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.

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.

The Mysterious Traveller Album Cover

Comet KohoutekArtist depiction of Comet Kohoutek from Popular Science magazine, Nov. 1973.
This week’s peak of the Perseid meteor shower inspired me to write about another astronomical event that took place many decades ago.

On March 7, 1973, a Czech astronomer was photographing asteroids at the Hamburg Observatory in Germany when he stumbled upon a previously undetected comet some 465 million miles from the sun. Formally designated C/1973 E1, it was named after the astronomer who discovered it, Dr. Lubos Kohoutek (pronounced “Ko-ho-tek”).

If you are of a certain age, you may remember Kohoutek. Astronomers predicted that it would be “the comet of the century.” By the end of the year, as Kohoutek neared the sun, it was forecast to be so bright that it would be visible to the naked eye even in full daylight. Then, in January 1974, having switched over to the evening sky, it would create a spectacular display, easily visible even in the relatively bright skies of the world’s biggest cities.

By mid-summer, Comet Kohoutek had entered into popular culture, with t-shirts, books, hats, and all other manner of memorabilia flooding the market. Special viewing tours were being arranged, including a three-day cruise on the Queen Elizabeth II. The craze lasted for the rest of the year, as anticipation built for Kohoutek’s appearance. In its December 17 issue, Time reported, “[Kohoutek] promises to rival and perhaps surpass in brightness Halley’s comet, which last appeared in 1910 and will not be seen again until 1986. By the time Kohoutek emerges from its passage behind the sun early in January, its tail should be full grown, a glittering streamer extending across as much as a sixth of the evening sky.” Popular Science was onboard, too, running an article in November titled, “Get Set for the Sky Spectacular of the Century,” along with a depiction of what Kohoutek would look like in the evening sky.

Helmut WimmerHelmut Wimmer, photo credit Sandi Kitt.
Given his love of science fiction and fantasy, the idea of a once-in-a-lifetime astronomical event must have tickled Wayne no end. With the recording of Mysterious Traveller set to take place in December, the plan was to name the album after Kohoutek; at least that’s how some of the other musicians remember it. Meanwhile, Bob Devere and Brian Risner visited the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, looking for ideas for a visual display during Weather Report’s concerts.

As Brian remembers, “We went to see the laser show there—they had one of the first laser shows—because I was thinking, what could we do to kick stuff up a notch?” While there, they saw the perfect cover for Weather Report’s new album: a painting of a comet over Madagascar created by Helmut Wimmer, an artist who produced vivid large-scale depictions of celestial objects for the planetarium in the pre-digital and pre-space telescope days. Wimmer, the planetarium’s staff artist from 1954 to 1987, produced hundreds of paintings on cardboard sheets, which were then photographed on transparency slides and loaded into projectors on the perimeter of the planetarium’s 48-foot-high dome.

Meanwhile, as December turned into January (when Mysterious Traveller was recorded), Kohoutek turned out to be a dud. According to the January 16, 1974 New York Times, “Kohoutek, once touted as ‘the comet of the century,’ made its closest approach to the earth yesterday, coming within 75 million miles, but few residents of this planet saw it. That, as a celestial ‘spectacular,’ it was a flop, according to astronomers, demonstrates that, while the paths of comets can be predicted with great precision, their behavior cannot.”

It wouldn’t do to name Weather Report’s new album after a cosmic dud, so the title was changed to Mysterious Traveller, adopting the British spelling of the second word. Wayne likened the comet to “a mysterious visitor” and he attributed extra meaning to the coming of Kohoutek. “It was a mystery about where was it born, and that means our life too, here we are: all mysterious travelers,” he told Jazz Times in 2002. In addition, The Mysterious Traveler was the title of a fantasy/science fiction radio show and comic book that Wayne remembered from his youth, so like I Sing The Body Electric, he co-opted the title for the album.

Nowadays, Kohoutek has pretty much been forgotten altogether. Fortunately, we can still enjoy the beautiful cover that it inspired for one of Weather Report’s best albums.

Elegant People Review in Jazz Wise Magazine

My thanks to George Cole for his review of my book Elegant People: A History of the Band Weather Report. The review appears in the August 2021 issue of Jazz Wise, the U.K.’s leading jazz magazine. “Definitive doesn’t come close to describing this book, which is set to remain the standard work on Weather Report for many years ahead,” Cole writes.

By the way, George is the author of The Last Miles: The Music of Miles Davis 1980-1991, the most comprehensive look at the final decade of Davis’s music. Highly recommended. Of interest to Jaco Pastorius fans, George recently posted interviews with drummer Lenny White and Japanese photographer Shigeru Uchiyama at his website, both of whom speak about their interactions with Jaco. (Shigeru also contributed many photographs to my book.)

Fifty Years Ago Today—July 19, 1971

On July 19, 1971, Weather Report began a weeklong stand at the Jazz Workshop in Boston. Aside from the June appearance at Penn State, these were Weather Report’s first public performances in the United States. Club gigs like this—in which the band performed two or three sets a night, several nights in a row—would be typical of Weather Report’s early years until college campuses began dominating their itinerary midway through 1973.

Interestingly, the advanced publicity and billing for the band’s appearance favored Joe Zawinul. For instance, the Boston Globe described the band as “Weather Report (Joe Zawinul),” and the Boston Herald promoted Weather Report with a photograph of Zawinul, under which the caption read:

Joe Zawinul, composer of “Bitches Brew” [he composed “Pharaoh’s Dance,” not “Bitches Brew”] and “Mercy, Mercy” and for years featured with Cannonball Adderly [sic], has teamed up with Wayne Shorter, formerly with Miles Davis to form the jazz group called “Weather Report.” Thy [sic] will be appearing at the Jazz Workshop tomorrow through July 25.

I think the reason for this is that Zawinul hired Sid Bernstein to manage him before forming Weather Report, after which Bernstein also took on the band. Back in those days, Billboard ran a year-end supplement called “Talent In Action,” which contained an encyclopedic list of U.S. recording artists who appeared on one or more of the Billboard charts during the previous year. Each entry included the artist’s recordings, awards, significant personal appearances, booking agent, and personal manager. In the December 1971 issue, Bernstein was listed as Joe’s personal manager as well as Weather Report’s. (Wayne Shorter and Miroslav Vitous were not listed at all.) I believe Joe’s relationship with Bernstein predated Weather Report to when Joe was mulling over options on the heels of recording his eponymous album in August 1970.

Here’s another interesting thing about those “Talent In Action Listings”: Weather Report was described as an instrumental group of four members (no permanent percussionist?), whereas Zawinul was described as a vocal and instrumental group of five. But back to the Jazz Workshop…

Although heavy rains saturated the Boston area on Monday’s opening night, the club was filled to capacity. It was a small room with a bar at one end and a stage at the other, with rows of chairs separating the two. As it was located about a half mile from the Berklee School of Music, many of those in attendance were Berklee students. One student in those days, James Bogard, described how the club catered to the school’s pupils:

Berklee students with school ID were allowed to attend performances on a limited, standby basis, usually on week nights. Even though the drinking age in Massachusetts was 21 at the time, the club allowed underaged Berklee students to sit along the north wall of the room and order soft drinks. There was a cover charge [for Weather Report it was $2.50 on weeknights, $3:00 on Friday and Saturday] and a two-drink minimum per set, but this was a wonderful experience to hear these musicians we were studying and wanted to emulate. Though most of us knew we would never achieve that goal, it was very inspirational and awe inspiring to hear these masters in person.

By this time, there would have been a buzz around Berklee regarding Weather Report. Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, and Miroslav Vitous would all have been familiar names to the students (and faculty). Weather Report’s debut album had already been released, and it had received write-ups from the major music magazines, including Down Beat. Consequently, the Boston Globe observed that “the music was greeted with an awed respect by the audience of young musicians,” adding, “It is obvious from this week’s attendances that the young have found a new sound that they like.”

A curious thing about this gig is that Barbara Burton played percussion with the band. She had participated in the studio sessions that produced Weather Report’s eponymous album, but most of her tracks weren’t used after Zawinul invited Airto Moreira to overdub additional percussion parts. After Airto refused Zawinul’s entreaties to join the band, he recommended a friend and elder from Brazil, Dom Um Romão, who joined Weather Report for its first gig at Penn State University, as well as their subsequent trip to Europe in late June. But for reasons unknown, he was replaced by Burton for this gig.

When I interviewed Burton, she remembered the Boston gig as being at Paul’s Mall, an understandable error considering that the Jazz Workshop and Paul’s Mall were separate rooms in the same building, and run by the same folks. They operated concurrently, with Paul’s Mall booking less jazz-oriented acts. (The music rooms were in the basement; the building also housed a restaurant and movie theater upstairs.) Burton also described the gig as taking place before Weather Report’s debut album was released, which is another misconception. We know that Burton played these specific gigs on these dates because a contemporaneous account in the Boston Globe cites her by name, “augmenting the drum parts with horns, scrapers, bells, and assorted gear.”

While Burton enjoyed playing with the band, there were some circumstances that gave her pause. For instance, she claims to have not gotten paid. “I remember the night we played in Boston for one week, and it was so odd,” she told me. “My husband, the last night, overheard Joe and the club owner discussing how they were not going to pay the band. And they didn’t.”

“The club didn’t pay the band?” I asked.

“They didn’t pay us,” Burton reiterated.

“Now, who didn’t pay you? Joe?”

“Joe didn’t pay us for a week’s work.”

“What was his rationale for that?”

“Well, he said that the club owner said that they didn’t make enough money, but the place was packed every night.”

Indeed, according to the Boston Globe and Boston Herald, the club was full throughout Weather Report’s stand. A band that didn’t get paid wasn’t going to be a band for very long, so there must be more to this story. Just speculating, but perhaps the full-fare audience was not so large, with Berklee students filling out the crowd at a reduced rate, leading to a shortfall at the box office. In any event, Burton’s Weather Report career didn’t go any further. After Boston, Dom Um returned, remaining a part of the band until late 1974.

As for the performances themselves, Ernie Santosuosso wrote in the Boston Globe:

The first impression one gets of [Weather Report’s] sound is percussion, lots of it. . . . However, when you rivet your ears to the music, you discover that the group is playing three-tiered sound, certainly not simplistic, but impressive in its execution.

On one level, Zawinul operates almost unobtrusively, through undeterred. Shorter, either on soprano or tenor, plays at a higher and more discernible stage with impeccable phrasing, all the more surprising in this semi-free [Mouzon] and Barbara Burton form setting. Vitous, add still another layer of sound to this intricate kaleidoscope. Zawinul hardly dominates. If there is any one musician who commands the spotlight, it is Shorter, but his artistry and the role his reeds fill command the attention.

The Boston Herald‘s Charles Guiliano noted there was “none of the Adderley funkiness” that one might expect Zawinul to bring to the table. Instead, he described the music as closely paralleling Miles Davis’s current group. He went on to say, “The playing of Zawinul and Shorter was always perfectly wedded. Zawinul drives the group with ethereal effects on his Fender Rhodes electric piano. He gets a wide range of textures beyond the limits of conventional keyboard, and at times tontally complements Shorter’s reed work. Wayne Shorter played in a tasteful, almost sparing manner which generated its own drive.”

Guiliano wasn’t too impressed with the drumming and percussion, choosing to focus much of his review on Joe. “Zawinul can swing when he wants to,” Guiliano wrote. “He also writes some brilliant melodies and these are the elements that are most resolved about Weather Report. At this point, some of the free-form experiments just don’t hold water. Zawinul seems to know what he wants in his head but is having trouble relating it within the group, where the content is diluted in individual interpretations.”

From that description, it seems clear that he was under the impression that this was Zawinul’s band, doesn’t it?

Fifty Years Ago Today—July 5, 1971: The Concert That Wasn’t

So fresh on the heels of performing at the Third International Music Forum in early July, Weather Report flew back to the States for a Monday afternoon concert at the Newport Jazz Festival on July 5. As I described in my book, Elegant People, this was viewed by Columbia Records as a sort of coming-out party for Weather Report, whose debut album had been released a month or so earlier. Also on the bill were Miles Davis and the British progressive rock outfit, Soft Machine.

With that lineup, this would have been a great concert to attend, right? Except it got canceled after gate-crashers stormed the stage on Saturday night, destroying the equipment on stage and causing a near-riot. As a result, the City of Newport put an end to that year’s festival, which was forced to relocate to New York City the next year after it became persona non grata in Rhode Island. Later in the year, Weather Report participated in a benefit concert to help recoup some of the losses incurred by George Wein, the festival’s organizer.

Associated Press report about the cancelation of the 1971 Newport Jazz Festival.