John Zorn was born in New York City and learned piano, guitar and flute as a child. His family possessed broad musical tastes and he gained an appreciation of classical and world music from his mother, a professor of education, through his father, a hairdresser, was exposed to jazz, French chansons, and country music, and listened to his older brother's collection of doo-wop, and 1950s rock and roll. Zorn recalled an episode of his life, after buying a record by Mauricio Kagel in 1968 at the age of fifteen, that influenced his subsequent taste for experimental and avant-garde music:
Here we are: Kagel, "Improvisation Ajoutée." I bought this when I was about 15. Still marked: got it at Sam Goody in September, for 98 cents. And it's a really crazy piece, with the guys screaming and hooting, something that attracted me. I was over at my friend's house, and he really liked the Rolling Stones. And I just got this record, and I put it on and he looked at me like... who the hell are you? Are you out of your mind? And his mother was there, and she was like [puts palm on cheek] my God, take this off... and right then and there, I decided: this was the music.
As a teenager, Zorn played bass in a surf band. He studied music under Leonardo Balada. During these years, he taught himself about orchestration and counterpoint, by transcribing scores and using in his own compositions, a procedure of "plagiarizing, stealing, quoting, or whatever you can call it", of collage and transposition into his own world, that he has been using throughout his career.
Zorn picked up the saxophone after discovering Anthony Braxton's album For Alto (1969) while studying composition at Webster College (now Webster University) in St. Louis, Missouri, where he attended classes taught by Oliver Lake. While still at Webster, Zorn incorporated elements of free jazz, avant-garde and experimental music, film scores, performance art and the cartoon scores of Carl Stalling into his first recordings which were later released as First Recordings 1973 (1995).
After dropping out of college, and following a stint on the West Coast, Zorn moved to Manhattan and gave concerts in his apartment and other small NY venues playing saxophone and a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, and other instruments. He founded the Theatre of Musical Optics, a performance art project, in 1975 and became a major participant in the fertile, avant-garde downtown music scene as a composer, performer and producer of music that challenges the confines of any single musical genre. Zorn later used the term 'Theatre of Musical Optics' as the publishing company for his compositions.
Zorn's early major compositions included several "game pieces" or "game theories", which he describes as "complex systems harnessing improvisers in flexible compositional formats," and which "involved strict rules, role playing, prompters with flashcards, all in the name of melding structure and improvisation in a seamless fashion." These works, in which groups of performers improvise while following structural rules, were often named after sports, and include Baseball (1976), Lacrosse (1976), Dominoes (1977), Curling (1977), Golf (1977), Hockey (1978), Cricket (1978), Fencing (1978), Pool (1979), and Archery (1979) which was recorded at Martin Bisi's studio. His most enduring "game piece" is Cobra (1984) which Zorn first released on album in 1987 and released in subsequent versions in 1992, 1994 and 2002, and has revisited in performance many times. These compositions use cues, rules, and strategies to combine and contrast improvisations in various, sometimes extreme, ways, enlisting the talents of many downtown musicians in large ensembles for performances of these pieces. Zorn discusses his history and the musical philosophy behind his early works in the book Talking Music by William Duckworth .
In 1981, Zorn was "blowing duck calls in buckets of water at fringe venues," which included 8BC, Roulette, Chandelier, and Zorn's own clubhouse, the Saint. Zorn's first solo saxophone (and duck call) recordings were originally released in two volumes as The Classic Guide to Strategy in 1983 and 1986 on the Lumina label. Zorn's early small group improvisations are documented on Locus Solus (1983) which featured Zorn with various combinations of other improvisers including Christian Marclay, Arto Lindsay, Wayne Horvitz, Ikue Mori, and Anton Fier. Ganryu Island featured a series of duets by Zorn with Satoh Michihiro on shamisen, which received limited release on the Yukon label in 1984. Zorn has subsequently released these recordings as CDs on Tzadik making them more widely available than the original vinyl pressings.
Zorn's breakthrough recording was 1985's The Big Gundown: John Zorn Plays the Music of Ennio Morricone, where Zorn offered radical arrangements of the Roman composer's themes from movies including The Big Gundown (1966), Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), and Once Upon a Time in America (1984). The Big Gundown was endorsed by Morricone who is quoted as saying "This is a record that has fresh, good and intelligent ideas. It is realization on a high level, a work done by a maestro with great science-fantasy and creativity... Many people have done versions of my pieces, but no one has done them like this". Zorn's versions of Morricone's compositions incorporated elements of traditional Japanese music, soul jazz, and other diverse musical genres. Zorn's 15th Anniversary re-release of the album featured additional explorations of Morricone's work.
He first released the composition 'Godard', a tribute to French film-maker Jean-Luc Godard whose jump-cut technique inspired Zorn's compositional approach, on the French tribute album The Godard Fans: Godard Ca Vous Chante? in 1986. Zorn followed this with his second major-label release Spillane in 1987 composed of three different tribute compositions. The title track featured text by Arto Lindsay set to an array of sonic film noir references, 'Two-Lane Highway' a blues-based form to highlight the guitar of Albert Collins and 'Forbidden Fruit', Zorn's tribute to a Japanese film star, performed by the Kronos Quartet. Further exploration of film noir themes were recorded for radio plays and released by Zorn as The Bribe: variations and extensions on Spillane (1998). 'Godard' and 'Spillane' were re-released as a single CD, Godard/Spillane, on Tzadik in 1999.
These pieces are described by Zorn as "file-card compositions", a method of combining composition and improvisation in which Zorn would write down a description of what he wanted on file-cards and arrange them to form the piece. Zorn described the process in 2003. "I write in moments, in disparate sound blocks, so I find it convenient to store these events on filing cards so they can be sorted and ordered with minimum effort. Pacing is essential. If you move too fast, people tend to stop hearing the individual moments as complete in themselves and more as elements of a sort of cloud effect... I worked 10 to 12 hours a day for a week, just orchestrating these file cards. It was an intense process - one I don't want to go through again."
Zorn's "file-card" method of organizing sound blocks into an overall structure largely depended on the musicians he chose, the way they interpreted what was written on the file cards, and their relationship with Zorn. "I'm not going to sit in some ivory tower and pass my scores down to the players." said Zorn, "I have to be there with them, and that's why I started playing saxophone, so that I could meet musicians. I still feel that I have to earn a player's trust before they can play my music. At the end of the day, I want players to say: this was fun - it was a lot of fucking work, and it's one of the hardest things I've ever done, but it was worth the effort."