What Joe Zawinul could teach us today

September 13, 2007

It feels strangely affecting that searching for the term “jazz” on Google News usually yields either a concert listing of classic tunes or the just-posted obituary of one of the field’s pioneers. From percussionist Max Roach to, most recently, keyboardist Joe Zawinul, we are biding farewell, one after the other, to the shapers of jazz’s former glory days. And, in the 21st century, few names seem to be stepping up to move the field forward.

The fade-out of this art form has, however, been the talk of cocktail parties since some of these greats were at their most visible a few decades ago—partially because a turn away from the original, defining sounds of jazz has almost always been perceived as a betrayal against the art form. Joe Zawinul, for example, who began incorporating electric piano into the jazz sound in the 1960s, encountered protests from jazz conservatives (especially during a time when rock was bulldozing over the once-hip form of music). Instead of turning away from the pop music revolution, Zawinul chose to use its accessible sounds to his advantage. In the 1970s he earned legions of fans with his group, Weather Report.

“The band stormed concert halls at a time when rock had driven mainstream jazz to the margins,” Elizabeth Blair said on NPR yesterday.

I might be stating the obvious, but it’s exactly this kind of accessibility of jazz that should be Zawinul’s legacy. After all, what today’s withering jazz scene needs in order to catch its breath is to not stumble on the same fear of fusion as Zawinul’s one-time critics.

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