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Gary Peacock: Zen Bass


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I think music actually prepared me in some ways in coming to zazen, because it was the only window in my life where I felt kind of a spiritual or religious sense.
Gary Peacock is a seminal part of jazz history. Born 1935 in Burley, Idaho, he grew up in Yakima, Washington, studied piano at the Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles and played piano in the army until the group's bassist quit and Peacock took over the chair.

Back in the US, Peacock worked on the West Coast with Bud Shank, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel, Paul Bley and Ornette Coleman and on the East Coast with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, Jimmy Giuffre, Albert Ayler, Paul Motian, Roland Kirk and Don Cherry. In 1964 Peacock left the music scene to study Eastern medicine in Japan, then came back to America to study biology. Gradually he started playing again and in the early '80s he started working with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, a collaboration that continues to this day.

Peacock makes his home in upstate New York, where among other activities he helps run a meditation group in a prison. This interview was conducted at Zen Mountain Monastery in Mount Tremper, New York, where Peacock has been a student for six years.

All About Jazz: You have been part of several important trios, including your current group with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette. What's the particular magic of the trio format?

Gary Peacock: If three people share a common history in a particular area of music and they all found something in that music that freed them, when they get together to play a piece everyone is 100% in that composition. Keith, Jack and I are playing standards from the Great American Songbook. So although there's a distance in age, we share the same inspiration from so many people and compositions that we're already in quite a magical setting.

The question is, how much are you willing to give up to play this music? I don't think it can work if you still have an agenda, if you feel you still need to prove something musically. That's not the point—it's just about the music. So you're going to serve that, not yourself or somebody in the audience, not the critics or the reviewers. It's just the music. What does the music want? Almost all of the music I play with Keith and Jack are like flowers. There's this beautiful bouquet of flowers, so the idea is to really nourish them. You wouldn't trample them, you wouldn't give them too much water or you'd drown them. How do I nourish these flowers so they can really express themselves? You approach the music from that standpoint, rather than as a vehicle for your technique or your self-expression. Creativity is not the point. It's just about the music.

You're always a beginner. If you always wake up in the morning and realize, "Oh my God, I'm just a beginner!," then you're in a really good place. If you wake up in the morning and say, "Oh, I've got that handled, I can do anything I want."—hmm, I don't know.

AAJ: What did you learn from playing with Miles Davis?

GP: Listening became part of my body. Sometimes Miles would be playing and he'd stop in the middle of a song and turn around and look at me. The first couple times I thought, "Jeez, I must have fucked up." After a while I realized that he was listening to everyone around him. I saw that when Miles would stop playing, what he stopped playing would be finished by Herbie [Hancock] on piano. That was a real opening for me. Another thing that was particularly good for me was a playfulness. There was an enormous sincerity in the music and sometimes a complete lack of seriousness. One time we did a midnight concert for the black community and we started off with "Stella by Starlight." We had an arrangement where Miles and I played just the first part and then Herbie and Tony [Williams] came in after eight bars. So Miles and I got towards the end of our part and he turned around and said, "Watch this!" I'm waiting for him to do something tricky and I'm going to have to be on my toes. He turns around and he gets to a certain phrase and he bends the note down and the first eight rows in the audience just swooned. Miles turned around and said, "Wasn't that note a motherfucker?"

He could be very biting and critical of the music around him, but usually he voiced it with humor. For me his humor really came out in his music, how somebody would be playing a solo and he'd just cut in and start playing the melody. Finally I realized that it was something to break up the seriousness, something to keep things loose.

He was an incredible teacher, if someone could pay attention. And with me personally, he completely got me over my feelings of not being good enough because I'm white, which is something that was happening to white musicians in the '50s and '60s. I got completely past that because Miles just rubbed my nose in it, but he did it with humor. He let me know that he didn't care whether I was white or black or green or orange. It's just, "Can you play?" So he was very valuable in that respect. I loved the guy.

AAJ: How has your relationship to the bass changed over the years?

GP: At first it was me and the bass. Something to conquer, something to control. It gave me a sense of identity and a purpose in life. One thing in my life that wasn't flipping out all over the place, something I could count on. As a result of that, it produced a lot of anxiety, because once I became that identified with the instrument, then let's say something happened to my hands, I wouldn't have an identity. That's who I was, I was a musician—I wasn't anything but that. In the beginning it worked very well, because that anxiety kept me on target, it kept me woodshedding and developing more and more.

But if you keep pushing things down, eventually they're going to pop up and really bite you in the ass. 1964 was the first major change. I was going through all kinds of emotional stuff, I was involved with drugs and alcohol, a relationship that was kind of rocky and then one time I took acid with Timothy Leary's group. I went through periods where I would die and I would come back and I couldn't stop it. The people I was with put me in a tub of ice-cold water to shock my nervous system. I stopped breathing for a second and when I looked down I had turned into a turtle. So that didn't help!

But the next day I felt really calm. When I looked at the calm, I saw that I had realized I wasn't a musician. That was something I had made up in my mind; it was something I did, but it wasn't who I was. But if I'm not that, then who am I? My relationship with music and with the bass completely changed. The bass was an instrument I played; it wasn't me. If I couldn't play music anymore, I wouldn't die. My interest in music ended and it didn't come back until about ten years later when I did a short tour with Paul Bley in Japan and something turned the wheel, something happened. So the relationship I have now is that I'm me. There's a relationship between myself and the instrument, but it's me over here and the bass over there. We're not the same and we're not different. Now I follow a practice that I've done for about ten years. I go through an actual daily practice of greeting the instrument, positioning myself with the instrument, paying attention to my posture, my breathing, the texture, the feeling of the instrument.

Sometimes that takes seconds, sometimes it takes five minutes. Just getting a physical-sensory connection. The next thing is when I actually start playing, I don't lose that physical connection. To be completely aware of the sound that I'm playing and also what my feelings are about the sound of the instrument. Just paying attention. I don't try to do anything about it necessarily, but I just play, letting it be there. I might be playing an arpeggio or a melody, but basically the attention is on the sensory-emotional aspect of my playing. And then I let it go.

AAJ: How has zazen (sitting meditation) influenced you?

GP: I think music actually prepared me in some ways in coming to zazen, because it was the only window in my life where I felt kind of a spiritual or religious sense. I looked at that the essence of that and it was just bare awareness. Zazen is the same thing; it's a heightened sense of awareness. My daily mantra is a quote from my Zen teacher, John Daido Loori, Roshi. I asked him one time, "What is Zen?" He said, "Just do what you're doing while you're doing it." It's so simple, but it's so hard! That's something about Keith. Whatever he's doing, he's doing it. In some ways he's more Zen than anybody I've ever met.

AAJ: What are you listening to these days?

GP: Precious little. Where I live is very silent. I really love it—there's no cars, no people, just the wind in the trees, a deer walking around, a cowbell, a brook. So mostly I spend a lot of time in silence.



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