More than a piano man
What: George Winston
When: 2 pm Sun., Sep. 22
Where: 2501 E. College Way, Mount Vernon
Wednesday, September 18, 2019
About halfway through what is a fairly extensive bio on pianist George Winston’s website is the line, “George Winston is undeniably a household name.”
Music bios are rife with such claims, but given the length of his music career, albums sold and many achievements, it seems this is more truth than hyperbole.
However, when I was growing up, the musicians who were household names were John, Paul, George, and Ringo, with a little Diana Ross and Marvin Gaye mixed in for good measure (courtesy of my mother’s record collection) and Madonna and Axl Rose (courtesy of my sister’s cassette tapes).
Needless to say, there were not a lot of piano jams emanating from the various stereos and speakers in my house.
But as I scanned Winston’s bio further, I landed on a name that has been a musical touchstone for me and billions of other people: Vince Guaraldi.
If there is one thing that unites so many of us, it’s that Peanuts specials have become integral parts of our holiday celebrations. We’re a little more than a month out from our annual viewing of It’s the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, which will be followed before we know it by A Charlie Brown Christmas. For some, the specials are defined by Snoopy’s antics, Linus’ blanket, Pigpen’s dust cloud, and Lucy never letting Charlie Brown kick that darn football. However, for me, it was all about the distinctive and instantly recognizable music Guaraldi composed for the scrappy cohort of cartoon kids.
Winston also found himself similarly captivated, except he didn’t just watch the specials and bob his head along to the lively score like I did. When he was a teenager, he bought his first Peanuts soundtrack album—the day after the 1965 premiere of A Charlie Brown Christmas—and when his own music career was well-established, he channeled his experience and success into a tribute album in 1996, and followed it with another in 2010.
But that barely scratches the surface of a remarkable and groundbreaking musical career that has indeed made Winston’s name beloved in countless households. He’s embraced, improved upon or pioneered a trio of music styles—what he’s dubbed “rural folk piano,” the departure from traditional ragtime playing that was popularized by Fats Waller and became known as “stride piano,” and the New Orleans-style R&B that is nearest and dearest to his heart.
However, Winston’s greatest accomplishment is that he’s taken solo acoustic piano music and made it accessible and enjoyable for a mass audience. Like Yo-Yo Ma with his cello, Winston and his piano know no genre boundaries or musical conventions. His playing isn’t pretentious or designed exclusively for orchestral or chamber audiences. Stories abound of him wandering onstage—often in his stocking feet because shoes would give away how hard he stomps the pedals and distract from the music—so casual in his dress and demeanor audiences think he’s the piano tech until he sits down and begins to perform. He plays what he loves, how he wants to play it (including a decidedly cool technique of using his hands to mute piano strings)—and he just happens to be enormously skilled, wildly talented and incredibly dynamic.
That combination of skill and mass appeal have brought awards, accolades and multiplatinum album sales. And Winston isn’t one to sit on his impressive laurels. He tours on what could easily be considered a constant basis, playing upward of 100 shows a year, which is all the more amazing considering he’s dealt with serious illness, including more than one bout of cancer. In fact, after his last cancer diagnosis, he played the piano at the medical center while receiving treatment—and emerged from the experience cancer-free and with an album in tow, the proceeds from which he donated back to the hospital that helped him.
Indeed, that altruistic spirit is yet another reason Winston so warmly embraced by fans. He’s recorded benefit albums to raise funds for folks who suffered losses during 9/11, Hurricane Katrina victims, to rebuild the Louisiana wetlands, and more. His latest album, Restless Wind, which was released in May on Winston’s own record label (which he also uses to preserve and amplify the music of Hawaii’s slack-key guitarists because there is seemingly no end to Winston’s musical generosity) is his interpretation of music he loves by such artists as varied as the Doors (he’s a longtime fan), Stephen Stills, Sam Cooke, Ira Gershwin, and others. In keeping with his character, his album-release show was a benefit for an organization that provides music-therapy scholarships.
All of this is to say that Winston is kind of a musical superhero—albeit a highly unassuming-looking one. He’ll put his piano prowess on display at a Sun., Sept. 22 concert at Mount Vernon’s McIntyre Hall. When he appears onstage in his stocking feet, don’t mistake him for the guy the venue hired to make sure the piano is properly tuned—he’s a household name, after all.
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