Pianist George Winston was one of the earliest and most successful practitioners of New Age music. But you really can’t blame him for how terrible the genre eventually became.
When Windham Hill Records president Will Ackerman convinced him to record some of his piano pieces, Winston described them as “rural folk piano.”
That’s still how he describes them. He said he was totally oblivious to the rise and fall of New Age music in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I never followed any of it, kind of like I don’t follow elections in Alabama,” he said. “It doesn’t involve me. They’ve called me classical and I have never played classical music. The word jazz seems to cover a lot of things.
“You don’t label yourself,” Winston said. “Someone else labels you and they never get it right. Somebody could call it Russian sword dancing music. That’s not a bad thing to be called. It’s just not accurate.”
Winston said he has never even meditated, an activity often associated with New Age music.
“If people want to make music for meditation, then they should,” he said. “But I never have.”
It seems like a strange claim to make about a solo pianist, but Winston may have had a more eclectic career than anyone in the music business.
He has followed his muse as far and wide as a muse can escort a person. And his fans have been happy to support him in these endeavors.
Winston is mostly known for simple and gentle piano works. But in college, he became obsessed with stride pianist Fats Waller.
Of course, Winston’s obsessions are never singular: Throughout his teens and twenties, he also worshipped Ray Manzerek’s keyboard work in The Doors and a tradition of Hawaiian acoustic guitar playing called slack key.
When Winston approached Ackerman in the late 1970s about recording some music, it wasn’t even his own that he was championing. He wanted Ackerman to give the Hawaiians a listen.
Winston said he’d actually decided to quit playing piano by that point and was focused solely on guitar.
“I figured I’d never be Fats Waller,” he said.
Eventually, Winston got around to playing for Ackerman some of the piano pieces he’d written that were inspired by his home state of Montana.
“Growing up in Montana, the seasons were so distinct,” he said. “There were actually like six seasons. I grew up that way.”
Winston’s first collection of such pieces, Autumn, was an enormous and surprising success. It was certified double platinum.
Suddenly, Winston was expected to perform live for large crowds when he hadn’t really performed much for anybody.
It took some getting used to, he said.
“It took about six years to really adapt to it,” he said. “I am really a behind-the-scenes sort of guy by nature. Sometimes I would be playing a concert and think, ‘What am I doing here?’ But my subconscious would say, ‘Keep going. You’ll get used to it.’”
Winston’s concerts didn’t consist solely of seasonal piano pieces. He also played some stride piano, some pieces by the New Orleans R&B pianists Professor Longhair and Dr. John, and some music by jazz pianist Vince Guaraldi, composer for the Peanuts TV specials.
Since Autumn was released, Winston has produced three more seasonal collections, two albums of Guaraldi’s work, two albums of Cajun-infused piano, a harmonica album, an album of Doors covers, and five soundtracks featuring him playing piano, guitar, and harpsichord.
He established a Windham Hill imprint called Dancing Cat so that he could bring the work of Hawaiian slack-key guitarists to a wider audience.
Today, Windham Hill no longer exists, but Winston’s music and the music of Winston’s beloved Hawaiian guitarists still comes out on Dancing Cat, which is now a subsidiary of RCA Records.
Essentially, Winston has managed to make a successful career out of doing whatever the heck he wants to do at any given moment.
And his fans are on board for it.
“I’ve been very fortunate with that but I’d do the same thing if nobody listened,” he said. “It’s just like people who paint pictures. Maybe no one will ever see them or won’t see them for a while. But that doesn’t stop them from painting or change what they paint. It’s got to be about what’s going on with me.”
Winston said he’s been experiencing renewed energy and purpose since being cured of myelodysplastic syndrome a few years ago. In the years leading up to the diagnosis, it had become harder and harder for Winston to endure the demands of touring.
But Winston soldiered through, chalking it up to old age.
While he was being treated in City of Hope Hospital near Los Angeles, he composed 21 new pieces on a piano the hospital had in one of its lobbies.
“I didn’t turn on the TV once the whole time I was there,” he said, laughing.
He later released 15 of the songs as Spring Carousel, with all proceeds going to the hospital.
Many of Winston’s CDs and concerts have a philanthropic component. He said he will be donating the proceeds from local merch table sales to a Fort Wayne charity.
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