One of the most recognized solo pianists in the world will return to State College on April 12 when George Winston takes the stage at The State Theatre.
Growing up in Miles City, Mont., Winston’s interest in music was listening to instrumentals in the R&B, rock, pop and jazz genres, especially by organists.
“I didn’t really listen to music until I was 12,” Winston said. “There was no television, and there was only one radio station. And I only listened to the instrumental pieces at the time. In 1961, there were 30 Top 40 instrumental hits. I thought the radio was just great.”
When Winston was 16 he started buying records — mainly those that had an organ on them. He especially liked popular groups of the time that prominently featured an organ, groups such as the Young Rascals and The Doors.
After hearing The Doors in 1967, he was inspired to start playing the organ. In 1971, he switched to solo piano after hearing Thomas “Fats” Waller, Teddy Wilson, Earl Hines and Donald Lambert.
“I got The Doors album because it had an organ in it, and I said, ‘This is the greatest thing I’ve ever heard. I have to get an organ and play in a band,’ ” he said. “I played organ in bands for about four years. Then I heard “Fats” Waller’s piano recordings from the ’20s and ’30s and I said, ‘OK, solo piano, not organ.’ It was one of those 30-second realizations.”
In December 1965, Winston saw in TV Guide that there was going to be a cartoon with Peanuts characters, which he knew from the newspaper comic strip. He was a fan of animation and knew that he just had to watch it.
“ ‘Linus and Lucy’ came on, and that song just drove me crazy,” he said. “The next day I went to the record store to look for organ records, and there was that record up on the wall. I bought it, took it home, and played ‘Linus and Lucy’ a hundred times.”
In 1996, Winston released “Linus and Lucy — The Music of Vince Guaraldi.” Much of the album is devoted to the theme music Guaraldi wrote for the Peanuts cartoons: 15 television specials and one feature film from 1965 until Guaraldi’s death in 1976.
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His latest solo piano release is “Love Will Come — The Music of Vince Guaraldi, Vol. 2,” released in 2010. It features compositions by the late jazz pianist, including pieces from the Peanuts’ TV specials. His next album, “Spring Carousel — A Cancer Research Benefit,” is due to be released this year.
In addition to “Spring Carousel,” Winston is also working on a third album of Guaraldi pieces.
“I just love his songs — the Peanuts soundtrack pieces, the jazz pieces,” he said. “I would put a cassette recorder at the TV every time there was a new one on because I knew there were going to be some new pieces I’d want to try to play. Everyone remembers ‘Linus and Lucy’ in ‘A Charlie Brown Christmas.’ That was a great, great moment to those 16 pieces that he scored.”
In addition to his piano work, Winston plays blues harmonica, solo acoustic guitar and Hawaiian slack-key guitar. Today, Winston concentrates mainly on live performances, and most of the time he is touring playing solo piano concerts, solo guitar concerts, solo harmonica concerts and solo piano dances.
All musical instruments have their limitations, and the piano is no exception. For Winston, it’s a unique relationship with each song, whether it was put together by him or composed by someone else.
“Songs don’t always work out — sometimes you just need the vocal, or you need the guitar and drums,” he said. “You can reconstruct it and move things around. I never compose a song on purpose — it just happens.”
Since 1986, Winston has been raising money for food banks and service organizations and continues to do so by working with a local food bank in every tour market to hold a canned food drive at the show. One hundred percent of Winston’s merchandise sales will be donated to the State College Food Bank.
“We ask people to bring cans of food, and then the food bank gets the all the proceeds from the sales of the CDs,” he said. “I just wanted to help out in the communities that invited me to play.”
Winston is always working on new projects, with two records yet to be released. His goal in performing is just to work at improving each and every day.
“I’m just trying to get better with the things I currently play — trying to be a little better than last week,” he said. “Recording and performing really are two different things. At a concert you’re playing for a person who is there, and that’s it — it’s gone. When you’re recording, you’re playing for somebody in the future and it’s forever.”
IF YOU GO
- What: An Evening with George Winston
- When: 8 p.m. April 12
- Where: The State Theatre, 130 W. College Ave., State College
- Info: www.thestatetheatre.org