Paul Winter at the Grand Canyon

(Photo by Gordon Anderson)




Ann-Margret Olson (S63), center, who went on to become well-known actor/entertainer Ann-Margret in Hollywood, performed with the Paul Winter Sextet during her University days. Winter is at right.




One night, when he was just 5, Paul Winter (WCAS61) got a glimpse of his musical future when his parents took him to a Shriners dance in his home town of Altoona, Pa. Transfixed by the swing band's drummer, the boy moved in behind the man for a closer look. He was amazed by two things: how the drummer was using both his hands and his feet to lay down the beat, and how good the music was making everyone feel.

"That's when my musical life began," says Winter. "Although I didn't think of music as a life-path until a year after I graduated from Northwestern, a seed was planted in my subconscious that night that grew into my lifelong aspiration to create music of my own that might awaken in people the same good feeling I sensed at that dance.

"I started taking music lessons — first drums, then piano, then clarinet and, finally, saxophone, and by the time I was a teen-ager, I was playing in a variety of bands. That night at the Shriners dance, I think I learned that music had the power to bring out the nobler side of the human spirit. And that idea has guided me ever since."

Over a 40-year journey as a saxophonist, composer and band leader, Winter has traveled many musical trails, from bebop to bossa nova and finally to his own musical genre called "earth music," a soulful, uplifting blend of jazz, classical, folk and ethnic music interwoven with the sounds of nature and wildlife. Winter has recorded 35 albums (including two Grammy award winners and nine Grammy nominees), received numerous awards for his work with music and the environment, and played more than 2,500 concerts in 37 countries.

Winter's journey — which included Northwestern from 1957 to 1961 while the energetic young man from Altoona earned a degree in English — is still breezing along, with a new album, The Sunrise Concert, and a unique new performance piece called The World Tree. Winter says this work, which gives the audience a more participatory role in the music, is the best expression to date of his musical mission to "celebrate the creatures and cultures of the whole earth."

Clearly, this new milestone represents quite a journey from a childhood reverie at a Shriners dance.

The Power of Music

To Winter, the principle that both explains his success and keeps him amazed about music is simple: "Whenever I'm making music, I'm feeling good about life and the world — because, for me, music awakens optimism. It brings my spirit alive and gives me a sense of connectedness with the community of life."

It's this total surrender to music that Winter's associates say defines him as a musician. "Paul has a wonderful, gentle nature that flows into his music," says Harry H. Pritchett Jr., dean of New York City's Cathedral of St. John the Divine, where Winter holds his solstice festivals. "No wonder it lifts people's spirits!"

Former Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, a longtime friend and collaborator, says of Winter: "His whole being vibrates with music. He is music in the truest sense. When playing with Paul, I get a warm feeling that's like sitting around a fire in a living room and having a very soulful conversation."

Winter's fans cite similar nurturing effects. Notes Don Krasen, an audio-video consultant in Dallas: "His music helps people connect with the beauty both inside themselves and within nature — and, as a result, fosters a feeling that all is well."

For Californian Gay Groomes, the music Winter has recorded on location in the Grand Canyon — in such albums as Canyon and Canyon Lullaby — "provides the sensation that you're right there rushing down the rapids of the Colorado River. You can almost smell the water. It's music that, like a river, runs through your whole being."

The Journey Begins

Winter's musical journey has been a tale of an ever-widening connection not only with people, but with all creation. The first step was music lessons and soaking up the rich musical atmosphere provided by German and Italian immigrants in Altoona. The second step was soon clear: to play in ensembles with other musicians. So, by the time he headed off to college, Winter had played in a variety of concert and dance bands.

Yet, as Winter entered Northwestern, he didn't view music as a career option. "Music was simply a fervent avocation — something that I'd always done," he says. Instead, Winter gravitated toward thoughts of going to law school.

If Winter lacked clarity about a professional direction, his passion for jazz was certain. As a freshman, he began organizing dance bands of local college students with fellow Northwestern chum Dick Whitsell (S65). Soon, Winter was leading a jazz sextet that was playing fraternity and sorority dances and the officers club at the Great Lakes Naval Training Center. By his senior year, his group was so good that it won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival's first prize, a Columbia Records contract with well-known jazz producer John Hammond. "This was beyond our wildest dreams!" recalls Winter. "Most of us had made plans for grad school, but we all decided to take a year off to 'try this music thing.'"

Over the next 12 months, music swiftly became Winter's chosen vocation. In December 1961, the group recorded the first of what would become five albums, The Paul Winter Sextet, and set off on a cultural exchange tour of 23 Latin American countries sponsored by the U.S. State Department.

"No matter what political tension was in the air," he recalls, "the music seemed to win people over. USIA [United States Information Agency] officials often said that this music probably created more good will in one night than they could in a year."

On returning from the tour, Winter's sextet toured the United States — including a gig at the Kennedy White House. But, by 1963, the group had disbanded, and Winter returned to Latin America — Brazil, to be exact — looking for some musical answers. On his previous visit, he had grown fond of the tender, guitar-based sounds of Brazilian music and sensed that it pointed to a new musical direction for him.

"I decided to create a new kind of group as a forum for all the styles of music I had come to love — jazz, classical, Brazilian and African," he says. "I wanted it to have a rich texture blending woodwinds, strings and percussion — similar to the instrumentation used in a Shakespearean-era type of group called a 'consort.'"

Thus, in 1967, the Paul Winter Consort was born and has existed ever since. Winter laughs, recalling occasional confusion over the unusual "consort" name. "One time," he relates, "we pulled up to a Holiday Inn in a college town in Georgia and the marquee read: 'Welcome Paul Winter Group. Consort Tonight 8 p.m.'"

The consort blossomed quickly and began making some high-profile recordings. By 1971, Road was on its way to the moon aboard Apollo 15, and two moon craters ended up being named after tunes on the disk. But the experience of recording the next album, called Icarus, would really change Winter's life.

First off, he brought in the legendary George Martin, of Beatles fame, to produce the album, and Winter learned from him "how to use the studio as a tool." But equally important to Winter was where the album was recorded — a rented house by the sea in Marblehead, Mass., that allowed an "unhurried, unpressurized atmosphere" far different from that provided by conventional recording studios.

"That landmark experience underscored the importance of establishing a place where we could nourish our music and our community," he says. In 1975, Winter discovered that place: a farm near Litchfield, Conn. It became his home and recording studio, and, by 1980, it also became the headquarters of his own record label, Living Music Records. At that time, Winter's musical mission became clearer than ever, namely, "to embrace the traditions of many of the world's cultures and interweave widely diverse instruments and elements with the extraordinary voices of the 'greater symphony of the earth,' which includes wolves, whales, eagles and other species of 'wilderness musicians,' as well as the sounds of rivers and oceans."

Toward this end, Winter has recorded in such natural acoustic spaces as stone churches or barn lofts, and in such outdoor settings as the Grand Canyon and the Rocky Mountains, playing saxophone duets with natural echoes and dozens of different animals.

The Call of The Wild

Winter's merging of natural sounds with the human-made variety had its roots in 1968, when he attended a lecture by biologist Roger Payne about the "songs" of humpback whales.

"I was as moved by the recordings of the humpback whales as I had been the first time I heard Charlie Parker and other great jazz players," he recalls. "The whales' voices seemed to express to me something of the soul of the earth. They were singing long, complicated patterns that sometimes were a half-hour in length, and then they would repeat the whole complex song again, almost verbatim. In addition to the beauty of their voices, I was stunned by the level of intelligence these songs seemed to reflect and by the reality that these magnificent creatures were in danger of being exterminated by us. A new facet of my life's mission came clear that day."

As he grew more involved with his new collaborators from the wild, Winter expanded his mission beyond the strictly musical domain.

"I've learned that no matter how much information people are given about the plight of endangered species or of the environment, only if they are moved in their hearts are they going to do anything about it," he says.

Whether we realize it or not, says Winter, most of us are fascinated by wildlife. "The proof," he says, "lies in one amazing statistic: that more people go to zoos every year than go to all spectator sports put together! The reason we love animals is obvious. In them, we see a pure enthusiasm for life, the same enthusiasm for life that we see in children at play."

The Journey Continues

Never has Winter's expression of the unity underlying life been more evident than in his new project, The World Tree.

"This event," he says, "provides a totally new kind of context for playing and experiencing music — a theatrical, environmental, educational music celebration that offers people a participatory experience. Instead of sitting in chairs in straight rows and being just a spectator, audience members are able to walk and move among 10 different stages and to dance and chant with the music if they want."

Winter's discussion of the current leg of his journey — he's now 60 — is as charged with excitement as that early boyhood vision was.

"Life is always exciting," he says, "when you view it as an adventure." And, he says, the adventure never ends. "I was 49 when I met my life-mate, Chez, 52 when we married, and 56 when our first child, our daughter Keetu, was born," he says. "Sharing life with a loving partner and a wondrous little girl has given me a deep sense of beginning again. And, in my music, after years of a very eclectic journey, I feel now that my own 'song' is finally coming forth."

As usual, Winter's fans are eager to supply a rousing refrain to whatever song he wants to be sung.

"The World Tree seems to signify a turning point in people's view of the natural world, as well as their perspective on music," says Craig Kochel, who helped coordinate the world premiere of the work last fall at Bucknell University. "It provides a chance to embrace the generative power that the earth holds for all people and all creatures. Paul Winter is clearly providing a musical source of hope!"

Terry Breen (GJ75) is a Chicago-based freelance writer and musician/songwriter.