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Windham Hill: 40th Anniversary Show at Bing

In Music
FINGERPICKING FOUNDER: Stanford dropout Will Ackerman started the Windham Hill Records in Palo Alto. The label would go on to be highly influential in the realm of instrumental and new age music.

FINGERPICKING FOUNDER: Stanford dropout Will Ackerman started the Windham Hill Records in Palo Alto. The label would go on to be highly influential in the realm of instrumental and new age music.

Forty years ago, the Palo Alto-raised, Stanford-educated Will Ackerman would often play his guitar for passersby under an archway at the Old Union building on campus, where the acoustics were just right.

“I never meant to draw an audience, but when I would open my eyes I’d find that four, then 15, then 30, then 100 people would be listening,” he says.

Ackerman dropped out of Stanford in the spring of his senior year and became an apprentice carpenter and contractor, but he kept up with the guitar, and went on to form the acclaimed Windham Hill (named after Ackerman’s favorite place in Vermont) record label. On Dec. 12, Ackerman returns to Stanford, along with Windham Hill alumni guitarist Alex De Grassi and multi-instrumentalist Barbara Higbie, plus Todd Boston, for a concert celebrating Windham Hill’s 40th anniversary.

In addition to being an anniversary show, and reunion of sorts, the concert also ties into the holiday season. Known for releasing acoustic—and eventually electronic—instrumental music, one of Windham Hill’s most popular titles is the A Winter’s Solstice series of seasonal music.

“I felt the world desperately needed something that more metaphorically conveyed the season without falling back into the 10,000th rendition of Jingle Bells,” Ackerman says of the collection’s origins. Though all of the Solstice works were distinctly wintery in character, many selections were secular. “I think I was right.”

Looking back on his decades in the business, Ackerman says he always saw music as something he did out of love, not as a career goal.

“While I’d never entertained the notion of doing anything professionally with music, it was always an important part of my life,” he says. In 1976 he released his first record, The Search for the Turtle’s Navel.

“My sole ambition in 1976 was to sell the 300 copies of Turtle’s Navel I had pressed. I expected to have 137 of those in my closet for the rest of my life,” he says.

“A neighborhood childhood friend who happened to be doing promotion for Atlantic Records at the time sent a few copies of Will’s first recording out to radio—the golden days of free-form FM radio±—and the response was amazing,” Ackerman’s cousin and Windham Hill label mate, Alex De Grassi, says. “Suddenly there was a demand, and Will turned to me and said, ‘Let’s record your solo guitar pieces as well.’ Windham Hill quickly morphed into a record label, and suddenly we were both being offered real gigs playing concerts.”

The indie label rose to prominence with its eclectic catalogue of releases falling under the umbrellas of folk, new age, world and more. In the 1980s and ’90s, releases from Windham Hill appeared on the Billboard Chart, including pianist George Winston’s platinum-selling seasonal albums Autumn, December, and Winter into Spring.

“I am given credit as a visionary, but I was just a guy following his heart and, apparently, the bold direction of just following my heart touched a lot of people in nations around the world,” Ackerman says of his label’s success.

For a son of a Stanford English professor, Palo Alto was “a pretty idyllic place to grow up,” he says, recalling his youth spent in the sleepy College Terrace neighborhood. But, “If Stanford influenced me in any way creatively I would say it was in making it clear to me that I was not destined to be an academic, as I and my family had tacitly assumed.”

De Grassi also grew up in Palo Alto, with many fond memories of the area.

“There was definitely something about ‘fingerpicking’ guitar in the air at that time on the Peninsula, as I personally knew and hung out with others more or less my age who were gravitating towards learning to play intricate acoustic guitar music,” he says. He’s looking forward to playing at Stanford again after many years.

“I played one of my very first ‘concerts’ as a recording artist at the Tresidder Memorial Union back in ’78 or ’79,” he says. “I was so nervous; I remember getting halfway through one of my compositions and I blanked out, totally forgot how it went, then immediately tore into the next piece. It all ended on a good note, but it was one of those pivotal moments in my career as a performer. I’ve come along way since those days.”

Ackerman, too, is happy to return to the place that loomed large in his formative years. “Stanford will always have a special place in my heart,” he says, “though I suspect Stanford doesn’t hold me in much esteem as a student.”

Ackerman doesn’t perform live much anymore, as he mainly concentrates on producing records for other artists from his Vermont studio. He says audiences at the Dec. 12 show can expect “to hear a guitar player who is now 66 years old, who has a ton of fond memories of the early days of my own guitar work and the founding of Windham Hill Records. He is not all that well rehearsed these days, but promises to play his heart out and is very much looking forward to this concert.”

A Windham Hill Winter Solstice plays on Dec 12, 7:30pm for $38-$73 at Bing Concert Hall, Stanford.

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