CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

Gary Peacock 1935–2020

The jazz world mourns the loss of a bass master, era-defining innovator, and mystic

Gary Peacock of Now This (photo by Bob Worrall)
Gary Peacock performs in Now This, Ottawa JazzFest 2017 (photo: Bob Worrall)

Gary Peacock, a jazz bassist who was hailed as a key innovative force on his instrument, died September 4 at his home in Claryville, New York. He was 85.

His death was confirmed by National Public Radio, who received a statement from Peacock’s family on September 7. Cause of death was undisclosed.

Peacock was a profound presence across the cutting edge of jazz. He was best known for his prolific collaborations with two highly influential pianists, Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett, and he worked briefly with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Mal Waldron. However, he was also a significant participant in the early days of the jazz avant-garde, working with the likes of Albert Mangelsdorff, Don Ellis, Prince Lasha, Albert Ayler, and Tony Williams, all before 1965.

He was no avant-garde purist. As evidenced by his 30 years of work in Jarrett’s “Standards Trio” and on many of the 12 albums he recorded as a leader, Peacock was a hard swinger with a sensitivity to the melodic and harmonic languages of straight-ahead jazz.

Part of his versatility stemmed from a conscious distancing of himself from both his craft and his instrument, which he had considered integral to his identity early on. “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,” Peacock said in a 2007 All About Jazz interview. “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.”

Gary George Peacock was born May 12, 1935 in Burley, Idaho, and grew up in Yakima, Washington. He began playing piano, trumpet, and drums as a teenager, then at 15 discovered jazz when he saw Oscar Peterson at a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert. A few years later, while playing for his graduating class, Peacock made a sudden and profound discovery that jazz was his calling. “It was a realization that was so powerful and so strong that I didn’t even question it,” he recalled in a 2017 profile for National Public Radio.

He enrolled in the Westlake School of Music in Los Angeles, but only attended briefly before he was drafted into the Army and stationed in Germany. At the time, piano was his primary instrument, and he began to play with a jazz trio while stationed abroad; when the bassist in the band quit, however, Peacock migrated to the bass, which he found to be a natural fit, progressing quickly in his knowledge of its technical nuances.

Discharged from the Army in 1956, Peacock remained in Germany for another two years as a musician, then returned in 1958 to Los Angeles, gigging steadily on what was then one of the busiest jazz scenes in the world. He worked with Bud Shank, Barney Kessel, Don Ellis, and Paul Bley, with whom he established a rapport that would last for decades. He also met and married singer/keyboardist Annette Peacock (née Coleman) and first encountered the music of Ornette Coleman, which ultimately altered his fundamental perception of the music. “It created a pivot for me to embrace a much larger musical universe,” he recalled. His early sojourns in this direction were documented on The Cry!, a November 1962 session with flutist Prince Lasha and saxophonist Sonny Simmons.

He moved in 1963 to New York, where he reconnected with Bley and joined his trio with drummer Paul Motian. Motian also introduced Peacock to pianist Bill Evans, whose influential trio he joined; separately, Peacock met Albert Ayler, with whom he recorded several times in 1964 alone (including the seminal album Spiritual Unity). He even worked for a short time with Miles Davis, subbing for Ron Carter for a few weeks in the spring of 1964.

Peacock stayed busy through the next several years, but in 1968—after an encounter with Timothy Leary and LSD—he discovered an identity for himself that was separate from the bass, from which he walked away for two years. (By this point, he and his wife had divorced, and Annette had married Bley; they would remain a couple until the early ’70s.) He moved to Japan to study Eastern philosophy and was still there when he began playing again, making his first album under his own name (Eastward) in February 1970.

He returned to the U.S. in 1972, though he again forsook music for a few years to earn a biology degree from the University of Washington. After his 1976 graduation, he returned to Bley’s trio; the following year, he recruited pianist Keith Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette to record an album of his original compositions, Tales of Another. The chemistry of the band proved so strong that Jarrett employed them beginning in 1983 as his own “Standards Trio” (named for their primary repertoire). The trio performed together for more than 30 years, becoming Peacock’s primary and most visible performance vehicle.

That said, Peacock continued touring and recording with Bley into the 21st century; he also formed a fruitful collaboration with guitarist Ralph Towner in the 1980s, and another with pianist Marc Copland—a long-term partnership that found each musician playing regularly in the other’s ensembles. (Copland would play on Peacock’s final two recordings, 2015’s Now This and 2017’s Tangents, both with drummer Joey Baron.)

At the turn of the 21st century, Peacock devoted himself to Zen Buddhism, studying the discipline at a monastery in upstate New York and organizing a meditation practice that taught inmates in a state prison.

Fans and colleagues of Peacock posted remembrances of him on social media. “Intense and creatively original,” bassist Dave Holland wrote on Twitter. “His playing in the new music of the early ’60s was inspiring.”

“In 1960 and ’61, Gary Peacock was arguably one of the tiny handful of a vanguard of innovators on his instrument,” Copland said in an NPR interview five years before Peacock’s passing. “In 2015, you can make the same argument … This is a stretch of 55 years. There’s not a whole heck of a lot of musicians you can say that about.”

Read Ethan Iverson’s appreciation of Gary Peacock from our April 2020 issue.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.