Joe Zawinul: The Somewhat Long Lost Interview about Drummers and Weather Report

Have a seat, kids, I have a story to tell you, about a once young freelance music journalist and drummer who blew the biggest writing assignment of his life and has been plagued by it since 1993…

/ /

On January 20, 1993, I borrowed by roommate’s truck and boom box and headed over the Santa Monica mountains from the San Fernando Valley to the Malibu residence of one Joseph Zawinul. I’d been sent there by Modern Drummer to interview Zawinul for a column called “A Different View,” where non-drummers were interviewed about their take on us and what they like, don’t like, wish we’d do, etc.

He greeted me with his stern but friendly demeanor, and we sat down in his living room for about two hours. I pressed “Record” on the big-ass boom box, and he spoke. Actually, no, he composed. He wrote the interview. I was just there to push buttons and check my list of twenty questions. It was intimidating as hell to be in the presence of this jazz legend, co-founder of Weather Report, and basically the most respected keyboard player on the planet. That’s all. No pressure. Nope.

So Zawinul talked and I listened. And I learned. His insights into drummers and what he liked/didn’t like were a lesson in how to play and how to be. He covered a wide range of time, from when he first arrived in America in 1959 to the present (1993), and it was probably the most informative two hours of my entire musical life.

We concluded the interview with him saying that he liked my questions (the very few that I felt needed asking after such an in-depth and informative monolog), and I told him I’d let him know when the article would be out. Those were the last words we ever spoke, and something he said earlier in the interview would haunt me for decades. “If you have too much respect, it can get in the way…”

When I got home and finished transcribing the interview, I realized that I had a few more questions that needed clarifying, but I felt extremely awkward about contacting him again. It had taken a few months to even line the interview up, and he mentioned that he was leaving for Chicago to see an ailing family member, so the last thing I felt like doing was (in my mind) bothering him. I’d wait a little while to it… which turned into days, then weeks, then months… and then never.

I blew it. Never finished the article. I’d co-written a previous piece for Modern Drummer about Stanley Clarke with my writing partner and mentor, Adam Ward Seligman, and I’d been given the Zawinul assignment because Adam’s health had taken a bad turn for a time. I was new and green writer and was completely overwhelmed by the enormity of the assignment, as well as the fear of following up. So, I tucked my tail and buried myself away with no solution in sight.

Fast forward to, I believe 2015, the NAMM show in Anaheim, California. I was there doing research about my books, The Elements of Rhythm (Vols. I & II), and I passed by the Modern Drummer booth. Several times, actually, because as had usually been the case since 1993, the haunting thought of not having completed the assignment would often come up out of nowhere. This time is showed up right in front of the booth, so I walked away, took a very deep breath, and approached Adam Budofsky. I told him the story and asked if I could send him what I’d written anyway to see if they might still be interested in using it. He said, “Sure,” so I went home and did that.

I basically wanted to know if I could print it in my (this) blog if they weren’t interested. It didn’t feel right to just put it out there without asking them first. I don’t know if Adam ever received my email, and I never heard anything back, so I retreated to my fail cave and figured I was just going to have to live with this fail for the rest of my life.

Until July 12, 2021. I did a Google search for “Joe Zawinul” and “Modern Drummer,” and BOOM! There it was: Joe Zawinul, A Different View, Modern Drummer, April 1997, published four years after I’d failed to deliver, written by my late friend, Adam Ward Seligman. Adam passed away in 1999, and we’d lost touch, so I never knew the piece was finally completed by the guy it had originally been assigned to. Oddly, things worked out, which leads us to… The Somewhat Long Lost Interview with Joe Zawinul about Drummers and Weather Report.

I finally feel like I can now ethically share Joe Zawinul’s words and insights and have wanted to forever. It’s only taken twenty-nine years, but you’ll get a different view, that’s for sure. I’ve written Modern Drummer a couple of times since to inquire but never heard back. Since there was no contract and no money paid, I figure I’ve done as much as I can to clear the proper way forward to share my afternoon with Joe Zawinul.

Throughout 2020, Covid 19 and the upside-down state of the world pretty much re-wrote reality, and certainly we’ve all had to face our share of fear. I’m breathing freely tonight as I hit these keys, and I’m hoping that getting this rather delayed piece out into the world will remind us to be brave, don’t run and hide, and lean into whatever needs solving. I never thought I’d find a solution, so, there’s a lesson in there somewhere.

So enjoy, but be careful about what you try to bite off and chew in the future. I think smaller bites might have been a much better idea…

/ /

                                                     A Different View: Joe Zawinul

                                                          by David Aldridge, 1993

            “When you talk about drummers, it’s very important who plays bass, because a drummer alone is nothing…when he plays alone, he doesn’t exist. It’s that team between a bass player and the drummer. If you get that, you got a band.”

                                                                        – Josef Zawinul

                                                                       * * * * *

            To the Austrian born keyboardist and co-founder of Weather Report, a drummer is synergy, the sum of the rhythm section parts. Zawinul likes a drummer who is forward leaning, someone who knows how to pump a musical wave to the end, without interrupting the curl. This concept is more than a descriptive notion; it is the Zawinul foundation of pulse. He calls it rolling energy

            Since 1960, Josef Zawinul has worked with American jazz drummers in bands led by Maynard Ferguson, Dinah Washington, Cannonball Adderley and Miles Davis. In 1970, Zawinul, saxophonist Wayne Shorter and bassist Miroslav Vitous put the words “Weather Report” into the jazz world’s vocabulary. After a brief continuance with “Weather Update,” Zawinul formed his own Zawinul Syndicate, which is currently enjoying the success of their latest Columbia/Sony release, Lost Tribes. With a musical career spanning more than thirty years, Zawinul has noticed a thing or two about drummers. Perhaps that’s because he considers himself one.

            “I myself was always into drums. I played drums [and other instruments] in an octet in Austria,” says Zawinul. “We played the history of jazz as it moved up the Mississippi River, from Jellyroll Morton to Art Blakey, Horace Silver, Lenny Tristano. I played drums during the swing period.”

            Zawinul came to America in 1959 to attend Berklee College of Music. Through jazz drummer Jake Hannah, (“one of the finest drummers”), he was introduced to and auditioned for Maynard Ferguson. “At that time in Maynard’s band was a guy named Frankie Dunlop, an incredible drummer,” recalls Zawinul. “Playing with Frankie for a few months was really an experience. He was a wonderful time-keeper, he had some slickness which I very seldom heard in big band drummers. [Frankie] was not rigid, he had some really slick ways of bringing in and out a motif.”

            A two-year gig with singer Dinah Washington followed. “During these twenty-three months, we must have had six drummers… Dinah was very peculiar. Lex Humphries was in the band, a really good drummer. Next one we had was Al Jones, used to play with Dizzy. [Al] was a student of the drums, and he studied with Sonny Igoe. He was the best drummer we had, he was perfect for that trio. Beautiful taste and timing, great technique. Taste is the thing, especially when you play in a trio behind a singer. A drummer has a very important job.”

            In March 1961, Zawinul joined Cannonball Adderley’s Quintet and began a four-year tenure with Louis Hayes. He describes meeting Hayes as “another level of forwardness. I always liked that…rolling energy, a driving factor. He had a God-gifted right hand, a phenomenal cymbal beat.”

            “It depends a lot on who the bass player is also. You have some combinations, they don’t work well,” Zawinul explains. “Like in everything. But that combination, Sam Jones [bass player] and Louis Hayes, was one of the premier rhythm duos I think of anytime in jazz music. It became a very good rhythm section.”

            “I felt a feeling, really good. It had such a groove, really, really easy to play. It was in a way, uncomplicated. When [Louis] went to the cymbal, whatever he did on the side, never took away that cymbal consciousness. This is that forward driving. He played 16th notes in such a short way, that not only didn’t it interrupt the pulse, it was the pulse.

            “It was the most incredible cymbal beat. He always put those little hiccups in, and it never left the flow. Later on I will tell you about some drummers, they were very great, but whenever they played a transition, the groove, not the GROOVE, but the FEELING [and the] the SOUND of the groove stopped. When you have that simmering and the band is cooking in a simple way, you are accompanying a soloist, it’s very important to be uninterruptive yet very creative, and that takes a hell of an amount of concentration and invention.

            “I think Louis Hayes was a real young masterful drummer in that sense… plus he had phenomenal memory, which gave him freedom to really improvise nicely and play with the tune. I learned a lot from Louis Hayes.”

            Roy McCurdy followed Hayes in the Adderley drum chair, after leaving Sonny Rollins. “Roy really developed into an extraordinary band player. He was a very good soloist. A lot of drummers, you listen to drummers today, so chop orientated, it’s a theme and variation in music, it’s always something related to the song, not to just show off what you have learned. And what Roy did very well, he could play an extension [of the song].”

            “With Cannonball, Louis Hayes, the concept was, usually during tunes we take fours, you know the good old thing, a rudiment type of thing, all the bands had the same thing, play fours with the drummers. But we give everybody a little shot so they don’t feel bad. Therefore I believe let the drummer play a long solo right in the beginning of the set…you know what I’m saying?

            “Drummers are funny, when I say animals I mean a species, it’s a different type of species, you know, it’s just a thing, it the hardest instrument there is. But Roy was able to play long solos with the melody context, he had another kind of concept, he was more sitting on it, which in the beginning made it not that easy, because we were really BAM! Forward leaning, very forward leaning, but we got accustomed to it, we had then, after Sam, we had a bass player, Herbie Lewis, for a little while.     

            “Because the keyboard player is usually real flexible. I always learned in my music life – therefore I was never worried about who I was playing with, as long as the bass player and the drummer know how to play together, I’m alright, and the basic concept is some urgency. The urgency for me is, it means, the cymbal beat, which is way on top, and the distance to the beginning of the beat, to the BAP!  that backbeat is at the very last moment. That’s very difficult to describe in words – that distance has gotta be like a slingshot effect, between when he hits the cymbal, or any other instrument on the drums, that Boom! that beat, has gotta BAM! it cannot be Bot, it’d gotta be Boom!, have a little anticipation, not even early, it’s just the way you [smacks his hand on the table] slide into it, you know?

            “And that back beat if there one on like say on the snare drum, making it easy to understand, that snare drum beat if it’s too early, you ain’t got nothing, it sounds like all boxed in. Most drummers today play like that, therefore the music is hardly swinging. In my case, I couldn’t play like that. But if I hear a drummer or a bass player I really really like, then I say ‘Hey, get the bass player, or drummer’, you know what I’m saying?

            “So, the problem we had after Sam and Louis Hayes left, was not that the drummer was not on the same level, it was a little different style, a little more sitting on the backbeat sometimes, and it really depended – we had to go through a few bass players. During my tenure with Cannonball Adderley after that, six years was with Sam Jones – I was with him nine and a half years – when we had Herbie Lewis, then we had, we tried out Reggie Walkman, then we had Victor Gaskin, then we had Walter Booker. The last year and a half or so while I was in the band, we had Walter Booker. What happened with all these combinations, I think, the best Roy did was with Walter Booker, Walter Booker is a bass player – you must know about him – because of the person he is, the character, he got this communication talent, he knows how to communicate, he knows how to get around, probably play well with most people. And THAT’S what you got, whenever you speak about drummers, you GOT to have the bass player in there. Then after that we did this thing with Miles Davis, and Lenny White at that time was in Mile’s house a lot, and I liked the way he played…

            “I remember I was in Boston playing with Cannonball, and this kid comes up to me and he’s really, really young, maybe about sixteen or something, and we were working Storyville, and he said he wanted to play something with me. So we went down into Storyville in the afternoon, and this was Tony Williams, man, and it was incredible. And I said,’ Wow, watch out.’ I told Louis [Hayes] about it, ‘You gotta hear this kid’, and Louis said, ‘I heard him, he’s alright’, and I knew already then he was really, really, good. He scared people, Tony, he scared people.

            “I didn’t play much, I only made this record with Miles. But then when Wayne and me started Weather Report, I heard this guy, Alphonse Mouzon. Somebody told me that the guy was tremendous sight-reader. Plus he could really swing, he played with Chubby Checker, he had a good background, a good solid background. And he played jazz, so, we checked him out. He played in a band at the Apollo Theater where I was playing my last gig with Cannonball. So Wayne and me decided we’d get Al Mouzon, and Al Mouzon was in the band for a little while, and he was very good.

            “I don’t really remember that much how he played, and I’ll tell you why. I didn’t have that much time to really pay attention, because the band was in the beginning, that I thought it was my job – and it worked out to be that way – to hold it together. So I was really concentrating on focusing rather than concentrating on a rhythmc-melodic concept where I kind of keep the balls continuous, going. Not meaning that I’m all the time playing, but there’s always these accents. I just yesterday listened to something what we did with Alphonse, man it was good, we were really smoking.

            “But it really came to light when we got Eric Gravatt. Eric Gravette was my favorite drummer. He just had everything, man, he had everything, he could swing, he had the most incredible energy, he was PLAY-ing, man it was a dynamo. He was very small, he played a small drum kit.

            “I found Eric when we were playing with Cannonball in Washington D.C., and he played with another band. I couldn’t believe this guy how he played. Tony was already gone from Mile’s band, so I got him. I called Miles and said, ‘Man you gotta check out Eric Gravatt,’ and Eric went with all his drums to the house, and Miles didn’t even let him in! But he called him to come up there. It was all organized that he comes up there and plays for Miles, and Miles didn’t even let him in.

            “Anyhow, this was a master musician. He was a writer. But sometimes you get somebody so good he will do anything. He wanted to shape the music. In many ways it was good, and in some ways it was not. At times, where there was supposed to be a crescendo, just for the love of it he would decrescendo, and it kind of drove shit around. So after a while, we said, ‘Maybe, we know this man is great, maybe we try somebody else.’ It’s better sometimes you got somebody who is not that good, but he is totally in the flow of the music. And unfortunately that happened. I can tell you what happened. When we recorded our third album, Sweetnighter, I had a song which was called “Boogie Woogie Waltz.” And I played with wah-wah, it was a groove tune, off our third album. Our first album was a fill out, we never played a show together, we went into the studio and recorded the album in three days, the initial “Weather Report” album, just feeling what everybody would do with a few lines. 

            “The second album was a little more involved, we did half of it in Japan, live. For this album, there was a double volume album out of this whole entire first concert we did there. I felt at that time, ‘Okay, now this is enough we have done now, swinging around now, looking for each other, looking for things, very nice musical, but I want to now put more of this rhythm and blues feeling. By that time, I’d been playing eleven, twelve years in America, with some of the greatest people. So we decided to put this tune “Boogie-Woogie Waltz.” For that beat, I wanted to have a funk drummer, it was only for the record. Eric had a small bass drum… and Eric was so hurt by that, that he from that moment on, he become a rebel. And in many ways, it was something to think about because he was really, really good. But on the other hand, you need somebody who is helping you to make this shit happen, not to work against you. So, this was that.

            “So after that, we heard of a drummer in Philadelphia, I think he was related to Wayne, a second cousin, Ishmael Wilburn. A hell of a drummer. He had that big foot beat, like an Al Foster type he had that good beat. He really played his ass off, a great drummer. But the moment he was in front of a lot of people, he couldn’t do it. He was great in studios, he was great at rehearsal and he was great in clubs, You playing in big studio, man – one time, he got so freaked – and Weather Report, started, after that record, we really started drawing – “Boogie Woogie Waltz,” we had a guy, a studio drummer, big fat dude, but he laid down the correct beat, “125th Street Congress” – it was beat, by the way, a lot of rap groups are using this soundtrack, “125th Street Congress” – and I put that beat together in 1972 or something like that, my old rhythm beats.

            “So, Wilburn couldn’t make it, so we got another guy from Cleveland [Leon “Ndugu” Chancellor]. For “Nubian Sundance,” I needed two drummers. So we took two drummers on the road. Heard Chuck Mangione’s bass player, Alphonso Johnson. We wanted a drummer who could really play well with him. Got Daryl Brown from Philly, plenty, plenty potential, he played with Ismael. Daryl Brown was a lighter player, played with Stanley Clarke. but we needed a second drummer. Daryl Brown is a brain surgeon now, he’s a bad dude, man.

/ /

            [At this point in the interview, we shifted the focus to each individual drummer, and Zawinul provided short backgrounds on them. I only asked him two questions, shown in italics, because he knew exactly what he wanted to say about each drummer.]

            Chester Thompson: “We auditioned Chester in L.A. When you’re a band leader, you’re a goddamn coach in an insane asylum, dealing with all those characters. Dom left and Alex became their percussion player. From Peru, great background, played in Puerto Rico, he could read, write, a phenomenal musician. Chester was a wonderful drummer, together with Al.

            “Chester was a perfectionist. We had all these time things, and between Chester and Alex, those two guys, it was really cooking. We played a type of forward rhythm and blues, very modern rhythm and blues, very forward moving.

            “Al Johnson left to join a group with George Duke. When Jaco joined, his style and Chester’s style of playing conflicted. So, I started looking again. Jaco and Chester couldn’t grove together. I heard something in Jaco’s playing that was necessary [for the band]. Sometimes you have to make those tragic decisions. It wasn’t the humanity, it was just a matter of beat, it was just the way they played together, it wasn’t lining up. But when Alex sat down at the drums, it lined up perfectly. So we had Alex playing drums, with Manalo Badrena on percussion. And that was a great band (Heavy Weather).

            Alex Acuna: “Alex had it. He had the folk music character and background which is one thing I put above everything, that folk music vibe. Coming from the mountains (outside of Lima), he had this whole great, great background, this music background. He played classical music, he knew how to do all that stuff. He came from the rich tradition of American jazz drummers, Philly Joe Jones, Elvin Jones. I think Elvin was his favorite. Then Tony, of course, so he somewhat was a conglomeration of all those different people, yet with his own touch to it. And he could swing, and he was powerful, very powerful.

Peter Erskine: “Going into the next section…maybe that was because he was very young and didn’t have the patience yet, and hadn’t learned how to pace himself, to be satisfied sometimes with just playing time, and play little things rather than play and then come back. If those intervals are too short, it hurts the music. And break is the correct word, because it breaks. Whoever said break, whoever found that word…that’s really on the nail, because that’s what it does, and there are very few guys who can do it – and Louis [Hayes] was one of them, and Eric [Gravatt] was one of them – that flow never stops. And in the beginning, that’s what we had to work on…because when you have a quartet, you gotta be really on with the feeling, the time, and he had all that, plenty feeling, plenty chops, he had the correct beat for our band, he had it, he was the right drummer for that particular time.

            Omar Hakim: “Michael Urbaniak recommended Omar Hakim. Omar said he wanted to play with Victor Bailey, and Jose Rossi (on percussion). Omar was not coming from the jazz tradition, so it was kind of hard for him to get that hump, that hump on the back, that forward leaning, he didn’t have that, but everything else what he had was so good that we [Shorter and Zawinul] just changed, we are very flexible. So we changed the music around to the needs of the talent we had. And it was considerable, the talent. Omar was an incredible drummer. He played with a lot of feeling, very intelligent.

            “I analyzed one time, I wrote this song, “Procession.” When I mix a record, I analyze every part, totally. That’s when you really learn about guys, how they’re thinking, what they’re thinking, how they interact with other things happening. That was one entire composition he actually played, it could almost stand by itself, it was so nice, always just a nice groove, it never left the groove, but what he played on the inside, like little snare things, the hi-hat…he was a composer on drums.

            “That’s one thing, for me, that’s the most important thing for the drummer, that a guy plays in the context of the music, but creates a part which can almost stand alone as a part. Not just a continuous [Zawinul sings a pulsing cymbal beat], you know what I’m saying?  It’s there all the time, you don’t never feel that the momentum leaves. Yet he played with some really intelligent things. That’s what for me the greatest virtue is, when the drummer, who can interact, reflect and compose while playing his instrument, and yet being the motorhead, the warhead as I call it. Everybody has the role of a warhead at times, and often I am the warhead to drive that whole thing. But you gotta have the right drummers, and we were very, very fortunate to have the opportunity to have people who want to play and want to grow, ’cause nobody knows it all.

            “The formation of Weather Update (a title used to please promoters) saw the return of Peter Erskine, playing Yamaha electronic drums, improved about four times from the last Weather Report, and he was very, very good then. He had played for a lot of different people, learned his ways around.

1987-The Syndicate, CBS/SONY: I heard Cornell Rochester with Jamal Adeen played bass with Gerald Veasley. You need really two to get one, because the drummer can only play as good as the bass player allows him, and vice versa.

            “Cornell was totally individualistic, could really groove, really great, he could really play. He was a very respectful guy, when they are too much like that, something is amiss. If you have too much respect, it can get in the way. He was one of the greatest soloist I’ve ever heard on the drums, but too holding back…to find that real in the middle, that golden thing, it’s hard.

            Mike Baker: “A tremendous drummer, an excellent singer, ’cause I like when somebody can sing. He could sing and was an excellent drummer, but if there’s anything drummers should pay attention to, it’s not to bash too much on cymbals. They take up a lot of sound, cover up a lot, and by him playing hard on the cymbals, the cymbals washed over into open microphones.”

            Rodney Holmes: “Rodney is from the Bronx, 25 years old, I think he got it all, the finest technician we ever had, most precision drummer we ever had. Plus he can swing, he’s gotta a great feel. I think our band has improved since he got in the band.

            “Gerald Veasley and Mike were both great, yet they couldn’t find that little thing. But Gerald and Cornell had that. The second part of the drummer is the bass player, and the third part of the drummer is the percussion player, and they all gotta make up one.

            Who’s taken your music the furthest?

            “I think Rodney, maybe, of all the guys he might be able to go do that…because he has a technique which is so similar to Dennis Chambers. It’s very difficult to say. Some people react very well, and non-reacting is just as good sometimes. I don’t like necessarily people who when you do something they immediately want to do something also. That bothered me with Omar Hakim, because he had this feeling, obviously, that he always needed to play. And as great as a drummer as he was, and as great a musician he was playing the drums, this is also the difference. Some people are the greatest drummers and some people are the greatest musicians playing the instrument.

            “To take it further, Omar really tried hard to be a member of the band and to be a self-promoter, and that’s a hell of a job. You want to use the band as a stepping-stone, but on the other hand, you sincerely want to be a member of the band and help the band, which he did. But often, I thought he played way too much.

            “So when you asked me who took the music the furthest, it was always the guys who played the least. ’cause Wayne and me are highly rhythmic, and the we play off each other, it was always very rhythmic. So we were already percussion players, but then when you go into a transition, and I want to play some harmonic stuff, often I have to lift my hands up, because Omar was there all the time.”

            Do you use extensively written out charts?

            “Well sometimes, yeah. I’d say…it depends also because we changed so many times the concept. I think when Alex was playing in the band, he allowed the most to happen by not being all over the place. By being in there, and just playing with the music and off the music. Never self-promoting, that’s a great danger. For that period, [he] was great. Gravett was great in that other period, because he was so powerful as a musician, and the way he did his transitions.”


            In my original cassette tape transcription, I must have somehow missed Zawinul’s final reference to something when he said, “This and too busy, I cannot live with.” Whatever “this” was will remain mystery forever. But with those closing words, Zawinul paused, and I could tell our interview had some to a good ending point. I pressed “STOP” on the big-assed boom box and thanked Zawinul for his time.

            He walked me to the door, shook my hand, and complimented Adam Ward Seligman for being a gentleman. Apparently, Adam had been working on some writing project that took him into Zawinul’s studio a few years before, and he was the first journalist to learn of Weather Report’s breakup. But if I recall the conversation correctly, that news would be delayed until Ralph J. Gleason could formally write about it.

Zawinul had respect in his eyes for my friend Adam, who as I mentioned did go on to finish my ill-fated assignment. He was a true writing professional, and between the two us, I hope drummers and any musicians reading these two interviews can combine them to get a realistic picture of how Joe Zawinul viewed drummers, in a much simpler time and a far saner universe.


One thought on “Joe Zawinul: The Somewhat Long Lost Interview about Drummers and Weather Report

  1. Thomas Yarbrough January 15, 2023 / 9:05 pm

    this was really great, thanks

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s