A New Testament

Bandleader, musician, and seven-time Grammy award-winner Paul Winter has a new album out, Light of the Sun, which was released in November of 2020. The new record features Winter singing and for the first time being the lead soprano sax player throughout the CD. Winter, during his early college days toured to 23 countries of Latin America and also performed in a jazz performance at the White House during the Kennedy administration in 1962. Thus far he has performed in 52 countries, has released more than 60 records, and still has time to be interviewed by the press the world over. In this emailed interview, Winter talks with Jupiter Index about his new record and his plans for the future.

Jupiter Index: You first played music in the 1940s by auditioning for the Baker School Orchestra in the first grade as a drummer, but that was cut short when the school conductor complained that, "He plays where he shouldn't." That did not stop you from starting piano lessons with Alma Leighty. Why do you feel you were drawn to music at an early age and what drives you today to play it?
Paul Winter: My earliest memory of being allured to music from when I was five years old, and my parents took me along with them to a Shriner's dance. They parked me on a chair behind the drummer in the dance band combo. I remember that the name of the band was the Henry Hammond Quartet (Henry was the drummer). And I was absolutely amazed watching him play the bass drum with one foot, and the hi-hat cymbals with the other, and the snare-drum and tom-toms with his hands.

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That is probably what sparked me to want to take drum lessons, and to then audition in the first grade for the Baker School Orchestra.

But there was a deeper inspiration from that first experience of dance band music, that probably propelled my whole life journey in music. Because I recall also being impressed that when that music was played, the people dancing were smiling and full of happy energy, much more so than people seemed to be in their everyday lives (as we often tend to be in our indoor northern lives). And that combination somehow got programmed into my subconscious. So I can look back now and see that this is what I've been aspiring to do ever since: to create music that makes people feel good (and me as well).

So after my drum career crashed, I think I was encouraged by my folks the next year to start piano. However, it was my choice then, at seven, to learn clarinet, which then led to the saxophone when I was around nine.
But music abounded in the culture of my town - Altoona - during the '40s, and in my family. My grandfather had been a bandmaster in the Civil War (taking the Zelienople Town Band into the Union Army at age 17, in 1861) and after the war had come to this new town, Altoona, that had been created by the Pennsylvania Railroad, as a piano tuner, and eventually founded a music store that by the early 1900s was the Steinway dealer for Central Pennsylvania. So piano was a big deal around our house, and of course in our country as a whole. I don't recall ever seeing a guitar in Altoona before I left there in 1957.

Ji: According to your press release bio sheet in 2015, you and the musical Consort collaborated with nine renowned poets in the annual Key West Literary Symposium. Talk about the performance, and which poets you were able to perform with? And what that was like for you?
PW: Poetry has long been a unique tangent for me and the Consort. I'm not sure why, but I'm very grateful for it. I never had much interest in poetry till I heard it read aloud - the first time was hearing Yevtushenko at Lincoln Center in 1967. He would read each poem first in Russian, and the soulful sound of this language appealed to my musical ear. The "music" of this somehow touched my heart, so that when a translator read it in English, I was ready to pay attention to the meaning.

In 1976, at "Whale Day" in Sacramento, California, I met Gary Snyder, and the Consort improvised with him during his performance, playing in between the stanzas of his poems. Later, in 1979, at the Lindisfarne Conference in New York, we recorded a whole album with Gary, reading from his iconic book "Turtle Island."

In the early '80s we were invited to play along with the featured poets in the first annual Geraldine R. Dodge Poetry Festival in New Jersey; we improvised with Coleman Barks, Robert Bly, and Lucille Clifton. We became the "house band" for this bi-annual conclave of poets, over the next 25 years.

So most of the poets we collaborated with at the Key West Literary Symposium were long-time friends: Bill Collins, Mark Doty, Coleman Barks, Patricia Hampl, Jane Hirshfield, Marie Howe, Barry Lopez, Marilyn Nelson, and Mary Rose O'Reilly. We played with all of them, during this four-day event.

I've come to believe that music and poetry are great bedfellows. Listening to poetry challenges the left side of your brain, and after a while it gets tired. Music, interspersed, gives that side a rest and stirs the heart side of your brain. It's a powerful combination.

I still can't sit and read poetry from a page. Somehow it just doesn't draw me in.

One of my fondest wishes is to someday compile a boxed set of the recordings from all our different adventures with poetry.

Ji: Tell us about your recent album “Light of the Sun” and what makes this release unique for you? Is there a song that you enjoyed playing on it?
PW: This is the first of my 52 albums in which my horn is featured throughout. Throughout my life in music, since age 12, I've been a bandleader first, and a sax player second.
It was a long-time dream of mine to record an album in spaces that seem to awaken my horn’s spirit-voice - my favorite forums being the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in NY, the "Kiva" of the Miho Museum in Japan, and the Grand Canyon.

I am exhilarated playing any one of the 15 pieces on the album - some of them new, for this album, and some being new performances of earlier pieces that have long been part of my repertoire.

Light of the Sun is my testament as a sax player. However, I don't mean to imply it is my last. Actually, I intend it to be my first. When you arrive at 80, it's time for something new.

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JI: This interview is being done before the Paul Winter 41st Annual Winter Solstice Celebration, which is a retrospective of the four decades of winter solstice celebrations, and will be a video on demand show -- what are your hopes for this special performance?
PW: In 1980 the Consort and I were invited to be artist-in-residence at New York's Cathedral of St. John the Divine. It was to be an entirely secular relationship, with this amazing interfaith, intercultural, ecumenical Episcopal church.

Pondering what to play in the world's largest cathedral inspired me to imagine something mighty. I wondered what might be the most universal milestone of the year we could celebrate, and very quickly realized that it would be the winter solstice, which has been marked by northern peoples for millennia.

We presented our first Winter Solstice Celebration there that December, and have done so now for 40 years. In keeping with the inclusivity embrace of the solstice and of the Cathedral, these concerts have always featured special guest performers from different cultures of the world. Last year we released a double-CD anthology, Everybody Under the Sun, which featured all our special guests from 38 years - 22 singers from 13 different cultures.

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Given that our beloved Cathedral is now temporarily closed, due to the pandemic, we are this December presenting our 41st Annual Winter Solstice Celebration as a video version of Everybody Under the Sun, a stream highlighting iconic performances from our first four decades of this event. Our guests will include Gary Brooker (of Procol Harum); Noel Paul Stookey (of Peter, Paul and Mary); Brazil's Ivan Lins; Abdoulaye Diabate from Mali; Russia's Dmitri Pokrovsky Ensemble; the Afro-American dancing and drumming of the Forces of Nature Dance Theatre; and our expanded Consort, with long-time members Eugene Friesen on cello, Paul McCandless on double-reeds, and our beloved gospel singer, Theresa Thomason. This video “special” will be available on demand starting Friday, December 18 at 7:00 p.m. EST. Tickets are available on the Solstice Concert website here: https://solsticeconcert.com/winter-solstice/

We have friends around the world, from having toured in 52 countries over the last half-century, and now, with this global video stream, we hope that many of them will now get to experience this epic solstice celebration for the first time.

by G.M. Burns