Born in Vienna in 1930, Friedrich Gulda started piano lessons at the age of seven. At 12 he enrolled in the Vienna Music Academy, and four years later he received first prize in the Geneva International Music Festival. In 1949 Gulda toured Europe and South America, earning international acclaim for his treatments of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven, and the following year he made a successful debut at Carnegie Hall. He also began recording for Decca around this time. Gulda was often grouped with Jörg Demus and Paul Badura-Skoda; all were young Viennese pianists oriented toward the heart of the city's musical tradition.
Gulda's involvement with jazz began after a 1951 encounter with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie following a performance with the Chicago Symphony. Five years later, Gulda played his first American jazz concert at New York's Birdland club, followed by a performance at the Newport Jazz Festival. After this, Gulda formed the Eurojazz Orchestra, a jazz combo and big band that drew from both jazz and classical compositions. In 1966, ten years after his Birdland appearance, Gulda organized a modern jazz competition in his native city. He was awarded the Vienna Academy's Beethoven Ring in 1970, but later returned it to protest what he regarded as a constricting educational system. A lone wolf to the end, Gulda developed a core of admirers but didn't have much interaction with adherents of the then-flourishing third stream trend of fusing classical and jazz.
Over time, as he began to pursue parallel careers and even combine classical and jazz elements within a single concert, there developed a perception of Gulda as an eccentric. He gained the dubious moniker of "terrorist pianist." This reputation intensified when the pianist abruptly called off major performances more than once. One such incident occurred in 1988, as organizers of a Salzburg music festival objected to Gulda's inclusion of jazz musician Joe Zawinul on the program; Gulda and Zawinul would collaborate often in the late 1980s and early 1990s. After faking his own death in 1999 and staging a party in honor of his own resurrection, Gulda experienced the real thing on January 27, 2000, after a heart attack in Vienna. Although he continued to perform classical music for his entire life, the bulk of Gulda's classical recordings date from the 1950s through the 1970s. He has been honored with inclusion in EMI's Great Pianists of the Twentieth Century series.