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George Winston, Solo Pianist Synonymous With New Age Music, Dies At 73

Musician had been battling cancer since 2013
Photo: Todd V. Wolfson

George Winston, whose beloved Windham Hill Records solo piano recordings such as Autumn and December became synonymous with the then-emergent new age music genre in the 1980s, died on Sunday (June 4) at the age of 73 after a decade-long battle with cancer, per his website. Winston underwent a successful bone marrow transplant for Myelodysplastic Syndrome in 2013 and continued to record and tour, but worsening health had forced him to postpone the majority of his planned 2023 performances.

Born in 1949 in Hart, Mi., Winston spent most of his upbringing in Montana, the natural environment of which was a formative influence on his unique, evocative style of music. Winston drew heavily from New Orleans pianists such as James Booker, Henry Butler, and Professor Longhair, but was also a devotee of folk music and the Doors, whose keyboard player Ray Manzarek later became a personal friend.

“The whole way I approach piano is like a band. The left hand is the band. Get the left hand automatic, and the right hand is the lead singer who just sings and leaves early,” he told Billboard in 2001. “I certainly don’t have the best left or right hand in the world. But that’s the approach I use. It comes from boogie-woogie piano, where you play a bass pattern with the left hand until it’s automatic. Stride piano is a big extension of that: get the left hand solid as you can, and have it be the band, to support the singer. The right hand can also be the rhythm guitar, where you hit something on [the] two and four [beats] in between playing the melody. It’s always left hand first, because I have to have something to play off.”

Winston’s first solo piano album, the aptly named Piano Solos, was released to little attention in 1973 on guitar legend John Fahey’s Takoma label and only reissued nearly a decade later under the name Ballads and Blues 1972. It wasn’t until 1979, after he’d moved to the Bay Area, that he met Windham Hill co-founder William Ackerman, who was entranced by Winston’s skill both on piano and guitar. Ackerman immediately offered Winston a record deal after hearing him play.

“To the best of my ability, what I remember was that George was at McCabe’s Guitar Shop in Santa Monica when Alex DeGrassi and I played there,” Ackerman told Billboard in 2004 of his first in-person encounter with Winston. “He and I had talked on the phone quite a bit by that time. It’s my nature to never, ever go to somebody’s house and jam, but yet I did it that night.”

“I’m not sure I played much, but I remember sitting at a small kitchen table and having George bring out a guitar,” he continued. “He played some slide guitar that was just amazing, and I said, ‘OK, great, you’re on the label! Let’s do an album of slide guitar.’ And the quote I remember is him saying, ‘Do you mind if I play the piano a little bit while you’re falling asleep?’ I put a blanket over myself on a couch and he started playing transcriptions of some of my music and some of DeGrassi’s. If I’m not mistaken, I think he actually played [the iconic DeGrassi guitar solo] ‘Turning: Turning Back,’ which was jaw-dropping. He played some Bola Sete, which was the first exposure I had to that music. Then he went into the music that constituted [his eventual Windham Hill debut] ‘Autumn.'”

“I remember getting up in the morning and saying, ‘George, what was that stuff?’ He drove me to the train station; I was going up to visit a friend in San Luis Obispo,” Ackerman said. “We had a discussion where I said, ‘You know, I love that slide stuff, but I really think you ought to do a piano record.’ He wanted to do a guitar record, but he said, ‘Let’s do one side of guitar and one side of piano.’ Even in my nascent marketing career, I knew that wouldn’t work. Somehow or other, ultimately I won out and we did the piano record.”

That “piano record” was 1980’s Autumn, which became one of the most successful solo instrumental recordings of all time. Winston detested the description of his music as new age, but his beautiful, seasonal-themed work was inextricable from the genre for the next four decades. Later releases such as Winter Into Spring, December, and, after a nine-year break, 1991’s Summer, furthered his renown, as did his creation of the Dancing Cat label, which released the work of under-appreciated Hawaiian slack-key guitar masters.

Winston was rarely off the road and would perform everywhere from small community theaters to opera houses, usually wearing his trademark turtleneck, glasses, and socks without shoes. A longtime supporter of charitable institutions, he encouraged patrons to bring canned food donations to his concerts and also gave proceeds from his 2001 album Remembrance to the families of victims of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

In recent years, he recorded far less original material than in the ’80s, including a Doors tribute and two albums of Vince Guaraldi songs. His final studio release, last year’s Night, featured songs popularized by Leonard Cohen, Allen Toussaint, and Laura Nyro.

“My favorite thing to do is interpret,” he told Billboard in 2001. “I don’t have a composer’s temperament at all. I’ll make up a song about once a year and go, ‘Wow, that’s a real song.’ I’ll write the chords down, but it’s an accident that happens once in a while. If it’s a real song, it will keep its form over time and will stick around, and I’ll make a note of it. There are so many great songs out there. I don’t play Brahms. I play Sam Cooke (Laughs). I have a whole different set of music going on.”