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Paul Winter Sextet: Count Me In

Duncan Heining By

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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.


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