Winter Solstice has become New York’s favorite holiday alternative to the Nutcracker and Radio City’s Christmas Spectacular. A dazzling extravaganza of music and dance, this glorious event celebrates the bounty of the Earth and the spirit of the holidays within the extraordinary acoustics of New York’s greatest Cathedral. It’s a contemporary take on ancient solstice rituals, when people felt a calling to come together on the longest night of the year to welcome the return of the sun and the birth of the new year.
A seven-time Grammy Award-winning saxophonist, Paul Winter was a college student in 1961, when his sextet won the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival and was signed by Columbia Records. The next year, the band toured Latin America as cultural ambassadors for the U.S. State Department, playing 160 concerts in 23 countries. At the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy, the Paul Winter Sextet presented the first ever jazz concert at the White House in 1962.
Hearing the songs of humpback whales for the first time in 1968 further expanded Winter’s concept of a musical community. The Consort’s rich sound textures give Winter’s Earth Music its unique and alluring quality; sounds from the natural world are interwoven with classical and ethnic traditions, then infused with the spontaneous spirit of jazz.
In 1980, the Paul Winter Consort became artists-in-residence at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. Each year’s Winter and Summer Solstice Celebrations and Earth Mass are among the most popular events in New York. “People get a sense of community – a sense of the whole wide community of life, which is one of the best things we could do with our music,” he says.
Paul Winter has performed in over 2,000 major concert halls, as well as Washington’s National Cathedral, Grace Cathedral in San Francisco, the Grand Canyon, the Negev Desert in Israel and the palace of the Crown Prince of Japan. He has received a Global 500 Award from the United Nations, and the Peace Abbey’s Courage of Conscience Award, among others.
Winter solstice (Solsticio de Inverno) is the shortest day and the longest night of the year. Traditionally, it is a time of both foreboding and expectancy, as the longest night leads to the revival of the sun. And yet it is a turning point, when the sun reaches its southernmost point from the equator and seems to pause before reversing course. “Solstice” in Latin means “the sun standing still.”
In ancient times, observers watched the sun sink lower in the sky each day, and feared it would disappear completely and leave them in darkness.
People practiced special rituals intended to entice the sun’s return. Bonfires and candles, with their imitative magic, helped fortify the waning sun and ward off the spirits of darkness. These symbols live on in our modern seasonal customs: the candles of Hanukkah and Christmas are kin to the fiery rites of old, which celebrated the miracle of the earth’s renewal.
These traditions reflect our need to come together in times of extended darkness. We celebrate not only the rebirth of the sun, but the community of life on earth.
The story of the Paul Winter Consort and its predecessor, the Paul Winter Sextet, has evolved during a forty-year saga of adventure-through-music. Milestones include:
Infused with the rhythms and melodies of so many of the world’s cultures, Winter decided in 1968 to form the Consort as a forum for combining elements from various African, Asian, and South American cultures with jazz. “I borrowed the name ‘consort’ from the ensembles of Shakespeare’s time, the housebands of the Elizabethan Theater, which adventurously blended woodwinds, strings and percussion, the same families of instruments I wanted to combine in our ‘contemporary’ consort,” Paul Winter says.
Musicians such as David Darling, Paul McCandless, Jamey Haddad, Ralph Towner, Glen Moore, Collin Wolcott, Nancy Rumbel, Jim Scott, Rhonda Larson, Russ Landau, Glen Velez, Paul Halley, Dorothy Papadakos, Eugene Friesen, Susan Osborn, Paul Sullivan, Mickey Hart, Oscar Castro-Neves, Nóirín Ní Riain, Jordan Rudess, Davy Spillane and many others have performed with the Consort.
“Ever since St. John’s Day, Dec. 27, 1892, when the cornerstone was thrice struck into the living rock of Manhattan’s Morningside Heights, St. John’s has aimed to be a ‘house of prayer for all people.’ To its great bronze doors have come all the faithful — Christian, Jew, Buddhist, existentialist, best-dressed, lesser-blessed, socially distressed — seeking joy and triumph over the universal demons.
“In the arboreal stillness of its towering columns and arches, they have listened to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Buckminster Fuller, the Mayor of Jerusalem, Duke Ellington, the Dalai Lama, Cesar Chavez, Rene Dubos, Thomas Berry, Jesse Jackson, Vaclav Havel, Gary Snyder, Brian Swimme, Secretaries General of the United Nations, Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the Paul Winter Consort.
“Under the jewel light of its 10,000 pane Great Rose window, they have prayed together for war’s end. Though its keynote is distinctly American, as is that of the Episcopal Church, the Cathedral — affectionately called “Big John” — peals a message around the globe: ‘Peace on earth, good will toward all.’ ”
– Wendy Insinger (from Town & Country magazine)