November 2007

Fradley Garner By
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Specs Powell, 85, percussionist, pianist, vibraphonist.
New York, NY, June 5, 1922—San Marcos (San Diego), CA, September 15, 2007.

Gordon "Specs Powell, who beat a distinguished path from a drum stool, started by doubling on piano in his own Swing era combo, and later became one of the first black musicians hired by a national radio network.

CBS took the drummer on in 1943 for the Ed Sullivan Show, where he backed Billie Holiday and other stars, continuing in later broadcasts with the Mildred Bailey (CBS) Orchestra.

He died September 15, at 85, of complications from heart and kidney disease.

Born June 5, 1922, in New York, Gordon Powell was hired at 17 by the pianist and bandleader Edgar Hayes, in 1939. He made his first recordings with the violinist Eddie South in 1939-1940, replaced O'Neil Spencer in the John Kirby Sextet in 1941-1942, and worked with Benny Carter. Benny Goodman recorded a V-Disc trio with Powell and Teddy Wilson in 1944, and Red Norvo hired him in 1944-1945.

With CBS for nearly 30 years, from 1943, Powell "made sure he worked harder than anyone else, his son, Ted Smith, told the Associated Press. "He was always prepared, he went to all of his sessions—he called them dates—in suits, impeccably dressed.

During his radio days, Powell remained a fixture in the 52nd Street clubs, where he modulated smoothly to the new bebop. He was in the driver's seat for a famous 1945 Red Norvo swing and bop recording session featuring Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Flip Phillips.

The discographer Tom Lord lists 141 career recording sessions with many great names of the period. He retired from music in late 1972, moved to the Virgin Islands and later to the San Diego area.

"It was never a bad day for him, Ted Smith said, "and if it was, he wasn't going to let it show.

Joe Zawinul, 75, pianist/keyboardist, organist, accordionist, composer, bandleader.
Vienna, Austria, July 7, 1932—Sept. 11, 2007.

"Who knows what happens next. When you get to be 75, you have lived most of your life. You got to be realistic. Whatever happens, what the good Lord has in mind, I'm here, man.

So ended the cover story in the May Down Beat. On September 11, Joe Zawinul was gone, victim of a highly aggressive skin cancer. The keyboardist and co-leader of the rockbound fusion band Weather Report, a resident of Malibu, California, had been hospitalized in his native Vienna since August.

Born July 7, 1932, Josef Erich Zawinul was classically trained on piano and an established jazz performer in Austria. He immigrated to America on a Berklee scholarship in 1959 and was hired by Maynard Ferguson, Slide Hampton and Dinah Washington before making an international name in many appearances and recordings with Cannonball Adderley from 1961 to 1970.

He composed "Mercy, Mercy, Mercy, the band's biggest hit, which won a Grammy award for best instrumental performance. Miles Davis, getting into the heavily amplified groove, heard Zawinul's solo on electric piano and hired him. In 1969, Davis recorded the album In a Silent Way, title song by the keyboardist, which followed him for the rest of his career. Zawinul also composed and played on the next Davis album, Bitches Brew.

Like bebop before it, fusion was scorned by hardcore traditional jazz fans, but it appealed to the younger rock-minded. The keyboardist and Davis's tenor saxophonist, Wayne Shorter, left in December 1970 to form Weather Report, a synthesizer-driven combo with lights and loudness that toured at home and abroad for 15 years and made many recordings, including Mysterious Traveller, Black Market, and Sweetnighter.

And with "Birdland (not George Shearing's "Lullaby of Birdland ), on Weather Report's 1977 album, Heavy Weather, Zawinul had again fathered a hit that was recorded by Maynard Ferguson, Buddy Rich and other jazz bands.

When Zawinul and Shorter parted ways in 1985, the keyboardist struck out on his own with a battery of synthesizers before forming his own group, finally dubbed Zawinul Syndicate. The band was heavily ethnic African; the leader invented the korg-PePe, an electronic instrument with a bassoon-like mouthpiece and buttons like an accordion.

A favorite on the festival circuit, the group was cheered at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival and on the Old Stage of Denmark's venerable Royal Theatre. A leading daily headlined its Zawinul obituary: "Han swingede Fanden et øre af (He swung an ear off the Devil).

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