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Paul Winter Sextet: Count Me In


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The Paul Winter Sextet might just be one of the best early sixties groups you never heard. Their story, and that of their leader and altoist Paul Winter's, is certainly one of the most remarkable in jazz. Had some director made a film of the Sextet's short life, jazz buffs would have scoffed at the conceit. But it happened, man. It happened.

A few years ago, Winter released Count Me In on his own Living Music label. It's a double CD compilation of tracks from four of the band's albums, along with unreleased items, including their legendary White House concert in '63-they were the first jazz group to play there -in front of First Lady Jackie Kennedy and the children of assorted embassies. We'll come to that, later. Count Me In is beautifully packaged with comprehensive sleeve notes detailing the Sextet's story with all its twists, turns and complexities.

The Paul Winter Sextet, an integrated ensemble at a time when this was rare and when segregation was practised legally in many states, was the brainchild of Winter and trumpeter friend Dick Whitsell. Both were students at Northwestern University near Chicago and Whitsell had grown up on the far south side of the city in what was a genteel residential area. By contrast, Winter had grown up in Altoona, Pennsylvania. As Winter explains, the difference between the predominantly white community of Altoona and the much more cosmopolitan and mixed communities of Chicago involved a culture shift, if not an actual culture shock. The experience would take him from his first love in jazz, big bands, into new areas of the music.

"Going to Chicago was my first encounter with another culture as opposed to the white one with which I had grown up. But to come into the South side of Chicago, where I spent a great deal of time and to have a guide like Dick Whitsell, who through his teens had hung out in the black community -I wouldn't call it dumb luck but maybe smart luck. That community was so welcoming. The spirit of jazz that drew me in had always been about this sense of community and of welcoming. I felt that in the big band music, of course, and then in the era of jazz on the South side. It was a wonderful time and, of course, I was new to a lot of the music and new to the culture. I was just very lucky to have had that much access to the music and to this community of musicians."

A number of things make their story special. The mere fact that what began as a student band would land a recording contract with Columbia with the legendary John Hammond snr. as producer, perform at the White House and undertake a 160-date Latin American tour sponsored by the State Dept. is astonishing enough. But then the Sextet was in a different league from most college groups, as the 'names' that would pass through its ranks after it turned 'pro' attest.

Their original pianist was Warren Bernhardt, a classical music child prodigy and fan of Bill Evans and Oscar Peterson. Many of you will know him from Steps Ahead and Steely Dan. Their first drummer was Harold Jones, "the singer's drummer," who later joined Count Basie and who now accompanies Tony Bennett. The bassist by the time the Sextet recorded their eponymous first record was Richard Evans, later house arranger for Chess, Argo and Cadet Records and a fondly-remembered professor at Berklee. Les Rout was the band's first baritone saxophonist. He gave up music for a distinguished academic career but what a very fine jazz musician he would have made.

As for the others passing through the group, these included drummers Freddie Waits and Ben Riley and bassists Bob Cranshaw, Chuck Israels, Cecil McBee and, on one occasion for the Sextet's performance on The Tonight Show, Ron Carter. Between them these players performed and recorded with artists such as Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins, Wayne Shorter, Bill Evans, George Russell, Charles Lloyd, Alice Coltrane and so many others. The list of Bob Cranshaw's Blue Note sessions alone would make him a legend. Finally, when Les Rout left to return to academia, his place was taken by Jay Cameron, whose credits prior to joining included Rex Stewart, Bill Coleman, Dizzy Gillespie and Maynard Ferguson. This was no ordinary group and certainly not one to be confined to the footnotes of jazz history.

Nor should Winter's post-Sextet music be ignored. He would later form the Paul Winter Consort, a truly ground-breaking and genre-bending ensemble. As well as producing some sumptuously gorgeous music, the Consort would bring together the talents of Paul McCandless, Ralph Towner, Collin Walcott and Glen Moore creating the longest-lived improvising ensemble in the band, Oregon. But we get ahead of our story.

In 1957, Winter formed a small dance band to play sorority and fraternity gigs with Whitsell and both played in the Northwestern 'Jazz Laboratory' big band. Slowly the idea of forming a jazz sextet began to take shape. Their inspirations—Miles' Kind of Blue, the Benny Golson-Art Farmer Jazztet and the recordings by the Jimmy Heath Sextet -from the outset defined a sound that emphasised the group as much as the individual soloist, as Winter told me.

"There were an array of small groups that seemed to be flourishing or were recording or touring in the late fifties that I was drawn to. I heard many of them in two different clubs in Chicago—the Sutherland Lounge and the Birdhouse, which was more a concert venue cum-jazz club. I loved the Jazztet, the amazing arrangements they had. Benny (Golson) was a master arranger. I had heard that he was aware of the harmonics that would result from a particular voicing of these horns. They moved us—that was Dick Whitsell and myself. Dick was my partner in the group. And growing up with the bands of Benny Goodman, Glenn Miller and then Kenton's band in the early fifties, my ideal was a balance between ensemble and soloing. Long solos had not really come in to play at that point. And you find that balance too in Kind of Blue. I heard that Sextet at the Sutherland Lounge. Then the recordings of the Jimmy Heath Sextet impressed us very much."

Winter and Whitsell decided upon a combination of trumpet, alto and baritone in the frontline, with the bari-sax giving the sound a deeper resonance and timbre than would have come from a tenor horn. Winter tells how he and Whitsell drove from Chicago to New York in search of Jimmy Heath, hoping to buy some of his arrangements for their fledgling group, only to find that he lived in Philadelphia. More by smart luck than judgement, they tracked him down. Heath was so impressed that he sold them seven charts at $10 apiece. The duo simply didn't have that much cash on them. So, Winter called his dad, who wired them the money.

The group's first performance was at the Notre Dame Collegiate Jazz Festival in April 1961. Unfortunately, Dick Whitsell took sick the night before the festival and a last minute replacement had to be found. The replacement was a strong player but had been earning a living as a postal worker and had not played in a year. He had to sight-read the charts and Winter told me the band "didn't sound as tight as it could have."

The group had also had little time to rehearse for the event, as Winter explained,

"Our rehearsals took place at the Birdhouse Club between two and five in the morning. I had befriended the manager and he had given us permission to rehearse after hours in the club. We had no place to play. I was lucky I found the people I did because they were quick studiers and much more experienced in that bebop genre than I."

Despite these issues, the Sextet did well at the festival in Notre Dame, taking second place, while baritone saxophonist Les Rout took the Best Soloist award.

The next month, the Sextet played the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival in Washington D.C. before a panel of judges including Dizzy Gillespie and John Hammond. The band took first prize, which included a contract with Columbia and a week's engagement at Birdland. Gillespie, apparently, was blown away and, though the Birdland gig never materialised, the band got to play that summer at the Evansville and Saugatuck Jazz Festivals. In the sleeve notes to their second record, Jazz Premiere: Washington, John Hammond described Winter as a "salesman and a real hustler" and complimented him on his organizational abilities. In truth, it was the sheer persistence and determination of Winter and Whitsell that made these things happen and which held the band together.

Even now, fifty-five years later, Winter impresses as a true believer in the "art of the possible." But what came next beggars belief. The pair approached the State Department with the idea of a tour of Latin America and the State Department bit. Their one proviso was that the band have a manager to accompany them, so Winter approached Gene Lees, then editor of Down Beat. Lees promised to call them back and did so the next day, saying, "I'll go!" Columbia, meanwhile, released the Sextet's first LP in Latin America only to coincide with the tour. Sadly, it was never released in the USA.

Over a period of 22 weeks, the Paul Winter Sextet went from Haiti, then through Central America and then visited every country in South America, finishing up in Martinique and Guadeloupe. Sixty-two cities playing to audiences from a few hundred to 15,000 one night in Columbia. People who had never heard jazz before, let alone heard it live. People in small towns and big cities, students, farmers and farmworkers. Sometimes these 'Yankees' were met with suspicion, seen as a tool of US imperialism but one minor riot in Brazil aside, this integrated, young, enthusiastic group disarmed and charmed. The experience would have a lasting impact on Winter, leading to a lifelong love of Brazilian music and helping to change his own music direction. He also made another life-long friend on the tour, the brilliant Brazilian guitarist Oscar Castro-Neves. As for Gene Lees, he met Antonio Carlos Jobim and worked with the songwriter on English translations of his lyrics.

I asked Winter what it was about the music and, in particular, bossa nova that attracted him.

"It is the same commitment to beautiful melodies and lovely harmonies that were integral to the big band era. These were just great songs but with a very different flavour. It was rhythmically beguiling in a very gentle way. It had magic on every front. It was the first time I had encountered a gentle music that also had soul. If we do have our respective masculine and feminine sides to our aesthetic sense, then it awakened the feminine side in me."

Winter told me that the Sextet was pretty loud, "Even the ballads were loud. We never needed a sound system because we were loud." It was, after all, rooted in bebop, though with a strong emphasis on form and ensemble or, as Winter puts it, "We were modelled after the Jazztet and Jimmy Heath's arranging but aspiring to Gil Evans-like textures."

Several things make the music of the Winter Sextet worth seeking out. The first of these is the quality of the arrangements and the beautiful textures—Gil Evans-like, indeed—they produce. As well as the seven arrangements they bought of Jimmy Heath, the group had two fine composer-arrangers in bassist Richard Evans and pianist Warren Bernhardt. Indeed, Winter himself would rise to this challenge on the Sextet's Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova and Jazz Meets the Folk Song albums. However, to understand this question fully one needs to realise that, as Russian composer Rimsky-Korsakov once noted, the arrangements or orchestration were not just the garb in which the tune was dressed but the very essence of each piece.

The second reason to seek out Count Me In lies is the superb musicianship within the group. This was never about "nightclub gymnastics," to use Winter's own term, but rather about a kind of individual expression which served the group sound and identity. In this the Sextet was particularly well-served by a rhythm section that would include a number of truly gifted bassists, as well as two less-feted but exceptional drummers in Harold Jones and, later, Freddie Waits. It was also truly fortunate in having Warren Bernhardt on piano. Bernhardt's melodic gifts are one thing but he also had the ability to push the soloist when required—the Oscar Peterson influence, perhaps.

As for the frontline, Whitsell was maybe the most outgoing of the three, capable of bravura outbursts at times. Winter told me that the trumpeter had met Freddie Hubbard in Indianapolis, when Whitsell was in the army. Hubbard had become a friend and mentor of the younger man. There is something of Hubbard's control and execution about Whitsell's playing, a similar capacity for higher register explosions but balanced by a taut, biting incisiveness. If his performance on "Pony Express" illustrates the former, then his solo on "Casa Camara" (both from Jazz Premiere: Washington) does the same for the latter.

Paul Winter never saw himself as a dynamic player in that sense but his great strength lies in his ability to make each statement precise and completely appropriate to the tune. The effect is a strange one, a kind of ten second delay and then it hits you—"That was really good!" His solos on Evans' "Them Nasty Hurtin' Blues" and Bernhardt's "Papa Zimbi" (both included on Count Me In) are cases in point. I mentioned Les Rout already but, like Whitsell, he could swing and he could do the fireworks thing but most of all he had that big Chicago blues sound.

But the final thing that sets the group apart is their concision. Solos derive from the tunes and the arrangements, as opposed to the other way round where the tunes are merely a prelude to a series of solo pearls on a string. Most of the tracks on Count Me In are around the three or four minute mark, with only eight out of thirty-two longer than five minutes. That takes real discipline and, more than that, makes for great listening.

While on the Latin American tour, the Sextet had laid down the first tracks that would become the Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova album. On returning to the USA, the group went back into the Columbia studios with John Hammond and completed the record, as well as recording a large number of pieces from their repertoire. These would be later released as the group's third LP, Jazz Premiere: Washington. The Charlie Byrd/Stan Getz release Jazz Samba had been a huge success and Columbia, hoping to cash in on the trend, decided to shelve the band's first album and release the bossa nova record instead, as its first North America release.

Jazz Meets the Bossa Nova sold 30,000 copies, good for a jazz record at the time, and became a minor hit. Despite this, the Sextet had few bookings and three of its members -Harold Jones, Richard Evans and Les Rout -left to seek other work.

The White House concert changed all that. While in South America, Winter had written to President Kennedy extolling the value of the US cultural exchange programme. Remarkably, the letter had been noted and in August 1962, out of the blue, a letter arrived inviting the Sextet to perform in the East Room of the White House. As well as the children of staff and local ambassadors, the room was packed with journalists. The publicity that resulted changed the group's fortunes dramatically. It also makes Paul Winter the only jazz musician in history to blag a gig off the US President.

New members -Jay Cameron, Ben Riley and bassist Arthur Harper -were recruited and the band undertook its first cross-country tour, after which they toured a number of mid-Western colleges, the result of which would be the group's fourth release, New Jazz on Campus. The Count Me In set includes seven cuts from that LP, as well as two unreleased items -John Lewis' "New York 19" -and the longest piece the band recorded, Warren Bernhardt's "Suite Port au Prince," from which "Papa Zimbi" provided the concluding section. It suggests the way the Sextet might have developed given its new-found interest in Latin American and Brazilian music and how this might be combined with jazz. At the same time, however, it also hints at the broader musical canvas that Winter would essay with the Paul Winter Consort.

But the Sextet was, by this point, on borrowed time. In July 1963, the group had played the Newport Jazz Festival and on the drive back to New York, Dick Whitsell announced his intention to go to give up music and go to medical school and give up music at the end of the year. He told Winter, "I'll never be as good as Freddie Hubbard" It was this, coupled with the national sense of loss following the assassination of John F. Kennedy, that marked the end of the band.

"It was his Dionysian side to my Apollonian side that made this a creative partnership. Freddie Hubbard had been his mentor and friend but his father and brother were doctors. His family had this standard of excellence. He was a maverick in that world of his family. His soul was music. He was jazz. He was ebullient, spontaneous. I was not at all that way. He had this humour that threaded its way through our journey together. But after he left, that part of me....I just didn't have his other half."

The idea for what would be the Sextet's final album had been seeded in June 1963, when John Hammond suggested that they consider doing jazz interpretations of folk songs. As Winter explains, he knew nothing about folk music. However, 1963 was an important year in North American folk music, marked notably by Bob Dylan's second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, as well as the emergence of a new generation of songwriters such as Phil Ochs, Tom Rush and Tom Paxton. John Hammond connected as much with folk music as with jazz and, perhaps with one eye on this burgeoning new market, he invited Winter to sit in the recording booth at Carnegie Hall for the Pete Seeger concert, which would be released later under the title We Shall Overcome. The experience was an ear-opener for Winter. "I was completely blown away by Pete," Winter told me. Hearing and seeing Seeger in 1963 would lead to a life-long friendship and eventually resulted in their collaboration on Seeger's Grammy-winning record Pete in 1997.

Over the next few months, Winter worked with Warren Bernhardt and the group's new bassist, Cecil McBee, on arrangements of a collection of Scottish and North and South American folk songs. The very idea of the album now sounds as corny as Kansas in August. It is true one or two tunes—notably, the Antipodean entrant "Waltzing Matilda"—cannot survive their contempt-bred over-familiarity. But the album is actually far, far better than expected. "Scarlett Ribbons" has a long, gorgeous, limpid introduction from Bernhardt, while "Guantanamera" is graced by some lovely, lyrical playing from Winter himself. Winter's arrangement for "Greenwood Side" is a marvellous slice of fast-paced bebop with strong soloing from Bernhardt and McBee and "Lass from the Low Countrie" is given a lovely, fluttering setting with the addition of Sam Brown on acoustic guitar and Jeremy Steig on flute.

Best of all, however, is "We Shall Overcome"—the last tune the band would record. Arguably one of the most important songs that the USA has gifted to the world, it was sung most memorably by Seeger, Josh White, Joan Baez, Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary at the 1963 Civil Rights "March on Washington." The version here was inspired both by the Seeger concert and by President Kennedy's assassination a week before the recording session. If this marked Dick Whitsell's swan-song, then it was a fine one indeed, as his trumpet pours forth stately grief tinged with anger. For myself, hearing this makes it -even acknowledging Seeger's masterly performance -the definitive version.


I plan to cover Paul Winter's later work with the Winter Consort in a chapter in a forthcoming book on the relationship between jazz and vernacular musics. That chapter will also include Pat Metheny, Jimmy Giuffre, Marc Johnson, Oregon, John Benson Brookes and others. For that reason, I will keep my powder dry for now.

However, it would be unfair on Paul Winter not to, at least draw attention, to his later career. As I have said, the saxophonist found in the music of Brazil certain qualities that he had felt were lacking in much of the jazz he was hearing in the mid-sixties. "I became more interested in instruments that were quieter—not just because they were quieter," he told me. "I became enamoured of the cello through the music of Heitor Villa-Lobos. I loved the sound of the English horn and began to think that maybe there could be a whole different kind of ensemble that would work with Brazilian guitar. So, we graduated from traps and from brass to these different textures."

Winter returned to Brazil in 1964, living there for about a year and recording two albums. The first of these was The Sound of Ipanema with guitarist-songwriter Carlos Lyra, whom Winter rates second only to Antonio Carlos Jobim. The second was Rio with another famous Brazilian guitarist-composer, Luiz Bonfa.

The Winter Consort made four records between 1968-1972—The Winter Consort, Something in the Wind, Road and Icarus, the latter two of which feature the Oregon guys and cellist David Darling. Winter plans to reissue Icarus and Road shortly. Of the other three, Road is certainly the equal of Icarus and most deserving of re-release, whilst the group's first album is an intriguing opening statement. I am less convinced by Something in the Wind, though that may be, in part, due to the fact that my vinyl copy has more crackles and pops than a well-known breakfast cereal.

Icarus was produced by the late, great George Martin and it shows. Despite that pedigree, Capitol Records, who had bankrolled the record to the tune of $65,000, bailed when it came to putting it out. It turned out the executive, who had signed the band, had been purged and, with some difficulty, Winter eventually made a deal with Epic. The record failed to 'do the numbers' in its first year and Epic chose not to pick up the option to sign the Consort. More fool them, it turned out, as Winter explains,

"Within the first year it had only sold 25,000, which today would be fantastic, but then anything under a hundred thousand was not worth talking about. So, they dropped us. So, I thought, 'Okay. That's it. We failed.' Sales were their god. But then, three or four years later, I went into Columbia, where Epic was, to pick up some promo discs from a guy I knew. He said, 'You know, your album has sold almost 200,000.' I had no idea and it kept on selling."

But it would be wrong to assume that Winter's last major contribution to jazz was midwifing Oregon into the world. He has continued to make some beautiful records that demonstrate a commitment to what he calls 'Earth Music,' a term which does not describe the music but rather one which "explains our aspiration, which is to celebrate the creatures and cultures of the whole Earth. I think of it as 'us' music, as opposed to 'me' music."

Winter continues to record and perform, often with an expanded Consort that will include musicians from around the world such as Oscar Castro-Neves (sadly no longer with us), Armenian percussionist-singer Arto Tuncboyaciyan, Irish piper Davy Spillane, Brazilian singer-songwriter Luciana Souza, Russian vocal ensemble the Dimitri Pokrovsky Singers and, even, Grateful Dead percussionist Mickey Hart. They perform twice each year at New York's St. John the Divine on the Summer and Winter Solstices.

Of his subsequent releases Missa Gaia from 1982, Silver Solstice from 2005 and, most of all, Brazilian Days with Oscar Castro-Neves from 1998 come highly recommended. Call it "New Age" or "World Music," categories are irrelevant if it works and it does.

Winter remains just as committed to music today, to peace, internationalism and the protection of the environment, as he was all those years ago in Chicago—more so, perhaps. Still marching to a different drum, after all these years.

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