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Winston, George

George Winston

Composer, pianist, guitarist

Career Suffered Ups and Downs

Meeting Brought Unexpected Success

Founded Dancing Cat

Selected discography

Sources

George Winston is known as one of the great popu-larizers of minimalist, acoustic solo piano music. His best-selling albums Autumn, December, Winter Into Spring, Summer, Forests, and Plains feature pleasant, uncluttered melodies that invite the listener to relax. On the concert stage, however, Winston likes to get the audience tapping their toes to the boogie-woogie and stride piano pieces of such celebrated jazz pianists as Fats Waller and Doctor Longhair.

Although born in Michigan in 1949, Winston grew up elsewhere: Florida, Mississippi, and Montana. With each move his family made, the young boy was exposed to different musical styles. George enjoyed many kinds of music, including 1960s-brand top 40 and rock ‘n’ roll, especially Booker T. and the MG’s and the Ventures. At the age of eight he took piano lessons but quit playing when he decided that he preferred partaking in baseball with the other boys in his neighborhood. After a hiatus of several years Winston came back to the piano, inspired by Jimmy Wisner’s playing on “Asia Minor,” a song recorded with the group Kokomo, and Floyd Cramer’s tunes “On the Rebound” and “The Last Date.” Winston was also influenced by Vince Guaral-di’s music for the Peanuts animated television specials in 1965, Artie Butler’s piano on Joe Cocker’s hit song “Feelin’ Alright,” and Nicky Hoplins’s melodic piano work on guitarist Jeff Beck’s album Beck-Ola.

As a teenager Winston played rock ‘n’ roll organ and electric piano with a Miami band until 1971, when he discovered the music of Fats Waller. Waller’s stride, or acoustic, piano playing was a style of jazz developed in the 1920s as an offshoot of ragtime. In an interview with Down Beat writer Bill Milkowski, Winston described his discovery of stride: “I was playing electric piano at the time … when I heard Fats do ‘Got a Brand New Suit’ off one of the old RCA Vintage albums. I remember saying, ‘This is how I wanted to play all my life.’ I had seen a couple of stride players … but I wasn’t really interested in stride until I heard Fats. I literally left the electric stuff behind.” Winston immersed himself in playing stride piano and began to compose and arrange his own works, which included rhythm and blues, blues, rock, standards, and highly melodic solo piano pieces. In 1972 he recorded Ballads and Blues, his first solo piano album.

Career Suffered Ups and Downs

Discouraged by the music business and frustrated at not being able to reach his goal of playing stride piano like Fats Waller, Winston quit playing piano altogether in 1977. “For a while it just broke my heart,” he told Milkowski. “I knew I could never play like Fats, with that power and delicacy.” A few years later Winston’s interest was piqued by a tune called “Hey Now Baby,” by Roy Byrd, known as Professor Longhair. He again immersed himself in piano, this time playing Professor Longhair songs.

For the Record…

Born in 1949 in Hart, MI.

Worked as a deliveryman and at various odd jobs; played organ and electric piano with rock band in Miami, FL, 1967; released first solo piano album, Ballads and Blues, Windham Hill, 1972; founded Dancing Cat Productions, 1983; released series of “season” albums, Autumn,1980; Winter into Spring,1982; December,1982; Summer,1991; released Night Divides the Day. The Music of the Doors to popular acclaim, 2002.

Awards: Grammy Award, Best New Age Album for Forest,1995.

Addresses: Office—Dancing Cat Productions, P.O. Box 639, Santa Cruz, CA 95061, website: http://www.dancingcat.com. Website—George Winston Official Website: http://www.georgewinston.com.

Winston also learned to play the guitar and became interested in the works of several Hawaiian slack key guitarists. Slack key refers to the Hawaiian style of solo guitar finger picking using open tunings on a classical or steel-stringed guitar. It was Winston’s interest in guitar that led to the piano music for which he is best known. After hearing a Christmas album for solo guitar by John Fahey entitled The New Possibility, Winston started trying to work out some of Fahey’s tunes on his guitar. Then he began experimenting with the songs on the piano and developing his own highly melodic pieces.

Meeting Brought Unexpected Success

Winston’s musical career had already sputtered and taken odd turns. When he approached William Acker-man, guitarist and founder of Windham Hill, an independent record label, about re-releasing an out-of-print album by a Brazilian guitarist, he had no inkling of what was to happen. Ackerman and Winston met after a year of corresponding. “I originally intended to sign George as a guitarist. I was sleeping at his house in L.A., and he played me this slide-guitar stuff,” Ackerman told Rolling Stone’s Kurt Loder. “I said, ‘George, this is fabulous, we’re gonna do an album.’ He said, ‘Great.’ Then he said, ‘Hey do you mind if I play the piano a bit while you’re going to sleep?’”Ackerman was so impressed by Winston’s introspective, melodic piano compositions, that he changed his mind about the guitar album deal. Winston instead recorded the solo piano albums Autumn, Winter Into Spring, December, and Summer. He subsequently became the most popular artist on the Windham Hill label’s roster, with his records selling millions of copies.

Winston’s uncluttered solo piano music is never frenetic or aggressive and has become for many a prime acoustic example of what is popularly called new age space music. According to The New Age Music Guide, “Space music carries visions in its notes; it is transcendent inner and outer space music that opens, allows, and creates space. Though born of electronics, it is harmonic, beautiful, and emotionally compelling.” The Encyclopedia of Popular Music echoed this praise; “The sparse and delicate piano music of Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December gave a new dimension to solo piano recording, engineered to such perfection that the instrument truly becomes part of the room the listener is in. Not one note is wasted and he plays as if each were his last.” Winston remarked to Down Beats Milkowski, “With the Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December records, I try to communicate season changes and the thoughts of what people are doing in those changes. I’ve come up with something personal so that it doesn’t really matter how good or bad it is pianistically. It just reflects what I’m trying to say personally.” Winston rounded out his seasons series with Summer, released in 1991.

Founded Dancing Cat

In 1983 Winston founded Dancing Cat Productions, a Santa Cruz, California-based independent record label. Winston’s company has brought out several albums of stride piano tunes, including Rock ’n’ Roll Gumbo and The London Concert, performed by Professor Longhair, and soundtracks to the children’s classics The Velveteen Rabbit and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which employ Winston’s evocative solo piano. Meryl Streep narrated The Velveteen Rabbit, and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes was narrated by Liv Ullman. Though Dancing Cat has released several soundtracks to such classics, it is best known for its Hawaiian slack guitar releases, particularly those by Keola Beamer, Bob Brozman, and Moses Kahumoku, as well as Winston’s own recordings.

Winston continued putting out solo music while running Dancing Cat. After finishing his seasons series, he began another, focusing this time on types of places. The first released of the series, Forests, was an astonishing success. Winston won his first Grammy Award for Best New Age Album for Forests in 1995. He continued the theme with 1999’s Plains. Paying tribute to his greatest influences, he first released Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, a tribute to the famed composer and creator of the music of the early Peanuts cartoons; later, he released an homage to an influence of a different sort. Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors received overwhelming critical acclaim and brought Winston to the attention of a much wider audience than he had previously known.

Winston has garnered a loyal following in the United States and Europe. Although best known for his melodic, evocative piano music, Winston surprises live audiences when he pulls out his harmonica or guitar, or when he breaks into stride and boogie-woogie piano tunes, inviting listeners to take the stage and dance. Audiences may also be startled by the balding, grizzly bearded Winston’s casual appearance. He once took the stage at New York City’s Avery Fischer Hall wearing jeans, a plaid work shirt, and no shoes. He continues to reinvent himself and push the boundaries of the “New Age” category he is often placed in.

Selected discography

Solo; piano

Ballads and Blues, Windham Hill, 1972.

Autumn, Windham Hill, 1980; rereleased, 2001.

December, Windham Hill, 1982; rereleased, 2002.

Winter into Spring, Windham Hill, 1982;rereleased, 2002.

Summer, Windham Hill, 1991.

Forest, Windham Hill, 1994.

Linus & Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Windham Hill, 1996.

All the Seasons of George Winston, Windham Hill, 1998.

Plains, Windham Hill, 1998.

Rememberance: A Memorial Benefit, Windham Hill, 2001.

Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors, Windham Hill, 2002.

Children’s stories and other soundtracks

(With Meryl Streep) The Velveteen Rabbit, Rabbit Ears Presents, 1985.

(With Meryl Streep) The Night Before Christmas, Rabbit Ears Presents, 1992.

(With Liv Ullman) Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Dancing Cat, 1992.

(With Danny Glover) Pumpkin Circle, Informed Democracy, 1997.

Sources

Books

Larkin, Colin, editor, The Encyclopedia of Popular Music, Macmillan, 1998.

The New Age Music Guide, Collier Books, 1989.

Slonimsky, Nicolas, editor emeritus, Baker’s Biographical Dictionary of Musicians, Centennial Edition, Schirmer, 2001.

Periodicals

Audio, August 1983.

Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1984.

Down Beat, December 1982; March 1983; March 1986.

Guitar Player, November 1981; November 1989; December 1990.

High Fidelity, December 1981.

Mainchi Daily News, March 13, 2000.

New York Times, December 9, 1983; December 14, 1983.

People, August 9, 1982.

PR Newswire, November 14, 2000; September 25, 2001.

Rolling Stone, March 17, 1983.

Stereo Review, March 17,1983.

Variety, February 20, 1985; July 22, 1987; December 20, 1989; January 31, 1990.

Washington Post, December 12,1982; April 22,1983; July 9, 1983; February 20, 1984.

online

Dancing Cat Records Official Website, http://www.dancingcat.com (June 30, 2003).

“George Winston,” All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (June 30, 2003).

George Winston Official Website, http://www.georgewinston.com (June 30, 2003).

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Dancing Cat Productions, Inc., press biography, 1992.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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Winston, George

George Winston

Composer, pianist, guitarist

Career Suffered Ups and Downs

Meeting Brought Unexpected Success

Thrilling Concerts

Selected discography

Sources

George Winston is known as one of the great popularizers of minimalist, acoustic solo piano music. His best-selling albums Autumn, December, Winter Into Spring, and Summer feature pleasant, uncluttered melodies that invite the listener to relax. On the concert stage, however, Winston likes to get the audience tapping their toes to the boogie-woogie and stride piano pieces of such celebrated jazz pianists as Fats Waller and Doctor Longhair.

Although born in Michigan in 1949, Winston grew up elsewhere: Florida, Mississippi, Montana. With each move his family made, the young boy was exposed to different musical styles. George enjoyed many kinds of music, including 1960s-brand Top 40 and rock and roll. At the age of eight he took piano lessons but quit playing when he decided that he preferred partaking in baseball with the other boys in his neighborhood. After a hiatus of several years Winston came back to the piano, inspired by Jimmy Wisners playing on Asia Minor, a song recorded with the group Kokomo, and Floyd Cramers tunes On the Rebound and The Last Date. Winston was also influenced by Vince Guaraldis music for the Peanuts animated television specials in 1965, Artie Butlers piano on Joe Cockers hit song Feelin Alright, and Nicky Hoplinss melodic piano work on guitarist Jeff Becks album Beck-Ola.

As a teenager Winston played rock and roll organ and electric piano with a Miami band until 1971, when he discovered the music of Fats Waller. Wallers stride, or acoustic, piano playing was a style of jazz developed in the 1920s as an offshoot of ragtime. In an interview with Down Beat writer Bill Milkowski, Winston described his discovery of stride: I was playing electric piano at the time... when I heard Fats do Got a Brand New Suit off one of the old RCA Vintage albums. I remember saying, This is how I wanted to play all my life. I had seen a couple of stride players... but I wasnt really interested in stride until I heard Fats. I literally left the electric stuff behind. Winston immersed himself in playing stride piano and began to compose and arrange his own works, which included rhythm and blues, blues, rock, standards, and highly melodic solo piano pieces. In 1972 he recorded Ballads and Blues, his first solo piano album.

Career Suffered Ups and Downs

Discouraged by the music business and frustrated at not being able to reach his goal of playing stride piano like Fats Waller, Winston quit playing piano altogether in 1977. For a while it just broke my heart, he told Milkowski. I knew I could never play like Fats, with that

For the Record

Born in 1949 in Hart, MI.

Guitarist and pianist, 1966. Worked as a deliveryman and at various odd jobs; played organ and electric piano with rock band in Miami, FL, 1967; released first solo piano album, Ballads and Blues, Windham Hill, 1972; founder of Dancing Cat Productions, 1983.

Addresses: Office Dancing Cat Productions, P.O. Box 639, Santa Cruz, CA 95061.

power and delicacy. A few years later Winstons interest was piqued by a tune called Hey Now Baby, by Roy Byrd, known as Professor Longhair. He again immersed himself in piano, this time playing Professor Longhair songs.

Winston also learned to play the guitar and became interested in the works of several Hawaiian slack key guitarists. Slack key refers to the Hawaiian style of solo guitar finger picking using open tunings on a classical or steel-stringed guitar. It was Winstons interest in guitar that led to the piano music for which he is best known. After hearing a Christmas album for solo guitar by John Fahey entitled The New Possibility, Winston started trying to work out some of Faheys tunes on his guitar. Then he began experimenting with the songs on the piano and developing his own highly melodic pieces.

Meeting Brought Unexpected Success

Winstons musical career had already sputtered and taken odd turns. When he approached William Ackerman, guitarist and founder of Windham Hill, an independent record label, about re-releasing an out-of-print album by a Brazilian guitarist, he had no inkling of what was to happen. Ackerman and Winston met after a year of corresponding. I originally intended to sign George as a guitarist. I was sleeping at his house in L.A., and he played me this slide-guitar stuff, Ackerman told Rolling Stones Kurt Loder. I said, George, this is fabulous, were gonna do an album. He said, Great. Then he said, Hey do you mind if I play the piano a bit while youre going to sleep? Ackerman was so impressed by Winstons introspective, melodic piano compositions, that he changed his mind about the guitar album deal. Winston instead recorded the solo piano albums Autumn, Winter Into Spring, December, and Summer. He subsequently became the most popular artist on the Windham Hill labels roster, with cassettes selling in the hundreds of thousands of copies.

Winstons uncluttered solo piano music is never frenetic or aggressive and has become for many a prime acoustic example of what is popularly called new age space music. According to The New Age Music Guide, Space music carries visions in its notes; it is transcendent inner and outer space music that opens, allows, and creates space. Though born of electronics, it is harmonic, beautiful, and emotionally compelling. Winston remarked to Down Beats Milkowski, With the Autumn, Winter Into Spring, and December records, I try to communicate season changes and the thoughts of what people are doing in those changes. Ive come up with something personal so that it doesnt really matter how good or bad it is pianistically. It just reflects what Im trying to say personally.

Thrilling Concerts

In 1983 Winston founded Dancing Cat Productions, a Santa Cruz, California-based independent record label that enjoys distribution rights under an agreement with record giant BMG. Winstons company has brought out several albums of stride piano tunes, including Rock n Roll Gumbo and The London Concert, performed by Professor Longhair, and soundtracks to the childrens classics The Velveteen Rabbit and Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, which employ Winstons evocative solo piano. Winston tentatively plans to record solo piano albums on the themes of the forest and the plains as well as collections of Vince Guaraldi compositions, rhythm and blues pieces, and stride tunes. According to Winston, works by Hawaiian slack key guitarists will figure prominently on Dancing Cat lists in the 1990s.

Winston has garnered a loyal following in the United States and Europe. Although best known for his melodic, evocative piano music, Winston surprises live audiences when he pulls out his harmonica or guitar, or when he breaks into stride and boogie-woogie piano tunes, inviting listeners to take the stage and dance. Audiences may also be startled by the balding, grizzly bearded Winstons casual appearance. He once took the stage at New York Citys Avery Fischer Hall wearing jeans, a plaid work shirt, and no shoes. In 1992 Winston was studying the style of rhythm and blues/jazz pianists Henry Butler and James Booker, as well as working on solo guitar, particularly pieces by the masters of the Hawaiian slack key style. With such a varied career, it is difficult not to wonder what Winston will be involved with next.

Selected discography

Ballads and Blues, Windham Hill, 1972.

Autumn, Windham Hill, 1980.

December, Windham Hill, 1982.

Winter Into Spring, Windham Hill, 1982.

Evening With Windham Hill Live, Windham Hill, 1983.

(With Meryl Streep) The Velveteen Rabbit, Rabbit Ears Presents, 1985.

Summer, Windham Hill, 1991.

(With Streep) The Night Before Christmas, Rabbit Ears Presents, 1992.

(With Liv Ullman) Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes, Dancing Cat, 1992.

(Contributor) Windham Hill: The First Ten Years, Windham Hill, 1992.

December, Windham Hill, 1993.

Variations on the Kanon by Pachelbel, Windham Hill.

Sources

Books

The New Age Music Guide, compiled by Patti Jean Birosik, Collier Books, 1989.

Periodicals

Audio, August 1983.

Christian Science Monitor, May 2, 1984.

Down Beat, December 1982; March 1983; March 1986.

Guitar Player, November 1981; November 1989; December 1990.

High Fidelity, December 1981.

New York Times, December 9, 1983; December 14, 1983.

People, August 9, 1982.

Rolling Stone, March 17, 1983.

Stereo Review, March 1984.

Variety, February 20, 1985; July 22, 1987; December 20, 1989; January 31, 1990.

Washington Post, December 12, 1982; April 22, 1983; July 9, 1983; February 20, 1984.

Additional information for this profile was obtained from a Dancing Cat Productions, Inc., press biography, 1992.

Jeanne M. Lesinski

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Winston, George

GEORGE WINSTON

Born: Hart, Michigan, 1949

Genre: New Age

Best-selling album since 1990: Summer (1991)


George Winston caught the ears of music listeners in the early 1980s with his gripping, impressionistic piano instrumentals; by the turn of the century he had emerged as a major star in the field of New Age music. Although he spent some formative time in Florida and Mississippi, most of his youth was spent on the sparsely populated plains of eastern Montana. The distinct, sometimes harsh seasonal changes and the open landscape of Montana have served as musical inspirations for Winston throughout his career.

Winston's interest in creating music began after high school in 1967. Inspired by many types of music and a diverse list of artists such as the stride pianist Thomas "Fats" Waller, Ray Charles, Booker T and the MGs, the Ventures, and the legendary rock group the Doors, Winston started playing the organ and electric piano. In 1971, influenced further by Waller's stride piano style, he took up the acoustic piano. Winston recorded his first album, Ballads and Blues (1972), a year later. In the years that followed, Winston continued developing a piano style fashioned from a combination of stride piano, R&B, and classics that he describes as "rural folk-piano." His music features aching melodies that paint images and auras inspired by the natural vistas of Montana. His album October (1980) was unusually successful for this music genre and led to the release of December (1982). That album sold more than 4 million copies and helped to solidify Winston's reputation as a commercial composer of sweeping piano mood works.

After the release of his next album, Winter into Spring (1982), also a brisk seller, Winston took some time off from recording solo albums to take other musical journeys. One of those was contributing, along with a roster of other Windham Hill artists such as Mark O'Connor and David Grisman, to Charles Gross's gorgeous soundtrack for the film Country (1984). Winston played four solo piano pieces in addition to ensemble work on the soundtrack, which evoked an Iowa farm setting. He also accompanied Meryl Streep's narration in a children's video, The Velveteen Rabbit, in 1984. Winston went on to play piano, guitar, and harmonica for three more children's projects: This Is America, Charlie Brown: The Birth of the Constitution (1988), Sadako and the Paper Cranes (1995), and The Pumpkin Circle (1997).

Winston returned in 1991 to release another piano solo album, Summer (1991), which immediately sold more than 1 million copies. Like the previous seasonal releases, each song's title"Garden," "Fragrant Fields," "Early Morning Range," and "Goodbye Montana"hints at the subject while the impressionistic melody lets the listener's imagination fill in the rest of the ambience. Winston is not only a fine composer but also a masterful interpreter of others' music, and Summer contains his rendering of songs by Randy Newman ("Living without You"), Carmine Coppola ("The Black Stallion"), and Pete Seeger ("Living in the Country").

Winston realized a musical dream when he released Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi (1996). An ardent fan of the famed jazz pianistwho had created the music for the television specials based on Charles Schultz's Peanuts charactersWinston was eager to lend his interpretations to Guaraldi's music. The result was an archive of familiar Peanuts jingles mixed in with some of Guaraldi's best-known songs such as "Cast Your Fate to the Wind" and "Treat Street."

Winston also paid tribute to the 1960s rock group the Doors by adding his solo piano interpretations to their music in his album Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors (2002). He takes an ethereal path through "Riders on the Storm," honky-tonks "Love Me Two Times," and lets his nine-foot concert Steinway weave in and out of the melody on "Light My Fire."

In between those two projects Winston sandwiched a return to contemporary instrumental music and nature with Plains (1999). This expressive musical journey across the flatlands of eastern Montana contains Sarah McLachlan's "Angel" and Chet Atkins's "Waltz for the Lonely" along with Winston's own compositions such as "Cloudburst," "The Swan," and "Plains (Eastern Montana Blues)." He also includes songs that reveal his infatuation with the beauty of Hawaii, such as "No Ke Ano Ahi Ahi" and other Hawaiian folk songs. Since 1974 a Hawaiian music form called slack guitar has fascinated Winston. A finger-picking style of various tunings played by Hawaiian cowboys in the 1830s, slack guitar preceded the steel guitar by nearly sixty years. Winston's private recording label, Dancing Cat Records, has been dedicated to recording the current slack guitar artists and has released thirty-two albums, with many more to follow. Winston has also mastered this playing style, and he performs it in concert and on some of his recordings.

The events of September 11, 2001, prompted Winston to record a memorial album of six songs called Remembrance: A Memorial Benefit (2001). He dedicated all profits from this recording to assist families affected by the loss of loved ones from the tragedy. The touching album features not only his piano work but also several guitar solos and a poignant bagpipe-style harmonica performance.

Winston continues to tour, typically performing more than 100 dates per year in the United States, Europe, and Asia. His piano instrumentals have redefined New Age music. In the forefront of a music genre populated largely by obscure artists, George Winston remains a giant commercial success.

SELECTIVE DISCOGRAPHY:

Ballads and Blues (Dancing Cat, 1972); Autumn (Windham Hill, 1980); Winter into Spring (Windham Hill, 1982); December (Windham Hill, 1982); Summer (Windham Hill, 1991); Forest (Windham Hill, 1994); Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi (Windham Hill, 1996); Plains (Windham Hill, 1999); Remembrance: A Memorial Benefit (Windham Hill, 2001); Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors (Windham Hill, 2002).

donald lowe

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