Born in 1954 in New York, NY; father was a hairdresser, mother was a professor of education. Education: Attended Webster College, St. Louis, MO, 1971-73. Addresses: Record company--Avant, JFK Airport, Cargo Bldg. 80, Room 2A, Jamaica, NY 11430.

Saxophonist John Zorn's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink music jumps from style to style the way a television picture does when a deranged channel surfer has the remote control. Zorn views all musical styles as equal, and he thinks nothing of segueing from a quick-paced workout of an Ornette Coleman jazz tune to a pastiche of country and western riffs. "I'm making music by including everything that I've listened to," he explained in Rolling Stone. He further commented in the Detroit Metro Times, "All this music is on equal grounds and there's no high art and low art. Pop music has musicians creating lasting works of art and also schlock ... and the same thing in the classical world."

What unifies Zorn's work--his compositions range from evocative sound collages, to game pieces with rules for improvisation, to forays into bebop--is his interest in creating transitory situations that convey his various moods and philosophies. He combines, for example, the cerebral cool of modern jazz with the punk attitude of heavy metal. According to the Metro Times, Zorn tests his listeners to find out which people "like to run away" from his wide-open improvisatory situations, and "which are very docile," and "who tries very hard to get more control and power."

As a youngster Zorn was exposed to a diverse catalog of music. His mother, a professor of education, liked classical music and world ethnic recordings; his father, a hairdresser, listened to jazz, country and French chansons. Zorn's older brother was responsible for bringing doo wop and 1950s rock and roll into the house. Zorn grew up playing the piano. As a teenager, he developed a taste for modern composers. Fascinated by Stravinsky, Webern, Ives, Varese--as well as experimenters like Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel--he also took an interest in rock and, according to the Atlantic, "was listening to the Doors and playing bass in a surf band."

Zorn also became an avid fan of film music, especially of scores by Carl Stalling, who composed for Warner Bros. cartoons. Zorn points to film composition as the model for his own work. "A film composer has to know ... many styles ... in order to complement the images," he remarked in the Atlantic in 1991 "In that sense ... I think the great film composers are the precursors of what my generation is doing today."

In the early 1970s Zorn attended Webster College in St. Louis, Missouri, where he encountered the avant-garde jazz of musicians associated with the Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and St. Louis's Black Artists Group. Oliver Lake of the Black Artists Group taught at Webster and introduced Zorn to the music of Anthony Braxton, Roscoe Mitchell, Leo Smith, and others.

Influenced by Mitchell and Braxton, Zorn began to play the saxophone and introduce improvisation into his own works. By the mid- to late 1970s he was writing pieces in which improvisation was guided by a set of rules rather than a conventional score. His aim, he pointed out in the Nation, was to encourage musicians to make "the most possible decisions in the smallest amount of time, so that everything is jam-packed together and the music changes incredibly fast."

Zorn sought out new relationships among musicians and searched for fresh sounds. He practiced saxophone eight or more hours a day and experimented with duck calls, which he sometimes played under water. Many audiences were less than enchanted. In 1980 he complained to Down Beat that he was "tired of reading reviews where all they talk about is how I sound like a herd of elephants or whatever."

In the mid-1980s Zorn embarked on a series of sound collages that he made in the studio with a group of improvisatory musicians from New York City. These pieces "codified his quick cut improvisational approach," according to the New York Times, and in them Zorn introduced a programmatic element: telling stories through music. In the 1985 piece Godard, for example, Zorn clearly imitates the quick, cutting style of the celebrated French film director of the same name. The following year he rearranged the music of Italian film composer Ennio Morricone for The Big Gundown and was lauded by the Atlantic for creating a "perfect salute to [Morricone]." Perhaps the most successful of Zorn's sound collages, though, was 1987's Spillane, in which he "successfully evoked the testosterone-and-bile ethos" of pulp novelist Mickey Spillane, according to the Atlantic.

In each of Zorn's collage pieces, he was able to orchestrate remarkably abrupt shifts; his band would often stop on a dime then continue in a completely different style. "That's my whole trip in a nutshell, those really fast changes," he summed up in Down Beat in 1984. On Zorn's recordings, these changes sound as if they were created with the help of studio technology. But the artist is able to replicate his stops and starts in concert, accomplishing his musical feats via what Down Beat described as his "meticulous systems for organizing blocks of sound."

Two other factors are also important in executing Zorn's improvisatory changes. The first is the quality of the musicians with whom he works--the list of his collaborators reads like a Hall of Fame for the avant- garde. The second factor is the type of open communication Zorn encourages among his musicians. He observed in Down Beat, "There's a lot of eye contact and talking and direct communications among musicians in my pieces."

Zorn has always recognized the importance of his collaborators. He himself first came to public attention in the late 1970s playing with experimental rockabilly guitarist Eugene Chadbourne. Since the mid-1980s Zorn has been making music with keyboardist Wayne Horvitz and guitarists Bill Frisell and Fred Frith. In the late 1980s this group, along with drummer Joey Baron and singer Yamtatsuke Eye, eventually coalesced into the band Naked City. The Detroit Metro Times praised Naked City's music as "wild and adventuresome," while Rolling Stone found the group's self-titled debut album "Zorn's most user-friendly recording to date."

A man as hyperkinetic as Zorn could not be limited to one project, however. In 1987 he recorded a trio session with guitarist Frisell and trombonist George Lewis. The resulting album, News for Lulu, took an unconventional approach to bebop and caused some critics to question Zorn's musicianship. In 1989 he formed the band Spy vs. Spy and played the compositions of Ornette Coleman at what Down Beat called "insane" tempos. Critic Francis Davis of Atlantic complained that Spy vs. Spy ground "Coleman's music down into a feelingless, monochromatic din."

By the early 1990s, Zorn, who has revealed a fascination with Japan, was developing an audience in the country. In 1992 the Japanese Jazz label DIW released several of his solo albums and gave him his own label, Avant. He released More News For Lulu, another collection of bebop covers and in 1993 curated the Radical New Jewish Culture Festival at New York City's avant-garde Knitting Factory. That same year, the Knitting Factory presented a month-long celebration of Zorn's work.

Two more Naked City albums were released in 1994: Absinthe, which Down Beat called "not-quite-ambient nervous moon music," and Radio, whose "catalog of sounds and styles," was, according to Down Beat, a brilliant "mishmash of Mahavishnu mixes with imploding surf music, strained and strait cartoonish ditties, bent country and western riffs, and (of course) vocal and saxophonic screams." Showing no signs of settling on a particular musical genre, in 1995 Zorn released Masada, which, as a Rolling Stone reviewer noted, "finds the unlikely common ground between Jewish folk melodies and the open-ended improvisational ploys of Ornette Coleman."

by Jordan Wankoff

John Zorn's Career

Played around improvisational jazz scene in New York City's East Village, including at the Public Theater, the Kitchen, and the Ontological/Hysterical Theater, late 1970s; recorded "game" series of compositions, late 1970s- early 1980s; formed band with Wayne Horvitz, Bill Frisell, and Fred Frith to record The Big Gundown, Elektra/Nonesuch, 1987; band evolved into Naked City; Brooklyn Philharmonic performed Zorn's For Your Eyes Only at New Music America festival, 1989; curator of New Jewish Culture Festival, 1993.

Famous Works

Recent Updates

July 22, 2003: Zorn's albums, Unknown Masada--10th Anniversary, Volume 3, and Filmworks XIV: Hiding & Seeking, are released. Source: Yahoo! Shopping,, July 22, 2003; Yahoo! Shopping,, July 22, 2003.

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 16 years ago

Hello, thank you for all this precious indications about John Zorn's life. I'll just like to remarke, he's born in 1953, and not 1954. with best regards ccHess