Gallivan's first professional experience came at the age of 15 while in Miami. He played early on with Eduardo Chavez, Art Mooney and Charlie Spivak, as well as with the Modern Jazz Orchestra. He attended the University of Miami and then moved to New York in 1961, where he had a big band with Donald Byrd that featured Eric Dolphy, Pepper Adams, Don Ellis, Johnny Coles, Julius Watkins, and Duke Pearson before returning to Miami the next year. There he conducted for the TV show Music U.S.A. and led the band A Train of Thought. In the 1960s he became interested in electronic music and musique concrète, and began meeting with Vladimir Ussachevsky. Robert Moog had Gallivan help test his Moog drum system, which Gallivan used on the 1974 Gil Evans album There Comes a Time.
In addition to his two years with Evans, Gallivan worked throughout the 1970s (and beyond) with saxophonist Charles Austin and three years with Larry Young in their group Love Cry Want. (“Love Cry Want” is also the title of the group's 1972 recording, released on CD in 1997 on Gallivan's label Newjazz.com.) Gallivan moved to Europe in 1976, living in various major cities across the Continent through 1989. While in London he was considered as a replacement for Robert Wyatt in the band Soft Machine, but did not end up joining the group, instead collaborating with its former members Elton Dean and Hugh Hopper. They worked together with Gallivan and Keith Tippett as a quartet for the 1976-77 albums Cruel But Fair and Mercy Dash. While living in Frankfurt in the 1980s, Gallivan worked with Albert Mangelsdorff, Heinz Sauer, and Christoph Lauer.
After returning to the U.S. in 1989, Gallivan was based out of Hawaii for much of the 1990s. During this time, he recorded in London the critically acclaimed CD Innocence, featuring Elton Dean, Evan Parker, and a host of other luminaries of London's avant-garde music scene. He performed three years in a row at Ronnie Scott's Club in London with Brian Cuomo on piano and Jackie Ryan on vocals. During this time, the trio released two CDs, one live and one in-studio. Joe Gallivan also released other two CDs in collaboration with Brian Cuomo, one a duet, and one a trio featuring saxophonist Elton Dean.
In 1998, Gallivan recorded two award-winning CDs (Essential Recordings of the Year for The Wire Magazine in London), Electric/Electronic/Electric, in the trio Powerfield, with keyboardist Pat Thomas and guitarist Gary Smith, and Gallivan/Smith, in duet with Gary Smith. The same year, he recorded in Barcelona a critically acclaimed CD "Des del silenci" with the octet Ektal Ensemble, including Barcelona trumpetist Benet Palet and percussionist Marti Perramon, plus the Gnawan quartet Nas Marrakech featuring vocalist Abdel-Jahlil Koddsi.
In 2000, Joe Gallivan's ensemble The Rainforest Initiative (with saxophonists Evan Parker, Elton Dean, Charles Austin, and John McMinn, bassist Marcio Mattos, and Hawaiian chanters Lei'ohu Ryder and Mahalani Po'epo'e) headlined at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City. This performance was recorded and broadcast for three years after on Black Entertainment Network.
During the 2000s, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD reviewed (favorably) many of Joe Gallivan's recordings.
Gallivan continues to perform and record in Europe and in the United States. His recent works include Vienna, a live recording in trio (also called Rainforest Initiative) with bassist Paul Rogers and classical Indian violinist Anupriya, and LA on which he plays synthesizer with saxophonist/flautist Benn Clatworthy.
In 2011 Joe Gallivan, the sole surviving member of the 1970s group Love Cry Want, recorded a new Love Cry Want CD with guitarist Tom McNalley and bassist Michelle Webb for release on the Indigo with Stars label. As of 2013, he still performs regularly, usually with organist Shea Marshall.
Gallivan has four children: Monica Gallivan Couch, Jessica Gallivan, Dakota Gallivan and Max Gallivan.
- Modern Jazz Orchestra featuring Kenny Drew (Addess) (re-issued on CD in 2001 by V.S.O.P. Records)
- At Last (Man Made) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan (released as CD in 2000)
- Mindscapes (Spitball) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan (released as CD in 2000)
- Expressions to the Winds (Spitball) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan (also CD in 2000)
- Cruel But Fair (Compendium) with Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, Keith Tippet, Joe Gallivan (reissued on CD by One Way)
- Peace on Earth (Compendium) with Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan, John McMinn, Carmen Lundy, David Deluca, Al Richardson, Marvis Martin London
- Intercontinental Express with Joe Gallivan, Charles Austin, Kenny Wheeler, Nick Evans, Jeff Green, Elton Dean, Ronnie Scott, Ian Hamer, Roy Babbington, Toni Cook, Stephen Wick.
- The Cheque Is in the Mail (Ogun) Kenny Wheeler, Elton Dean, Joe Gallivan
- Home from Home (Ogun) Charles Austin, Roy Babbington, Joe Gallivan
- Mercy Dash (Atmospheres) Hugh Hopper, Elton Dean, Keith Tippet, Joe Gallivan (reissued on CD by Culture Press)
- There Comes a Time (RCA) Gil Evans and his Orchestra
- And Around (Colin) Jean Schwarz, Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan
- Surroundings (Celia) Jean Schwarz, Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan
- Miami (Atmosphere) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan
- The New Orchestra (Hannibal) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan, Ryo Kawasaki, Clive Stevens, Peter Ponzol, George Bishop, Gene Golden, Sabu Morales, Wendell Hayes, Tadashi Yasunaga
- Voices (Hannibal) Joe Gallivan, Charles Austin, John McMinn, Earl Lloyd
- Supply and Demand (Rykodisc) Dagmar Krause, Richard Thompson, John Harle, Danny Thompson, Joe Gallivan
- Mysterious Planet (Hannibal) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan, John McMinn, Nelson Padron, Earl Lloyd
- Prism (Vinyl) Peter Ponzol, Abbey Rader, Joe Gallivan
- Innocence (Cadence) Joe Gallivan with Guy Barker, Elton Dean, Claude Deppa, Jim Dvorak, Marcio Mattos, Neil Metcalf, Evan Parker, Gerard Presencer, Paul Rutherford, Ashley Slater
- Night Vision (Newjazz.com) Brian Cuomo, Joe Gallivan
- The Origin of Man (Newjazz.com) Elton Dean, Brian Cuomo, Joe Gallivan
- Surrender (newjazz.com) Jackie Ryan, Brian Cuomo, Joe Gallivan
- Love Cry Want (newjazz.com) Larry Young, Joe Gallivan, Nicholas
- Orchestral Meditations ( newjazz.com) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan, John McMinn
- Timeless (newjazz.com) Charles Austin, Joe Gallivan, John McMinn, Gene Argel, Brian Cuomo, Hector Serrano
- Guitars on Mars (Virgin) Larry Young, Nicholas, Joe Gallivan
- Wiretapper (November 1998), Powerfield
- Wiretapper (August 1999) Powerfield
- Des del silenci (Afro-Blue) Ektal Ensemble
- Electronic/Electric/Electronic (Paratactile) Powerfield (Joe Gallivan, Gary Smith, Pat Thomas)
- Joe Gallivan/Gary Smith (Paratactile) Joe Gallivan, Gary Smith
- Live at Ronnie Scott's (Ronnie Scott's) Joe Gallivan, Jackie Ryan, Brian Cuomo
- Powerfield (2006) Powerfield (Joe Gallivan, Gary Smith, Pat Thomas)
- Vienna (2007) Rainforest Initiative (Joe Gallivan, Paul Rogers, Anupriya)
- LA (2010) Joe Gallivan, Benn Clatworthy
- Neon Lighthouse 84 (2010) Joe Gallivan, Tony Moore (aka P.Y. Caplin)
- Love Cry Want (2011) Joe Gallivan, Tom McNalley, Michelle Webb
1977 Radio France: Two sessions with Elton Dean, Keith Tippett and Hugh Hopper
1977 Danish Radio: Live at Club Montmartre (the most famous jazz club in Copenhagen)
1977 Radio Bremen: Live at Stadt Theatre in Bremen
1977 Radio France: Recorded broadcast with Charles Austin
1977 Chateau Vallon Festival in Toulon, France: Intercontinental Express Big Band
1978 Espace Cardin: Live broadcast with Charles Austin and big band from a theatre in Paris
1980 Radio France: two broadcasts with French composer Jean Schwarz and Charles Austin
1981 France Musique: Live broadcast
1982 France Musique: Live broadcast with Peter Ponzol
1983 Hessischer Rundfunk Jazz Ensemble broadcast
1985 BBC Radio 3: with Elton Dean
1985 Hessischer Rundfunk Jazz Ensemble broadcast
1986 Hessischer Rundfunk Jazz Ensemble broadcast with John Schroeder
1986 BBC Radio 3: Soldiers of the Road Big Band
1986 BBC Radio 3: with John Corbett
1987 BBC Radio 3: duo with Evan Parker
1987 Public TV, Miami, Florida: One hour show with Charles Austin
1987 France Musique with Nicholas
1992 BBC Radio 1: Soldiers of the Road Big Band at the London Jazz Festival
1992 BBC Radio 1: Quartet with Paul Rutherford, Jim Dvorak, Marcio Mattos
2000 BBC Radio 3: Powerfield (Joe Gallivan, Gary Smith, Pat Thomas)
2000 to present Black Entertainment Network is broadcasting the Rainforest Initiative taped at the Bell Atlantic Jazz Festival in New York City
2001 ORF radio (Vienna): Ektal Ensemble at Festival Schnittpunkte
2003 ORF television (Vienna): Joe Gallivan and DJ Orgasmus
2004 Orange Internet Radio (Austria): Rainforest 21