Category Archives: Joe Zawinul

Barry Harris, 1929–2021

Pianist Barry Harris died last week at the age of 91. According to his business partner Howard Rees, Harris’s death was caused by complications of Covid-19.

A “steadfast champion of bebop,” as the obituary in the Detroit Free Press put it, Harris was perhaps the best living exponent of the bebop style of jazz piano, revered by many for his playing and his generous spirit when it came to codifying the bebop language and teaching it to others.

Though he was never affiliated with a major educational institution, Harris was renowned for leading informal sessions in which he taught bebop to other musicians, starting in his home in 1950s Detroit, and later at various venues throughout New York City. Many significant musicians came under his tutelage, but Harris was welcoming to students at all levels. Eventually he taught clinics around the world. Harris maintained informal weekly sessions with students until just before his death. According to Mark Stryker, who wrote Harris’s obituary for NPR, Harris taught his last class, via Zoom, on Nov. 20.

Decades earlier, Joe Zawinul was one of the recipients of Harris’s generosity. When Joe settled in New York City in 1959, the city was full of excellent jazz pianists, none of whom, according to Zawinul, sounded like the other. Joe practiced with many of them, trying to soak up as much knowledge as he could. One style that he wasn’t exposed to in Austria was bebop, and there was no one better to practice bebop with than Barry Harris, who had preceded Joe in Cannonball Adderley’s band. They used to get together at a rehearsal room at Riverside Records, which was Harris’s label.

“Barry and I used to rehearse together a lot at that time,” Joe recalled in 1984. “It was kind of a one-sided relationship in one respect, though. I got a lot from him. Coming to jazz when and where I did, I missed the bebop thing, and that was the style of piano playing I wanted to learn. To my mind, Barry was about the closest there was to the pure bebop style—after Bud Powell, that is. Barry has got that down beautifully; he’s a superb musician. We used to spend all our time at Riverside Records’s studios, rehearsing. As I say, he gave me a great deal, and I will never forget it or be able to replay him for it.”

Around 1965, Harris was involved in an incident that motivated Joe to evolve his own personal style of playing. He related the story to me in a 2003 interview:

I was standing on the corner of 52nd Street and Broadway, which is right where Birdland was. And Barry Harris comes out of a cab, and says, “Joe! I gotta tell you something, man. It’s killing me, man!”

“Yeah, what is that?”

“The tune I just heard on the radio in the cab, it was Cannonball, and I swear to God I thought it was me playing, and then they announced it was you, man. Congratulations!”

I said, “Thank you, Barry.” And I was flattered for a minute. But when I thought about it, I said, well, now… What the hell does that mean, man? He’s already copying Bud Powell, and I’m copying him. What the hell is this? So I went home… I went home, right then and there, and put all my records in cellophane, and they are still in it, stashed away. And I never listen to music. I don’t listen to music, not even to my own. I listen to music now because I have to work on it. The moment it’s done, I don’t even know the name of the tunes. I really don’t.

Joe retained warm feelings for Harris throughout his life. But as the 1970s unfolded, Harris grew disillusioned with the music scene in general, which he expressed in a 1977 Down Beat profile. “Harris doesn’t go out to listen to other musicians very often,” the article stated, “explaining that ‘the music has no class now at all.’ ‘I don’t go to clubs much, ’cause musically I can’t deal too much with most of what’s going on—the commercialism, the avant garde musicians.’”

“I’ve been able to make it here (New York) a little bit, not much,” Harris added. “I make enough to send my family some money sometimes. The last few years I’ve been much luckier than I’ve been in my life, and I’ve still never made any money in my life. I’ve made a lot of records and I’ve never received a royalty check off a record in my life. And yet, everywhere in the world I’ve been, I’ve seen my records. It’s pretty weird . . .”

Like a lot of his contemporaries, Harris felt that the younger generations of jazz musicians had sold out the music. He made those feelings clear when he was part of a 1990 jazz piano roundtable that appeared in Keyboard magazine. “Right now, the word ‘jazz’ is like a garbage dump,” he said. “Everything that they can’t classify, they say—ploop!—‘Jazz.’”

When the other panelists brought up the subject of Weather Report in the context of defining jazz, Harris went off: “What kills me about those kinds of groups is that when someone has a jazz festival, they bring these cats together and call them a jazz group. See, I’m one of those people who believes that you cannot lie twenty-three hours of the day and be real for one hour. You can’t be untruthful to something, and then suddenly be this real person and show me that you can do it.”

The interview session went on:

Richie Beirach: Barry, the thing about Weather Report is that there’s no doubt about their jazz credentials. I loved that group; they did great music. But the emphasis was not on improvisation. It was on color, orchestration, and composition.

Harris: Zawinul and all those cats wrote certain tunes that showed their intent. I mean, if you wrote those tunes under the auspices of them being jazz tunes, then you knew they were leading somewhere funny. Joe Zawinul—oh, man, I hate to talk about that cat. It’s almost like we should be blessed because he brought his music to us from Europe.

Beirach: I saw him playing with Dinah Washington, though.

Harris: I know, but when I used to be over here on 46th Street, and I’d go to the studio and practice all day, Joe Zawinul was the first person to come in and stay with me all day [i.e., learning from Harris]. So when you mention those names, I’m real negative about them. I can’t call them jazz musicians.

Kirk Nurock: What you’re saying is fascinating, because it illustrates that this gray area is very controversial.

Harris: Oh, yeah. What makes me mad is that the musicians who were working, young cats—Herbie Hancock, all these cats—they were the ones who was working! They was working more than me! They were the ones who were really helping jazz! And they are the ones who went over to somewhere else. Now, that I don’t understand. They were making it with the music—they were making it!

Beirach: Well, they were making it in your eyes, but maybe it wasn’t enough for them.

Harris: Money, you mean.

Beirach: Well, money, exposure…

Harris: Money!
. . .
Harris: See, I get funny when you mention things like Weather Report.

Nurock: I noticed.

When the journalist Leonard Feather brought Harris’s comments to Joe’s attention later that year, Zawinul laughed it off. “I like Barry Harris,” he responded. “I have no problem with what people say. He is one of the finest, but he’s a copy of Bud Powell. I have arrived, you see. Last summer the Montmartre in Copenhagen they had a list of coming attractions. They had Betty Carter, and they identified her as a jazz vocalist. They bill some band and described it as a rock group. But with my name they had no description. They just said ‘Zawinul.’ Not jazz, not rock, just me. I am my own category.”

Of course, the beauty of it all is that the world is large enough to accommodate both Zawinul and Harris. The former learned bebop so that he could leave it behind in order to forge his own style, while the latter devoted his life to spreading the bebop gospel so that it continues to be played by new generations of jazz pianists.

Rest in peace, Barry Harris.

Harris photo credit: Mirko Caserta, A Day With Barry Harris, 2007.

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.

No Beethoven Now Available in softcover and Kindle

no-beethoven

Peter Erskine’s book No Beethoven is now available as a softcover book as well as a Kindle ebook, in addition to the iTunes version that was released earlier this year. The iTunes version has some audio/video goodies and a plethora of photos that I don’t know made it into the Kindle version, so there’s still a good reason to buy it via iTunes if you have the choice.

In any event, as I said then, this book is a must read for Weather Report and Zawinul fans. Get it if you don’t already have it.

Anil Prasad’s Zawinul Interview

Anil Prasad, the journalist behind the superb Innerviews website, has brought back his 1997 Zawinul interview after being absent from the site for a few years. It’s one of the best Zawinul interviews you’ll find anywhere. A wide-ranging conversation, it touches on Joe’s relationship with Jaco and Cannonball, among other things. You can read it here.

Anil also provides a bit of behind-the-scenes story about the interview:

A true touchstone of my music journalism career is back on the Web in an extended “director’s cut” edition: My extensive Joe Zawinul interview. It’s from 1997 and is one of the most extensive interviews Joe ever gave. It’s the first interview in which I felt I was able to truly hold my own against an incredibly powerful personality. I asked some tough questions and didn’t waver, as you’ll see. Joe is my favorite musician of all time, so this was quite an occasion. Funny story: Joe and I did a number of interviews which were compiled into this piece. During one of them, he said some of the most outrageous stuff imaginable, cutting down musicians and music industry people in the most incredibly brutal way. It was amazing stuff. I noticed while he was going off, that he was looking at the recorder. He actually picked it up, looked at it, and smirked at me several times as he was engaged in this verbal assault. I left going “Oh my God, I got Joe Zawinul on tape saying all this incredibly controversial stuff!” I went home. The tape recorder wasn’t running. The tape was blank. Joe knew it all along and said all this stuff he knew I would have no record of. For the record, ever since this event, I run two recorders for every interview I do. 🙂 Miss you Joe….

Peter Erskine’s New Book, No Beethoven

no-beethoven

Peter Erskine has written a gem of a new book. No Beethoven is his autobiography and “chronicle of Weather Report,” which he has published as an ebook, available from iTunes for the iPad. It’s a must-read for Weather Report and Zawinul fans, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the existing biographies of Wayne, Joe and Jaco. The book is packed with Peter’s stories and behind-the-scene anecdotes about the band, Joe, Wayne and Jaco — not to mention tons of photos.

Those stories are artfully interspersed with Peter’s narrative of his own life. As he recounts in the early chapters, he took to drumming at an early age and was something of a child prodigy, gaining admission to the Stan Kenton summer jazz camp at the age of seven despite the 14-year minimum age requirement. By the time he was 18, he was on the road with the Kenton Orchestra. Three years later, he quit to go back to school, but that was short-lived as a summer tour with Maynard Ferguson wound up turning into two years. It was with Maynard that Jaco first heard Peter, and that encounter ultimately lead to Erskine joining Weather Report in the summer of 1978.

At the time, they were finishing up the recording of Mr. Gone and getting ready for a tour of Japan. Erskine recounts in detail his first rehearsal with the band, Joe’s band rules (which really only consisted of one rule); his participation on Mr. Gone; and his “homework,” which consisted of book reading.

Peter’s relationship with Joe is a central theme throughout No Beethoven, and his insights into Zawinul’s personality are priceless. There are other books about Joe — Brian Glasser’s In A Silent Way being the obvious one — but No Beethoven offers a more personal take, one that gives us a more human portrayal of Joe than we’ve seen elsewhere. As Peter says in the book, “[Joe] was gruff and he could be rough as well as scatological and hyperbolic in the extreme. He was also a sweet and very funny man. Easily the most intense musician I’ve ever know.” All of that comes through in Erskine’s telling.

Having said all that, this is much more than a book about Weather Report. I must admit that when I first got it, I scanned through the pages looking for the Weather Report stuff. But I wound up going back and reading it from start to finish and thoroughly enjoyed it. Peter’s writing style is engaging and along the way he imparts pearls of wisdom about being a musician and about life. There’s plenty of material about Stan Kenton, Maynard Ferguson, Steps Ahead, and the many great musicians Peter has worked with over the years.

No Beethoven will eventually be available for the Kindle, Nook and Sony e-readers. German and Japanese translations are also in the works, as well as a CD-ROM version of the book to be released in Japan later this year. But for now, owners of iPads have a treat in store for them.