Winston autographing a copy of his album in 2019
|Birth name||George Otis Winston III|
|Born||February 11 1949|
|Origin||Hart, Michigan, U.S.|
|Died||June 4 2023 (aged 74)|
|Genre(s)||Stride, New Orleans R&B, folk, new age|
|Instrument(s)||Piano, acoustic guitar, harmonica|
|Label(s)||Dancing Cat, RCA, Sony Classical, Windham Hill, Takoma|
George Otis Winston III (February 11, 1949 – June 4, 2023) was an American pianist who was a popular contemporary instrumental performer. Best known for his solo piano recordings, Winston came to prominence with his 1980 album Autumn, which was followed in 1982 by Winter into Spring and December. His 1994 album Forest earned Winston a Grammy award for Best New Age Album.
Winston's musical style has been classified as new age and sometimes classical, but he rejected both labels, performing what he called “folk piano.” While his recordings brought him acclaim, and allowed the world to enjoy his music, live performances were the most meaningful to him. His gentle and yet vibrant piano solos evoked the wonders of nature, and brought a peaceful and meditative atmosphere to his audience, allowing those listening to experience the beauty and harmony of the natural world.
George Otis Winston III was born in Hart, Michigan on February 11, 1949. His parents, George and Mary Winston, raised him and his sister in Montana (Miles City and Billings), as well as Mississippi and Florida.
As a child, he showed no interest in music, preferring sports. That changed in high school when he came to love organ music:
By the time he finished high school, he had become smitten with the sound of organ music and started teaching himself how to play it. A jazz musician showed him a few rudimentary chords, and he eventually worked in a car wash in Los Angeles to support himself while learning organ and, later, piano.
As a youth, his musical interests included instrumentals of the R&B, rock, pop, and jazz genres, especially those by organists. In 1965 at age 16, he became interested in Vince Guaraldi's music when the animated television special A Charlie Brown Christmas premiered, and he soon purchased the soundtrack album featuring Guaraldi's music. Over the next few years, Winston purchased all of Guaraldi's releases and watched each new Peanuts special to hear Guaraldi's newest music. After hearing the Doors in 1967, he was inspired to play the organ. In 1971, he switched to solo piano after hearing the stride pianists Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, and later Earl Hines, Donald Lambert, and Cleo Brown.
After graduating from Coral Gables Senior High School in Coral Gables, Florida in 1967, Winston attended Stetson University in DeLand, Florida, where he majored in sociology. Although he did not graduate, he was awarded an the university awarded him an Doctor of Arts degree.
Winston suffered from several forms of cancer, including thyroid cancer, skin cancer, and myelodysplastic syndrome, the last of which was resolved following a bone marrow transplant in 2013. He died of cancer in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on June 4, 2023, at age 74.
Winston's career as a musician lasted over 50 years. He was at heart a performer, more than a recording artist or composer, although his recordings and compositions form an important part of his legacy.
Winston said that his "temperament is much more that of an interpreter than as a composer," although he did compose one or two songs a year.
Solo piano works
Winston was first recorded by John Fahey for Fahey's Takoma Records. His debut album Piano Solos disappeared without much notice, although it was later reissued on Windham Hill Records under the title Ballads and Blues 1972.
In 1979, Winston sent a demo tape to William Ackerman, who had started his new record label, Windham Hill, in 1976. Ackerman offered to produce his next album, which became Autumn; it was soon the best-selling record in the label's catalog. Both Autumn and the following album Winter into Spring went platinum, signifying million-plus shipment in the United States. The Christmas album December became an even greater success, and it was certified triple platinum for shipment of three million.
On the heels of his three successful albums, Winston composed the score to accompany Meryl Streep's narration on the The Velveteen Rabbit in 1984, earning a Grammy nomination for Best Children's Music Album. At the request of producer Lee Mendelson in 1988, he provided the music for the TV miniseries This Is America, Charlie Brown, which Winston considered a highlight of his career. At the 38th Annual Grammy Awards in 1996, Winston won the award for Best New Age Album for Forest. Two of his other works, Plains (1999) and Montana: A Love Story (2004), were also later nominated for best new age album.
Winston released two albums of Guaraldi's music. In 1996, he released Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, primarily devoted to the theme music Guaraldi wrote for the Peanuts cartoons: fifteen television specials and one feature film, ranging from 1965 until Guaraldi's death in 1976. "I love his melodies and his chord progressions," Winston said of Guaraldi. "He has a really personal way of doing voicings." Winston recorded a follow-up album in 2020, Love Will Come: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Volume 2. He was planning a third volume, Count the Ways: The Music of Vince Guaraldi Volume 3.
Winston's 2002 album Night Divides the Day – The Music of the Doors consists of solo piano renditions of music by the rock band the Doors. The title of the album is a lyric from the band's song "Break on Through (To the Other Side)." The album received a Grammy nomination for Best Pop Instrumental Album.
Winston suffered from a number of illnesses, and while recuperating from a bout of cancer in 2013, he played the piano in the medical center auditorium, creating 21 pieces, that he says were "kind of circular" and "minimalist." In 2014, he included three of the pieces in a Spring Carousel EP, and a 15-track album, called Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit released on March 31. Proceeds benefit City of Hope Hospital near Los Angeles, where he was treated and subsequently composed the musical work.
On May 3, 2019, Winston released his 15th solo piano album, Restless Wind. The 11-song collection featured music by well-known American artists, brought to new life through Winston's signature interpretations:
"Restless Wind" offers a wide yet profoundly focused perspective on American music, with the pianist repurposing historically relevant works by musical greats such as Sam Cooke, The Doors, Stephen Stills, George and Ira Gershwin, Country Joe McDonald, and others. By virtue of his boundless imagination, Winston’s musical portrayals provide new textures and tones that illuminate the original compositions while discovering fresh insights and common musical themes.
To kick off the release, Winston performed a concert at Pittsburgh's Carnegie of Homestead Music Hall that benefited the Creative Arts Program, which provides scholarships to pay for music therapy. The album debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard New Age Charts, and No. 2 on the Billboard Jazz Charts.
In July 2019, at the National Music Council's 2019 American Eagle Award Honor ceremony that recognized Vince Guaraldi, Winston performed his versions of the musician's work. From his grand piano, Winston told the audience:
I love Vince's piano playing, and I love his compositions. I play way more of his songs than by any other composer. I first heard him in 1962, with 'Cast Your Fate to the Wind'....And then in December 1965, I was a fan of animation, and I saw in the TV Guide that there was going to be a cartoon of the Peanuts characters, A Charlie Brown Christmas. And I thought, wow, I've got to see that. A lot of us remember where we were, the first time we heard 'Linus and Lucy' in that special, during the dance segment.... Vince's piano just drove me crazy. And I went to the record store the next day—just to go to the record store—and there was the Charlie Brown Christmas soundtrack, up on the wall. And I looked at it, and thought, Oh, Vince Guaraldi, the 'Cast Your Fate' guy. The TV episode credits had run by so fast, I hadn't seen it was Vince Guaraldi. So I got the album, and found 'Linus and Lucy,' and played it about 100 times on my record player.
In 1983, Winston started his own label, Dancing Cat Records, which released his albums, with distribution by Windham Hill until the mid-2000s and subsequently by RCA. He primarily launched the label to record artists playing the Hawaiian slack-key guitar, which he admired.
In addition to his piano work, Winston played solo harmonica (mainly Appalachian fiddle tunes and ballads) and solo acoustic guitar (mainly Appalachian fiddle tunes and slack-key guitar pieces). He provided the guitar soundtrack to Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes in 1995. Both his harmonica and guitar playing can be heard on his benefit album Remembrance: A Memorial Benefit, which was released shortly after the September 11 attacks. In 2006, he recorded another benefit album, Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit, followed by Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2: A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit in 2012.
Winston's Dancing Cat Records produced recordings of slack-key guitarists, including artists Keola Beamer, Sonny Chillingworth, Leonard Kwan, Dennis Kamakahi, Ray Kane, Cyril Pahinui, Bla Pahinui, Martin Pahinui, Ledward Kaapana, Georg Kuo, Ozzie Kotani, George Kahumoku Jr., Moses Kahumoku, Cindy Combs, and others. He also worked on recording the American traditional musicians Sam Hinton, Rick Epping, and Curt Bouterse.
Musical and performance style
Winston played in three styles: the melodic approach that he developed and called "rural folk piano"; stride piano, primarily inspired by Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson; and his primary interest, New Orleans rhythm and blues (R&B) piano, influenced by James Booker, Professor Longhair, and Henry Butler. While the majority of his recordings were in the folk piano style, Winston mostly enjoyed playing R&B piano.
His musical style has been classified as new age and sometimes classical. He had been called the "Father of New Age" because his album Autumn was released by Windham Hill Records often described as a new age label. However, he rejected such labels. His response: "I don`t play New Age, I play instrumental pop."
Many of Winston's melodic pieces were self-described as "rural folk piano" or "folk piano," a style he developed in 1971 to complement the up-tempo stride piano he had been inspired to play by Fats Waller's recordings from the 1920s and 1930s. These melodic pieces evoked the essence of a season and reflect natural landscapes.
Winston dressed unassumingly for his shows, playing in stocking feet, stating that it quieted his "hard beat pounding" left foot. For years, the balding, bearded Winston would walk out on stage in a flannel shirt and jeans, and the audience would think he was a technician, coming to tune the nine-foot New York Steinways that were his piano of choice. But when he sat down and started playing the piano his brilliance emerged:
As for his piano playing, Winston remains a master of both tone and invention. Starting with a bluesy tune inspired by Professor Longhair—Winston's most recent albums have included two Gulf Coast-inspired collections—he proceeded through seasonal favorites "Rain" (from 1982's Winter Into Spring) and "Woods" (from 1980s Autumn). On the latter, he created remarkable 'hollowed' sounds to some notes by reaching inside the piano and muting strings with one hand while striking keys with the other.
Legacy and honors
George Winston's legacy is his music, and the impact it had and continues to have on people.
He released a total of 16 solo albums, accumulating over 15 million records sold, with the 1994 album Forest earning Winston a Grammy award for Best New Age Album. Winston received four other Grammy nominations, including one for Best Children's Music Album, performed with actress Meryl Streep, and another for Best Contemporary Instrumental Album for his interpretation of works by the rock band the Doors.
Winston is a household name whose music inspired fans and musicians alike for over four decades. He rejected the various labels that people attached to his music, such as New Age, despite being a major influence on the development of that music genre:
Any other labels, including anything having to do with anything philosophical, or spiritual, or any beliefs, are also not accurate, as I have no interest in those subjects. I just play the songs the best I can, inspired by the seasons and the topographies and regions, and, occasionally, by sociological elements, and try to improve as a player over time.
He was inspired by nature. In particular, the beautiful landscapes and seasons he experienced from his early days in Montana, Mississippi, and Florida to his later life living in the San Francisco Bay Area, shaped his distinctive folk style. His gentle and yet vibrant piano solos evoked the wonders of nature, and brought a peaceful and meditative atmosphere to his audience. While his recordings brought him acclaim, and allowed the world to enjoy his music, live performances were the most meaningful to him:
Winston's music is evocative, offering us all a chance to take a step back from our perpetually busy lives and let our minds adventurously wander ... his compositions extend solace with an idiosyncratic grace.
- 1972 Piano Solos
- 1980 Autumn
- 1982 Winter into Spring
- 1982 December
- 1992 Summer
- 1994 Forest (1994)
- 1996 Linus and Lucy: The Music of Vince Guaraldi
- 1999 Plains
- 2001 Remembrance: A Memorial Benefit
- 2002 Night Divides the Day: The Music of the Doors
- 2004 Montana: A Love Story
- 2006 Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions: A Hurricane Relief Benefit
- 2010 Love Will Come: The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Volume 2
- 2012 Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions 2: A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit
- 2017 Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit
- 2019 Restless Wind
- 2022 Night
Solo harmonica album
- 2012 Harmonica Solos
Benefit EPs, albums and singles
- 2001 Remembrance - A Memorial Benefit (piano, guitar & harmonica solos)
- 2013 Silent Night - A Benefit Single for Feeding America
- 2017 Spring Carousel: A Cancer Research Benefit
- 1984 The Velveteen Rabbit (solo piano soundtrack with narration by Meryl Streep)
- 1988 This Is America, Charlie Brown—The Birth of the Constitution (piano & harpsichord solos)
- 1995 Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes (solo guitar soundtrack with narration by Liv Ullmann)
- 2002 Pumpkin Circle (solo piano, guitar and harmonica soundtrack with narration by Danny Glover)
- 2003 Bread Comes to Life (solo piano, guitar and harmonica soundtrack with narration by Lily Tomlin)
- Neil Genzlinger, "George Winston, 74, Whose Music Soothed With Its Serenity, Is Dead" The New York Times (8, 2023). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Howard Reich, "Snow Business" Chicago Tribune June 14, 1987). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Joshua Wolfson, "Music from the north country: Pianist George Winston discusses rural life's musical influence" Casper Star Tribune (October 31, 2014). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Brian Baker, "Sound Advice: George Winston" City Beat (April 13, 2016). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- "Music Review: George Winston – Love Will Come – The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol. 2" CT Insider (April 19, 2010). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Tina Maples, "Music Just Happens To Winston" Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (November 20, 1996).
- Natalie Abrahantes and Chase Bagnall-Koger, "Coral Gables Senior High School Hall of Fame Inducted Members" Cavs Connect (March 20, 2021). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Stetson University, "George Winston in concert at Stetson University" Flickr (January 15, 2004). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- "Philanthropic pianist George Winston to perform in Clarksburg next weekend" MetroNews (February 24, 2019). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- "George Winston concert to feed Livingston's needy" Livingston Daily (November 20, 2018). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- John J. Moser, "Pianist George Winston, playing in Bethlehem, finds inspiration in illness, recovery" The Morning Call (April 9, 2015). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- "Q & A" George Winston. Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Jeff Mannix, "Want to hear George Winston? Good luck" The Durango Herald (December 24, 2015). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- George Winston, Ballads and Blues 1972 (Dancing Cat Records / Windham Hill Records, 1994, ASIN B0000030LL).
- Brian Murphy, "George Winston, pianist who sought to echo nature, dies at 74" The Washington Post (June 8, 2023). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Jon Blistein, "George Winston, the Quiet Giant of Solo Piano Music, Dead at 73" Rolling Stone (June 6, 2023). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Richard Harrington, "George Winston 'Night Divi ...' The Washington Post (May 9, 2003). Retrieved October, 29, 2023.
- George Winston awards and nominations Recording Academy: The Grammys. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Erica Rucker, "Acclaimed Pianist George Winston To Play Flood Relief Show Tuesday Night In Frankfort" Leo Weekly (November 14, 2022). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- John Moser, "George Winston at Musikfest Cafe lets his listeners, not himself, feel emotions of music" Morning Call (June 29, 2016). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Steve Knopper, "George Winston makes the holidays smooth" Chicago Tribune (December 15, 2016). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Brian Zimmerman, "Stream 'The Times of Harvey Milk' from George Winston's New Album 'Restless Wind'" Jazziz (April 11, 2019). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- "Pianist George Winston: What's happening in Pittsburgh this weekend: April 4–7" Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 4, 2019). Retrieved October 19, 2023.
- Billboard Chart History – George Winston Billboard. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- National Music Council's 2019 American Eagle Award Honor George Clinton, Vince Guaraldi, and Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum National Music Council. Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- "The Eagle has landed" Impressions of Vince (October 18, 2019). Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Chris Willman, "George Winston, a Titan of Soothing Piano Instrumental Music, Dies at 73" Variety (June 6, 2023). Retrieved October 28, 2023.
- Jay Gabler, "'Folk piano' by way of John Cage: George Winston defies musical stereotypes" Your Classical(December 24, 2013). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Hays Davis, "George Winston brings his 'rural folk piano' sound to Cultural Arts Center at Glen Allen" Richmond Times-Dispatch (November 7, 2015). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- John Floridis and Beth Anne Austein, "George Winston's Piano Music Is a Soundtrack, Sans Film" Montana Public Radio (February 7, 2019). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Bill Kohlhaase, "Jazz George Winston's Hawaiian Getaway" Los Angeles Times (October 6, 1999). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- "George Winston Brings His Unique Piano Style to the Firehouse" The Independent (June 23, 2016). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Tad Dickens, "George Winston brings 'folk piano' style to Harvester" Roanoke Times (April 1, 2016). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- Lyons Dee, "George Winston: Playing It Low-Key At TCCC" Dallas Morning News (January 24, 1986).
- Peter Blackstock, "George Winston shows versatility at One World Theatre" Austin360 (September 23, 2018). Retrieved October 29, 2023.
- George Winston (1949-2023) George Winston. Retrieved October 27, 2023.
- Recordings and Liner Notes George Winston. Retrieved October 19, 2023.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Winston, George. George Winston Piano Solos. Hal Leonard, 2007. ISBN 978-1423417095
- Winston, George. George Winston Solo Piano Collection. Hal Leonard, 2017. ISBN 978-1495080685
- Winston, George. George Winston - Piano Sheet Music Collection. Hal Leonard, 2020. ISBN 978-1540056047
All links retrieved October 29, 2023.
- George Winston official website
- George Winson American Piano Music Website
- George Winston at the Internet Movie Database
- George Winston Discogs
- George Winston Recording Academy Grammy Awards
- George Winston Biography by Jason Ankeny AllMusic
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