Grammy-winning guitarist William Ackerman comes to Chicago this week to perform a concert benefiting Openlands, a local nonprofit protecting natural habitats in northeastern Illinois.
Ackerman doesn't tour much anymore. The founder of Windham Hill Records in 1976, Ackerman sold his interest in the famous instrumental music label in the '90s. Now he produces other artists, records rarely, and performs at house concerts and other intimate venues.
"I want to see people's eyes," Ackerman said in a recent interview from his Vermont home. "These house concerts -- it might be 2 people, it might be 40, sometimes 100. It's so much more satisfying, more immediate and intimate. We just did a show at the Count Basie Theater [in Red Bank, N.J.]. I had 'em turn the house lights up, and got to talking. I like getting dialogue from people. I hope to foster some of that in Chicago. I don't know what it is about this that matters to me at this point in my life. I'm just done with the 'I'm the guy up here and you're the people out there' thing."
7:30 p.m. Wednesday
Feinberg Theatre at the Spertus Institute, 610 S. Michigan
Tickets: $75-$150, VIP $250
(312) 863-6273, openlands.org
Ackerman made a significant mark on American music by not having this dialogue he now seeks. He doesn't sing, he's "just" a guitarist. The simple style of folk instrumental music he showcased in his early recordings, and those of like-minded, too-good-for-words players on the Windham Hill label, spawned an entire genre. The Grammys had to create a new category to honor it (Best New Age Recording). Ackerman and his label won several.
Windham Hill Records, launched in 1976, featured chiefly instrumental artists such as guitarists Michael Hedges and Ackerman's cousin, Alex de Grassi; pianists Liz Story and Jim Brickman; world-flavored ensembles Shadowfax and Interior; even some electronic composers like Mark Isham and Ray Lynch. The label became hugely successful with the first solo piano records of George Winston.
"I'm still delighted by all the articles touting 'Ackerman's stunning analysis of the recording industry in 1976.' There was never anything less preconceived than the origin of Windham Hill," Ackerman said. "It seems prescient, but it wasn't. It was just me following my heart and being at the right place at the right time with something that was utterly sincere, which the world apparently needed. Disco ruled the airwaves in 1976, and it all seemed pretty damned shallow. Fun, but not terribly challenging. There was no home for artists working with acousticity and melody and heart, and that's what we did."
The label was one of the last great music industry success stories. Ackerman had been a construction worker when he injured his back. While healing, friends encouraged him to pursue his hobby in depth, playing acoustic guitar. With a $300 initial investment, he released his own record and slapped a business name on it. From 1976 to 1984, according to USA Today, Windham Hill's business grew an average of 181 percent each year. Ackerman said he didn't have to buy a single advertisement until his 12th year in business.
The music on the Windham Hill label varied, especially as the business grew to include subsidiary labels, incorporating jazz -- including clever players like Ben Sidran or the duo Tuck & Patti -- and spoken-word. At first, the label's name became its own genre; record shops tagged bins "Windham Hill" and loaded them with whatever new albums were released in the label's signature mostly-white sleeves. "I went into a Tower Records in San Francisco one day, and they had a Windham Hill bin," Ackerman said. "I thought that was amazing. The owner said, 'Yeah, they come in and say, "What's new on Windham Hill?" They're not asking for individual artists.' "
In fact, some of the label's best-selling records were its annual samplers, collecting the best new compositions by the label's active artists. "Windham Hill Records Sampler '86" was even nominated for a Grammy.
But success breeds imitators, and eventually other instrumental music began to glut the market. Then the genre couldn't just be called by one label's name, so it took on a new tag: new age.
"There was no blessing in that, only curse," Ackerman said, still clearly annoyed more than two decades later. "We were selling millions of records, and the major labels got hungry. They figured, if we were selling that number they could sell much more. Suddenly they all wanted meetings with me. We ultimately signed a distribution deal with A&M [in 1982], but I remember walking out of a Capitol office, and the guy laughing and saying, 'All we gotta do is get a pianist and put a lot of white on the cover.' That's the kind of cynicism that defined the labels' entrance into this market they didn't understand, and they flooded it with an undifferentiated product that reflected that. What had become a very loyal following of people who moved with us into this grassroots musical movement became alienated, and the whole thing fell apart. ... 'New age' carried connotations of belief systems that had nothing to do with Windham Hill."
Ackerman sold his interest in Windham Hill early in the '90s. He formed the Gang of Seven spoken-word label, working with monologue artists such as Spaulding Gray and Tom Bodett, and another music label, Imaginary Road. Today, he produces other artists, currently working with pianist Fiona Joy Hawkins, and performs occasionally on his own.
He's playing the Openlands benefit because he said he's moved by the group's work. It will also be his first performance in Chicago in nearly 20 years.
"The urban world is needing to find little centers of peace -- the urban garden, etc.," Ackerman said later. "Maybe I'm an insufferable romantic, but I think it does a kid good to see a seed turn into a plant and healthy food. That stuff moves me. The whole aspect of the CSA [Community Supported Agriculture] is frankly the only human intervention I can't find a downside for, and somehow merging the urban and the rural experience as much as feasible is a deeply important balance in my mind. So these guys saved and provided access to 55,000 acres of land for prairies, wetlands and greenway corridors, parks, forest preserves and, yes, urban gardens."