sincerity, that the last serious movement in jazz was Weather Report. The last one really where you can say, hey, this was something different and something which has lasting power and longevity.
You’re calling it “the last movement,” though. What was it a movement of? We can look at this historically. We can look back on it as something that was a generation ago. What did the movement represent?
It represented what we were doing. We played jazz. That was also misinterpreted. We actually come from jazz and we continued to play jazz, with different tones, with different timbres and a different form. We definitely went away from the AABA form, from the general American Song form, and we went all the way from Bebop. But in all of our playing (and you can check it all out), we even covered some of the old tunes. We covered on one record Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm.” Many things we did, whatever we played, when we didn’t listen to jazz music, it was just different… And what happened afterwards, it was nothing new. Nothing single new…I don’t think anyhow. And it doesn’t really matter. I’ll tell you the truth. It does not matter. But I think to imitate a music, regardless how great you’re doing it, it’s never going to be as good as an original.
Wayne Shorter these days is reinvestigating his older material, retrospecting on 35 years of compositions with a younger band. Have you heard them?
I heard the band only for about 15 minutes last year when I was on tour, and just before I left the hotel, it was around midnight, I turn on the TV and there was Wayne Shorter from Montreal. It blew me away. He played here yesterday in Los Angeles, and I couldn’t go. But hey, whatever Wayne is doing is always going to be good.
It’s less a matter of comparison as to note that he and Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea, to name three people in recent years, have been going back and revisiting their past, kind of picking up loose ends in recent years…
God bless ‘em, man! God bless ‘em.
But not for you.
Zawinul Syndicate. First of all, is the new record, Faces and Places, coming out soon?
It’s coming out in September. It was very bad timing to put it out. I just built a great studio here in my house, and it took longer than expected. You know, when you start from scratch, you build everything, a house and everything. But in fact, today we’re mixing the last tune, and the record will be mastering in two days in New York. Then the record will be out in September. It would have been a bad time to come out anyhow, in May, because it’s summertime, and the economy is a little funny, and the soccer World Cup in Europe is very important, and people don’t go out so much… But anyhow, it will come out in September. And I can tell you: Get ready, man! It’s a good one.
Is it all new material?
So this is all new material, written in the last three or four years?
It’s totally new material.
Is it entirely a studio recording?
Not entirely. There are three little introductions we did live, one in Australia, one in Paris, and a little tag on another tune also from a Paris concert. But the whole thing is very nice. I have Paco Seery. He is back in the live band, by the way. Etienne Mbappe, who’s from Cameroon, a wonderful bass player. I also have Richard Bona in the band… It’s the rhythm section I had on the Salif Keita record, Amen. It’s a good one. We’ll see. I think it’s my best record.
Who’s on the tour?
Paco Seery on drums. Etienne Mbappe singing and supreme bass player. Amir Chatterjee, guitar player from India, who is one of the foremost singers in the world, I believe. And Manolo Badrena, man!
Are you going to be playing in New York?
Not in a while. I want to wait until the record comes out and everything is real settled and so on. I really don’t have time this year. I’ll be 70 in July, and in Europe is a lot of action about this, so I’m doing a lot of traveling and running around…and doing things!
70, and you seem to have the energy of someone much less. How do you keep yourself involved? How do you keep yourself active, going from day to day?
Number one, I box three times a week. I’m in really phenomenal shape. I’m feeling good, man. Thank God, I’m healthy, I have a great family, a good wife. What is there in life, you know? That’s it, man! I play music and make a good living with what I like to do. That’s a blessing, so I’m very, very grateful. And I hope to be around for a long time, because I have good ideas, man.
When you talk about the people who comprise Syndicate, they’re from every corner of the world, from Africa, the islands, India. Your AOL handle is Mulattozi. I don’t know if there’s any particular question I have…
Why, you mean. My kids are mulatto. So that’s what it is.
It’s 30 years since Weather Report was formed, and the world has become much smaller. In jazz right now, in New York anyway, you have people from all over the world playing jazz. They know jazz idiomatically and they have what they bring from their own culture. A wonderful hybrid is being created.
It’s an amazing time in this music because of that.
Well, the great black jazz masters have done it. They started it, coming from Africa. And I’ll tell you something. Look at Africa. Africa is happening. I’m going this month, I’m going to Senegal and to the Ivory Coast. I always love to play in Africa. It’s a wonderful thing. The people have so much energy. They’re very sophisticated. That’s what’s so great. That will make the music again what it used to be. I don’t mean in terms of the actual music. I’m talking about the power. Because this music that the great jazz masters created, that was the true world music. It covered the whole world. There is no music anywhere where you don’t hear something of that in there.
So Louis Armstrong, Ellington, Charlie Parker…
All of that. All that! Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. All of these great masters, what they put in there in the earlier part of the 20th century. It was the greatest art form of the 20th century. And slowly, becoming such a global thing, and that’s going to add to it. Nobody gonna take away nothing from nobody. It’s going to be very interesting, the future.
Where do you see yourself in that continuum?
I am me, man. I am an individual. I have a wonderful future, because I am doing what I am doing. And actually, nobody is doing what I am doing. Which is okay. There are many people playing synthesizer, but nobody plays the way I play. I’m not saying greater. But nobody plays like I play.
I don’t think anybody brings together all the elements you bring together in the way you do it.
Because it’s still mine. I’m not copying nobody. I’m not playing African music. It’s my music. But I have a global sense. Because I’ve been traveling all of my life, I know so many great people all over the planet. And I am not a music listener, but I am an observer. I am observing things. I’m inspired, man. That’s all.
* * * *
Joe Zawinul, #2 (6-7-02):
How was the tour you just did?
The tour was tremendous. We rehearsed three days in Leverkusen, Germany. Then we started the tour in Amsterdam, in Mountquake, which is the best club in Amsterdam. It’s huge. It’s like a showcase kind of place. We have played there several times, and there were 200 or 300 people out there who couldn’t get in. It’s a big place. So that was tremendous, and it started there. Then we went to Germany, and we had about 11 or 12 shows in a row, without a day off, in Germany — Berlin, Hamburg, Frankfurt, the major cities.
Then we went to Western Africa for five days, to Senegal. We played at the Biennale in Dakar. This is a big three week presentation, with film and the visual arts, concerts, exhibitions, all different things, a tremendous cultural event.
Like what they do in Venice every couple of years with art, but from an African perspective.
Yes. This time they did it in Dakar, in West Africa. We played in Dakar, a wonderful show, and then we went to St. Louis, which is about three hours north of Dakar, and we played a tremendous show there for the second time. We played there in 1997, and our concert then was an historical one. People said… The promoter had a press conference when we went to Dakar, and he said that they had celebrated the tenth year of their festival, and that was the best concert they have ever had. I haven’t been there, so I don’t know. I’m just saying what he said. But we played very well, and it was a huge success.
Then we went back and played at Parc Florale, which is an outdoor place in Paris, an afternoon concert. The people don’t pay to get in there. We had about 15,000 people — a tremendous concert. Then we went to Vicenza in Italy the next day, also a big town; they have a beautiful festival there. Then we did an actual Norway tour, which is very interesting. Normally we play in Oslo, and perhaps we play a festival in Molde. But this time we played six or seven towns in Norway, and that was tremendous. We ended up in Tomse(?), which is way up there where the midnight sun is not just a myth, it’s for real. It’s way more north, the Arctic Circle. We had great shows.
After that, I went and played a quick concert in New York with Wolfgang Muthspiel for the Austrian Cultural Forum. This is a new building. Now I’m home for a few days and getting things together, then I’m leaving for a few weeks and going on a six-week tour for all the festivals, and then we’re going on and starting my publicity tour in September.
So this is going to be another one of these years where you’re working 200 days of the year.
Yeah, minimum. Minimum. Because we made this record… Have you had a chance to hear it?
Yes, it came yesterday, and I’ve heard it about four times. On this last tour have you been playing music from the record?
How has the music evolved?
What do you mean?
Well, I presume that when you take a band out and play a bunch of music, because you use such strong-minded musicians, the music takes on a life of its own.
Yes, it’s very different. But it is… I cannot say it’s better. It is different. The record is very organized… And live, it’s phenomenal.
You made a comment when I spoke with you the first time that you never wanted to make a record that you couldn’t match or exceed live. Obviously, with the LIVE AND UNRELEASED material, it’s a very different perspective. How has the difference between a record and a concert performance changed for you over the last 30 years?
One thing is, a concert you play, and that is it. You play a song and you have to live with it. When you make a record… What I tried on FACES AND PLACES is to have a studio record, but with the strength of live performance. I think we have done very well on that. It is still a studio record with all the qualities of sound, but it has a lot of good things on it.
How did you go about doing that?
Number one, I never changed my improvisations. Most of what I play, what you hear on the record, is the original improvisation before anything else was on there.
So before drums, before bass…
Before anything was on there. Those are my original… I had a little drum sequencer put together, and then I just improvised. And on a click track, I improvised on my laptop. All this was done while I was on the road a couple of years ago. I did all this in the hotel rooms, etc., and improvised. One thing I wanted to do, in order to keep it fresh, like I have in life, I did not change anything of mine, and just add things. Then I found… Back in my band is the great Paco Sery, and he plays phenomenal on the record.
But for you in your improvising, in the core moments of any particular piece you do, is that… You don’t need any other instruments to help get you going.
Rhythmically, bass-wise, orchestrationally…
Well, that’s what I do. I play bass also. I have a click track perhaps; that’s the least I have. Or sometimes I just put down for myself a nice little pattern. But not a pattern… I have good drum sounds, and I can play them on the keyboard. So I improvise a drum track for 7-8 minutes. Just improvise a drum track. That’s it. It’s stored, I go to the next one. Then I play bass, and already a melody with this. So it’s really coordinated. On the tunes where I play bass, that’s already happened. Like on that song, “The Rooftops of Vienna,” I play keyboard bass, and the right hand decides what I play on the right. It’s already like it was originally improvised. So that gave me the advantage. That’s what I did with Weather Report things, too, to keep my improvisations, and then we’d play it. But I never changed my original ideas. All that stuff was improvised originally.
Do you create strict scores off the improvisations, or do you present orally and let the musicians work things out according to your instructions?
Well, I cannot tell them what to do. And they are so good in doing that. Paco, of all them, is the most incredible, because he puts so much time in it, and he really works hard to learn the core of the music. For instance, when I went to Germany with the tapes to overdub Paco, I had beautiful little things for him to be inspired, and then I just let him play, and that was it. He heard the concept, what I wanted the drums to play, and BOOM, he got it. And I’ll tell you something. He played sometimes four or five different tracks on the whole drumset. When we more or less analyzed the whole thing and put it together, my son Ivan and me… Ivan is the co-producer and engineer on the record.
He has been doing this for a while.
Yes. And when we did that, there was not one mistake Paco made. There was not one beat which was not correct. We just had to add a few things. Because there were a lot of tracks, and we had that, and then we made a choice of what would be the best for the particular parts of the songs. But in general, this guy was flawless, man!
Then already at home I had Richard Bona, when he was out here in Los Angeles, come by. Everything worked very magically, in a way, because all those guys are overdubbed here in my studio. They were just at the particular time when I needed them in Los Angeles. Like Zakir Hussein plays beautiful on “The Tower of Silence.”
Where did you make that tune?
I improvised it.
Where were you?
Oh, I don’t know, man. I was on the road, and after the concert I had my laptop already set up in my hotel room, and I just sat down and then I played an hour or two.
It was beautiful. I kept thinking of the Tower of Babel and then the Tower of Silence.
Well, let me tell you something, man. What really happened is that the Tower of Silence is an actual tower in Bombay. Now, listen to this coincidence. When I had Zakir Hussein, who lives in Bombay, overdub on this tune, and I told him this is the story of the Sutras, which is a caste that’s one higher than the Untouchables — a very low caste in India. However, they are allowed to be teachers and they are some of the best musicians. But what’s significant and what actually fascinated me about these people is believing (they have their own beliefs) that nothing in the world should be squandered and wasted. So when someone dies, they call the family together, they say goodbye with a beautiful hookup, and they put them on the top of the tower, and they lower him down, and the bell rings, and the wall just comes down… It just dismantle that whole thing (you know what I mean?) and eats that flesh out. Then after about 45 minutes, it’s done, and then 15 minutes later they put the body back up, and then they burn it with flowers, etc. That is their concept. That’s about this tune.
Now, when I told this story… I didn’t have to tell this story to Zakir Hussein about the Sutras, because he knows that. But he said when he opened his window in the morning, in Bombay, there is the Tower of Silence. It is a funny coincidence. That introduction is fantastic, with Amir and me doing that duet introduction.
Another tune I kept going back to was “Borges, Buenos Aires,” both parts. I’m interested in what you read and your…
I don’t read any more. I don’t read any more and I don’t listen to music any more. But what I do is… I am apart. I am not telling anybody to turn things off, like on the bus, for instance, when people want to listen to music. So I get a little sense of that. Or my son or my kids, when they are home for Christmas, and they want to play some music, I never say, “No, turn this off” or anything. But for me, alone, I don’t listen to music. And I stopped reading a long time ago.
But I did read a lot. I read a lot of philosophical essays and books of great, great minds. That I did. And one of them was Borges, Jorge Luis Borges. I read this book, “Labyrinths,” and I don’t understand it until today.
You finally understand it or don’t understand it?
I don’t understand a thing of it. Except for I made this tune up because I love Buenos Aires, and I improvised this tune, and I think it’s a nice story about this complex, very sophisticated, but down to earth place, and with the greatest literary mind in the history of this country. Borges was a serious genius, like Bertrand Russell, Spinoza, those kind of people.
Who are some other writers, thinkers that influenced you?
In terms of literature, you mean? I like Krishnamurti, an Indian philosopher. I like the Realists. I read Schopenhauer and Spinoza, Descartes, many… Karl Marx. I read a bunch of stuff.
Were you influenced by Viennese thinkers, Austrian thinkers?
Schnitzler, Karl Kraus, people like this?
Not so much. But I know about them. I’ve got to tell you, I’m a street kid, and I got late to this. I was a grownup and had a family when I really started reading a lot. In those days, when I was in Cannonball’s band, there was not that much to do, except for playing. So I spent a lot of time just buying books, and reading… Bertrand Russell was one of my favorites. I like Nietzsche, I like Schopenhauer…
You read them in the German, of course.
In English or German. It doesn’t matter.
But I guess in Cannonball’s band, given his personality, reading was a natural thing to do. You’ve described him as such a polymath, so well read and informed.
Oh, yeah. He was something else. See, we used to drive together in the car, in the station wagon, because we had the contrabass in there, and so it was usually Cannon and me in the car. So we had long, long, long hours. In the old days we drove from New York to L.A. So we had a lotta-lotta hours to talk. I was always amazed by his overall knowledge. He was a worldly man. One day he taught me about Austrian history. He talked about Metternich and the Vienna Congress.
And you didn’t know about this before.
No, man. I come from a working class family, mostly on the streets, you know. I studied music, I was not an idiot, but those things didn’t interest me. I had no idea about it. One time I went with a friend to see Thomas Mann live. Even as inexperienced and as uneducated, may I say, as I was, that did something to me, and I got into reading certain little things about philosophy and so on.
I read the biography that came out. Have you seen it? Have you read it?
“In A Silent Way.”
Not really. Because I never authorized that. I don’t like that guy, and I didn’t authorize it.
Well, it seems like you spoke a lot to him.
Well, I did years ago. Every time I came to London, we had an interview. And I liked him at the time. He’s a bright kid, and his brother is one of my good friends. But he did one thing I didn’t like, and when that happened, then I cut it off. I don’t like it. I didn’t want to do the book. He did it against my will. But that’s okay; he can write a book. I read a little through it. I think it is very readable.
Well, he’s certainly thorough. He interviewed a lot of people.
Right. I’ve got to give him the respect for that, and that’s due. I think he wrote a good book.
I think what that book would indicate is the stature you have in many kinds of music. You’ve influenced several generations of musicians by this point. This may be a corny question, but I’ll go with it anyway. Did you foresee the course of your life before you came here in the 1950′s.
Did you feel that the sort of thing you accomplished would be possible?
What gave you that confidence?
I thought it was possible. I thought it was possible, but it was rather improbable. I didn’t know a single person in America; not one single person. So it was something to come here, have $800 in your pocket, you go to a country with one suitcase and a bass trumpet — and that was it. I went to Berklee on my four-month scholarship, and things just developed very well. I always say I’m just really grateful to be here, man.
Apart from your talent, what do you think it was that people initially saw in you? What do you think it was that Dinah Washington saw in you?
Well, she used to say that I had Ray Charles’ soul with a touch of George Shearing. That was her explanation. She used to say that about me in front of the audiences, “Yeah, here is a guy from Vienna with the blind man’s soul,” she said. [LAUGHS] The soul of Ray Charles, the touch of George Shearing. Something like that. So maybe that’s what she heard. I don’t know.
But you said in the book and many other times that your first attraction to black culture was the film “Stormy Weather,” that you snuck in to see the movie many times…
What was that response? Can you pinpoint it? Because chasing it down seems fundamental to what you did in the 1950′s.
Yes. I’ll tell you something. It was for me so different, the whole atmosphere of these people. Number one, I fell in love with Lena Horne, with her singing and her beauty. I wanted to say, “I’m going to go to America and marry this woman.” I was really very much impressed by the whole thing — the music, the way the people moved. The sense of humor touched me, too. Because it’s very close to the humor street people in Vienna have. It was without a question for me the greatest influence of all I wanted to do. I was then deciding, “This is what I am going to do and I will play with these people.” Because I was a big fan — and actually still am — of Glenn Miller and all the great dance bands, and Harry James and Tommy Dorsey. You know what I mean? However, when I heard then Duke Ellington and Basie and Jimmie Lunceford, that had another kind of quality. Then I heard later on…
You must remember that at that particular time, in the Nazi period, jazz was not allowed. Afterwards, it was very expensive. We couldn’t get any records. We were an occupied country by the Allies, the Four Nations. There was nothing we could do. We barely survived. There was no food, there was no water, no gas. It was a totally bombed-out city. And everything was kind of hard. But I was lucky because my piano was probably destroyed, I couldn’t practice on it, but across the street from me was a guy I knew for quite a while who was a little older, and he had a piano. So I went to his house to practice, and he had jazz records. That’s where I got into it. Later on, they had a program that was called “Strictly Solid.” It was every day at 1 o’clock in the afternoon, just when I came home from school, and I never missed it. There was one hour where they played all the good stuff, Jazz at the Philharmonic, and I started hearing Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Oscar Peterson…
So you assimilated the sound of swing that way, and you were adept and gifted enough that you could internalize it just through hearing it.
Oh yeah. And I was a big fan in the early days of Erroll Garner and George Shearing. I used to copy them. It was kind of fun. I’d go to a club, and I’d play a piece… I learned it totally from the record, and I’d really play it like that. I’d play it fairly good. I did little Art Tatum things. I was a student, as I am today. I am a student of the game.
It’s interesting. In a sense, you became very much an insider in black culture.
You played with Dinah Washington and you played with Cannonball Adderley for ten years.
I played also with Harry Edison and Joe Williams’ band.
And Ben Webster. But then, simultaneously, you’re still a Viennese, and you’re looking at it from an outsider’s perspective, but it resonates so deeply with you.
I don’t understand that.
You come from Vienna, and you’re looking at it all through the filter of your experiences.
And especially as you grow older, your connection to your Viennese heritage becomes more and more palpable. It’s interesting that you were able to retain your own identity, that fundamental core of your formative years.
Well, but then it was not. That takes time. I was a total copyist. I copied everybody. I was so heavy into Lennie Tristano’s music, we had a whole band based on Lennie Tristano and Lee Konitz and Warne Marsh’s band. Then we had something else. Then Horace Silver came along, and Horace Silver was a big influence on me. It’s one of those things. Step by step, man. When I came to America, I still didn’t have a style. I just copied everybody. But there was something in it, maybe.
When did you start to have your style?
Yes, in the later part of Cannonball. Because then, they also wanted… I had to play roles. One piece had to be a little bit like Bobby Timmons, and another piece had to be a little bit like Victor Feldman, etc. So I was communicating in a way that… I think the music I wrote was good. But the playing was still… I would call it tentative. Because I really didn’t have my place yet. You see? But after a while, the confidence grew, and I started hearing other things. Sometimes it was part of something, because where I wanted to go, the band was not. It was a great band, there is no question about it, but either we played standards or we played some of those songs which are more in the gutbucket style, rhythm-and-blues-influenced. Which was great! I learned, and I was paid for learning, and I’m very happy about that. But on the other hand, when I started to develop my own thing, it was a little bit of a hold-back, but I didn’t allow it to be. I just said, “Okay, I’m hanging in there, I’m doing everything, and slowly, I’m going to move this whole thing a little bit around.” Especially after 1965, I started writing a lot for Cannon. And a lot of good tunes, different forms. Like “74 Miles Away,” if you’ve ever checked this out, is a helluva tune in 7/4. And the “Hipdelphia” and things like that. I had 55 tunes Cannonball recorded.
That many! I didn’t know that. Have you ever reworked any of those tunes for…
So you let those lie where they are.
Let it be. That’s okay. But it was a great, great experience, working with a great musician like Cannonball, and I learned so many things. They also made mistakes, and I learned from them, too. I think it’s all a work in progress.
Do you see what you do now as in any way a continuum from what you did before Weather Report, before “In A Silent Way”?
Ah, I cannot tell you.
Do you feel connected to that still?
No, not really.
In your tunes I hear things like shout choruses and other things you abstracted from the conventions of the time, like a James Brown horn section or…
Well, really, I’ve been doing this for a long time. But I’ll tell you another thing. There’s a song on FACES AND PLACES called “The Spirit of Julian C. Adderley,” and that kind of reflects that time. I wanted to do this on this particular CD.
Another tune that’s lovely is “Cafe Andalusia.” Did you write that recently?
Yes, that’s one of those improvisations I talked to you about. Also, Cannonball is a recent thing. But I wanted to have… Because he always liked that church thing, Cannon did, and I wanted to have something with a Gospel type of… I did it with the Perry Sisters; they are very beautiful singers. It was a very complex tune for them to sing. But it came out okay.
When did the Caribbean tinge begin to enter the way you heard music, and that way of hearing rhythm and phrasing that became so distinctive to you?
That was early. In 1952, I played with a great saxophone player from Vienna, and I played with him in Munich. His name is Hans Koller. He is still alive. He’s really a giant in my country. He played with Dizzy’s band sometimes, and with Benny Goodman and all this.
Attila Zoller did things with him.
Attila Zoller did a lot of things with Hans Koller. I did a few things with Attila, too, in Vienna. He was a great guy. God bless him. I was a teenager, I still went to school when I met him. He was our hero. He was a cool guy. Unfortunately, he’s gone. But he’s still here.
So what happened in this club I played in Munich, which was called the Bongo Bar, there was a band from Trinidad, and I got early exposure to this music — the West Indian music, for instance, Calypso and stuff like that. So that is an old thing with the Caribbean. I was never much of a listener to… I’ll tell you, before I did the Salif Keita record [AMEN], I never listened to African music.
Is that so? It’s hard to imagine that that’s true, because…
Well, it is true. Whatever I tell you is true.
I’m sure it is. I wasn’t suggesting that you were lying. It just sounded like such a meeting of the minds.
It was. Because it is natural for me. This music was so natural for me. When they sent me this, I just said, “I’ll do that.” It was just right up my line. I told Salif, “I’ll tell you something. I will not touch the tradition of your music; I want this to keep intact. On the other hand, I want to keep what I do also intact. And then we’ll make another music out of these two.” What I later found out is that when they were kids or teenagers, they listened a lot to Weather Report. So when people ask me today, “How is it all of a sudden you have those African influences?”… It is true. I have influences from Africa and African music. But they have, at minimum, as much from what we’ve done with Weather Report. When they first heard “Black Market” and “Mysterious Traveller,” they almost died over there. The bass player in my band now, Etienne Mbappe, who is a wonderful bass player and singer, as you can hear, he told me that when he first heard “Black Market” and he heard Jaco play, they all… They had cassettes in Africa. Those LPs were copied down to just some cassettes, and they just sold for a dollar or something in the villages and so on.
Richard Bona told me that he dug Weather Report a lot also.
Exactly. So they know all that music, man. They grew up with that stuff. And Mbappe just last week told me, “You know, when I first heard that and I heard Jaco play, I said, ‘Wow!’” He was blown away. He thought it must be an African bass player. They said to me that when they saw the name Zawinul, they thought it was a Zulu name. So it was weird, man, the way they grew up with our stuff. They say that they used to get together… Youssou N’Dour and those guys, Habib, a bass player in Youssou’s band…all those guys used to sit together and listen for hours to Weather Report.
I can see a kind of African organization in the Weather Report music, a lot of things going on in parallel.
But at that point we never listened. Neither Wayne or me, we never listened to it. I swear to you, man, I never listened to an African band. It wasn’t even available. But I was not really that into it.
So you never heard Fela at that time, or those…
Now, Miles was interested in African music…
I never recognized that. I don’t know if he was or not.
In the autobiography he talked about Fela.
Then it is true. But the only people I knew… I worked with an African lady, with Letta Mbulu, from South Africa, and with her husband. They were part of Cannonball’s band at times. He brought them in when there was an interest for that, because we didn’t have a female singer around. That was kind of nice, to play some of that music. I found this to be interesting. But in general, I never heard anything about it. So when Island Records called me at that time to do the Salif Keita thing, I’d never heard about this band. And it was fun to do.
So the people who play Zawinul Syndicate now are primarily very influenced by your identity of 20 and 30 years ago, and in many cases probably conceptualized their approach to their instruments through hearing that music.
Well, you know exactly what you’re talking about.
Now, how do they affect you? Hearing them react to your ideas from that time and now, how does it affect the way you write? Are you writing for your band in certain ways?
Not really. I don’t think about those things. I am improvising, and the moment you improvise, you don’t think anyhow. The moment inspiration starts, rational thinking stops. Now, you can put this down and write it in stone, because that’s what it is.
I’d like to ask about your relationship with Wayne Shorter. You said you met him at a place near Birdland called the Green Lantern, having a drink, and he sang you something from an opera he wrote when he was at NYU, which I believe was “Nellie Bly,” and I think that cemented…
No, it was another one he sang — “Emmanuelle.” “I wonder where Emmanuelle…” When he sang this to me, it sounded like Alban Berg’s work or something like this. I said, “Damn, man!” I was only about a month maybe in America when I met Wayne. I met Wayne actually at Ham and Eggs, where him and Booker Little and me had breakfast late at night. I had met him through some other…Lee Morgan or whatever… Bobby Timmons, I think it was! Then we went to the breakfast place, and then we went to the Green Lantern, which was right next to Birdland.
You know, last week, when I was in New York, I went by Birdland. [LAUGHS] I walked down 52nd Street. My kids were born on 52nd Street! But I wanted just to experience it. Because the concert I played at the Austrian Cultural Forum is at 11 East 52nd Street. So I wanted to just walk by — I had that day off — and experience New York again and 52nd Street. I spent so much time there. Everything is different. I walked by, and on 52nd Street the exit, the back exit of Birdland, stinks just the same as it did then! With the garbage and everything in New York.
That doesn’t change in New York.
That doesn’t change. Everything else changed in front, but the door and the steps still go down there.
But you had breakfast with Wayne and Booker Little.
Yes, at the Green Lantern, and that’s where he sang for me his opera he wrote when he was 17 years old. And he wrote the libretto and all that stuff, so I was really impressed. Plus, I heard him play. I think that was one of the Monday night sessions at Birdland, and he played, and everybody was talking about there’s a new tiger in town. He’s really great people.
That’s when he’d just gotten out of the Army, and he was doing sessions at the Turbo Lounge in Brooklyn with Freddie Hubbard and all this stuff.
Then you were together in Maynard Ferguson’s band for about a month.
Which began the friendship, I guess.
No, that was always. Right from the beginning we had a great understanding. Because he knew a lot about… Wayne is a very educated man, and he knew a lot about the music of Stravinsky and Alban Berg and Bela Bartok. We used to hum the stuff like that. We had a good time. Then we were talking about one day maybe we’d make a little band together. It was funny.
So you crossed paths occasionally during the ’60s, and then you get together right around the time of “In A Silent Way,” and that happens. Then you have a 15-year partnership.
Well, it never ended. We’re still partners. Now there is coming practically a new record. The first new record in practically 20 years comes out with LIVE AND UNRELEASED.
But I’d assume he was the fundamental tone you had in mind in setting up the pieces and orchestrating for the band.
For me, that was always the most important thing, is the tone of a person. I listened yesterday to this double-CD, and Alfonso Johnson was a giant. He was phenomenal, man!
There are still going to be some changes on LIVE AND UNRELEASED. It’s a little long, and I’m going to cut out a couple of parts. Otherwise it’s fine.
I have 18 tracks, 8 on Volume 1 and 10 on Volume 2.
That’s probably correct.
It doesn’t always happen that energy projected on a concert stage gets projected through a recorded document, but in this case it does every step of the way.
I think so, too. When I listened to it yesterday, I wanted to take my time to do that… I said to myself, “Damn, man, this is really-really good stuff.” Now I do understand what people must have heard. Because this was all live. When we did, for instance, “Where The Moon Goes,” when you think that a quintet can do all that we did, with singing and at the same time playing some very complex line against the singing… In this particular tune, that little duet that Omar and me are doing, that little solo exchange… Anyhow, I can tell you that the whole thing is going to have an impact again. Because it is good. It’s very good.
How did the selection process break down? Did you select all the material or was it divided between you and Bob Belden?
Well, Wayne in general didn’t write as many tunes as I did, so we had to juggle around to have enough of Wayne on there. But I think we got that now.
One thing that’s for sure here is that you get a lot of Wayne’s saxophone playing stretching out in an improvisational context. In the day, his fans wanted to hear him improvise more, and anybody who wants to hear that…
They’re going to have PLENTY, man!
Did listening to it give you any further insights on how your sound evolved?
Well, another thing we did, which I am so happy about, is that we never… We were not all that bothered about talking about music and all of this. We just said one thing. “Let’s not do tomorrow what we did yesterday.” That is very important for me to do. Do something different. We have a band which is a work in progress, and that’s what we should keep. And that’s what I still do. I am little freer now, because all of the arrangements I am playing now, especially on stage, I can change every night because I don’t have any other melody player. So I have a little bit more of a conversation with myself, because there is no counter guy like Wayne. That’s okay. I have to live with that. I have a very great rhythm section. I have a great guitar player. And Manolo is in the new band, as then. He’s back in the band for six years now, I guess. He’s not that much on the record. But he is very prominently featured on the live things. The double CD is a really nice example of what happened 25 years ago, because it sounds awfully fresh, man.
A lot of the practices you established with Weather Report seem to be things you’re refining and finding new contexts for with Zawinul Syndicate.
I hope so. I put a lot of time into Weather Report, and I still do. I did this in Cannonball’s band. That’s what I want to teach the guys in my band — not to be sidemen. I don’t need yes-guys around. I need people who have a personality, who say sometimes, “Yeah, maybe we want to do this a little different” or something.
So you need people who feel you, not who learn you.
Exactly. People who understand that feeling.
You’ve said before, and I think it was borne out on this recent Weather Report tribute record on Telarc, how difficult it is for other people to play your music. What does someone else have to do to make Joe Zawinul’s music sound idiomatic and Zawinulesque?
To be Joe Zawinul.
So is your music going to be able to become part of the repertoire of the future?
Oh, that I cannot tell you. I really don’t care about that. Because it’s never been possible. It’s never been possible for Charlie Parker that anybody plays his stuff. When the music becomes complex… Like, all music that’s kind of complex, people don’t really feel it. What you were talking about is this Jason Miles stuff?
It was a catastrophe! It was one of the great catastrophes. And do you know that we had the right, Wayne and me, to say no to that. But then we said, “But okay, let’s do that.” They have some of the best musicians today in America on this record. And it really shows, and it will show now when LIVE AND UNRELEASED comes out, the difference between this stuff. In a way, it’s what I’ve always said, that our music is not playable by other people… It’s really true, man!
You said that you don’t listen to music by yourself, but pick it up from being on the bus with your band or your kids, and no doubt when you’re out on the road you hear things by proximity. Do you hear anything out there these days that impresses you?
I haven’t heard much, I’ll tell you that. There is one group I heard, and I don’t know who they are… I saw a video of a group from Maghreb. This is the Algerian areas. This is a group of five female singers and four hand drummers who play the same beat, and a solo viola player who plays the viola on his knees. That is some of the music…it’s very close to my music, in a way… He plays with the bow. And there’s another guy with similar music who plays a type of oud that’s called a ghembre. This music is very close. But I’ll tell you, I’ve never heard this before, and somehow it is very close to my music.
In jazz right now there are people… I think you foreshadowed something, though it’s hard to say you had a direct influence on this. There are musicians all over the globe who can transcend their locality and interact with musicians from everywhere else just doing what they do. And there are musicians all over the globe who know jazz, and they bring their own culture to it. There’s a circular feedback loop where American musicians pick up on what they do, they’re picking up on what these musicians do, and things happen.
I think this will happen more. If America can start to understand that there are other people in the world who can play music, too, that’s important. When we grew up, we grew up with American music. Everything else didn’t matter in the world. And there was a certain ignorance in us which was handicapping us, but we only found this out later. But when we were in Vienna, my friends and me were total racists in terms of a reverse racism. The only thing we liked was black musicians. There was a time when we were terrible, man, with that stuff, and it was unfair and it… It was not only unfair. It was stupid. Because there’s a lot of people in the world who can play music. You’ve got to be open and check out what this is.
But what I’ve learned most from is from marketplaces. I travel a lot, of course, and I go and just check out the people, how they interact and how they react. Like, this “Day In Tunisia,” it’s called, we’re talking about “Cafe Andalusia.” I was there, and this is pretty much the feeling I got out of there. So I’m trying to tell my story through my feeling, not with any kind of analytical sense or copying anything. I don’t want to copy nothing. I’ve got plenty… I’ve got a resourceful soul. You know what I mean? Because I’m into this for a long time.
But what I’m really happy about is that finally younger musicians in America start opening up their heads also to other things, and that is great, I think. You never should forget your tradition. For me, the great black American musicians in the first part of the last century created the greatest art form in the world — for me. The greatest cultural form ever. I mean, for the 20th century, the music of Duke Ellington and Armstrong and the great Art Tatum, and Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles… They created a music which was the greatest art form for me.
And what’s happening today, it’s because (I don’t know why) people are being…maybe from the record companies, being almost forced to play this kind of music. And it’s really bad, because number one, they don’t play it as good, not even nearly, and it handicaps them from going on their own and starting to think for themselves.
I think a lot of them went that direction… I’ve talked to a number of people from that group. And I think they feel that when they were coming up, that music was being taken away from them and they have to reclaim it. So it becomes a matter of reclaiming their tradition, from their perspective.
Well, that’s a point. But I think if you have tradition, it doesn’t mean that everybody should play the same way. And I don’t think anything was taken away from anybody. I mean, everybody in the world within a couple of years knows where this music came from and who were the ones who played it better than anybody. I mean, nothing has ever been taken away. This is maybe a little paranoia.
Well, stuff was unavailable at the time, or was being buried, people might say.
I don’t really think that’s the case. I think the recording companies wanted to do… There was nothing new happening, and so they will rehash bebop. Which is okay. It gives a lot of good and great musicians an opportunity to make money. Because to me, one of the great musics in the world ever is bebop. I love bebop. But I also love to grow in life, and not being stuck in the mud.
Well, there’s the wonderful solo piano piece, “When There Was Royalty,” that you put on the WORLD TOUR album that amply shows your feelings about bebop and Tatum.
Well, it’s not so much bebop. It’s just piano fooling. Piano fooling is a good word. Because that’s what the old masters could do so well. People were talking to people while they were playing, and fooling around. The piano was just a toy. And that’s what I wanted to do on this particular piece, not to… It was a short improvisation, and I enjoy doing those kinds of things sometimes.
Can you tell me where the poem “Success” comes from, which directly follows the solo piano piece on Disk 2 of WORLD TOUR?
That is a poem by Erich Fried.
Is it about the war?
No, it is not about the war. It is about a life, which I, in a way (I must tell you this) related to myself. Because the way I grew up, two years later there was a revolution, then there was nothing but wars until 1956. We were actually occupied. So the first 20 years of my life, practically speaking, were handcuffed. And there was no being a real child. It was another kind of world. It was a tough life. Poverty and revolutions, war and danger always; bomb attacks two years in a row, every day, every night. It was a tough life. So when I heard this poem, it directly… I mean, I’m not so egotistical to put it on me. But when I heard it, it affected me. When it said “I was born when I was 10 years old and I died when I was 20,” and then it goes on, “And when I was 80, I spoke about life and when I was 90, I spoke about the future”… I like that.
Do you think we can trace your feeling of never wanting to look back and retrace what you’ve done to the conditions of your formative years?
But that doesn’t mean I am trying to separate myself from the past in that kind of way. The past is for me very, very here. But it’s not for me in mutable terms to talk over and over. But man, I had a very happy childhood, I must tell you. Very happy when I was a kid. We didn’t know anything better. That’s what it was. We had what we had. We shared. I had a wonderful father and a great mama.
You said you were self-providers, and so you were self-sufficient and able to take care of yourself.
Well, no. My grandfather. My grandfather had 16 kids, and they had a very small farm, and they were in the category in those days that was called “self-providers.” But you know what that means when you have a lot of mouths to feed. You have 15 chickens, you have 2-3 geese, and we had one cow and one sow, and we had to work. My grandfather was a poor man. He had more or less one little acre where he can grow corn and potatoes. So when I spent time out there… I was sharing the time between the big city and the country. There we were self-providers. But I didn’t have a vacation in those years, in my formative years. In the summer I went out there into the woods, and worked every day, man, from morning til evening, to bring wood home, to bring the leaves home for the cow and for the animals, and cutting grass and weeds and whatever.
So you’ve been working all your life.
All my life, man. I love to work. This is my motor.
You were talking about fooling around at the piano, and in our first conversation you told me that you went to Bradley’s a fair amount when you were living on East 12th Street. Did you ever play at Bradley’s or do the after-hours?
I think we played one evening, Miroslav and me, in the ’70s, just bass and piano.
Why did you move back to California after the time in New York?
We have grandchildren, my son Ivan’s kids, and when we saw the way they grow, and they were kind of locked up… Also, we had this beautiful loft; it was great, we had our studio there. But after a few years, my wife and me decided we missed it… We used to live in Malibu before. I missed it to get out in the morning, man, and don’t have to put a lot of clothes on to get the newspaper and the milk or whatever. And slowly, it developed to almost like, “Hey, why don’t we go back.”
It’s like Paradise out there.
It is. By the way, there is a book coming out now that is an authorized biography written by Gunther Baumann. It’s a great book, I think. There’s a lot of pictures. It’s coming out at the end of the month; the presentation is on the 23rd of June. Then it will be translated. It’s a good one.