Fifty Years Ago Today—Oct. 22, 1971

On Friday, Oct. 22, 1971, Weather Report played the Beacon Theatre, opening for Dr. John the Night Tripper on the first of two back-to-back nights. (The ticket stub above is from the second evening.) This was Weather Report’s first public appearance in New York City—where Joe, Wayne, and Miroslav all lived—and it was also the band’s first gig with drummer Eric Gravatt.

The booking came courtesy of Bow Wow Productions, which leased the theater for a series of concerts in the fall of 1971. One of Bow Wow’s principals was Wayne’s sister-in-law Maria Booker, the wife of bassist Walter Booker. The Booker home was a lively gathering place for musicians and Maria was intent on presenting jazz to support its popular music headliners. In addition to Weather Report, other jazz acts who performed at the Beacon that fall were Herbie Hancock, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis—all friends of the Bookers.

Nowadays we think of the Beacon as a premier concert venue, but in 1971 it was still primarily a movie house. Having opened nearly forty-two years earlier, it was also showing some wear and tear, so Bow Wow sought to spruce things up a bit. According to an account in the Village Voice, they “[tried] to do right by having foxy looking usherettes, decent sounds, and a band and dancers on the sidewalk at Broadway and 7th Street to boost the neighborhood’s karma a few notches.” Wear and tear or not, the Beacon’s acoustics, which were created for live music accompaniment of silent films, made it one of the band’s favorite venues and Weather Report would return several times over the years.

Of course, the main draw of this show was Dr. John, and Weather Report, being more of an avant garde jazz band veering toward the freer side of things, probably wasn’t a good fit with Dr. John’s audience. The reviews of Weather Reports’s performance were mixed, but one member of Dr. John’s band stood in the wings listening to their set. He remembers it to this day.

“Those guys were killing it on that gig,” guitarist Kenny Klimak told me. “I thought they were amazing. But what I’ll never forget [is that] when they walked off stage at the end of their set Zawinul started bitching at the guys as soon as they were out of the audience’s view, and he continued bitching all the way up several flights of stairs to their dressing room. At least that’s what it sounded like to me. That one instance made me a better musician because I thought what they just played was incredible, but clearly I wasn’t hearing what Zawinul was hearing—he was hearing something more. That made me want to up my game.”

For more about Weather Report’s early days, check out my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report.

Summer of Soul

So I was watching a news item about the new movie Summer of Soul and… Wait a minute, is that Andrew White?

Indeed, there he was, standing behind Stevie Wonder (who’s playing drums), electric bass in hand. Wow. I knew from talking to Andrew and Hershel Dwellingham that White had played bass in Wonder’s band, but I never expected to see footage of him doing so.

At this point you may be wondering, what is Summer of Soul ? Summer of Soul … (Or When the Revolution Could Not Be Televised) is a two-hour documentary based on the 1969 Harlem Cultural Festival, a six-week concert series held at Mount Morris Park (now Marcus Garvey Park) in Harlem, New York. It was free, attracted over 300,000 spectators, and featured a remarkable cast of performers: 19-year-old Stevie Wonder, the 5th Dimension, B. B. King, Gladys Knight & the Pips, Sly and the Family Stone, Nina Simone, the Chambers Brothers, the Staple Singers, Mahalia Jackson… you get the idea.

Television producer Hal Tulchin videotaped all six concerts in the belief that he would eventually be able to sell the material or develop his own documentary out of it. Instead, the tapes sat in his basement for decades before eventually forming the basis for Summer of Love, which also examines the cultural environment in which the concerts were held. It was released in theaters this past summer and is currently streaming on Hulu. After seeing the CBS news piece, I sat down and watched the movie itself, and it’s great. The footage is remarkable. It’s fair to say that at points it caused tears to well up in my eyes. I highly recommend you seek it out.

So back to Andrew White. If his name doesn’t ring any bells, check the liner notes for Sweetnighter. White was recruited for that album specifically to provide a Motown feel on electric bass; he can be heard on “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” “125th Street Congress,” and “Non-Stop Home.” Joe and Wayne previously knew White as a reed player—he played English horn on I Sing the Body Electric—but when Zawinul saw the 5th Dimension on television one night, he recognized White playing electric bass. “Joe was looking at the television and saw me doing that shit, and we knew each other,” White recalled to me. “He said, ‘Wait a minute! I know Andrew from the JFK Quintet and ‘Ball and Art Blakey.’ So he called Wayne and said, ‘Wayne, call Andrew to see if he’ll come over here and make this record with us.'”

In addition to White’s playing, Joe was taken by his stage mannerisms—what Andrew called his eccentric dancing. “I was doing that while I was playing,” White said. “And Joe had never seen nothing like that because he had never been to any Motown shows and seen any of those bass players or musicians who just had their own kind of thing. Actually, what it is is choreography. And because it’s choreographed in such a way in music, you are distracted by the musicality of what’s going on and you don’t know what you are looking at.”

Before the 5th Dimension, White played bass in Stevie Wonder’s band. “Stevie Wonder used to tell people from the stage, ‘Y’all lookin’ at Andrew’s pants? Is that whatcha all laughing at out there? You lookin’ at Andrew’s pants?’ And the people starting laughing. And Stevie’d say, ‘Well, Andrew said he’s going to dance for you.’ And here I am, standing up on stage next to Stevie Wonder, dancing and playing.”

White is one of a number of Weather Report—related musicians who appear in Summer of Soul. More prominent is Greg Errico, Sly and the Family Stone’s original drummer, and Weather Report’s drummer for the second half of 1973. Not only do we see Errico perform with Sly and the Family Stone, he is also interviewed for the documentary.

Other musicians who appear in Summer of Soul that have a Weather Report connection:

• Ray Barretto, who fronted his own band in 1969. Barretto played on the first album Zawinul made under his own name (To You with Love, recorded in 1959), and also makes an appearance on Mysterious Traveller‘s “Cucumber Slumber.”

• Don Alias, who is seen playing drums in Nina Simone’s band. He played on Weather Report’s first album as well as Black Market‘s title track and “Barbary Coast.”

• B. B. King. He doesn’t have a direct connection to Weather Report, but King did headline a couple of concerts in 1972 and 1973 in which Weather Report was also on the bill. Alex Acuña told me that on the day Joe came to Las Vegas to meet him in 1975, they went to see Bill Cosby and B. B. King perform at the Hilton and chatted backstage. When they left, Joe said, “I would love to play with B. B. King one day.”

• Herbie Mann. The Harlem Cultural Festival took place in the summer of 1969, just before Miroslav Vitous joined Mann’s band.

• Sonny Sharrock. Sharrock played with Miroslav in Herbie Mann’s band, and also on Wayne’s 1969 album Super Nova.

• Hugh Masekela. Before joining Weather Report, Omar Hakim and Victor Bailey played some gigs with Masekela. During the sound checks Omar and Victor noticed that they had a special connection, and Hakim subsequently recommended Bailey to Joe and Wayne.

Obviously most of these are trivialities when it comes to the overall scope of Summer of Soul, but this is a Weather Report website and sometimes we get into the weeds! In any event, see Summer of Soul. You won’t regret it.

George Wein, 1925–2021

George Wein in 2014. Credit: digboston, CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
George Wein, the legendary impresario who virtually invented the concept of the contemporary music festival, died on September 13. He was 95 years old. According to his obituary in the Washington Post, Wein “may have presented more musicians to more people than anyone else in history. He launched the Newport Jazz Festival in 1954, the folk festival in 1959 and later developed the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, the Playboy Jazz Festival in Los Angeles, and dozens of others across Europe, Asia and North America.”

Joe and Wayne performed at many Wein productions over the years. Weather Report’s first time at Newport was to be in 1971, but that appearance was canceled in the wake of a riot the previous night. Later that year, Weather Report participated in a concert in Boston to benefit Wein, who suffered significant financial losses because of the festival’s cancelation. When the festival was moved to New York City the following year, Weather Report took part, as it did in 1973.

Wein inaugurated the Playboy Jazz Festival in 1979, where Weather Report was the headliner. When the band returned in 1981, it put on a stellar performance that prompted journalist Leonard Feather to call them “the unquestioned crowd killers of the festival.” Wein booked Weather Report for yet another appearance in 1982. Given their strong showing the previous year, Wein asked Joe if the band could do “something special”—something that could top the previous year’s gig. He suggested a guest musician, which led to Zawinul inviting the Manhattan Transfer to perform “Birdland” with Weather Report—a surprise, unannounced encore that brought down the house.

Aside from appearances at Wein’s festivals, there are a couple of stories that involve Wein and Zawinul that are of interest. It is well-known that Joe came to the United States in 1959 thanks to a partial scholarship to the Berklee School of Music. Less well-known is that Wein almost brought Zawinul to the States in 1958 as part of the International Youth Band, which Wein organized with Marshall Brown for a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. As Wein describes in his autobiography, Myself Among Others, he and Brown were intent on including musicians from across Europe, but finding one from Switzerland proved difficult.

“We could find no suitable musicians in Switzerland, one of our target countries,” Wein wrote. “Fortunately, we did find a good Swiss pianist by the name of George Gruntz—in Milan. Our problem seemed to have been solved, but another arose when we discovered a more desirable pianist in Austria, a young man by the name of Josef Zawinul. What could we do? There were a number of good musicians in Austria, but only one capable player from Switzerland. And so it was that we chose George Gruntz over Joey Zawinul for the International Youth Band.”

The other story takes place shortly after Joe arrived at the Berklee School of Music in January 1959. Joe was older and quite a bit more experienced than most of the Berklee students, and he found the curriculum to be well-beneath his abilities. However, there was an advantage in being the best piano student in school. Wein owned and operated the Storyville jazz club, located not far from Berklee in Boston. About two weeks into the semester, Ella Fitzgerald was scheduled to appear there. The pianist for the house band was ill that night, so Wein called Berklee for a substitute. Ray Santisi, a legendary piano teacher at the school, sent Joe. He impressed the drummer, Jake Hanna, who called his former employer, trumpet player and bandleader Maynard Ferguson, whose pianist was going into the Army. On Hanna’s recommendation, Joe to auditioned with the Ferguson band the next day. The rest, as they say, is history.

A Book Update

First of all, thanks to all who have purchased a copy of my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. And thanks to the many readers who have sent me personal notes. I appreciate them all.

I don’t know how many copies the publisher printed, but they sold out by early August—meaning the publisher ran out of stock in less than two months. There are still books available at some retailers in the U.S.—in particular, Amazon has it in stock. However, Elegant People‘s release in the United Kingdom didn’t occur until August 15, and, apparently, only a small number of books reached the U.K. shores. I know it’s hard to get there, as I’ve received several emails from folks in the U.K. trying to buy it. The publisher tells me that a reprint is in the works, but because of industry-wide printing delays, we do not know the date yet. They are taking back orders, however, so we should see more books soon. I will post an update when that happens.

In the meantime, the book received a nice review at Something Else!, written by Tom Wilmeth. For a time, it was even on the website’s home page (which is where the screenshot above was taken). Tom is the author of Sound Bites: A Lifetime of Listening, a fascinating book that he describes as “a lifetime collection of interviews, essays, and reviews of music and the artists who create it.” Wilmeth has been involved in the radio business since the 1970s and his knowledge and musical interests are broad, indeed. He has a voluminous personal library of music albums, and has had the opportunity to interview many musicians as part of his radio gig, while personally attending enumerable musical performances. All of this informs Sound Bites—an enjoyable read for all music fans, and especially baby boomers whose years of listening will largely overlap with Tom’s.

Tom also produces a podcast called The Vinyl Approach. In Episode 14, “Fusion Music and Weather Report”, he discusses Elegant People at length. In the first half of the episode, Tom covers some of the first fusions efforts, especially those of Gary Burton in the mid- to late-1960s. Tom’s discussion of Elegant People consumes the second half of the episode. I encourage you to check out the whole thing, as well as other episodes of The Vinyl Approach that may interest you.

Again, thanks for all your support.

Could John McLaughlin Have Been a Charter Member of Weather Report?

In my book, Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report, I run down some of the musicians who seem to have been considered for Weather Report—or for whatever band Joe and Wayne were planning for themselves until they hooked up with Miroslav Vitous to form Weather Report.

One name I didn’t include is guitarist John McLaughlin, even though he had stated in a 2017 interview that he declined an offer from Miroslav to join Weather Report because he was intent on forming the Mahavishnu Orchestra. When I asked Miroslav if this jibed with his recollection, he wrote back saying, “Is possible that that happened but now I don’t remember it.”

Last month, in an interview published in JazzTimes, McLaughlin repeated the story with the pretty much the same details. In both cases, McLaughlin recalled how Miles Davis gave him the nudge he needed to establish his own band. It came in 1970, when McLaughlin was a member of the Tony Williams Lifetime. At one point Miles took in a Lifetime gig in Massachusetts (probably in April 1970 when Lifetime performed at a weekend festival at Tufts University). Afterwards, they were chatting backstage.

“I was sitting in the band room with Miles in a club just outside of Boston,” McLaughlin remembered. “We had just finished a gig and I played like shit. I was apologizing to him, and he said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ A few seconds later he said, ‘It’s time you formed your own band.’ That was the last thing I expected to hear from Miles, but he was the most honest person I ever met and I took everything he said so seriously. I thought, ‘If he thinks I can do it, I’m going to do it.’”

Of course, by this time Davis and McLaughlin were well-acquainted, with a history going back to February 1969, when the guitarist famously accompanied Davis in the studio for the In a Silent Way sessions. Though McLaughlin never became a member of Davis’ stage band, he continued to record with the trumpeter throughout 1969 and 1970, most notably for the albums Bitches Brew and A Tribute to Jack Johnson.

Meanwhile, McLaughlin and Miroslav had also become friends and they were frequently part of the same recording sessions. McLaughlin performed on Miroslav’s 1969 album Infinite Search, and both played on Wayne’s album Super Nova, also recorded in 1969. The next year, McLaughlin and Vitous played on Larry Coryell’s album Spaces, and McLaughlin also recorded some experimental tracks with Miroslav that became part of the bassist’s album Purple. Furthermore, McLaughlin, Zawinul and Shorter all knew each other from playing on many of the same Miles Davis sessions, so it wouldn’t have been at all surprising for any of them to reach out to McLaughlin to see if he would be interested in joining their band, or vice versa.

And that’s how McLaughlin remembers it. “I had gotten close with Miroslav Vitous,” he told JazzTimes. “I asked him to join the band [which became the Mahavishnu Orchestra] but he said, ‘We’re making our own group with Wayne [Shorter] and Joe [Zawinul]’—which of course became Weather Report, one of the best bands ever! Miroslav said, ‘We want you in our band, John.’ But I was under orders from Miles to form my own band!” The “orders,” of course, being Davis’ insistence that McLaughlin start his own band.

Though nothing came from each other’s overtures, Miroslav was instrumental in connecting McLaughlin with Jan Hammer. McLaughlin continues the story: “So I asked him about other keyboardists and he said, ‘Jan Hammer. He’s a great pianist.’ I said, ‘I never heard of him.’ Miroslav said, ‘He’s out playing with Sarah Vaughan.’ I thought, ‘If he’s playing with her, he’s no slouch. He’s got to be swinging!'” Miroslav had known Hammer since they were both teenagers in Czechoslovakia, where they formed the Junior Trio with Miroslav’s older brother Alan, who played drums. The group was a bit of a sensation, and both Hammer and Miroslav eventually made their way to the States. McLaughlin wound up hiring Hammer for the Mahavishnu Orchestra, where Hammer established himself as a leading proponent of the Rhodes electric piano and the Moog synthesizer.

Melody Maker, Jan. 19, 1974.
If the idea of John McLaughlin as a charter member of Weather Report doesn’t sound odd enough, how about this: In January 1974 (right after recording Mysterious Traveller), Melody Maker reported “Weather Report’s new album also includes a few keyboard appearances by Jan Hammer, late of the Mahavishnu Orchestra.” Then in April, Melody Maker ran another short item regarding a proposed Weather Report spring tour of Europe that didn’t materialize. It includes this perplexing nugget: “It is also believed that former Mahavishnu Orchestra keyboard player, Jan Hammer, will be joining the band, although at press time this remains unconfirmed.”

Melody Maker, Mar. 2, 1974.
Huh?

Forty-seven years later, it still remains unconfirmed. I actually asked Miroslav about this. His response: “I have never heard about anything like this and believe me I would have known this. Do you really think Joe Zawinul would take a chance to have Jan Hammer come in and play? Joe would never do that.”

I also asked Hammer’s long-time manager Elliot Sears the same question. Jan Hammer “would never even have entertained the thought of performing live with them,” Sears wrote me. “I have no idea how Melody Maker got that impression. Strictly bad reporting based on unsubstantiated rumors.”

So what to make of the Hammer rumor? The best I can come up with is that perhaps, given their long history and friendship, Miroslav and Jan talked about doing something together after Miroslav was ousted from Weather Report at the end of 1973, when the Mahavishnu Orchestra also dissolved. Both were without a regular gig for the first time in years, and it seems likely that they could have talked to each other informally. Perhaps a reporter at Melody Maker got wind of it and misconstrued the details. That said, the idea of anyone other than Zawinul playing keyboards in Weather Report is far-fetched, indeed.