THE CURIOUS ONE: GARY PEACOCK, 1935-2020
by Marc Copland
From London Jazz News: It’s an unusual path that takes a man from Burley, Idaho (population around 5,000 in 1935) to concert hall stages with packed houses in New York, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Vienna, Madrid, Tokyo, Osaka, and more. But this I can say about Gary Peacock: if it was unusual, he was interested.
From the time I met him in 1983 to the last time I saw him, a two-hour conversation on his front porch about a month ago, Gary was always changing, and yet never really changed: always curious, open, determined to explore, and impatient with anything that might get in the way. In 1964, he was among the handful of innovative players on his axe; in 2014, you could have said the same. That’s living musically on the edge during a span of a half-century, and there aren’t many musicians in that particular club. But he was a member of another club as well: that small fraternity of musicians who have had a hand in shaping and redefining the direction of the music. After all, take away Gary and Scott LaFaro, and what have you got? We can’t be sure, but it wouldn’t be the same.
Gary Peacock brought the same determined curiosity to his investigations of music, religion, philosophy, aesthetics, and more. While living in Japan for a few years, he immersed himself in the culture and became a fluent Japanese speaker. He took the same delight in fixing something around the house that he took in solving a musical problem. A discussion with him could veer suddenly from music to quantum physics to Zen Buddhism.
A problem to be solved was an adventure; a riddle was a pleasure; a harmony or line was to be explored, savored, experienced, loved – and tossed aside the second it was no longer relevant. He talked often of being in the moment, unconcerned with anything beyond what was right in front of him – which is a pretty good explanation of why he named his last trio “Now This.” It’s not by accident that my recollection of playing with him for the first time in 1983 is nearly identical to drummer Mark Ferber’s impression of playing with him for the first time in 2016: “It was amazing, here was a living legend, and I didn’t know what to expect, but he was open, honest, and all about the music. Just the music; nothing else mattered.”
Gary brought the same dedication, intensity, joy, and commitment to life and to music, doing so regardless of the surroundings. It made no difference to him if he was playing a concert in Japan or Europe for an audience of a couple of thousand, or a club gig in New York for less than a hundred souls. When the music was right he was happy; if it wasn’t right, he was not. The musicians around him onstage could be international stars, or younger players with little or no reputation; that didn’t matter. What mattered was how things were working on the bandstand. Here’s what was important to him: check your ego at the door. Listen first, play later. If you can’t hear anything to play – don’t.
I remember well the first time I played with Gary. It’s a story I’ve told before, but perhaps worth one more go: in 1983 I’m 35 years old, pretty much unknown to the public, and flying to Seattle to play trio at Jazz Alley with two “local” musicians, Gary and Jerry Granelli, neither of whom I’ve ever met. To say I’m nervous does not quite get it. I am so terrified that I have numbed myself completely, to minimize the damage of whatever terrible fate awaits me for daring to get on the bandstand with these two luminaries.
I walk in to soundcheck/rehearsal, and here’s what greets me: Granelli, banging away at his drum hardware, setting up his kit; and Gary, seated on a stool, head down, not looking up, tossing off fusillades of rapid fire lines and figures from the bass, one after the other, in an almost cavalier fashion, except for the fact that each one is a gem, crackling like lightning, each outburst outshining the previous one, and how am I going to play with that?
So here’s what I do: I sit down at the piano, hunch over, my nose not far from the keys, hiding from both of them, and since I can’t see them, they can’t see me, and maybe I’m safe. Gary, ignoring the banging from the drum construction, continues to bombard the atmosphere with an onslaught of sonic madness, a passionate monologue as if Richard Burton were doing Shakespeare, except that it’s all so effortless, casually tossing off musical cascades that are impossible, a kind of wizard’s soliloquy, a sleight-of-hand, things I had no idea the bass could do. And he’s just warming up, I think. This goes on for a bit, and then suddenly everything stops; there is space. The drums must be assembled, the banging isn’t there anymore, and the bass is strangely silent. Into the silence, after a pause, I inject a chord.
Head still down, putting the pedal down, playing a lush chord, not terribly loud, sustaining it with the damper pedal. It sounds pretty. A reply follows: a long, held bass note, underpinning the chord in a really cool way. Completely different vibe from when I walked in the room. So okay, why not: here comes another held chord, and it’s met by another reply, but not quite the same, a different bass note, sustaining and underpinning that second chord in an equally cool way but with a slightly new bent, as if to say see, now we can go this way. I’m not sure why, but it’s at this moment that for the first time I look up, and Gary is grinning, chuckling and nodding, as if to say “oh yeah man, this is gonna be fun”.
And it was, for the next 37 years.
To say I miss him isn’t quite right. Gary was at peace with himself, and indicated to me as we said good-bye this last time, that it might well be the last last time. He often talked about how Zen Buddhism taught one to embrace impermanence, and certainly his approach to improvisation reflected that. So maybe I’ve been preparing. Maybe Gary showed me this, too. It is time. Now this.
Gary Peacock gave this music, and all of us, something very special until he couldn’t any more, until it was time to go. He would want, I think, for us not to focus on his absence, but to rather experience the joy. And there’s a lot of that: all those years of music, much of it thankfully well documented. There’s much to love: the trios with Bill Evans, Keith Jarrett and Paul Bley; the bootleg from the Vanguard with the Miles Davis quintet, minus Miles; the bass solo sides; Albert Ayler’s Ghosts; the quartet with Tomasz Stanko, and the duos with Ralph Towner, Bill Frisell, and Marilyn Crispell. And so much more. There’s gigs and bands that were never recorded, among them Gary’s NYC quartet with Tim Hagans, Vic Juris, and John Riley. Though I last heard that band years ago, the music still resonates in my head.
So maybe it makes sense. Life is impermanent, yet life is. We lose something, but we can never really lose it. Gary Peacock’s contributions to jazz, and to the way the bass is played, are there, and will be there. And that’s as it should be.
Last year the label Illusions released Gary, a solo piano album by Marc Copland of compositions by Gary Peacock – LINK
Gary Peacock, born Burley, Idaho, 12 May 1935, died at home in Upstate New York 4 September 2020.