Born in 1949 in Hart, MI. 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.
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, 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 Guaraldi'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.
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 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 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 Beat's 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.
by Jeanne M. Lesinski
George Winston's Career
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.
George Winston's Awards
Grammy Award, Best New Age Album for Forest, 1995.
- 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, 1999.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.