Jazz is autistic, says WaterFire performer

Earlier this week, Dennis Winslett practiced with his band for their upcoming performance at WaterFire on Saturday. He said being the father of three autistic sons and jamming with local greats at the Mutual Musicians Foundation have helped him develop his own jazz style.

Posted by Joe Lambe

The sixth annual WaterFire this Saturday will feature floating braziers on Brush Creek, dancers and much music, including jazz performer Dennis Winslett and his band.

Winslett, 37, is an Olathe man whose original compositions grow from training,  playing with jazz greats and being the father of three autistic sons.

The sax player spoke of all that this week as he practiced with his ensemble in Kansas City.

Call the music modern jazz, if it has to be given a label, he said. It sounds lyrical and somehow steeped in tradition without being traditional.

Not that the man who at age 15 jammed at the Mutual Musicians Foundation with local greats like Claude Fiddler Williams and Jay McShann has anything particularly against old style swing, bebop or blues.

“The best way to play homage to tradition is by putting it forward,” he said. “Imitate, assimilate and innovate, and now too many people are stuck in imitation.”

His sons, ages 20, 8, and 5, helped teach him to think outside the box, he said.

Autistic people are born with unique gifts and approach them without concern for what others think.

“It’s not really a disability, it’s a different ability,” said Winslett, who serves on the board of Skills to Succeed, an Olathe based group that works with autistic people.

An autistic girl who could not speak once typed her description of autism: “introverted intellectual exploration.”

What is that but jazz? Winslett asked.

He is completing an album of his compositions with a band and their album is called “Jazz is Autistic.”

The project marks the resumption of his playing career, which had largely been put on hold after he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2003. He had just come out with his first album, “Soul Journey,” when the MS hit his facial muscles and hands. He shifted to jazz education and work with nonprofit groups.

At that point, he’d been playing the sax since he was in the 8th grade in Olathe.  His father listened to blues and his mother loved gospel music and a high school band director at Olathe North steered him into jazz.

He was soon jamming with the old greats of the day at the foundation in Kansas City, not that he was that good then, he said. “I was just fearless.”

He earned a music education degree from the University of Missouri at Kansas City and a music performance degree from VanderCook College of Music in Chicago.

In Chicago he met Fred Anderson and played at his famous “Velvet Lounge” jazz club, where Winslett for years in his 20s hosted its Sunday jam sessions.

“If you were a young musician, it’s where you went to see how you stacked up with the best of the best,” he said. “There was a lot of testosterone.”

Later he did education programs for the National Jazz Museum in Chicago and got involved with helping at risk youth for the nonprofit Sherwood Conservatory of Music there.

“That’s where I really started to appreciate the importance of the arts or lack of it,” he said.

He returned to Olathe in 2006 and until this year worked as director of education for the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City.

Now he is going off in a new direction, one where artists work to define modern life in their own ways.

“Charlie Parker defined his time,” Winslett said, but not ours.

“We’re artists; we have to pull society into the now.”

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