As a child, he played piano, guitar and flute. He went to college in St. Louis where he discovered free jazz, before dropping out and moving to Manhattan. There he gave concerts in his small apartment, playing a variety of reeds, duck calls, tapes, etc; almost anything. In the mid 1980s he signed to the Elektra-Nonesuch label. Since then, he has released a very large number of records, usually putting out several each year.
Zorn's recorded output includes records by two bands of his own, Masada (a klezmer band playing music that is often described as Jewish jazz) and Naked City (an often aggressive mix of jazz, rock and grindcore). He has also worked with musicians like Bill Frisell, Derek Bailey, Fred Frith, Keiji Haino and Bill Laswell. He has written music for television and film, which has been collected in the ongoing Filmworks series of records on his Tzadik label. Some of these are jazz-based, others are classical.
He has also written several "game pieces", in which performers are allowed to improvise while following certain strucural rules. These works are in the main named after sports, and include Pool, Archery and Lacrosse, as well as Cobra.