Widely regarded as Austria's most famous jazz musician, Zawinul underwent a classical training at the Vienna Conservatoire. As a young man he demonstrated the breadth of his talent, playing in various broadcasting and studio bands before emigrating to the United States in the late 1950s.
He came to international attention in Cannonball Adderley's quintet, with which he played throughout the 1960s, bringing to the group both his distinctive, gospelly, piano style, and several outstanding compositions including the hit 'Mercy, Mercy, Mercy'. His playing and writing drew him to the attention of Miles Davis, and he played on several albums including 'A Silent Way', for which he composed the title track.
In 1970, he co-founded Weather Report with saxophonist Wayne Shorter, and the band toured widely for the next fifteen years. During that time they had major hits, including 'Birdland', and featured such sidemen as bassist Jaco Pastorius and drummers Alphonse Mouzon, Alex Acuna and Peter Erskine. From the late 1980s he led his own fusion band, the Zawinul Syndicate, in which his powerful keyboard playing had a prominent role.