It is mid-winter in rural Connecticut, and the cavernous wooden barn that Paul Winter has used as his rehearsal and recording space for the past several decades is empty of other musicians for now. But the place is crowded with exotic instruments: a 300-kilo Congolese talking drum, a Balinese gong and hanging metal tubes. It seems a world away from the swing dance hall his parents brought him to in Altoona, Pennsylvania, in 1944, when he was 5 years old.
"It seemed that when that music was playing, they felt good," Winter recalls. "It just seemed to enhance community. It evoked life. And I think right there was the seed for my life's path."
That path took Winter first to the clarinet, which he played at area polka dances with his sister on piano, then to his own jazz band. He formed the group when he was 12 and had switched to the saxophone.
Playing for common people, presidents
At Northwestern University in Chicago, Winter created a jazz sextet that beat out hundreds of other college groups to win the All Collegiate Jazz Festival. That garnered the group a multi-record contract with Columbia Records, a major jazz label. But true to type, Winter was more interested in community than in furthering his personal ambition. His sextet, for example, featured three black and three white musicians, which was unusual for the time. He says he felt jazz, by its nature, was inclusive.
"Jazz had long been a welcoming forum for people of all sorts of backgrounds," he says. "It was a safe haven where people could commune and consort and celebrate, and it didn't matter what color you were. It's one of the wonderful things that jazz contributed to the American journey."
Soon after college, the Paul Winter Sextet left on its own inter-American journey. The U.S. State Department sent them on a six-month, 23-nation "good will" tour of Latin America. Winter says that eye-opening experience ended any notions he had of a traditional career.
"What happens when you travel… is your world expands," he says. "You realize that the whole world is your home, not just this city you live in."
After their tour, first lady Jacqueline Kennedy invited the six musicians to perform at the White House as part of her "Concerts for Young People by Young People" series. It was the first time a jazz band had ever played in the Executive Mansion.
Tapping into the universal heart
During the 1960s, as rock music eclipsed jazz as America's most popular music, Winter began to search for a career path that would gratify him yet pay the bills. At a month-long workshop at the Esalen Institute, the legendary psychologist Fritz Perls advised him to create his own life. And that's what Winter did.
"[I learned that] there's no need to be in step or in time with the culture. If you're doing what's the deepest thing you can, that in itself is a great reward. You can get by with a very small audience and still have your soul intact."
Winter has continued to travel. The Paul Winter Consort, his changing core of acoustic musicians, has visited dozens of countries, where they have jammed - "communed" might be a more accurate word - with African mbiri players, traditional Russian singers, conch and Japanese drummers and scores of other diverse instrumentalists. This work has led many to credit Winter with helping to foster what is now known as "World Music."
Winter freely admits he's rarely shared a spoken language with these virtuosi, but says that that hardly matters.
"You can make music with people and not have to know a thing about them. You share 'essence,' and tap into the 'universal heart.' That's one of the miraculous things about making music."
Music explores meaning of 'wildness'
Throughout the '70s and '80s, Winter developed a keen interest in the music of nature. His groundbreaking New Age album, Common Ground, featured the sounds of endangered animal species, such as the songs of humpback whale and the eagle. On Prayer for the Wild Things, Winter used his saxophone to initiate an improvised duet with a pack of wild timber wolves in Montana's Glacier National Park. That album - one of nearly 50 he has released - won him one of the seven Grammy awards he has received so far.
Winter says this interplay between nature and music is a way to understand what he calls "wildness."
"Not 'wildness' in the sense of 'frenzy,'" he cautions, "but [in the sense] of a miraculous balance between order and chaos, and between freedom and control which the creatures have. An alertness."
Winter adds that he has sometimes experienced that "wildness" during musical improvisations with the Paul Winter Consort.
"It's a sense of relatedness and of participating together and expressing together in a way that affirms the whole, yet gives voice to each individual. It's this beautiful, pure democracy."
Annual concerts celebrate humanity, nature
But the Paul Winter Consort and Friends may express the connection among the human, the natural and the cosmic worlds most seamlessly at their annual Winter Solstice Celebrations. These sold-out musical journeys are held at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City, the largest Gothic cathedral in the world. They begin with the lone plaintive call of Winter's soprano sax and continue through a symbolic re-enactment of the year's longest night, and the climactic moment when the sun is reborn.
"It's cathartic for me," Winter says, admitting, "All those sounds [we use] are sounds that I love, so basically I am just entertaining myself, having a good time with all these favorite sounds."
He says the fact that other people like it, too, is an added attraction.
But again, it is not fame that has brought the Paul Winter Consort to the Cathedral every year since 1980. It's his sense of spirituality and fun. It's one part of the commitment to community and celebration that has guided Winter in his musical journey for more than a half century.