by Gerry Fialka
The inspired and inspiring piano of George Winston has calmed my soul for many years. His first solo LP was released in 1972, but his second “Autumn” in 1980 started a string of albums that deeply touched many listeners. He is one of the best known performers of contemporary instrumental music. He was influenced early on by Jim Morrison and The Doors. Winston’s 2002 album “Night Divides the Day – The Music of The Doors” is renditions of the Venice-born rock band.
George befriended another Venice icon, Brad Kay in 1974. Their companionship set the sails for deep explorations of music together. Brad wrote the following 3 paragraphs:
GEORGE WINSTON and I used to hang out together in the early ’70s – when he drove his delivery van around to local newsstands, and we’d confer about Harlem Stride Piano, about James P. Johnson, Willie “The Lion” Smith and “Fats” Waller. We would debate heatedly over which guy was better, between dropping off bales of “Hustler” and other high-minded literature. (George, did you wedge a spinet piano into that van? I seem to recall it, but could be wrong! . …“Dear Brad- no I didn’t !” – George)
Sometimes we were joined by another Venice pianistic legend, Barry “The Lion” Gordon (who played on the Boardwalk for many years). Whenever the three of us got together, say, tearing a herring at Zucky’s or some other eatery with cushy booths, it seemed that that lost world of Harlem jazz in the ’20s – of the Nest Club, “Pod’s and Jerry’s” and Dicky Wells’ place; of pianists like “One Leg” Willie Joseph, Don Lambert, “Luckey” Roberts and Stephen “The Beetle” Henderson – was just around the corner, big as life, and all we had to do was pipe down and listen.
At the time, around 1975, I had no inkling that George was soon to invent a whole new way to play the piano! In 1980, when I first heard him play the now-famous pieces from “Autumn,” I was stunned – along with whole audiences! Later in the ’80s, George was so generous as to let me open for him at “At My Place” and other venues. He was (and remains!) truly a “right” guy – always sweet-tempered, with no airs or pretensions. I always will be thankful to George for that, and especially for his companionship and our friendship, which lasts to this day.
Here is George’s righteous praise of Brad: “No one I have ever met is more dedicated to music than the great pianist Brad Kay…he is ever searching for infinite harmonic variations, love and a soulful sense of humor in his music.”
I am grateful to Brad for connecting me with George. I submitted many questions to Winston via email, and he typed out the answers to the following. Please read what George called this exercise: “a great journey through myself and my existence.”
F= Fialka’s question (followed by question catalogue number).
W= George Winston typed response.
F-1A- Music writer Ben Ratliff talks about the musician’s “sound” (in two or three words) in his Bill Frisell book, “every musician finally needs a sound, a full and sensible embodiment of their artistic personality, such that it can be heard, at best, in a single note.” For example: Miles= fragile & pointed, and Trane= slightly undercooked & urgent, and Bill= wobbly & woozy. What are two words you’d appreciate a writer used or could use to describe your “sound?”
W- Winston always pays attention to and works off a drone, however direct or indirect the drone is, which is almost always the tonic note of the key of whatever song he is playing, but occasionally it can be the 5th.
F-1a- Tell me a stupid mistake you made and the story about it.
W- In 1973, when delivering something, I left my cassette player and a one-of-a- kind tape in the car, unlocked and with the windows down.
F-2a- What is the most important question in life?
W- What can I do to help?
F-3a- What is the most important activity in life?
W- Being of assistance.
F-4a- Tell me one quality that makes you feel your life is worthwhile. (tangible or non-tangible)
W- That I have compassion for all others.
F-5a- If you have it, what does it allow you to do in life?
W- To try to be available to help.
F-6a- If you have it, and know it, how does that make you feel inside?
W- Fulfilling why I exist.
F-8a – Can you hate the sin and not the sinner?
W- I can realize that there are two states in all beings: balance or imbalance.
F1- What’s the best thing for a human being?
F3- Why do we collect/gather information?
W- To have what is needed when situations come up.
W- White sand dunes and seemingly infinite blue water and blue sky (in Western Michigan, Lake Michigan sand beach I think sometime when I was two).
F6- Is memory a curse or a blessing?
W- To me, a blessing, telling me what to work on.
F7- Who were your earliest role-models within your immediate family, and how did they specifically influence you?
W- My mom was very sweet, and all my friends told me so. That made me want to forgive and understand and let go.
F8- Who were your role-models outside your immediate family and how specifically did they affect you?
W- Goobajie ran into my hotel room after a concert in Santa Barbara, California in the Spring of 1984, barely squeezing in, when the door was 98% closed. I exclaimed, “A kitty!!!” She looked up at me, to say, “You know what to do.” I said, “Of course I do!!” And her name, as usual with cats I meet, just popped out of her mouth. The front desk people said she was a stray, and I knew her for 8 years. She didn’t have a voice – whenever she occasionally meowed at me, no sound came out. I always say the being I learned the most from never said one word to me.
F10- Do evil people exist or does evil use people as a vehicle?
W- No such thing- just imbalance.
F13- Lewis Hines published photos of child labor in newspapers, printed matter. Upton Sinclair wrote the book The Jungle. They both have been credited as the tipping-point to change laws. Can you tell me of any music, theater, art, or film that actually was the tipping point to change laws?
W- The song “A Change is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke, and the song “Strange Fruit” by “Lewis Allan” (Abel Meeropol) and sung by Billie Holiday.
F14- A screenwriting teacher told me a great film is when you can clearly see the intention of the maker. Stanley Kubrick says the opposite: great art is when you cannot see the intention of the maker. What role does intention play in your creative process?
W- Not too much. I much more just watch a composition unfold, and then the music always tells me what to do.
F15- What first attracted you to pursue music?
W- I grew up living the sound of organs. When I heard The Doors first album on 1-5-67.
I was inspired to start playing the organ.
F16- If clothing is an extension of skin, and knife & fork are extensions of teeth, what human sensorium, humanness does the piano extend?
F17- McLuhan said there is no such thing as a good or bad movie, it’s a good or bad viewing experience. Any comment.
W- I think it depends on the viewpoint of the observer, but there are some movies that are so bad that they are good “The Creeping Terror”.
F21- When I asked Michael Apted years ago why rock video makers feel so obliged to edit fast, he told me “because we have learned to take in information faster.” Martin Scorsese also said that he edited his films faster because of MTV. Can we indeed learn to take in info faster? Is it literally possible to multi-task?
W- I think so, from my own experience.
F22- “Film as an art form has been swindled by capitalism.”
W- Many art forms have.
F24- Marcel Duchamp said there is no art without an audience. What role does the audience play in your creative process (during the making)?
W- Not so much in the making, but totally essential in the performance for me – in fact when alone I never play songs all the way through, and I never just sit and play for myself.
F25- What was the motive of the cave artists?
W- I think they were inspired by what they encountered or thought they encountered.
F26- What is more important – conviction or compromise?
W- Conviction, with a little compromise available to help the project happen – particularly in technical matters.
F27- Is ambition based more on fear or joy?
W- I think depends on the person, but totally joy for me.
F28- Is loyalty based on reason?
W- Sometimes reason, sometimes gratitude, sometimes fear.
F29- T.S. Eliot said that poetry is outing your inner dialogue. What language is your inner dialogue in?
W- I think English.
F29- What form is your inner consciousness in?
W- In the 12 musical keys.
F30- George Manupelli says “Ignore yourself.” Jonas Mekas says there is no self-expression. Cecil Taylor says he is a vehicle and it comes through him. Is art making more self-expression or more vehicles for whatever dominant technology or culture is currently present?
W- Self-expression for me
F30- Can art-making be egoless?
W- I think so.
F31- Is perception reality?
F32- McLuhan probed Finnegans Wake by James Joyce: artists dream awake. We all have creative powers we use to dream while sleeping, but artists also use them while awake. Dream awake. Have dreams played a role in your creative process? How?
W- Yes, very much so, the “waking dream, lying down and dreaming on something, a thing I got from Professor Longhair.
F32- Please recall a dream.
W- I slept and dreamed the structure of the song Muted Dream (from the “Spring Carousel” album).
F34- Why is it so difficult for humans to consider the possibility that life may be pointless?
W- Too many things to do to think about that.
F36- What is one major element of your music that has changed and what has remained the same since you started making music?
W- The melodic folk piano style is the same. The up-tempo R&B stuff is now all inspired by the New Orleans pianists, especially Professor Longhair, James Booker, and Henry Butler
F37- Moshe Feldenkrais said that it is literally possible to identify a weakness and incorporate it to become a strength. We are normally taught to overcome a weakness. Please tell me a weakness that you have turned into a strength.
W- When I played in bands, I never really heard what anyone else was playing. When I switched from organ to solo piano in 1971, after hearing Fats Waller’s recordings, that tendency became a strength when playing alone. So I didn’t really change myself, rather I found the format that was totally me and that worked.
F38- The American Indians and Eastern culture respect their elders. Can you explain Western culture’s disdain for old age?
W- So unfortunate, but I think because technologies and other things are changing so rapidly that a lot of the old knowledge is (seemingly) less useful (until you need someone to repair an analog recording device).
F39- Why would Joseph Beuys say “Make the secrets productive.” Lew Welsh said, “Guard the secrets, constantly reveal them.” Thornton Wilder (1928) said, “Art is confession; art is the secret told. . . But art is not only the desire to tell one’s secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time. What are you really all about? What role do secrets play in your creative process?
W- Just in the occasional song inspired by an infatuation that I don’t pursue.
F40- Fill in the blank: Anger be a productive emotion when …………..
W- For me, as a last resort, when nothing else is working.
F42- Is human progress cyclical or cumulative?
W- I think a bit of both.
F43- What the most significant difference between women and men, physical aside? Why do women live longer than men?
W- Women are more like the earth (yin) than men are, growing things, nurturing things. I think they live longer than men because generally having less extreme impulses and behavior (yang), less exposure to fighting and chemicals.
F45- How do you find peace of mind?
W- Go to sleep
F46- If you were walking down the street today and you met yourself as a 12-year-old, what would you say to your 12-year-old self?
W- You don’t know what you want to do, but don’t worry, that will totally come.
F48- If a publisher was to release your autobiography, off the top of your head, what would the title be?
W- Just Play the %x# Song
F48- They want to scent the glue in the binding. What smell would it be?
F49- If a statue was built in your honor, where would it be displayed and what would it be made of?
W- In the worst way I wouldn’t want that.
F50- Please tell me something good you never had and you never want.
W- Some kind of big deal car.
F52- What is the healthiest cultural shift you see developing today?
W- There are some incredible scientific minds in the young ones, and incredible compassion.
F53- What gives you the most optimism?
W- Younger folks in science and service.
F54- What is the most overrated idea?
F55- What is the most dominant invention of all time,
W- The printing press
F55- Please answer the 4 questions of McLuhan’s Tetrad for the most dominant invention in your lifetime,
W- The personal computer:
F- What does it enhance or intensify?
W- Organizing data.
F- What does it render obsolete or replace?
W- Carbon paper.
F: What does it retrieve that was previously obsolesced?
W- Extra copies.
F- What does it become when pressed to an extreme, what does it flip into?
W- Linked directly with the body.
F56- Any rituals or routines in your creative process?
W- No, I just do what is needed to do.
F57- What is the function of music?
W- For both: personal expression of the artist, and for the receiver to be changed or nourished.
F58- What questions remain unresolved for you?
W- Where is life elsewhere.
F59- What is it about your art that audiences resonate with?
W- Not totally sure, as each listener is totally unique, but when I play things from the recordings that they have listened to over the years, they naturally relate more to those pieces.
F60- Larry Jordan: “Human beings conduct their lives from much stronger sources than the rational mind.” Name other sources?
W- The subconscious mind.
F60- How do you navigate and understand their relationships.
W- I try to remember to listen to the subconscious
F60- What about the spaces between the sources?
W- Got to be patient.
F61- Put in order what the most important “W” words are for you: who, what, when, where or why.
W- Why, What, Who, When and Where
F62- Summarize your life in three words, all starting with the same letter.
W- Lucky living listener.
F63- Are we hardwired for storytelling?
F66- What artist would you want to do your portrait?
F67- If you were a chair, who would you want to sit on you?
W- Fats Waller
W68- Five Alan Watts questions:
Who started it all?
W- J. S. Bach maybe
Are we going to make it?
Where do we put it?
W- Right where it already is.
Who’s cleaning it up?
W- Many of us and those to come
Is it serious?
F69- Are we making it happen or watching it happen?
W- Making it happen.
F70- “I am trying to get more control over my spontaneity.” Any comments.
W- Don’t try too hard, but keep on working and be on the lookout.
F71- What moment (memory) in your life were you absolutely totally loved?
W- I have always loved cats more than anything, since the day I was born (if I had it to do all over again, I would be a cat vet). I go into an ecstatic state whenever I see a cat, or a picture of a cat, and whenever I even think of a cat. I love the whole feline species, and all the big cats – and this spins off to realizing that all living beings are cats in another form, and then for the love of all life – and then that expands to realizing that every living being is struggling all the time with two things: defying gravity and death/entropy (we all have two battles at all times, so why are we fighting each other?).
F72- Introducing Andrei Tarkovsky to an audience at the 1983 Telluride Film Festival, Stan Brakhage declared: “I personally think that the three greatest tasks for film in the 20th century are 1) To make the epic, that is, to tell the tales of the tribes of the world. 2) To keep it personal, because only in the eccentricities of our personal lives do we have any chance at the truth. 3) To do the dream work, that is to illuminate the borders of the unconscious.” Any comments. What are your 21st and 22nd century’s updates?
W- These are great, no additions from me.
F73- What qualities must an artist bring to their work regardless of the era, medium or technology?
W- Coming to realize what they really want to do.
F74- What is that thing in art (and what causes it) that makes it transcendent and flips consciousness? Why is it often elusive?
W- I think a lot of it is from the subconscious of the artist to the subconscious of the observer, so a lot is not visible / perceiving by ordinary means.
F75- What guides your decision making? Allen Ginsberg says first thought, best thought. Jonah Lehrer (How We Decide) says fast-blink decisions are not always useful. Malcolm Gladwell (Blink) recommends gut-decision making.
W- All 3 for me.
F77- Will there ever be silence?
W- Close, but not total.
F78- What is going to be after the Internet?
W- Hooked up to the body
F79- “A person’s identity is a socially induced hallucination. There’s no such thing as a person. There’s only a bundle of consciousness that’s constantly in flux.” – Deepak Chopra. Any comments.
W- There is some consistency, and individuality, depending on the person.
F80- If you were an experimental film, what would your subject matter be?
W- The 24 keys and the colors I associate with them.
F81- Are the laws of nature cruel?
W- Depends on your viewpoint.
F82- If you were the ruler of the world, what would you do on your first day?
W- End conscription everywhere.
F83- Are we hardwired for competition?
F84- On what occasion do you lie?
W- When someone asks how am I doing.
F85- “It’s not what you are that counts, it’s what you think you are.” Any comments.
W- I think both count.
F87- Thelonious Monk said there are no wrong notes. Agree or disagree. Any comments.
W- Depends on what the player does after the mistake. Also depends on the viewpoints of the player and listeners.
F88- Miles Davis spoke of the space between the notes. Any comments.
W- Very important for me, but in a very different way from him. In certain parts of songs, especially the endings. I want to hear the piano resonate (which is my favorite of all sounds
F89- “The key is to bring the audience up onto the stage and into the scene with you. It is they who must give you even more than you give them in way of imagination and creative power.” – Ruth Draper. How do you accomplish this?
W-Try for the right sequence of songs.
F89- Consider – Augusto Boal & Paulo Freire (The Theater of the Oppressed), who use theater as a means of promoting social and political change. The audience becomes active (“spect-actors”) and explore, show, analyze and transform the reality in which they are living. Judith Malina & Julian Beck promoted: “We believe in the theater as a place of intense experience, half-dream, half-ritual, in which the spectator approaches something of a vision of self-understanding, going past conscious to unconscious, to an understanding of the nature of all things.” Nadia Boulanger told Quincy Jones “Your music can never be more or less than you are as a human being.” Any comments?
W- Can be more.
F90A= Copland’s 4 elements or ingredients of music: melody, harmony, rhythm, tone color. What is tone color?
W- The way notes are struck.
F= Dave Liebman’s tenets: (to balance) hand, head, heart.
F= “Song is slowed-down speech. The reason cultures have different musical tastes is ultimately connected to language difference.” – McLuhan
W- Very probably so.
F97- Does life require a meaning beyond itself?
F98 – If we did not have nationality, how would it affect you?
W- Not at all.
F99- Regarding life expectancy, the age of death has climbed a great deal in the last 60 years. What role did meds play?
W- Definitely some.
F100 – Can we think without language?
F104- How do you rate these three elements in your creative process: ambition, luck, talent?
W- Luck, then talent, then ambition (I have none if that)
F106- How do you deal with failure?
W- Try again – maybe give it a break too,
F107- Are you more afraid of new ideas or old ideas?
W- Whatever works.
PROBLEMA (2010 film by Ralf Schmerberg) questions-
P- Should we have the right to choose where we live?
W- Yes, but might have to be patient with that.
P- What are the basic dignities that each human being deserves and why do we let so many people go without them?
W- Food & water, shelter, clothes, shoes – some of it is scarcity, some of it is greed, and a lot of it is that it takes time to get resources to those in need and there are only so many hours in a day.
P- What if all Chinese people want a car?
W- They have to be allowed, if I am allowed to.
P- How does consumer culture actually influence the personalities, the ways people live, the way they think within a given culture?
W- Definitely significant.
P- How does it become part of us and what does it mean to be able to resist that visual and verbal culture that seems to me is always reducing and simplifying reality into something that can be easily bought and sold?
W- Maybe being a bit skeptical in what is “popular”.
P- Does our wealth depend on the Third World being poor?
W- It probably does to some degree, but, of course shouldn’t.
P- Is there a modern version of colonialism?
W- Yes. The whole money lending thing and trying to get leaders elected who will favor the companies.
P- Why do we still believe more in nationality than in humanity?
W- Beats me.
P- How do we stop our governments from going to war?
W- Simplest of all solutions: Don’t go. No matter what, don’t go and make one’s own alternative plans. Once you have really made up your mind you’re not going, you’re almost there – the rest is just logistics.
P- Why is there no peace in the Middle East yet?
W- Any time a nation discovers oil reserves, it increases the tension – but also the heat and dryness – and being away from the water, a DRASTIC lack of negative ions (remember being in those libraries with tons of fluorescent lights, and air tight closed windows).
P- Why is an Iranian nuclear bomb supposed to be more dangerous than an American, Israeli or French?
W- For whatever reasons, fair or not, the less of those things the better.
P- Between non-violent resistance and armed struggle where do we go? What is effective? What is the right thing to do? Do we need a biodiversity of resistance?
W- I think it should be based on non-violent resistance.
P- What does courage mean now?
W- Keep going with what you know should be done
P- What can I do, and tell others to do, to stop global warming?
W- Enhance things that tell people that they are part of nature.
P- Can a person be perceptive enough to see our planet in a way that tells them that they too are part of nature?
W- Yes, and art can do that — a photograph, a painting, etc.
P- What are the myths that we need to create to change the world for the better?
W- How about deleting myths.
I welcome your reactions. Thanks, Gerry email@example.com 310-306-7330