What is Zen?
"I asked one of my teachers that once," says Gary Peacock on a gray Woodstock afternoon, when the subject of his long association with Eastern philosophy comes up. "He told me, 'Just do what you do while you're doing it.' We live in a world where we're pushed into always doing more than one thing at the same time. And I've found I'm not good at adding anything to what I'm already doing."
What Peacock has been doing, most famously, for 58 years, has been playing the bass—in a groundbreaking, infinitely creative, and hugely acclaimed way. Having worked with some of the most important names in jazz, he's the possessor of an approach that effortlessly embodies all of the modern era's major stylistic developments: bop, cool, free, avant-classical. Rich in tone, his is a deceptively deep, uncluttered sound; understated yet somehow speaking volumes. But although Peacock comes across as an intensely focused artist to whom playing is akin to breathing, he's taken some winding, searching paths to find his place.
"There was very little musical input there," he says about Burley, Idaho, where he was born in 1935. "My grandfather was a violinist and had a band with my two uncles before I came along. My mom played piano, but we didn't own one then. There was classical on the radio, which I loved—Bach, Mendelssohn, Schubert. But there was no jazz around. My introduction to jazz came when I was 15, when we lived in Oregon. I heard a broadcast by this trio that turned out to be [pianist] Teddy Napoleon, [drummer] Gene Krupa, and [saxophonist] Illinois Jacquet, which was, like, 'Wow, what's that?' I started studying piano and joined a high school dance band on drums. We got asked to play the graduation dance, which was a totally transformative experience. By the end of the set, everything was already done in my mind. I went up to the school president and said, 'I know what my life's going to be about.'"
Peacock was accepted at Westlake College of Music in Los Angeles, where he studied basic theory, along with piano, vibraphone, and drums. But before he could step out as a full-fledged working musician, as the Cold War was revving up Uncle Sam came calling. "I got drafted," he recalls. "[The Army] stationed me in Germany." The potentially music career-destroying assignment, however, turned out to be incredibly fortuitous. In 1956, while enlisted Peacock was playing piano in a jazz combo led by future Ramsey Lewis drummer Red Holt at officers' clubs when the band's bassist quit. "He'd just gotten married and his wife didn't want him playing out anymore," Peacock explains. "So Red told me, 'You're gonna play the bass from now on.' I said, 'What? I'm a piano player, I don't know how to play the bass!' But he insisted, he told me he knew I could do it. And without any teachers I just kind of figured it out, just by hunting and pecking. So I became a bass player by default. The way that all happened was a great and pronounced introduction to uncertainty, which has really been invaluable."
After his discharge Peacock stayed on in Germany, working with European jazzmen Hans Koller and Atilla Zoller and visiting US players Tony Scott, Bud Shank, and Bob Cooper. In 1958 he headed back to LA, where he plunged into the cool jazz scene during its height, gigging and recording with Shank, Art Pepper, Barney Kessel, Shelly Manne, Shorty Rodgers, Terry Gibbs, and other West Coast giants. "It was a cheap to live in LA back then, and there were lots of opportunities to work," remembers Peacock, who at that time also forged a crucial alliance with the pianist Paul Bley. "One thing I learned early on was that when you get a call for a gig, you don't ask questions, you just say yes. So when I got a call from Paul, whose name I knew without knowing his music, I took the gig. I don't recall what the first tune was, but it was written in E sharp and he had me start it in that key. But he came in on E flat, so after one bar I switched to E flat to accommodate him. But he looked over and said, 'No, stay in E sharp!' [Laughs.] So that was my first encounter with playing in opposing keys."
In 1961 the bassist married the young composer, vocalist, multi-instrumentalist, and future Woodstock local Annette Peacock and soon relocated to New York (the couple separated in 1970). There, he joined the legendary Bill Evans Trio, a band he describes as "a bass player's dream" for its superlative use of space and simpatico, contrapuntal dynamics. "[Evans] had such a light touch," says Peacock of the late piano god. "It really allowed the bass to be totally full, tonally." He also landed another dream job, briefly playing with Evans's former boss, Miles Davis. "Miles was a great teacher, and one of the most human people I've ever known," the bass man says. "No matter how many other people he was playing with and how much was going on in the room, he could listen to everything at the same time and not miss a thing. He heard it all."