Several artists have honored Zawinul with songs, notably Brian Eno's instrumental "Zawinul/Lava", John McLaughlin's instrumental "Jozy", Warren Cuccurullo's "Hey Zawinul", Bob Baldwin's "Joe Zawinul", and Biréli Lagrène's instrumental "Josef". Zawinul's playing style is often dominated by quirky melodic improvisations —both bebop, ethnic and pop sounding— combined with sparse but rhythmic playing of big-band sounding chords or bass lines. In Weather Report, he often employed a vocoder as well as pre-recorded sounds played (i.e. filtered and transposed) through a synthesizer, creating a very distinctive synthesis of jazz harmonics and "noise" ("using all the sounds the world generates").
Zawinul was born and grew up in Landstraße, as a son of the worker Josef Zawinul, in Vienna, Austria, where he went to school with the late former Austrian Federal President Thomas Klestil. His grandmother was a Hungarian Sinti ("Gypsy"), and his grandfather was from southern Moravia.
He went on to play with trumpeter Maynard Ferguson, where he first met Wayne Shorter after having had an influence in hiring him. Shorter left soon thereafter to play in Art Blakey's group and Josef was apparently dismissed from the Ferguson band for wanting to have too much control over personnel decisions. Zawinul then toured and recorded with singer Dinah Washington for two years.
In the late 1960s, Zawinul recorded with Miles Davis's studio band and helped create the sound of jazz fusion. He played on the album In a Silent Way, the title track of which he composed, and the landmark album Bitches Brew, for which he contributed the twenty-minute track, "Pharaoh's Dance", which occupied the whole of side one.
Zawinul is known to have played live with Davis only once, on July 10, 1991, in Paris, along with Wayne Shorter, shortly before Davis' death.
In 1970, Zawinul co-founded Weather Report with saxophonist and Davis alumnus Wayne Shorter. Their first two years emphasized a relatively open, group improvisation format not dissimilar to what Miles Davis was doing in a more rock oriented format. However, Josef started making changes with their third album, Sweetnighter, citing he was "tired of waiting for something to happen". Funk elements such as electric bass, wah-wah pedal, etc. started to be introduced in the band's sound. Music critics generally agree that their 4th album, Mysterious Traveller, was their true breakthrough album, capturing the classic Weather Report "sound" for the first time. The musical forms were now through composed similar to classical music, and the combination of jazz harmonies with 70's groove elements launched the band into its most successful period.
Zawinul with Weather Report in Toronto, 1977 Photo: Jean-Luc Ourlin
Their biggest commercial success came from his composition "Birdland", a 6-minute opus featured on Weather Report's 1977 album Heavy Weather, which peaked at number 30 on the Billboard pop albums chart. "Birdland" is one of the most recognizable jazz pieces of the 1970s, covered by many prominent artists from The Manhattan Transfer and Quincy Jones to Maynard Ferguson, the Buddy Rich Big Band, and Jefferson Starship. Even Weather Report's version received significant mainstream radio airplay — unusual for them — and served to convert many new fans to music which they may never have heard otherwise. The song won him three Grammys.
Weather Report was active until the mid 80s, with Zawinul and Shorter remaining the sole constant members through multiple personnel shifts. The group was notable for bringing to prominence pioneering fretless bass guitarist Jaco Pastorius, but also other musicians, such as Alphonso Johnson and Peter Erskine. Shorter and Zawinul had already gone separate ways, after the recording of their "final" Sportin' Life, when it was discovered that they had to do one more album in order to fulfill the CBS contract. This Is This! therefore became their final album. Shorter participated despite being busy leading his own group, and Peter Erskine was also brought in again for this record, ending up playing on most compositions.
Zawinul also wrote a symphony, called Stories of the Danube, which was commissioned by the Brucknerhaus, Linz. It was first performed as part of the Linzer Klangwolke (a large-scale open-air broadcast event), for the opening of the 1993 Bruckner Festival in Linz. In its seven movements, the symphony traces the course of the Danube from Donaueschingen through various countries ending at the Black Sea. It was recorded in 1995 by the Czech State Philharmonic Orchestra, Brno, conducted by Caspar Richter.