Jazz bassist Gary Peacock, who died Sept. 4 at the age of 85, was best known for his quarter-century tenure with Keith Jarrett’s Standards Trio, but in the late ’70s and early ’80s, he was a powerful presence in Seattle. The connection began through an odd coincidence when Jim Knapp, a struggling young Seattle trumpeter and composer working days as a Fuller Brush salesman, was told by a “very nice, elderly lady” on Queen Anne that her son, Gary Peacock, lived in town.
When he was asked to develop a jazz faculty at Cornish College of the Arts, Knapp wasted no time hiring Peacock in 1979 to teach music theory. Peacock put Cornish jazz on the map, helping to attract other internationally known players, such as trombonist Julian Priester, vocalist Jay Clayton and drummer Jerry Granelli, who with the bassist formed the group Quartett, recording a fine album, “No Secrets.” The Peacock-era Cornish faculty exercised an enormous influence on the way Seattle jazz players navigated the waters between mainstream and free-improvised jazz and also gave rise to a generation of experimentalists who later took New York’s “downtown” jazz scene by storm.
Peacock grew up in Yakima, but he did not return to the Northwest to play jazz, despite having earned a glowing reputation in both avant-garde and mainstream circles. A restless seeker, Peacock had put his music career on the back burner to study Eastern medicine in Japan and, in 1972, science at the University of Washington. Talking to Peacock about music was unlike conversations with anyone else. In a 1982 interview at his Cornish office, he described music as an “experiential landscape,” improvisation like “playing tag with the mind.” Like science, philosophy or religion, it was just another way of organizing physical vibrations.
Chuck Deardorf, a young bassist who also later led the Cornish jazz program, was in awe of Peacock’s Zen-like mien. “He was so intense. He had these eyes that would look right through you, not in a threatening way, but he had this kind of white light around him. He would tell students, ‘Just do what you’re doing while you’re doing it.’”
Peacock popped up a lot in town, playing piano with guitarist Dave Peterson and bass in Knapp’s Composers and Improvisors Orchestra, including one memorable night at the old Parnell’s nightclub that featured an absolutely molten bass duet with guest artist Dave Holland.
Michael Bisio, another bassist who now works in New York with pianist Matthew Shipp, recalls walking into the old University District Jazz Alley one night to discover Peacock playing with Seattle drummer Dean Hodges and pianist and composer Gil Evans.
“That was some of the most awesome live playing I have ever heard in my life,” says Bisio, who took a couple of lessons with Peacock. “I was so young and stupid. I told him I was never going to play anything anyone else had ever played. He very succinctly told me I was wrong. ‘No one creates in a vacuum.’”
In 1977, Peacock recorded an album, “Tales of Another,” with Jarrett and drummer Jack DeJohnette, a trio that reformed as Jarrett’s Standards Trio, just as Peacock left Seattle. It turned out to be the lifelong anchor Peacock had been looking for after his crucial transitional period in the Northwest.