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Gary Peacock (1935-2020)

Sep 7 | Posted by: Robert Sabin


The loss of Gary Peacock is a blow that will take a great amount of time to come to terms with. I wanted to offer here some of my experiences with him as a student (I have also uploaded the interviews I conducted with Gary from the dissertation on his 1963-65 period.  These are available in the download page of this site.)
I was in the early stages of topic consideration for my Ph.D., and I already knew it would somehow involve the most dynamic era of double bass evolution, the 1960s. The list of players contributing to the changing nature of music and the bass was unparalleled: Charles Mingus, Barre Phillips, Charlie Haden, Burt Turetsky, Ron Carter, Scott LaFaro, Richard Davis, Steve Swallow, and Gary Peacock (among several others). This was a generation of virtuosos that are, even still, rarely matched in terms of invention, influence, ability and beauty of their highly individual approaches to music.
Of these names Gary’s stood out in my mind, as he was a continuous source of inspiration and often seemingly impenetrable musicianship. I remember early on taking lessons with the great Michael Moore, who when he discovered I was not familiar with Gary’s performance of “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” with Bill Evans, immediately put the recording on. We listened, with me mostly baffled, and Michael with a wide-eyed grin, later telling me the story how he had to go back and make sure to count while he heard it, so as to find out if Gary was for real (yes, he was). This story has been echoed by several others who encountered the recording, and with the same degree of disbelief. Other recordings, from this same period (1963-65) were spoken of with hushed reverence at jam sessions and hangs, the “Turning Point” recording held up as an untouchable bass tour de force.
It was in 2009 that luthier Bill Merchant informed me that he regularly worked on Gary’s instruments, and of the fondness he had for him as a person as well as a musician. Gary had something of a reputation (legend really) for being a misanthrope, often disappearing after sets, not having any kind of web presence, and living upstate in an out of the way corner of the wilderness. When I mentioned my seemingly unattainable desire to study with Gary, he kindly offered to mention me to him, and shortly got back to me with a phone number and that Gary would be happy to connect for a potential bass lesson.
Nervous to say the least (I stared at the phone for several minutes before hitting the call button), I left a shaky voicemail introducing myself. Gary called back and we had a short conversation. The first lesson came right away when he asked what I was interested in studying. I made a ham-handed attempt to express my openness at diving into anything he wished to offer about my playing, at which point he cut me off. He agreed to meet me, but let me know that it just wasn’t going to work well unless I had some specific questions for him. (Shit, did I mess this up already?) We set a date, and I made the drive up to Liberty New York.
I did make sure to have many questions for him, with several about his approach to ear training. These were especially useful, as the first thing he had me do was drive him down the hill to pick up his car that was in the shop. He laughed knowingly when he saw the sorry state of my car (“Maid’s day off?” I offered) and perked up when I started asking him about some of the ambiguity in the tonic sol-fa system he adopted in an instructional video. Thus we began a very long conversation about the potentiality and tonality, one that would be ubiquitous in various lessons.
When we continued our conversation back at his house (3-4 hours at the kitchen table before taking out the bass) I was humbled by his immense knowledge of music, science, philosophy, well-known and obscure music texts, and the combination of empirical and spiritual search he had undertaken to learn more about himself, music, and life. He was fluent in the works of Bonpensiere, Schoenberg, Toch, Roederer and Zuckerkandl, and described his humbling early experiences working through Hindemith. In one moment imparting wisdom developed through his study of Zen Buddhism, the next cracking up over a profanity-laced remembrance of something that happened with Miles Davis and Sidney Poitier in the kitchen of the Village Vanguard.
Gary was driven to learn more about music and the bass, but really I think he was driven to learn more about himself. This was encapsulated in a story he told about meditating at some point in the late 1950s, and imagining the playing of a scale. At a certain point he noticed he imagined one note out of tune. Being that this was all in his head, he realized that he was the one often getting in his own way. I remember this story almost daily as I try to come to terms with the universal truth of that statement.
Gary’s search was reflected in the kindness he showed students like me. He gave you his entire day, and deem to delight in exploring new information, communicating ideas, and telling the stories he had no doubt been telling for decades – his collaborations with Miles, Albert Ayler, Paul Bley, Paul Motian, Bill Evans, Gil Evans, Ralph Towner, Marc Copland, Marylin Crispell, and of course the Keith Jarrett Trio. All of his ideas were connected in some way to his real experiences, demonstrating his inspiring attention to the act of improvising and listening.
His kindness meant he happily agreed to be the subject of my dissertation, and I would return to the woods several more times for questions, showing him things, I had transcribed, and attempt to challenge him if something he suggested I read had what I thought were inconsistencies in it. He was most pleased with those I think, as he could often turn these observations into a deeper lesson that wouldn’t have been possible otherwise:


RS: So then I’m thinking we don’t need things to be moving in order to experience motion.
GP: AH! Ah, no shit! Write that one down. But be sure you write it down right. In order to experience motion is what you said right? Ok, that’s important. We don’t need things to be moving in order to experience motion. Nevertheless, there is an experience of movement. Where?
In you.
I don’t know.
In my fingers, my hands? Where is that movement? What is the nature of that movement? You’re getting into Zen territory here.
It was the greatest of pleasures in the ensuing years to find Gary after performances and hear the real stories (Sy Johnson came to a performance at Birdland I learned they were former roommates, as well as tales involving Moondog, Milt Jackson, a Chinese restaurant that asked Gary to leave with a meat cleaver…) He was always smiling and happy to see me, despite the fact he would be swarmed by the masses. He graciously invited both Bill Merchant and I to the last performance by the Keith Jarrett Trio in New Jersey, topped off by a stunning free bass solo on the set’s closer “Straight no Chaser”. In the last year we had brief but meaningful email exchanges involving his tunes (apparently the last recorded version of Gaia is the definitive, not the earlier with Ralph Towner), bootleg recordings (there still is an unavailable tape of Gary live with Bill, c'mon Ben Young!), random questions, advice, and birthday greetings. Each time the phone rang or I saw his name in my inbox I always experienced the same “Holy shit, it’s Gary Peacock!” feeling I had when I first telephoned him.
I feel like the outpouring of remembrances and sincerity for his passing demonstrates that I was but one of generations of musicians who were fortunate enough to learn from this master musician, listener, and friend. There will be many more generations who will have the same privileged through his countless recordings. While this will certainly not be last time any of us speak about Gary or his influence, I think it will be the last time we feel such sadness to say his name.
Farewell Gary.

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