News Column

Jazz master Paul Winter returning to the 'Burgh

November 3, 2013


Nov. 03--Doing 160 concerts around the world for the State Department and being the first jazz performer ever to play in the White House would seem to mark saxophonist Paul Winter as political.

But the concert in the Kennedy White House in 1962 had nothing to do with Camelot.

"Music -- jazz -- was our mission, our religion, our politics," he says of the sextet of young jazz stars who performed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. "Our playing at the White House was purely happenstance."

But it is not chance that a new version of that group will appear Nov. 8 and 9 at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild on the North Side. That band is playing here on the way to a concert Nov. 19 at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and then one at the John F. Kennedy Memorial in Boston on Nov. 22, the 50th anniversary of the president's assassination.

This version of the sextet also will be heard on the annual Paul Winter Solstice concert, which is broadcast at various times on NPR. The program that will be heard this year is from the 2012 version of the yearly concert at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. Altoona-native Winter says the network uses the previous year's concert to eliminate any possibility of technical miscues.

Encouraging start

Even though the 1962 band had no political leanings, the White House gig was an encouraging event.

"If you can imagine, being a 20-year-old and playing at the White House, and there is Kennedy forming things like the Peace Corps, it gave you the feeling that perhaps things were opening up," he says. "We even started talking about how maybe we could form a Jazz Corps to give musicians a chance to go out and work for the government."

He says there was a great "feeling of optimism" that seldom has emerged since.

The 1962 band was made up of players who had won an intercollegiate jazz competition and were seen as a good recording possibility by John Hammond, the production maven from Columbia Records.

The band then was selected as a young group of musical diplomats for a State Department tour.

Finally, Winter says, Jacqueline Kennedy invited them to participate in a program at the White House she had put together called Music for Young People by Young People.

Such is the reason a 23-year-old Winter and his young band were the first jazz performers at the White House and not Dizzy Gillespie or Count Basie.

"It was an amazing time," he says. "I didn't think of it in political terms, but in human terms."

Getting to work

But Winter and the band also had to deal with their lives as musicians.

"There is this thing called work," he says.

While the band had a successful foreign tour and the appearance at the White House under its belt, it was not well known in its homeland. All those dates abroad don't build up domestic fans, Winter says. So the band fell apart and some members found jobs teaching or playing in other bands.

Drummer Harold Jones, for instance, began working with Count Basie. He still has an active career with performers such as Natalie Cole and Tony Bennett, and was too busy to play in the new sextet.

The original band consisted of Winter on alto sax, Jones, pianist Warren Bernhardt, trumpeter Dick Whitsell, baritone saxophonist Les Rout and bassist Richard Evans.

The current version is Winter, Bernhardt, trumpeter Marvin Stamm, baritone sax player Howard Johnson, drummer Jamey Haddad and bassist Cecil McBee.

Winter, 74, is pleased to have such a solid band behind him because "most people don't think of me in jazz terms anymore."

Jazz always was his main interest, he says, which is why he studied at Northwestern University's nascent jazz-study program. After his band broke up, he grew interested in the popularity of the bossa nova and Brazilian music, which led to a further examination of world music.

By the mid-'70s, he also became involved in wildlife issues, leading to albums that turned into soundtracks for anti-whaling and wolf-preservation movements.

The Paul Winter Consort worked with performers such as oboist Paul McCandless and recorded such albums as "Missa Gaia/Earth Mass" and "Earthbeat," a bit removed from the jazz at the White House.

But, he contends, whatever the form, the art is the same.

"Music can transcend a lot of difficulties," Winter says.

Bob Karlovits is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7852.


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