First coming to prominence with saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, Zawinul went on to play with trumpeter Miles Davis, and to become one of the creators of jazz fusion, an innovative musical genre that combined jazz with elements of rock and world music. Later, he co-founded the groups Weather Report and The Zawinul Syndicate. He pioneered the use of electric piano and synthesizer, and was named "Best Electric Keyboardist" twenty-eight times by the readers of Down Beat magazine.
A number of prominent musical artists have honored Zawinul with compositions, including Brian Eno's instrumental "Zawinul/Lava", John McLaughlin's instrumental "Jozy", Warren Cuccurullo's "Hey Zawinul", Bob Baldwin's "Joe Zawinul", Chucho Valdés's "Zawinul's Mambo", Biréli Lagrène's instrumental "Josef" and Toninho Horta's instrumental "Balada para Zawinul".
Zawinul was born and grew up in Landstraße, Vienna. Classically trained at the Konservatorium Wien, Zawinul played in various broadcasting and studio bands before emigrating to the U.S. in 1959 on a music scholarship at Berklee School of Music in Boston.
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 Zawinul was apparently dismissed from the Ferguson band for wanting too much control over personnel decisions. Zawinul then toured and recorded with singer Dinah Washington from 1959 to 1961.
In 1991, Zawinul was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Music from Berklee College of Music.