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George Winston, pianist of pastoral scenes, has died at 73

George Winston performs onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2019.
Jason Davis
Getty Images for NAMM
George Winston performs onstage at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville in 2019.

George Winston, a pianist whose successful recordings made him one of the first stars of new age music, died June 4 in California after a decadeslong struggle with cancer. His death was announced on his website and social media accounts. He was 73.

Selling more than 15 million albums worldwide, Winston became synonymous with a distinctive, highly imitated flavor of solo piano: warm, melodic and pastoral. His reputation was largely built on a series of blockbuster instrumental albums for the pioneering new age label Windham Hill Records. In particular, his 1980 album Autumn and its follow-ups, 1982's Winter into Spring and December, all platinum-selling releases, are considered cornerstones of the genre.

The pianist himself never used the "new age" classification for his music. "I have always called it 'Folk Piano' (or more accurately 'Rural Folk Piano')," he wrote in the FAQ on hiswebsite, "since it is melodic and not complicated in its approach, like folk guitar picking and folk songs, and has a rural sensibility."

But while that sound dominated his recordings, it only scratched the surface of his musical interests. Winston always claimed that his true passion was for R&B, inspired by New Orleans' postwar piano sound and the Harlem stride tradition.

While many listeners heard classical foundations in his playing, Winston had neither training nor interest in classical music. Born in Hart, Mich., in 1949 and raised in Montana, Winston was drawn to the organ after hearing the rock band The Doors in 1967. His investigation of Doors organist Ray Manzarek's roots led him to jazz player Jimmy Smith, and in turn to the stride piano of Fats Waller — who inspired Winston to switch to piano in 1971.

His 1973 debut album, Piano Solos (later re-released as Ballads and Blues), was recorded by folk guitarist John Fahey and had a more identifiable folk sound. By the time Winston signed with Windham Hill and released Autumn in 1980, he had a glossier style that eliminated the folksy twang and incorporated the stride piano technique of left-hand bass patterns against right-hand melody. It was a surprise hit, which Winston replicated with a sequel season-themed album Winter into Spring and the holiday record December. Together, the three recordings helped to launch the commercial success of what became known as new age — and made Windham Hill the genre's flagship label. He would record 13 more solo piano albums, with 1994's Forest winning a Grammy Award for best new age album.

Winston spent much of the '70s studying New Orleans pianists Henry Butler, James Booker and Professor Longhair. While his more pastoral and melodic music made him a star on records, he would often insert those pianists' songs, and his own originals inspired by them, into his albums and live performances. "The vast majority of songs, about 90% I play, are in this style," he wrote. He recorded two benefit albums of what he called "Gulf Coast Blues and Impressions."

Winston also played harmonica and guitar, recording an album of solos on the former in 2012 and incorporating the guitar into his benefit records. On the latter instrument, he identified with the Hawaiian "slack-key" guitar tradition. Dancing Cat Records, the label Winston founded in 1983, became a key forum for the slack-key guitarists of the Hawaiian Cultural Renaissance. It issued albums by Keola Beamer, Ledward Kaapana and Cyril Pahinui and is credited with introducing the style to listeners outside Hawaii.

Winston's battle with cancer began in 2013, when he was diagnosed with myelodysplastic syndrome and underwent a successful bone marrow transplant to combat the disease. He subsequently underwent treatment for thyroid and skin cancer. His last album, Night, was released in spring 2022, but worsening health forced him to cancel most of his performances in support of the album.

Winston is survived by his sister, Nancy Winston Kahumoku, and a niece and nephew. The family will hold a private memorial service.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael J. West