In Memoriam: Gary Shoso Peacock

· Sangha News

May 12, 1935—September 4, 2020

Shoso at the Monastery in 2012

The sangha will miss good friend, committed Zen student and jazz legend Gary Shoso Peacock who passed away peacefully on September 4th, surrounded by family at his home in Olivebridge, NY. One week later, his ashes were interred at the Monastery cemetery, Nirvana Gardens, in an intimate ceremony officiated by Shugen Roshi, with family and monastics present. 

We will miss Shoso’s knowing smile, joyful laughter and conversation. Over the years he graced the annual Dana Dinner celebration by bringing fellow musicians to play holiday classic jazz, totally committed to making music in anonymity without any fanfare. Every now and then someone might look up and say, “hey, those guys are really good!” He had received the Precepts in 2004 from Daido Roshi, his first teacher, who gave him the dharma name Shoso, meaning “Sacred Sound.”

Below is a stirring tribute by writer Christian McEwen based on an interview she had with Shoso in 2015 for a work-in-progress, In Praise of Listening. Make sure to also check out obituaries from NPR, New York Times, and this one from his long-time friend and collaborator, Marc Copland.

Playing What You Don’t Know: Gary Peacock

by Christian McEwen

When Gary Peacock was seven or eight years old, he used to lie in his bunk at night and listen to the rain. “I could hear the rain hitting the roof,” he remembered. “And it wasn’t steady! You know, it actually seemed to have a rhythm to it. It would be heavy, and then it would be light, and then it would be heavy, and then it would be gone.  And then it would start up again –”

Gary Peacock died on September 4th, 2020, at the age of eighty-five. A lean man with a handsome craggy face and bushy white eyebrows, he was also an astonishing bassist, who had been playing world-class jazz for most of the last half century. Born in Idaho in 1935, he grew up in the Pacific Northwest, and didn’t hear live jazz till he was fifteen, when Ray Brown and Oscar Peterson played at the Philharmonic in Seattle.  But from early on, he learned trumpet and piano, and later played drums in the school dance band. At high school graduation, drumming for his fellow-students, he first saw with utter clarity that he was indeed a musician, and that his life was going to be spent in making music. “I didn’t even question it,” he said. “It was just going to be, and it was.”

Peacock went on to music school in Los Angeles, and then was drafted and stationed in Germany, where he joined a piano trio. When the bass-player left, Peacock stepped in to replace him, even though bass had never been his instrument. In the years that followed, he played on both coasts with a dazzling array of musicians, including Art Pepper, Bill Evans and Miles Davis. Miles Davis remained a guiding spirit always. 

“He was always listening to what was going on,” Peacock said. “Always listening to ‘What’s next? What’s next?’”  On one occasion, Miles was doing a recording with a well-known saxophone player. “They did a take,” said Peacock, “and Miles said [here Peacock imitated his mentor’s grainy voice], ‘I know what you’re playing, man. I hear what you know. What I want to hear is what you don’t know.’”

“You do have to be accurate,” Peacock added, “you do have to respond.” But beyond that, “You just simply — trust!”

In his twenties and early thirties, Peacock had his own difficulties accessing that trust. He’d be playing beautifully up on the stand, “completely alive, completely present,” and then feel alienated and uncomfortable as soon as he laid down his instrument. “Why is that possible?” he asked himself.

He still set great store by the act of listening, though there was “a blizzard of other stuff in front of it.” If the blizzard got too opaque, he’d turn to alcohol and sex and drugs. But eventually he reached a point where his body couldn’t take it anymore. “No drugs. No alcohol. So that’s what I had to do.”

In 1969, at the age of thirty-four, Peacock gave up the music scene completely, and moved to Japan, immersing himself in Eastern medicine and philosophy. By the time he returned to the States in the early seventies, he had met his second wife, who later became the mother of his sons. The family settled in the Northwest, while Peacock studied at the University of Washington, then taught at Cornish College of the Arts. In 1983, he re-joined the Standards Trio with Keith Jarrett and Jack DeJohnette, with whom he was to play for more than thirty years.

When Peacock thought back to the Trio’s best performances, he couldn’t recall a single tune they actually played. “‘First tune?’ I don’t know. ‘How many tunes did we play?’ I don’t even know that.” But he remembered a particular concert they gave together in Japan, when his unease and alienation fell away. The moment he walked out on stage, he felt, “There wasn’t any audience, and there weren’t any players. There was just this thing happening, and all those people.” And with that came an overwhelming gratitude. 

As he described it, “You’re out of the picture altogether. You’re just responding.” All that mattered was to let the music play itself.

Peacock never aspired to be a soloist, or even a composer. From early on, his desire was “simply to serve the music.” But once he realized just how noisy the brain can be — “Yak-yak-yak!” — he devoted himself to an altogether conscious letting go. “So although you’re in the midst of a performance, the drums are playing, and the bass — in your mind, you are silent. And in that silence, you somehow become informed of what will happen next. Your ears and hands simply move to the appropriate place.”

August 2009—Shoso with John Daido Loori, Roshi.

Peacock studied Buddhism for more than fifty years, and was a longtime lay practitioner at the Zen Mountain Monastery. He explained that the practice had given him much greater calm and self-acceptance, as well as “real, real internal nourishment, well-being, clarity. Most of my time is spent out in the world,” he said. “And it’s insane out there. It’s like I’ve finally found a place where people are actually striving for sanity.”

That sanity infused his music, in the same way that meditative practice infused his daily life. It just has different expressions. “If I’m chanting, I’m chanting. If I’m playing the bass, I’m playing the bass. If I’m washing dishes, I’m washing dishes.” He laughed out loud. “I can’t practice yet while I’m asleep, but I’m working on it!”

As a boy, Peacock took great pleasure in the little sounds of every day: dogs barking, cats meowing, trucks speeding past. Deep into old age, he loved listening to the sound of the rain, to water running in a brook, to passing birds. And he enjoyed man-made sounds as well. “The furnace going on. Water coming out of the faucet…” As for music, his preferences were always changing. Some days, he wanted to listen to Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony, or to Wozzeck by Alban Berg.  But no one piece stood out above the rest. Even musicians he did not especially admire, he came to see as teachers. “They were teaching me — don’t go this way!” There was nothing that didn’t influence him, he told me, and all of it was good. “Just gratitude for the diversity of everything.”

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