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.
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.