City Life

Remembering George Winston and Santa Cruz’s connection to a musical tradition

George Winston, who died June 4, is best known for his piano oeuvre, but Dancing Cat Records, his Santa Cruz-based recording label, helped keep Hawaiian slack-key guitar alive and gave many of its practitioners a boost.

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Last week, the music world learned of the death of pianist George Winston, who enjoyed a brief spurt of immense popularity in the 1980s for his dreamy, even wintry recordings for solo piano on the landmark Windham Hill label.

Let’s not forget, however, about Winston’s crucial Santa Cruz connection. At the height of his popularity, Winston founded Dancing Cat, a recording label based in Santa Cruz. Dancing Cat was not about promoting Winston’s own music — he was doing fine at Windham Hill. After releasing a few albums from his own primary musical influences, he then turned to what became Dancing Cat’s primary mission. He wanted to provide a way to market for many unknown or underappreciated artists from the tradition of Hawaiian slack-key guitar.

As a result, several grand old masters of Hawaiian slack-key — Sonny Chillingworth, Ray Kane, Cyril Pahinui and many others — enjoyed a late-career renaissance and were able to make new connections with fans on the mainland, all from the label’s headquarters in Santa Cruz.

Winston had a fine career as a recording artist and performer, but music lovers in Hawaii will always be grateful to him for keeping alive a wonderful musical tradition.