Category Archives: Fifty Years Ago Today

Fifty Years Ago Today—Weather Report at the Smiling Dog Saloon

On September 15, 1972, Weather Report made its way to Cleveland, Ohio, for the first of three nights at the Smiling Dog Saloon. The band was in the midst of a four-month stretch in which Bob Devere kept them regularly booked, primarily at jazz clubs, with some college and university dates thrown into the mix. So the Dog, as it was affectionately known to the locals, was just another date in a string of dates. And yet this gig would have ramifications for Weather Report that lasted well beyond these three nights in Cleveland, as we shall see below.

Opened in October 1971, the Smiling Dog was housed in an old bowling alley. Bowling was big in the Midwest, so it was unusual for an alley to fail to draw enough business to sustain itself, but this one did. Perhaps this is because it was located in a rather seedy part of town off Interstate 71. As local saxophonist Ernie Krivda remembered, “If you were going to open up a club and bring in jazz, the last place you would think of was this particular area of West 25th Street. It was rough.”

There was a motorcycle shop across the street where bikers hung out working on their motorcycles. The Dog’s owner, Roger Bohn, looked the part, attired in biker leathers and a bowler hat, with his hair pulled back in a long ponytail. But his looks belied a big heart, and many young musicians grew to love hanging out there.

Bohn ripped out the bowling lanes and replaced them with a stage and tables and chairs. In front, there was a bar and a game area with shuffleboard and air hockey games—holdovers from the bowling alley days. A biker-type known as Bear ran the front of the house, looking out for the young ladies who worked as barmaids because, as drummer Skip Hadden put it, “you never knew what was going to happen with that crowd.” Hadden also remembers being pressed into server as a bouncer when he wasn’t working in the house band; it was that type of place.

At first the Dog relied on local musicians and folk artists. Eventually, Bohn got the idea of booking touring jazz acts. At the time, there wasn’t a jazz venue in Cleveland, so there wasn’t any competition. Plus, a club in Cleveland would offer an additional way station for touring bands traveling between the East Coast and the Midwest, making it an attractive proposition to them. The first major jazz band Bohn booked was Weather Report. “I feel Weather Report is the heaviest jazz to happen in Cleveland in a long time,” Bohn told a local newspaper.

If he was going to be successful in his bid to draw national jazz acts, he needed to make a good impression with this show. Realizing he didn’t have the type of sound reinforcement Weather Report required, Bohn asked a couple of young musicians to help him out: Alan Howarth and Brian Risner. They were fixtures in the local rock scene and sometimes performed at the Dog. Howarth and Risner brought their own equipment down to the club and provided Weather Report with proper sound.

In fact, it was better sound than Weather Report was accustomed to. Howarth and Risner had an early form of Quad sound, for instance. They impressed the band so much that Bob Devere wanted to hire them as the band’s road crew. At age 24, Howarth was the older of the two, so he was probably given first consideration, but he wasn’t prepared to hit the road. Risner was, so Devere hired him as the band’s first roadie. He was 19 years old. At the end of the Smiling Dog engagement, he kept Weather Report’s equipment in his parents’ garage before driving it to the next gig.

Almost immediately, Risner assumed a much larger role with the band than that of roadie. In addition to setting up the band’s gear before gigs and packed it up afterward, he also handled travel logistics, getting the equipment on and off airplanes and arranging ground transportation. “Basically, I did everything,” Risner recalled. “They would book the hotels, but as far as getting the band around and getting them set up, and doing their sound, and keeping all the electronics going, I was it.”

Risner was a capable electronics technician and sound mixer, and he quickly became Joe’s righthand man. Joe now had a technical accomplice willing and capable of pushing the envelope. In many ways, they were partners; Zawinul supplied the musical vision, and Risner provided the technical expertise to help him bring it to fruition. Risner kept the ARP 2600s operating (not an easy feat considering they weren’t designed for the rigors of the road), built a custom on-stage mixer for Joe’s keyboard rig, outfitted Zawinul’s Rhodes electric piano with a superior sound system, and attended to countless other tasks.

Ultimately Risner became Weather Report’s recording engineer, supervising the recording of 1982’s Weather Report album, and recording Procession, which was released in 1983. Brian was the longest-tenured member of the band after Joe and Wayne, and they christened him the “Chief Meteorologist” on the Heavy Weather album jacket.

Alan Howarth joined the band in 1977. By then Joe’s keyboard rig had expanded to the point that it required a fulltime technician. Like Risner, Howarth was well-versed in electronics and was well-suited to this task. He guided Joe through the acquisition of the Sequential Circuits Prophet 5 synthesizer, staying on for a couple of years before launching a career in motion picture sound design and music composition.

With the Weather Report gigs, the Smiling Dog became the jazz venue in Cleveland. Between 1972 and 1975, when the Dog closed, virtually every touring jazz band came through its doors, including Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley, Stan Getz, Sun Ra, the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra, McCoy Tyner, and Ornette Coleman.

Despite these names, the Dog perpetually operated on a shoestring budget. The club was always “hanging on by the skin of its teeth,” Bohn later acknowledged. Six months of unrelenting financial losses forced him to finally close the doors. “Good weeks were not enough to make up for bad weeks,” he said.

After Weather Report, Brian Risner toured with Miles Davis, among others, before settling in Los Angeles, where he specializes in sound design and sound editing for television and movie studios. When I mentioned to him that the fiftieth anniversary of his joining the band was upon us, he sent me this note:

Fifty years ago. You never know what door you’re going to walk through and what you’ll come out to on the other side. But once you do, there’s no turning back. There is no back, only forward. This was Joe and Wayne’s take on life and their music: moving forward—always moving forward.

I was twenty years younger than the masters. We explored new ideas and new music technologies. Joe was ready to be as big as The Who! From Sweetnighter thru Heavy Weather, and beyond to Procession, each album had different sonic textures and mixes.

Fifty years. Timeless music.

Forward.

Fifty Years Ago This Month—Weather Report at Ronnie Scott’s

Melody Maker, July 22, 1972.
Fifty years ago this month, Weather Report performed in London for the first time, holding forth for two weeks at Ronnie Scott’s Club. Their visit was highly anticipated. Melody Maker, Britain’s leading music weekly, called the band the “undisputed leaders at the crossroads where jazz meets rock,” and their engagement “possibly the most important date in London this week.”

These gigs, which began on July 17 and concluded on the 30th, came on the heels of a busy month for Weather Report. Bob Devere, the band’s new manager, kept them on the road for most of June, 1972, with week-long stints at the Jazz Workshop in Boston, the Esquire Show Bar in Montreal, and the Lighthouse in Southern California’s Hermosa Beach.

Melody Maker dispatched its lead jazz writer, Richard Williams, to review the London performances. He also interviewed Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter, resulting in feature articles of both in the coming weeks.

Williams’s review reads as follows:

Weather Report is quite plainly one of the most effective bands of its type in the world. Where fusions are concerned, they operate seamlessly and effortlessly in the limbo between the electronics of rock and the creative improvisational interplay of jazz.

Their opening sets at Ronnie Scott’s Club, London, on Monday night obviously impressed the audience—indeed, who could fail to be moved in one way or another by the extreme facility, empathy, and power of this quintet?

They moved through sequences of highly sophisticated compositions with a practised ease which made it hard to define where writing left off and improvisation began, and there’s no doubt that they managed to create a far more spontaneous atmosphere than the Mahavishnu Orchestra or the Miles Davis groups, both of which seem rigid by comparison.

Individually, all five are masters. Joe Zawinul comes over as the leader, intentionally or not, playing with fuzz-tone and Echoplex to produce alien sonorities on the Fender piano. I do wish, sometimes, that he’d make use of the instrument’s softer tonalities—as he’s done on record in the past, to great effect.

As it was, his hard sound often blotted out the unassertive qualities of Wayne Shorter’s soprano sax—although when Shorter’s bitten-off phrases did cut through, the sound was marvelous. His tenor-playing is rather more aggressive, with a wholly personal tone and a method of phrasing which at first sounds crabbed but later reveals itself as astonishingly subtle.

Miroslav Vitous is a young giant of the bass, and it would have been good to hear more of him, too—particularly that incredibly emotional arco tone. Drummer Eric Gravatt impressed me much more than previously: he’s a neat, compact player who responds immediately to the musical needs of the other players, and who can also steam away at the head of the group when required.

Brazilian percussionist Dom Um Romão added a lot to the rhythmic and tonal palette, and seems much more group-conscious than his better-known contemporary, Airto Moreira. His playing is completely organic to the group’s overall sound, and his traditional melody on the berimbau, incorporating a little dance, was one of the highlights.

But still, I found that they left me a little cold for long stretches. Perhaps it’s the element of electronic sophistication which puts me off—or maybe Zawinul should just go easy on the volume pedal. Whatever, Weather Report have no peers in their ability to create extraordinary textures, and they should certainly be heard.

There are a number of interesting observations in this review. Regarding Zawinul’s “hard sound,” Joe was at the time using a harsh, distorted sound on his Fender Rhodes electric piano, as can be heard throughout the Live In Toyko album, recorded six months earlier. That would change with Weather Report’s next album Sweetnighter, and in the ensuing years Joe would produce among the most expressive bodies of work ever produced on the Rhodes electric piano.

Miroslav’s “arco tone” was a reference to his playing acoustic bass with a bow, something he did to beautiful effect on “Orange Lady” from Weather Report’s debut album. Coupled with Wayne’s soprano, it was a sound that Down Beat editor Dan Morgenstern described as “quite beyond description.”

As for Dom Um Romão, many reviewers of Weather Report’s shows singled out Romão for praise, even if they didn’t know what instruments he was playing. The berimbau, for instance, was an instrument that most American writers were unfamiliar with at the time. In addition to his musical sensibilities, Romão added some showmanship to the band’s performances, often walking though the audience while playing the berimbau.

Lastly, there’s Williams’s observation that Weather Report “left me cold for long stretches.” He wasn’t the only one to write something like that in 1972. Perhaps, as Williams suggests, it was those harsh—and loud!—Fender Rhodes tones that presumably led to ear fatigue among listeners after a while. But maybe there was more to it than that, because at the end of the year Zawinul would move Weather Report in a new and funkier direction.

Fifty Years Ago Today—Weather Report in Central and South America

Melody Maker, July 8, 1972.
Right after the Gaslight Au Go Go gigs, Weather Report flew to Mexico City to start a thirteen-concert tour of Central and South America. The tour was a byproduct of Joe Zawinul’s longstanding friendship with pianist Friedrich Gulda, a fellow Austrian two years older than Joe who also hailed from Vienna. By this time, Gulda was an international star—a “demigod” in Joe’s words—and the headliner of the tour. Weather Report served as the opening act, after which Gulda performed classical pieces on solo piano. He and Joe also played a piano duet each night.

One indication of Gulda’s star power at the point was that he flew first class while Weather Report flew economy. But Weather Report benefited from Gulda’s ability to dictate a relaxed schedule. “For us it was a very comfortable tour because Gulda didn’t want to play every day,” Joe recalled to Gunther Baumann (here translated from German to English). “In Costa Rica, we stayed for a week. The strange thing was, Gulda was nowhere to be seen outside the concerts with us. That he flew first class and we flew economy was okay, but otherwise, he kept to himself. But of course I’m very grateful to him: Through this tour, we were one of the most popular bands in America. In 1978, we performed at the great Luna Park arena in Buenos Aires, all alone. The hall had 18,000 seats, and they still had to carry in extra chairs. That was one of the most popular—and best—concerts that we’ve ever played. When we wanted to drive an hour to the hotel after the concert, Wayne and I had to be carried over the people. Hundreds of fans waited at the exit for us.”

Wayne Shorter was particularly taken with what he saw and heard on this tour. According to an interview that appeared in Melody Maker later that year, Wayne talked at length about his experiences in Central and South America and claimed to have written a tune inspired by the Aztec pyramids. In Rio de Janeiro, the band cut short its own performance so they could hop in a waiting cab to go see the Brazilian singer/songwriter Milton Nascimento. “He’s digging deeper than Gilberto or Jobim or anyone into certain areas of life and sensibility,” Wayne said. “I heard some things there that made me feel reincarnated!” A few years later, Wayne would team up with Nascimento to record Native Dancer, the only album Shorter made under his own name during the Weather Report years.

Meanwhile, some concert attendees, expecting to hear an evening of classical music, were put off by Weather Report’s style of music. According to one report from Argentina, “The reception of this group was not too good, because the audience here is not much on the avant garde side of things.” That said, some listeners came away as inspired by Weather Report as the band members were by the likes of Nascimento.

Alyrio Lima remembered seeing the band in Rio de Janiero. “They were here in Brazil and I had to go and see them,” Lima told me years later. “My friend was the stage manager for the theater where they were performing, so I got a front row seat, which in fact was a backstage pass. It was a superb performance by the band, especially from Wayne and the drummer Eric Gravatt. That night I decided to go to New York and see how I would manage playing with musicians of that level of art in form of beauty. I was a rock-influenced drummer and initially my wish was to meet Jimi Hendrix and play with him. After the concert in Brazil, it was a turning point because I saw great masters, musicians praying with their playing, at ease with the newness of that magical musical moment, of the fusion.”

Lima subsequently came to the U.S. as a student at the prestigeous New England Conservatory of Music in Boston. While there, he was introduced to Weather Report’s manager, Bob Devere, who ultimately called him for the Tale Spinnin’ recording sessions and the tours that followed.

Fifty Years Ago Today—April 19, 1972

New York Times review of Weather Report's performance at the Gaslight Au Go Go.
Less than three weeks after their first stand at the Gaslight Au Go Go, Weather Report was invited back for a return engagement. This time the New York press was well represented, with reporters from the New York Times, Variety, and the Village Voice all in attendance, so we have some firsthand reports of what Weather Report sounded like. Variety described Weather Report as “[bordering] on the far out. However, the quintet’s music carried the day.” The review also noted how Joe Zawinul used mallets on the piano strings, continuing his long-standing practice of wringing unusual sounds out of the acoustic piano.

The New York Times review was more extensive. Don Heckman, a musician himself and a longtime observer of the jazz scene, wrote that Weather Report “leaned strongly in the direction of avant-hard jazz. . . . Urged on by the keyboard ministrations of Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter’s stunning saxophone improvisations, the group stepped familiarly through the sometimes mazelike pathways of its music. Everything was grist for the mill; electronic noise effects, unusual percussion instruments, almost anything imaginable except vocal sounds.”

However, Heckman was most perceptive in his next two paragraphs. “It was good music, well-executed and magnificantly executed,” he wrote. “Yet one couldn’t help but feel that it was more enjoyable to the musicians than to the listeners. The inward focus that dominated everything, the sense of total inter-relationship at the cost of outward-going communication made it difficult to stay with what was happening.

“Music, after all, is a kind of celebration, and it should be the kind of celebration that brings players and hearers together.”

Zawinul would have read this review, and it would have struck a chord. While he enjoyed Weather Report’s freewheeling ways—at least to an extent—he was keenly interested in communicating with his audiences. His old boss, Cannonball Adderley, was a master at playing to his audiences without pandering to them.

It would be several more months before Joe resolved to change the band’s direction. In the meantime, Weather Report’s new manager Bob Devere kept them booked throughout the rest of the year, with over one hundred gigs in 1972.

Fifty Years Ago Today–March 30, 1972

Fifty years ago today, Weather Report opened a three-night stand at the Gaslight Au Go Go, a small club of about 300 seats on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The Gaslight was primarily known for folk and rock, but since taking over the old Café Au Go Go location the previous April, it had hosted Miles Davis several times, as well as the first appearances of John McLaughlin’s new band, the Mahavishnu Orchestra.

This show was Weather Report’s first gig of its own in New York City, where the guys all lived. The previous fall Weather Report had opened for Doctor John and the Ike & Tina Turner Revue, but that was for someone else’s audience.

These were also the first shows since Weather Report had performed before large audiences in Japan, and the band probably had high hopes since the Gaslight tended to attract good crowds. It regularly advertised its gigs in advance in the Village Voice, but it appears that the club didn’t advertise this one until the day Weather Report opened (see photo from the Mar. 30 issue of the Voice). The late advertising, coupled with virtually no word-of-mouth buzz, led to a dismal showing. As Joe Zawinul remembered it, there were just fourteen people in the audience as the band kicked off its first set. It was, in his words, “a disappointment.” 

“The club owner was totally angry,” Zawinul recalled. “We had not been announced, so the people in the Village knew nothing of our appearance. But the development was interesting. The drummer Ron Jefferson came in, a sophisticated black man whose word was greatly respected in New York. Ron Jefferson heard the end of our first set and went to see us in the dressing room. ‘You are swing, you are what is happening now,’ he said. Then he went back. In the second set we already had forty or fifty people. When we stopped, Ron Jefferson came backstage and said, ‘I’ve been to every New York club and told everyone that there’s a band called Weather Report. People should come if they do not want to miss anything.’ When we arrived the next day to the club, the place was full. On the second set there were already queues in front of the entrance. All by Ron Jefferson.”

No one from the press came to review these shows, but the three-night stand went well enough that Weather Report was invited back to the Gaslight Au Go Go three weeks later for a four night engagement. This time, the press would be well represented.