Exploring the genius of Gary Peacock’s double bass playing

Let’s dive into the brilliance of Gary Peacock's double bass playing, delving into his innovative techniques and lasting impact on the jazz community. It also discusses his Zen practice and the influence it has had on his musical approach, emphasizing the importance of listening and surrendering to the moment in improvisation.

With Gary Peacock · New York

Gary Peacock was a renowned double bassist known for his contributions to the world of jazz. Born in 1935, Peacock began his musical career in the 1960s, playing with notable jazz artists such as Albert Ayler and Paul Bley. Throughout his career, Peacock showcased his versatility and innovative approach to the instrument, leaving a lasting impact on the jazz community.

Jason had the chance to sit down with Gary and talk about his career and his remarkable approach to making music on the double bass. A significant number of podcast listeners contributed questions for this interview, leading us into a wide range of topics in this deep-dive with one of jazz’s iconic artists.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

I put out the word that I was interviewing you, and I had all these people write in with questions to ask you.

What kind of questions do they have?

All sorts of things, but one that came up repeatedly is your Zen practice. Nicholas Walker asked for you to explore meditation practice strategies.

I can say a few things about that. There seems to be some misunderstanding about my relationship with Zen, starting from 1964 or something like that, when I stopped playing for a while.

I didn’t go to Japan to study Zen–I went there to study the culture. I was interested in Eastern medicine, acupuncture, herbal therapy, and dietetics. Dietary areas like that. Although I had heard about Zen and I read a few things, Alan Watts and some other things. My main focus was not that.

It was, I guess you could say, a desire to immerse myself in that particular culture. And to do that, of course, you have to learn how to speak the language, so I spent a lot of time on that. But Zen practice, actually, as a way of living my life, didn’t actually begin until 2000.

I would say that if someone is interested in developing or using a meditative technique to develop musically, Zen isn’t designed for that. It’s a spiritual practice.

Having said all that, I would also say that the one dominant and most profound aspect of my personal practice since 2000 is the degree to which it quiets the mind down. The quieting down of the mind has been a major consideration ever since I started playing bass.

In terms of actual results, Zen practice is not designed to necessarily produce some kind of result. It’s a little bit deeper than that. So I would say to those who are interested in what they want to do is to develop more skill in playing, that there are many different meditative approaches that can facilitate that Zen does, but it’s indirect. Zen isn’t concerned with making you a better bass player.

Is this something you do in the morning?

I sit twice a day at least, usually about 40 minutes. There are two intensive periods a year. It’s called an Ongo. It’s a three-month period in the spring and a three-month period in the fall.

During that time, that’s an intensive period, so I’m usually sitting at least two hours a day. The Sesshin is a very concentrated practice where you sit maybe eight or nine hours daily. That goes on for a week, and that’s done at a monastery.

It has obviously an impact on all aspects of your life. If we just think about being a bass player and a musician, do you feel like it’s had an effect on your music and approach to the instrument?

Not specifically. I can’t draw any particular line from what I’m doing, what I’m involved with in Zen, and a specific result in what’s going on musically. What’s happened is that a lot of what I’ve been enhanced enormously by the practice. For example, the quieting down of the mind and listening to what’s there, particularly in improvisation, whether you’re playing a standard or whether you’re playing freeform or whatever.

If a person is really listening, then their mind is completely quiet, and all you’re doing is responding to the moment. To what’s happening right now. You’re not consciously drawing on what you’ve learned, what you’ve been able to remember, what you can apply. You’re simply listening, and you’re allowing your body to respond in kind.

It’s a very subtle difference, but it’s actually where it’s coming from that becomes significant.

The biggest, best example I can think of, and I don’t mean to, I don’t mean to denigrate him, John Coltrane, but he was a true master at absorbing everything he could play. He could play anything he wanted to play, he could play anything that he heard, yet it tended to be grounded in what he learned.

He was drawing on a history of relationships and theory, understanding the instrument, and implementing it. In his earlier playing, particularly with Miles Davis, there was a certain groping, a certain uncertainty in his playing, a certain kind of struggle of maybe not knowing, and that got lost.

To me, that’s one of the most important aspects of improvisation: not knowing. As the music went on and he played more and more when I would listen to him, I could understand, I could hear what he was playing, but it was what he already knew. It lacked a kind of spontaneity. The spontaneity was still there, but it didn’t have the same intensity that it had when he was floundering a little bit.

So I actually enjoyed more of his playing before he developed a lot of skill.

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I remember those stories of him going through the lexicon of scales and modes and practicing all of those.

Oh yeah. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s “Yes, do that, but please remember to forget it.”

We try to hang on to things, and that’s why I’ve always encouraged the students that I’ve had with, “Yes, the theoretical aspects of music are important, but that’s all they are, and you can develop that, whether it’s technique or understanding or whatever, and that’s the first aspect.”

The second aspect is “forget it.” Don’t hang on to it. I think the simplest way that I’ve been able to say this is that, in some ways, there are two approaches to improvisation. The first approach, I would say, is the person, the self, playing the muse, playing the self. And the second one is the muse playing the self, playing the muse.

In the first case, it starts with the player and ends with the player. In the second case, it begins with the muse and ends with the muse.

The beginning and ending with the muse, is that something that, with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, is the approach that you three took?

I think we all took that approach. The whole approach was, “We’re listening.” We’re listening to what is there. What we play is not so much determined by what we want to play, what we want to say, or what we want to be known for. It’s, “What does the music want of me?” It’s the idea of allowing the music to take me over rather than me taking the music over. Allowing the muse to, in a sense, determine what’s coming up next rather than me determining what’s coming up.

The next approach is very self-centered. The first one requires that you surrender, that you give up. You get there for your attachment to all your good ideas and all the slick things you can do. You just let all that go.

When you can do that and be quiet, internally quiet, then you enter a whole other realm. A very highly intuitive realm.

Many current jazz pedagogy is structured in that you go to a certain school, spend four years, and get a degree in improvisation. That’s idiocy, that’s not improvisation. You can play through the changes, you memorize the form and the melody, and you play through all that.

You know what you can play on this chord, you know what scale goes with that, blah blah blah blah blah. And all you’ve got is an attic that’s full of stuff you should get rid of.

I love that. That’s a great way to think of it.

It’s like we’re having a conversation right now, right?

We’re using a language, then we’re speaking, using words, and we’re trying, making an attempt to communicate. We don’t remember the process that we went through to learn how to speak. That happened really early on, and we forgot it. Can you remember when you learned how to speak a language?

Not at all. No, you can’t. You forgot it. So now you can speak freely or whatever, or you can go back and rely on language and try to recover all that stuff, like a politician. It’s a similar kind of thing. The significant aspect, if I could draw a parallel, is the desire or the intent to forget the past or to forget what I’ve learned.

You’re never going to lose it. It will always be there, just like we’re speaking right now. You haven’t lost the ability to speak a language, but we don’t have to try to remember it.

That’s been with me since I was 18 or 19. There is a mental state, I guess you could call it, in which you’re not thinking anymore. You’re not relying on history. You’re not relying on what you’ve learned as an expression. You’ve forgotten it. And there’s a corollary with that in Zen from Dogen Zenji, who’s the originator of what’s called the Soto School. His orientation was Shikantaza, which is a practice I do.

But in the Genjo, it’s a famous writing of his called the Genjo Koan. The first part of it is to study or to become intimate with the Buddha way is to become intimate with the self. That’s the first line. To study the Buddha’s way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self.

And when I read that line, I thought, “Wow.” That’s what my whole intent has been musically for years. It’s the forgetting. The “you,” in a sense, disappears as a player. You are being played rather than, “Oh, I’m playing this piece.” The music is playing me. And it’s a real experience. There’s nothing airy-fairy about it at all.

You start to feel that sense and get attuned to that around 18. Do you remember when that started to happen? Was there a specific moment? What happened?

It was my senior year in high school, 1953. I was part of a band, I was playing drums then, and I was part of a teenage band that played for dances on Saturday nights and things like that. The school president asked us if we would be willing to provide some music for the graduating class in the auditorium at the high school.

And we all said, “Yeah, sure.” It was during that performance that I had a serendipity of some kind. Looking back at it now, there was some kind appeared to be an illumination, a light actually, and it wasn’t the lights on the stage. There was something else going on, This all happened in microseconds, but I remember having this experience of being played, although I obviously had my drumstick on the cymbal and I was playing along and I was listening to the music, the sense was that I was being played rather than me doing the playing.

Because of that experience, I realized that my life would be involved with music. I didn’t know what instrument I was going to end up on because I was playing trumpet, piano, and drums, and I couldn’t make up my mind about what I wanted to do. But I knew then that this was my direction. That was my first experience of this thing, of allowing myself to be played, and it stayed with me all the time, whether it was free music or it was structured music, whatever it was.

Being a pianist, how do you think that instrument shaped your approach and your concept as a bass player?

Absolutely necessary. I can’t undervalue that. If anybody wants to become a musician, there are at least two things they should do for at least a year. One is that they should study the piano and be able to play something. They don’t have to become Glenn Gould or anything like that or Keith Jarrett. Just study the piano. Play it.

The second thing is singing. Those are crucial. If you can’t sing what you’re playing, watch out. Particularly in the West, the piano is the instrument of orientation. Without piano and without voice, and particularly with voice, because you’re working with the breath, you’re breathing, and that’s crucial.

That feeds right into the phrase, the significance of a phrase, and the length of a phrase. So singing, yeah, I think it’s really crucial, and the piano.

And bringing up singing and the piano, I can’t help but think of Keith Jarrett, of course, and have you, explored that for developing your own phrasing, like in the practice room?

For 60 years!

[ laughter]

Yeah. It’s not like taking a course and getting a grade on it. It’s something you do every day. There are two kinds of singing, and we all do it, but we’re not really aware that we are doing it sometimes, and there’s the actual singing with the body so that the breath is being used.

You’re actually making a sound that someone else can hear. There’s also internal breathing, so that the sounds you’re hearing are not like the sounds coming from outside, but inside, like in your mind or your imagination, and you are hearing it, and no one else is hearing it.

Because it’s not being put out there, but you are hearing it. I remember talking with Miles. I can’t remember now whether it was with him or an interview, but he said he’d wake up in the morning, and he’s always listening to something. Maybe it’s Sketches of Spain, or maybe it’s another composer, maybe it’s Zarathustra, who knows?

It’s that kind of hearing where it’s more internal. And that needs to be cultivated as well. But it needs if we stay out of the way, it happens by itself.

It sounds like you’re you have such a fairly strict routine, just like meditation in the morning. When the bass comes into things or when music comes into things, what’s your morning routine like with music?

I generally have a routine where I get up in the morning and have some tea.

Then I sit, usually 40 minutes, I’ll sit. Then, I may have maybe some yogurt and some coffee. And then I go to the bass, and I play the bass for an hour. And that’s been a constant for as long as I can remember, like 30 years, 40 years.

What do you play? Is it different day by day, or do you have a similar kind of routine?

The only routine I have is the playing of the instrument, and if I look at that, I usually put my hands on the instrument and play something, usually, that initiates something that is to follow.

So sometimes, I’ll start playing and realize that I have a problem with that. Maybe the way I hold the bass or intonation is wrong, or something else is amiss. And so I just get quiet and scan the body and ensure my posture is right. Relax, arms, legs, abdomen, the whole thing.

Then I might do something like arpeggios. Just to wake up the body and focus more on the physical aspect of the instrument. I’m paying attention to intonation as well. But I’m allowing that particular moment to tell me what it is that I should be working on, what I should be paying attention to.

Sometimes, I’ll wake up, and I’m before I even get to the bass, I’m already hearing something, so I’ll start playing, just improvising. What had happened was that we had two concerts back to back for two nights. I knew that the concert would be recorded and I assumed it was on the first night.

It turned out it was on the second night, and after the first concert, I noticed a pain when I tried to move my left hand. In particular, the fingers. The little finger and the one next to it.

And I thought it was a strain or whatever. I woke up in the morning, and it was worse. So I called the manager that was taking care of it. She said I may have a problem. We finally found a hand specialist in Paris.

He checked me out, and he said there was no real problem. He says, “What’s happened is that you’ve traumatized a nerve coating that goes into your hand.” He said, two or three days, it’ll mend itself. You don’t need a surgery or anything like that.

And I said, “Wait a minute, I got to play a concert tonight.” he looked at me like, I don’t think so. And I said,” No, I have to.” I didn’t know what the hell to do about it, but we got to soundcheck, and I told Keith about this, and he said– this is classic Keith–he said, “What do you want to do?” And I said, “I want to play the concert,” and he said, “Okay, let’s find out what we can do.”

I didn’t even bat an eye. So what happened was that I had to do the whole concert using, on my left hand, using the thumb and the first and second fingers. That was it. I couldn’t use the third and fourth fingers. We played a lot of stuff in C or in keys that didn’t have a lot of flats and sharps.

It came out great, and we, actually, that thing actually won, I don’t know, the Silver Star Award or something like that. It was pretty amazing. Again, that’s part of improvising. You end up in this situation. Whether you like it or not, you find a way to improvise to deal with it.

From the muse to the player to the muse. And then you get a curveball like that, but obviously, you must have been able to tap into that still, even with that physical limitation.

Oh yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. Because you’re forgetting yourself, you forget the self and respond.

And, of course, the actual decisions that happen in microseconds. Those decisions are made because you’ve accepted the fact that you’ve only got three fingers to work with or a thumb and two fingers. So, there might be a sense of wanting to play a perfect fifth as a harmonic interval. Forget it.

You can’t do that. But actually, in three days, it was over. I didn’t have any problem after that.

People associate you with the piano trio. What is it that you enjoy about that particular format?

I discovered years ago that I can internally hear harmony, the harmony that might be going to a piece.

And if I’m hearing it internally and improvising over it, I can improvise to hear what I’m playing. And how it’s working with the harmony. But if someone is not outside of me, like in the audience or whatever, is not hearing the harmony, the playing can sound lacking. Because what I’m playing has to do so much with what I’m internally hearing harmonically.

So I prefer, in many ways, I prefer to have a keyboard instrument player. Particularly acoustic piano. So when they play something that allows me the freedom of playing something that, just on its own, may just really be mundane, but in what is being played with the harmony that’s being presented on the piano, then it gives it a particular character that is more fully realized.

When I first started playing, I did a lot of transcription of vinyl to get a better sense of what to train my ear. But also to get a sense of how a particular musician approaches the harmony.

I was really fascinated by the fact that you could listen to Miles Davis playing a ballad if he’s not playing the melody and he’s just playing. He’s improvising. That without the harmony and without that background being audible, it lacked something. And with the piano, it made all the sense in the world.

I have to pay attention to that because if it’s free playing and there isn’t a piano like there was a lot of the stuff I did with Albert Ayler and Don Cherry, there isn’t any harmonic support behind you. It doesn’t do any good to think of or to try to do something listening to harmony inside because it’s not about harmony.

It’s about something else. In free playing, it’s a different kind of orientation. But I like the interaction with the bass and the piano. And I’m starting out as a pianist before I actually play drums. There’s an orientation in that way.

I would point out that, in particular for bass players, one of the beginning practices they could use is working with standards, American standards, or songbooks like that. It’s a very rich source for harmonic orientation. If a person can play the melody with their right hand and their core root, where it occurs during a composition, and just that, without being able to play like a pianist, they can discover on their own what the harmony is.

Even if your piano skills aren’t beyond that, even that helps you discover that, explore the harmony.

Yeah, because what will happen if the bass note or the root of the chord is present with the melody? And if, at least, an octave separation or something like that, that automatically begins to let you know the chord and harmony. If it’s spaced out, if you’re playing them in the same octave, no, but if you got the melody and the melody is at least an octave above the bass note, then you begin to hear what the harmony is, whether it’s major, minor, augmented, diminished, other, whether it’s chordal, etc.

It’s like the soprano and the bass voice of the shell, a harmonic shell.

Yeah, exactly. That’s a good way to put it. Yeah. Harmonic shell.

If you remember, I’d love to know what some of the pieces you transcribed. You mentioned Miles.

Bag’s Groove. I think that recording with Sonny Rollins and Miles Davis, Kenny Clark, Percy Heath, and Horace Silver.

Yeah, that was one of the first ones I did. And then there were, sometimes it was just pieces of recordings. Stan Getz, I can’t remember which one that was. I think it was with the Oscar Peterson Trio. Some Beethoven that was early on. When I was in the Army, the Shostakovich, I didn’t have the music to it, but a friend of mine said, “Have you heard this?”

And I think it was the Fourth or the Fifth Symphony. I listened to it and was really impressed by it, and there was no music for it. So I transcribed it, looked at it, and asked myself, “What am I hearing?”

I would just go noticing how flawlessly and how seamlessly it would move from one place to another. The degree of repetition never got really boring. The continuation of a melody that just unfolds itself. Without trying to, without any effort.

That Shostakovich opening is a great example of that repetition, but still being interesting and unfolding.

It was really amazing to me because it wasn’t boring. How can you repeat this thing repeatedly and it never gets boring? It’s always fresh.

Working with Miles was the same kind of thing. He might play the ballad. It started out with hitting one note. It would be the same pitch that he played the night before we played the ballad. But there was this… it was always the first and last time. It was so fresh and so new. And I’m thinking, “How the hell does he do that?”

How can he play the same thing? And it’s always, “Oh, wow. How is that possible?”

You’re drawing upon something that you can’t conceive, that you can’t rationalize, you can’t put it into words, and in that way, it has something to do with realizing a koan to provoke enlightenment.), is that you can’t rely on language to resolve the koan, or to realize the koan.

It feels to me like melodies are like koans. There’s something to be realized, but you can talk about it forever and ever, and you’ll miss it all together.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h_UMvjE5KZo

That’s a great way to think of it. I love that.

There are other places to orient yourself besides your thinking towards your iteration of the language and all that, getting caught up in that.

So, whatever theory you have, if you look at music in general, the theory came after the music. It didn’t come before. So, the point of trying to get into music by theory is totally backward. It’s upside down.

It’s like science and an explanation of what we see in the physical world.

In other words, we don’t just look at a tree. We look at an elm, apple tree, peach tree, or fir, something like that. We’ve already removed the whole experience of just looking. We’ve added something that we don’t need to add.

If we’re going to function in a world, we have to be able to differentiate between a peach tree and a fir tree. But at the same time, we’ve been so oriented to classify and assort and distinguish one thing from another when we open our eyes and look at something that we don’t really know how to look anymore.

You’re looking in silence. Be absolutely still mentally and just look. That’s very different from looking at a tree. A tree is just a verbal symbol that maps to something. There’s a linguist who said, “Whatever you say, a thing it isn’t.”

And there’s a lot of truth in that. So whatever you say, music theory is, whatever you say music is, it isn’t that. There’s something way beyond that.

Gary Peacock, a renowned jazz bassist, died on September 4, 2020, at the age of 85. He was recognized for his influential collaborations with pianists Paul Bley and Keith Jarrett and his work with Miles Davis, Bill Evans, and Mal Waldron. Peacock’s versatility was evident in his 30 years with Jarrett’s “Standards Trio” and his 12 albums as a leader. He had a unique approach to his instrument, emphasizing his separation from it while maintaining a strong connection. Born on May 12, 1935, in Burley, Idaho, Peacock discovered his passion for jazz at a young age and pursued it wholeheartedly.

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