Discover more from The Honest Broker
Interview with Paul Winter
As a special feature, I share my interview with the visionary saxophonist
A few days ago I published my in-depth profile of Paul Winter, an inspiring music innovator whose career has spanned a half-dozen different genres. As an added feature, I’m sharing my interview with Winter—where he talks about everything from his role in bringing jazz to Russia to his collaborations with John Hammond and George Martin.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, and culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Interview with Paul Winter
Conducted by Ted Gioia
Have you made it through the pandemic in good health?
My family and I have been extremely lucky to have so far weathered this period with no ill effects—living in the boondocks has been a great boon—and that I could continue my work here throughout.
This has been one of the most creative periods I’ve had, simply from being able to stay home and shift into slow gear. It’s the first year I’ve not traveled at all since before I went to summer Scout Camp at age seven—which is about 75 years ago.
Being able to spend deep time writing, and even playing my horn, has been wonderful.
What have you been working on?
I finished my first ‘sax album’ [Light of the Sun]. We edited our first major video stream—our 41st annual Winter Solstice Celebration last December was a two-and-a-half hour retrospective with footage from the first 40 years of that event. We did five livestream concerts from the hayloft of my barn, which I had never imagined for performances. I got the barn 45 years ago for recording. And out of all of this has emerged a new Consort, and a forthcoming album which we’re editing now, entitled Concert in the Barn.
What's your attitude to genre labels? Few musicians have moved so boldly from category to category. It's tempting to say that you ignore these categories, yet you must see your music as part of some larger enterprise or worldview. How would you describe it?
Jazz was my passport to the world. My love for the big bands from my grade school years [mid-1940s] through the teen years led me from my provincial home of Altoona, Pennsylvania to go to school near Chicago, which I knew from the three summers I spent at Culver Military Academy in Indiana. It was a great city for jazz.
And then to my first fascination and interaction with another culture, Russia—through my correspondence from behind the Iron Curtain, where I was sending albums from my collection through Jazz Lift.
What was Jazz Lift?
In the late 50s, during college, I saw in Downbeat an ad for ‘Jazz Lift’—“Send me your jazz albums and I will smuggle them behind the Iron Curtain. Theodore Grevers, ‘The Fat Man’, International Private Detective; Battle Creek, Michigan.”
So every few months I would send a few LPs from my collection to him. He instructed me to put my mailing address on the back of each album. I got amazing letters from fervent jazz fans in the Soviet Union and Poland.
I’ve never heard about this operation before.
This was one of the things that sparked my interest in cultural exchange. I got the sense that these people loved jazz for its musical essence but also because it represented a world of freedom. It seemed to me that there might be more enthusiasm for jazz in those countries than in my own.
And this was around the time the State Department began sending jazz groups abroad, beginning with Dizzy's Band, to the Middle East. I couldn't have imagined then that within a few years my own band would be one of them.
After our own tour for the State Department in 1962 to Latin America, I pursued, unsuccessfully, my long-time dream to play in Russia. The day after our White House concert, I got a short meeting with Bobby Kennedy, the Attorney General, to ask his help in getting us a tour of the Soviet Union. He had me talk then with his assistant, Jim Symington, who said he would explore it. But it didn't happen, as we had no cultural agreement with the Russians then.
Did you ever get to perform in Russia?
It would be 24 years before I could realize that dream. In early '86, Gorbachev and Reagan signed a new cultural agreement. Horowitz was sent to Moscow as the first classical ambassador. That September my Consort, though no longer a jazz group per se, got our first tour there, prompted more by the Soviet Cultural Department than our own.
I had already been to Russia four times just as a tourist in '84 and '85, and found a kindred spirit there in the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko—because of my focus on Lake Baikal in Siberia, near his hometown. He banged on a lot of doors on our behalf, so the Soviet Cultural Department knew about the Consort. There had been an amazing article published about our music that celebrated nature by a leading jazz writer named Leonid Pereversev in 1983, in their magazine Foreign Affairs. Leonid became a great friend, and a mentor. He too had pushed for us to be invited for a tour.
Our tour in 1986 began by my request in Irkutz, the city closest to Lake Baikal, and went west from there. One of the last concerts was in Leningrad. After the concert the Russian stage manager backstage told me there was somebody at the stage door who wanted to meet me. He brought this man in, a rather thin middle-aged man in a thread-bare Soviet-issue suit, and I greeted him and we shook hands; but he spoke no English, and I very little Russian. He just handed me an envelope. In it was a letter I had written him in 1959, after he had thanked me for the album I sent to him through Jazz Lift.
More than a quarter of century later?
It was a beautiful moment. I still get tears in my eyes when I think of it.
It seems you had a global approach from the start, maybe more than any other jazz musician of your generation.
During my first year after college, traveling to other countries with my Sextet, my world expanded very rapidly. I was a passionate proselytizer for jazz during those years, and as well for cultural exchange.
But I soon came to realize that the semantics of genre labels could be problematic. I came to realize that jazz has as many definitions as the word God, and that it could deter people from listening to your music, or cause the fundamentalists who are stuck in one of the many camps within the umbrella of ‘jazz’ to shun you for not being ‘true jazz’—as in the ‘true religion’.
Our travels opened wide the doors to the great smorgasbord of other traditions in the world. So I came home from six months in Latin America a fervent freshman in a more universal university.
You were signed to the Columbia label by the famous producer and talent scout John Hammond—at almost the same moment that he discovered Bob Dylan. What was it like working with Hammond?
Enthusiasm was John's middle name. It was lucky for us that this was ignited when John heard us, with Dizzy, at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival in Washington, D.C. in May of 1961.
John's sunny spirit graced all our recording sessions over the next few years. But recording under his wing was challenging. John came from those early decades of recording—of the 30s and 40s. In those days a band would come into the studio to simply play what they played on the road. There would be one mic in the middle of the room and they would usually do one take of each piece.
By the late 50s, stereo had come in, so we did have, for our first album, two tracks; and then I think three-track had come in for some of our later sessions. But the approach of doing an entire album in one three-hour session prevailed. The days of using the studio as a creative forum were still years off, for us.
When the consort, in 1967, did our first-ever recording, on Peter, Paul and Mary's Album 1700, backing Paul Stookey's "The House Song," it was amazing to us that they would spend an entire session on only one song.
Fast forwarding then to 1971, producing our Icarus album with George Martin in a house by the beach in Marblehead—we had two weeks to do the whole album. Recording by then was a whole new ballgame.
You presided at the birth of what we now call World Music. So what do you feel about labels—whether genre labels or otherwise?
I’ve never been drawn to any movements—cultural, political, or religious—those affiliations that divide humanity. Music seemed to transcend all that, and to bridge all these divides. To me, it’s one of the three great universals, the others being kids and nature.
But all of this arose for me through my experience with jazz. My whole life has been catalyzed by what I call the jazz spirit, which I sum up with the single word: Welcome. This was the spirit that I felt from those big bands of my youth. It was us music, grounded in the democracy of ensemble (rather than the me music of virtuoso soloists), and as well embracing the people who were dancing to it.
This was my earliest playing thrill—when I formed my first dance band, the Silver Liners, after our theme song “Look for the Silver Lining,” in junior high. And we got the gig playing Saturday nights at the ‘Co-Ed Parties’ at the YMCA in Altoona. It was a completely participatory community, with players and dancers, and always a handful of folks just listening.
And I’ve found the same welcoming spirit in the most of the traditional musics I’ve encountered in over 50 countries, during the decades since.
Is there a worldview embodied in your music?
Allurement to beauty has been what propelled me all along. First it was the beauty in sounds, and then add community—getting to play with other kids in our Little German Band, at age 12, was a thrill. And then just getting to share the music with audiences. And then it just continually expands to savoring the whole gamut of this miraculous life, in an ever-widening embrace that hasn’t stopped a moment.
I’ve become increasingly fascinated with the notion that the aural faculty could be the saving grace of our wayward species. And I feel music has a mighty role in this that is virtually untapped.