The Band

Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter had first met and become friends in 1959 while they were playing in Maynard Ferguson’s Big Band. Zawinul went on to play with Cannonball Adderley’s group in the 1960s, while Shorter joined Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and then, in 1964, Miles Davis’ second great quintet. During this decade, both men made names for themselves as being among the best composers in jazz.

Zawinul later joined Shorter in contributing to the initial fusion music recordings of Miles Davis, and both men were part of the studio groups that recorded the key Davis albums In a Silent Way (1969) and Bitches Brew (1970). Weather Report was initially formed to explore a more impressionistic and individualistic music (or, as Zawinul put it, “away from all that eight bars shit and then you go to the bridge…”).

There’s some dispute over how Weather Report initially formed. According to Zawinul, it began when he and Shorter recruited another Miles Davis associate, the classically trained Czech-born bass player Miroslav Vitouš, who had previously played with each of them separately (as well as with Herbie Mann, Bob Brookmeyer, Stan Getz, and Chick Corea). According to Vitouš himself, it was he and Shorter who actually founded Weather Report, with Shorter bringing in Zawinul afterwards. Whichever story is true, it was those three musicians – all composers – who formed the initial core of the project.

To complete the band, Zawinul, Shorter and Vitouš brought in former McCoy Tyner drummer Alphonse Mouzon and began recording their debut album while looking for a full-time auxiliary percussionist. The initial recruits were session percussion player Don Alias and symphony orchestra percussionist Barbara Burton. During recording, Alias quarreled with Zawinul (allegedly due to Zawinul being too dictatorial over the percussion approach) and the innovative Brazilian percussionist Airto Moreira (yet another Davis alumnus) was brought in to complete the record. Guitarist John McLaughlin was also invited to join the group, but decided to pursue his solo career, instead.

Weather Report’s debut album Weather Report featured a softer sound than would be the case in later years, predominantly using acoustic bass, with Shorter exclusively playing soprano saxophone. It built on the avant-garde experiments which Zawinul and Shorter had pioneered with Miles Davis on Bitches Brew, including an avoidance of head-and-chorus composition in favor of continuous rhythm and movement. DownBeat magazine described the album as “music beyond category”.

In 1972, Weather Report released its second album, I Sing the Body Electric. The first side featured new studio recordings, while the second side was taken from live recordings of a concert in Tokyo, featuring the full-band lineup of Zawinul, Shorter, Vitouš, Eric Gravatt, and Dom Um Romão (and later available in full as the 1972 Japan-only double album Live in Tokyo).[6] The studio side used extended versions of the band including various guest performers, suggesting that Weather Report was not necessarily an integral jazz band, but might possibly work as an expandable project set up to realise the music of its three composers. The album also featured Zawinul’s first use of a synthesizer (an instrument with which he would become synonymous within jazz) and of sound effects.

I Sing the Body Electric also showed the first signs of a shift in the balance of control within the band, away from the more collective approach of the debut album. During the following year, this tendency would develop further.

On 1973’s Sweetnighter, Weather Report began to abandon the primarily acoustic group improvisation format, and the band started to take a new direction. Primarily at Zawinul’s instigation, Weather Report became more jazz funk- and groove-oriented, drawing more heavily on R&B influences and dense electric keyboard work while adding more structure to both the prewritten and the improvisational sections.

Gravatt took his replacement in the studio sessions badly and quit the band at the end of recording, moving to Minneapolis to join the band Natural Life. Many years later, Zawinul paid tribute to Gravatt’s skills and stated that he had been the finest of the band’s “pure jazz” drummers as well as being “from the jazz side… my favorite of them all”. With Gravatt gone and former drummer Herschel Dwellingham unavailable for touring, former Sly & the Family Stone drummer Greg Errico played on the Sweetnighter tour, but did not stay with the band afterwards.

At this point, Vitouš and Zawinul found themselves at creative loggerheads, since the former preferred Weather Report’s original approach and the latter wished to continue further along the road to funk. Retrospectively, Zawinul accused Vitouš of being unable to play funk convincingly (something which Greg Errico corroborated) and claimed that he had not provided enough music for the band. Vitouš countered that he had in fact brought in compositions, but that Zawinul had been unable to play them. Vitouš has also accused Zawinul of having been “a first-class manipulator” primarily interested in commercial success. When Shorter sided with Zawinul, the original three-man partnership broke down acrimoniously and Vitouš left Weather Report, moving on to an illustrious career leading his own band and winning respect as a composer. His final contribution to Weather Report was to play bass on a single track, which appeared on the band’s 1974 album Mysterious Traveller (“American Tango”, which he had co-written with Zawinul).

Vitouš’ departure marked the end of the first phase of Weather Report and the shift of overall creative dominance of the band to Josef Zawinul, although Shorter remained an integral, influential, and vital part of the project. Vitouš has subsequently accused both Zawinul and Shorter of having used foul play to edge him out of the band, to deny the scale of his contribution to Weather Report’s history and creative approach, and to cheat him out of remuneration.

Vitouš’ replacement was the Philadelphian electric bass guitarist Alphonso Johnson (formerly a sideman for the pop-fusion player Chuck Mangione). Recruited by Shorter, Johnson was a supple player more than capable of providing the funk element which Zawinul desired. He was also an early advocate of the Chapman Stick, which he can be heard playing on some of the live Weather Report recordings of the period.

According to Zawinul, new drummer Ishmael Wilburn apparently “lost heart” on tour (despite performing well in the studio). To shore up the music, the band hired another drummer, Darryl Brown, to play alongside him. At the end of the tour, both Wilburn and Brown left the band (as did Dom Um Romão) and Weather Report was, once again, drummerless.

For the next set of studio sessions, Weather Report added a new Brazilian percussionist (Alyrio Lima) and a new drummer – Chuck Bazemore of The Delfonics.

The new album, Tale Spinnin’, was released in 1975. It was the first Weather Report album to feature a consistent rhythm section (rather than a varied set of drummers, percussionists, and bass players) since their debut. The album also made further strides in using technological improvements in synthesizers, even making use of the gigantic studio-based TONTO array.

During the same year, Shorter also recorded Native Dancer under his own name (with the Brazilian composer and vocalist Milton Nascimento). Tale Spinnin’ won the DownBeat best album award for 1975 (the third Weather Report album to do so) and Native Dancer was the runner-up.

1976’s Black Market album was perhaps the most rock-oriented work which the group had produced to date. Weather Report’s music had evolved further from open-ended funk jams into more melody-oriented, concise forms, which also offered a greater mass-market appeal. Zawinul further consolidated his use of keyboard synthesizers, while Shorter experimented with an early form of wind synthesizer, the Lyricon.

However, the album was recorded during yet another period of change for the group, with multiple personnel shuffles. Although Alyrio Lima played percussion on one track, he was replaced during the sessions by Don Alias (his first appearance with the group since the debut album debacle) and by Alex Acuña (a Peruvian drummer and conga player based in Las Vegas, who had played with Elvis Presley and Ike Turner, among others). Alphonso Johnson was also worn out from the strain put on the rhythm by the band’s frequent changes of drummer. During a break in activity halfway through the recording of Black Market, Johnson opted to leave Weather Report to play with the Billy Cobham/George Duke Band (which featured a young John Scofield on guitar).

Prior to his departure, Johnson played on all but two of the new album’s tracks. His replacement was Jaco Pastorius, a virtuoso fretless bass guitarist from Florida, who had been in touch with Zawinul for several years and who came in to play on “Cannon Ball” and his own composition “Barbary Coast”. Zawinul and Shorter had assumed that new drummer Chester Thompson would be departing alongside his friend Johnson and, for the second set of sessions, they replaced him (on Pastorius’ recommendation) with the former Mahavishnu Orchestra drummer Narada Michael Walden. Although Walden played on several album tracks, he ultimately proved unsuitable. Thompson returned for the final Black Market sessions, but left again after failing to gel as a rhythm section with Pastorius (whose style was much busier than that of Johnson). Thompson subsequently joined Genesis as their touring drummer.

Black Market continued Weather Report’s ongoing run of success, selling well and being the fourth of the band’s albums to win the album of the year award from DownBeat magazine. For the subsequent tour, Alex Acuña moved from percussion to the drum kit, and Don Alias was replaced by the young Puerto Rican percussionist Manolo Badrena, who had previously played with various Latin rock bands and with Art Blakey. The band made a very well-received appearance in July at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1976, which was filmed for future release.

The recruitment of Jaco Pastorius helped to push Weather Report to the height of its popularity. Already a rising star in his own right, Pastorius brought a very musical, melodic quality to the bass. He could play muscular, lightning-fast groove lines influenced by R&B or funk, as well as demonstrating an extraordinary solo control of tone and string harmonics, often sounding more like a horn player. Pastorius was also a multi-instrumentalist (contributing drums, steel pan, and mandocello to the latest recording sessions), a gifted composer (eventually responsible for some signature Weather Report pieces such as “Teen Town” and “Three Views of a Secret”), and a useful production foil for Zawinul due to his knowledge of recording studios and techniques. Finally, Pastorius’ stagecraft and aggressive showmanship helped the band to bring in a new audience.

The band’s next album was 1977’s acclaimed Heavy Weather, which proved to be the band’s most successful recording in terms of sales, while still retaining wide critical acclaim. It contained the band’s biggest hit, the propulsive and danceable “Birdland” (highlighting Pastorius’ singing bass lines and Zawinul’s synthesized ensemble brass), which became a pop hit and later became a jazz standard. Weather Report appeared on the Burt Sugarman-produced series The Midnight Special, performing both “Birdland” and “Teen Town”. Heavy Weather dominated Weather Report’s disc awards, including their last DownBeat Album of the Year award.

During this period, Pastorius’ strong professional connection with Joni Mitchell (for whom he played bass throughout the latter half of the 1970s) led to another musical connection. Over the next few years, Mitchell hired the Weather Report line-up en masse (although without Zawinul in each case) to play on her studio albums Don Juan’s Reckless Daughter (1977) and Mingus (1979).

During August 1978 the band joined Maurice White’s vanity label ARC at Columbia. At the time they were once again without either a full-time drummer and percussionist, with Alex Acuña having returned to Las Vegas for a career as a studio musician and Manolo Badrena having been fired for “non-musical reasons”. Shorter had been focusing most of his attention and compositional ideas into his solo work, while Zawinul was sketching out ideas for a solo album of his own, which involved moving away from a raw group sound in favor of constructing a far more orchestrated and experimental studio-based recording with multiple overdubs. However, Weather Report’s contract and work schedule required another album, so Zawinul’s solo work was absorbed into what became Weather Report’s eighth album, Mr. Gone (1978).

The studio sessions made use of a variety of drummers – Pastorius played the kit on two tracks and further contributions came from Tony Williams, Steve Gadd, and Peter Erskine (the latter an ex-Stan Kenton/Maynard Ferguson drummer recruited to the project by Pastorius). Erskine became a full member of the band for the next tour and remained with Weather Report until 1982. The album also featured guest appearances from Deniece Williams and Earth Wind and Fire leader Maurice White.

The album rose to No. 1 on the Billboard Jazz Albums chart.

Notoriously, Mr. Gone (1978) received only a one-star review rating from DownBeat after a string of group releases which had all pulled a five-star rating. The group arranged for a rebuttal interview with the magazine to defend their efforts. Zawinul and Pastorius were defiant in their responses to the interviewer, Shorter more philosophical, and Erskine the most reticent of the four.

By the late ’70s, Weather Report was a quartet of Zawinul, Shorter, Pastorius, and Erskine, and (for the first time) had dispensed with the auxiliary percussionist role, which had been integral since the band’s inception. Instead, all four members doubled on percussion at various points in live performances. Zawinul commented that this sleeker, less crowded sound provided more listening range and made the music less chaotic now that the band were focusing more on melody and harmony.

The larger scale and multimedia staging of the band’s tours (complete with stagehands, laser and film projections) began to take on the kind of rock-star proportions mostly unknown in jazz circles. The 1979 double live album 8:30 (which won that year’s Best Jazz Fusion Performance) was recorded on the Mr. Gone tour and captured the direct power and energy of this lineup of Weather Report. Zawinul later described this lineup as “one of the greatest bands of all time! That band was a hummer!”

Between March 2 and 4, 1979, Weather Report traveled to Havana, Cuba, to participate in the historic Havana Jam festival, a break in mutual Cuban/American political hostilities, which had American artists such as Stephen Stills, the CBS Jazz All-Stars, Bonnie Bramlett, Kris Kristofferson, Rita Coolidge, and Billy Joel play alongside Cuban artists such as Irakere, Pacho Alonso, Tata Güines, and Orquesta Aragón. Another featured performance was by the Trio of Doom (a short-lived teaming of Pastorius with John McLaughlin and Tony Williams). Weather Report’s performance featured in Havana Jam ’79, Ernesto Juan Castellanos’ documentary celebrating the event.

At the beginning of 1980, Pastorius recruited hand-drummer Robert Thomas Jr. (a fellow Floridan, with whom he had jammed previously) into the band. Thomas featured on the 1980 album Night Passage. A tighter and more traditional recording than previous releases, the record featured a more prominent role for Shorter, a strong element of bebop, and a nod to jazz’s golden age via a high-speed cover of Duke Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (showing off Zawinul’s pioneering and ever-increasing ability to create synthetic big-band sounds on his synthesizers).

By now, Pastorius was displaying signs of the mental instability and substance abuse problems that ultimately wrecked his career; and the close relationship he’d previously shared with Zawinul was becoming strained as Zawinul grew tired of Pastorius’ showmanship onstage (beginning to feel that it detracted from the music). Towards the end of the year, Pastorius began working on his long-delayed second solo album (Word of Mouth) (1981) in New York, while Zawinul worked on new Weather Report material in California.

Weather Report’s next album Weather Report (1982) – their second eponymous release following their 1971 debut – was recorded in 1981, although it was not released for another year. Zawinul’s dominance as instrumentalist and composer (as well as group director) was even more pronounced on this album. Much of the band’s music was increasingly written out rather than improvised. In the event, Pastorius spent more of his creative attention on the Word of Mouth project: his only writing for the Weather Report album being his contribution to a single, group-composed piece. Shorter (who only contributed one whole composition to the 1982 album beyond group-written work) was already taking a more philosophical approach. He later commented, “for a long time in Weather Report, I abstained. I elected not to do things.”

Erskine’s own commitment to Word of Mouth (and a subsequent summer commitment to Steps Ahead) meant that he, too, had to be replaced, while Robert Thomas Jr., was simply dismissed. Reduced to a duo, and with tour commitments looming, Zawinul and Shorter were obliged to quickly assemble a new band.

On the recommendation of Michał Urbaniak, Zawinul and Shorter recruited 23-year-old drummer Omar Hakim, a talented session player and multi-instrumentalist, who had played with a variety of musicians including Mike Mainieri, David Bowie, and Carly Simon. Hakim was immediately entrusted with recruiting the rest of the new lineup. Having failed to secure Marcus Miller as bass guitarist, he selected Victor Bailey (a recent graduate from the Berklee College of Music, with whom Hakim had played while backing Miriam Makeba). Hakim also recruited percussion/concertina player José Rossy, with whom he had worked in Labelle.

The new Weather Report went straight onto tour. The music developed on tour was later recorded for the 1983 album Procession, which showed the band beginning to make something of a return to the “world music” approach which it had pioneered in the mid-1970s and featured a cameo appearance from The Manhattan Transfer.

Continuing with the same lineup, Weather Report recorded the Domino Theory album in 1984, with Hakim stepping into Jaco Pastorius’ old role as Zawinul’s co-producer. The album was Weather Report’s first album to employ drum machines and samplers (the Emulator), deepening the band’s involvement with cutting-edge music technology, and also featured a guest vocal from Carl Anderson.

Percussionist and singer Mino Cinélu replaced Rossy in the spring of 1984 and appeared on the band’s video release Live in Japan (reissued on DVD in 2007). The same lineup played on 1985’s Sportin’ Life album, which included a cover of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” and appearances by singers Bobby McFerrin and Carl Anderson. In keeping with Zawinul’s technological curiosity, the album heralded the arrival of MIDI, which allowed him to rapidly and inexpensively write, demonstrate, and record music via a set of synthesizers.

Both Zawinul and Shorter were beginning to realise that the refreshing nature of other projects was more satisfying than Weather Report work, and both generally felt that the band had run its course.

In February 1986, the San Diego Union-Tribune announced that Shorter had left the band to concentrate on solo work. Having reluctantly agreed with Shorter that he would no longer use the band name, Zawinul then ended Weather Report. The final album under the Weather Report name, This is This!, was released in June 1986 and fulfilled the band’s contract with Columbia Records. Two of its tracks featured guitar work from Carlos Santana, and it also marked the return of Peter Erskine on drums, with Hakim only appearing on one track.

Having split the band, Zawinul promptly attempted to reform it – after a fashion – as Weather Update. For this project, he reunited with recent Weather Report alumni Victor Bailey, Mino Cinélu, and Peter Erskine, but replaced Shorter with guitarist John Scofield. This lineup was short-lived, with Los Angeles session guitarist Steve Khan and former Weather Report percussionist Robert Thomas Jr. replacing Scofield and Cinélu prior to live appearances. Weather Update toured in 1986 and 1987 before Zawinul dissolved the band. From 1988 onwards, Zawinul went on to enjoy a successful nineteen-year career leading the world music/jazz ensemble The Zawinul Syndicate (which has continued, following Zawinul’s death, as The Syndicate).

Rather than form another collective band, Wayne Shorter concentrated on his solo career and on work as a bandleader, which continued until his passing on March 2, 2023.

In spite of the band’s enduring popularity, a Weather Report reunion never occurred. The nearest that the band ever came to reuniting was when Zawinul and Shorter both played live with Miles Davis on July 10, 1991, in Paris (the only time when Zawinul is known to have shared a live stage with Davis). A projected mid-’90s reunion CD for Verve never materialized; according to Zawinul, disappointing sales for Shorter’s 1995 CD High Life may have played a part in ending the idea.

Six of the band’s members have since died. Zawinul himself died on September 11, 2007, in Vienna from skin cancer (Merkel cell carcinoma). He was predeceased by mid-period bass player Jaco Pastorius, who died on September 21, 1987, following a fatal beating in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Pastorius’ successor on bass guitar, Victor Bailey, died on November 11, 2016 (apparently from complications from Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis). Alphonse Mouzon, the first drummer, died on December 25, 2016, from cardiac arrest after neuroendocrine cancer. Dom Um Romão, the group’s drummer from 1971 to 1974, died in 2005 aged 79. Wayne Shorter died on March 2, 2023, at the age of 89.