Call George Winston a New Orleans-inspired pianist 

click to enlarge George Winston
  • courtesy photo
  • Piano great George Winston plays a benefit for the San Francisco Food Bank in Mill Valley on Saturday.
No offense to crystal-loving New Agers out there who love pianist George Winston for his ethereal Windham Hill classics such as “Autumn,” “December” and “Summer.” But the musician considers the style he employed on those 1980s-90s albums folk piano, which he adopted as a melodic counterpoint to the buoyant Fats Waller-ish stride genre he previously favored. “That New Age misnomer has been a good lesson for me, because nothing could be further from describing what I do,” says the artist, whose latest disc is “Gulf Coast Blues & Impressions 2 — A Louisiana Wetlands Benefit,” and who appears this weekend in a benefit for the San Francisco Food Bank. He also runs his own label, Dancing Cat Records, which focuses on Hawaiian slack-key guitarists.

For the layman, what’s happening — or not happening — with the Louisiana wetlands? Well, they’re losing about a football field’s worth of wetlands a day. And this record benefits Voice of the Wetlands, which was started by the musician Tab Benoit in 2004, before [Hurricane] Katrina. The wetlands were affected mainly by oil things — pipelines, machinery, building — which is cause for natural erosion and less protection for New Orleans and other towns from hurricanes.

Why do you feel this cause so acutely? Well, my main piano influences are from New Orleans — Professor Longhair and James Booker and Henry Butler, amongst others. And when there’s a disaster, everybody wants to do something to help. And I figure this is what I do best. I’ve been studying New Orleans music since ’79, so the songs are already there, and in fact, there will be three more benefit records.

But the message must be clear for fans now — you aren’t really New Age. It’s like if somebody calls you Bob. You’re like, “Well, you can call me whatever you want. But it ain’t right!” So that’s made me realize that with anything I read about somebody, I’d better hear it from the person. Or hear their music. I mean, I could read about Fats Waller, even read what he wrote about himself. But I have to hear his music to really get an idea.

And — contrary to his musical — I hear that he was, in fact, misbehavin’. Oh, yeah! It’s amazing he made it to 39! But he had a very strong constitution, unlike today’s wimpy rock guys. In the Prohibition days, the police raided a speakeasy, and another stride player was in there with Fats, Willie “The Lion” Smith, who was an athlete. So they all ran, and Willie climbs up a tree. But when he gets high up, he hears a voice above him say, “Hey — you escaped too, huh, Lion?” Fats had actually beaten him out of the joint, and up the tree!


George Winston

In a benefit for the S.F. Food Bank

Where: Throckmorton Theatre, 142 Throckmorton Ave., Mill Valley

When: 8 p.m. Saturday

Tickets: $32 to $45

Contact: (415) 383-9600,

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Tom Lanham

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