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Requiem for Gary Peacock

Gary Peacock. Photo by Elliott Peacock.

Bassists Rob Thorsen, Justin Grinnell, Bob Magnusson, Mark Dresser, and others at a Gary Peacock Trio concert in 2016. Photo courtesy of Justin Grinnell.

As if the year 2020 had not delivered enough anguish to the jazz community, on September 4, the profoundly soulful double bass icon Gary Peacock made his transition from this world into the unknown. He was 85 years old.

Bass players are the heartbeat of jazz, and Gary Peacock was one of the most versatile musicians who ever took up the instrument. Oddly enough, he didn’t even begin playing the bass before joining the Army during the Korean war. Prior to that, Peacock had played piano, trumpet, and drums. After the bassist in his combo quit, he was persuaded to make the switch. Many years later he told Cadence magazine, “I just sort of knew where the notes were.” Peacock was stationed in Germany at the time and he progressed with alacrity.

Returning to the United States and the fertile Los Angeles scene, he played with Barney Kessel, Art Pepper, Don Ellis, Prince Lasha, and many other West Coast heavyweights. He also met the emerging Scott LaFaro, who would have a lasting influence.

“I’ve always loved his playing,” said double bass master Bob Magnusson, who has performed with everyone from Sarah Vaughan to Linda Ronstadt. “He was kind of an offshoot of Scotty LaFaro. He had a great time feeling, sound, and a real sense of freedom that I always admired.”

About that sound. Peacock’s bass seemed to sing with just a little more volume and clarity than most of his contemporaries in the early ’60s—before the advent of pickups and amplifiers. His bass emitted a voluptuous tone that only grew more enticing in the intervening years.

Becoming more drawn to the nascent free music movement, Peacock made for New York City in 1962. He immediately hooked up with clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, composer George Russell, and saxophonist Archie Shepp. In December of 1963, he replaced the late Scott LaFaro in the Bill Evans Trio, recording the illuminative album Trio 64. Around that time, he made a paradigm shift when he joined the group of saxophone firebrand Albert Ayler.

Damon Smith is one of many in the free-improvising community who fell under the Peacock spell. “Gary laid the groundwork for truly open free jazz playing in an ensemble context with Albert Ayler. His predecessors were still mainly concerned with anchoring the ensemble. His work with Ayler, particularly with Spiritual Unity, was a huge influence on many bassists, including the late Peter Kowald, who was equally innovative. He then went on to redefine tonal improvisation on the double bass in the piano trio format with Paul Bley. One of my favorite things about his playing is his ability to remain fluid even when playing repeating figures, keeping everyone on their toes!”

Smith was hardly the only bassist to be moved by Peacock’s work with the explosive Ayler. Virtuoso bassist, composer, and UC San Diego professor Mark Dresser is another. “I never heard a bassist sound so free and modern,” says Dresser. “A combination of his amazing facility, his resonant sound in all of the registers, and an unhinged spring-like like rhythmic concept fused to this incredible melodicism. His ability to play the whole bass in a compelling contrapuntal way blew away all the normal bass hierarchies of supportive walking and being a truly independent voice, of equal interest to the horn player. His playing, driven by a lightening fast ear, allowed him to moor the bottom, while being melodically and rhythmically interactive, employing a great sense of color, a super accurate beat, and amazing intonation. It still sounds fresh and modern today.”

1964 was a watershed year for the young Peacock. In juxtaposition to his groundbreaking work with Ayler stood his contribution with the Evans trio. It would be hard to imagine two musical worlds more violently opposed. At that point, Peacock was possibly the most versatile bassist in jazz. But that wasn’t all. In that same year he also subbed for Ron Carter in the Miles Davis Quintet. Other than John Coltrane, there simply wasn’t any bigger gig in all of jazz. It would only be natural for Peacock to have felt some nervous tension. There was, of course, no rehearsal. The bassist recalled assembling onstage and Miles turning to whisper, “Just don’t play none of that ‘white’ shit.” Actually, that seemed to relax the agitation. He also recalled that Davis “didn’t miss one thing. He heard everything. I could hear him hearing everything.”

In that same year, Peacock played on the drum phenomenon Tony Williams’ debut album. If he had died in 1964, his name would still reverberate in the long corridor of the music we call jazz. But in spite of the prodigious output that spanned the entire breadth of the music, all was not well in Peacock’s world. He was doing a lot of drugs (amphetamines in particular) and abusing alcohol. He hadn’t eaten in weeks when Ayler finally found him just in time to make a European tour. After he returned, an illuminative experience with LSD left him questioning everything. So, at the apex of his career, he walked away from the music, sold his bass, quit drugs, and moved to Japan to study macrobiotics.

Ayler’s music remains polarizing to this day—perhaps because he was so ahead of his time. I must admit, when I first heard Spiritual Unity as a 19-year-old novice, I was unconvinced. It took me years to assimilate Ayler into my consciousness, but when I heard The Hilversum Sessions (with Sunny Murray, Don Cherry, and Peacock) recorded on Dutch radio and released in 1980, I finally got it. On the other end of the spectrum Peacock’s work with Bill Evans was almost universally lauded. Somewhere in between those two poles was his time with pianist Paul Bley.

To me, as a person who struggled with substance abuse problems for years, Peacock’s ability to wrench himself away from New York, music, and drugs was particularly inspiring. I would cling to his example during many dark episodes until I was able to extricate myself 17 years ago.

Eventually, Peacock returned slowly to the music, and, in 1972, he also returned to the United States, deciding to study biology at the University of Washington. Manfred Eicher of ECM Records reached out and Gary cut Paul Bley with Gary Peacock for the label in 1970. Of primary interest to me was his trio session for ECM in 1977—Tales of Another—with Keith Jarrett on piano (playing his last date as a sideman) and Jack DeJohnette on drums. That same band reorganized in 1983 to form Jarrett’s Standards Trio, which would go on to make more than 20 albums while performing in concert halls around the world over the next 30 years. Peacock’s acoustic sound on the first three records Standards Volume I and Standards Volume II, plus the all-improvised Changes was nothing short of revelatory. One mind-boggling fact is that those three albums were recorded over the course of a single afternoon.

I regret never having the opportunity to see them live, but I bought every record the day it came out and I collected all of their concert videos as well. 1983 wasn’t just the year of the Standards Trio, it also marked the first meeting of pianist Marc Copland and the bassist. They would go on to collaborate even longer than the Standards Trio, eventually coalescing into the Gary Peacock Trio with Joey Baron.

I was over the moon when local concert impresario Daniel Atkinson informed me of his plans to bring the Peacock Trio to San Diego a few years back.

“I’ve been listening to Gary since the early 1980s when I was first getting into jazz,” explains Atkinson. “The Keith Jarrett Standards Trio albums are still among my favorites. I had a near miss with presenting him with Marilyn Crispell and Paul Motian, but Gary had to withdraw due to health reasons. So, when the opportunity came up to present him with Marc Copland and Joey Baron I jumped on it and actually coordinated a multi-venue West Coast tour for the band. This was one of those gigs where you knew you were in the presence of one of the giants and also that it might turn out to be the only chance to see him here, which was true.”

After Charlie Haden passed away in 2014, I became obsessed with the idea of being able to reach out to Gary to tell him just how much his music and his example of embracing sobriety had meant to me. So, with a little help from my friends, I obtained his email and sent him a note describing all of that. I didn’t really expect an answer; my goal was just to let him know. Maybe a day later, he wrote me back, illustrating something I had always intuited: a huge reservoir of humility and humanity.

Brooklyn-based Peter Swanson teaches the instrument online at his private studio. He knows that humanity all too well, as he studied with Peacock some years back. “I still remember the feeling I had pulling up to Gary’s house for my first lesson,” said Swanson. “Equal parts awe and terror… yet all of those feelings quickly subsided as Gary warmly reached out and hugged a young man he’d never met before. This seemingly small act would exemplify Gary’s playing and teaching philosophy—not knowing what he was getting into, yet fully embracing it. In our lessons he would insist I come in with questions which were ‘pointed’ and had ‘edges’ to them. He would answer those questions with perhaps not what you wanted to hear, but what you needed to hear at that particular time. That was emblematic in his playing as well. Over the years I look back on the conversations we had in our lessons as some of the most important insights on music and life that I’ve ever had. Gary’s seemingly limitless patience, kindness, and teaching to that particular moment had an impact on my views on music and toward being in the moment, which I hope to carry over in all aspects of my life.”

I don’t think I’ve ever looked forward to a concert with quite the same degree of enthusiasm as the Peacock Trio at the Athenaeum (TSRI) in February of 2016. I have never seen so many bass players in one spot before. It was a transcendent affair, to be sure. And thanks to the generosity of Dan Atkinson I was able to meet the master after the show. I also got the chance to speak in depth with his pianist Marc Copland, who penned these poignant thoughts for the London Times. They are reprinted here with his permission.

“To say I miss him isn’t quite right. Gary was at peace with himself and indicated to me as we said goodbye 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. Gary Peacock gave this music—and all of us—something very special until he couldn’t anymore, until it was time to go. He would want, I think, for us not to focus on his absence, but rather to experience the joy. And there’s a lot of that… 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 the way the bass is played are there, and will be there. And that’s as it should be.”

Hearing Gary Peacock live and on record was a life-changer for me. I believe I could sense his humanity with every note, and I’m so glad that I got the chance to tell him how much his music had made my life more meaningful. I’m going to wrap this up by turning to his rhythm section partner Joey Baron, who has always personified the sound of joy to me. I asked Joey to describe what it was like playing with Gary.

“Thrilling, informative, intense,” he answered, via email from Berlin. “He had such a clear connection to what he loved about music and humanity. Gary’s compositions were wonderfully open and inspired. To be on the bandstand next to that and converse musically, in real time, taught me a lot about confidence and generosity. On particularly good nights Gary could deeply channel that unabashed romping quality that harkens back to his early exposure to Western Swing bands. During my time of involvement with Gary, he was navigating increasing hearing loss. His willingness to show/share his struggles were especially gut wrenching, and they inspired me both musically and emotionally to go beyond my comfort zone. I am forever grateful to have had the privilege (on and off the bandstand) of sharing time with such a musical giant.”

RECOMMENDED LISTENING:

Albert Ayler                Spiritual Unity

Albert Ayler                The Hilversum Session

Bill Evans                    Trio 64

Paul Bley                     Virtuosi

Keith Jarrett               Standards Vol. I and II

Gary Peacock              Tales of Another

Gary Peacock              December Poems

Gary Peacock              Tangents

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