Improvisation Exploration: Discovering Your Performing Genius

Improvisation Exploration: Discovering Your Performing Genius

The Zen Mastery of Gary Peacock

Let’s dive into the brilliance of jazz bassist Gary Peacock’s double bass playing, exploring his innovative techniques and lasting impact on the jazz community. We’ll also discuss 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.

Gary Peacock was a renowned double bassist known for his contributions to the world of jazz. Born in 1935 in Burley, Idaho, 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.

I 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.

Debunking the Zen Myth

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. Although I had heard about Zen and read a few things by Alan Watts and some others, my main focus was not that. It was a desire to immerse myself in that particular culture and, of course, to learn the language.

Zen practice as a way of living my life didn’t actually begin until around the year 2000. I would say that if someone is interested in developing or using a meditative technique to enhance their music, Zen isn’t necessarily designed for that. It’s a spiritual practice. Having said that, the one dominant and most profound aspect of my personal Zen practice since 2000 is the degree to which it quiets the mind down. The quieting of the mind has been a major consideration for me ever since I started playing bass.

As for the actual results of Zen practice, it’s not designed to necessarily produce some kind of specific musical outcome. It’s a little bit deeper than that. So I would say to those who are interested in developing more skill in playing, 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.

The Quiet Mind and Improvisation

I sit in meditation twice a day, usually for about 40 minutes. There are two intensive periods a year, called an Ongo, which is a three-month period in the spring and a three-month period in the fall. During that time, 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, and that goes on for a week, usually at a monastery.

I can’t draw any particular line from what I’m doing in Zen and a specific result in my music. What’s happened is that a lot of what I’ve been doing in Zen has 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 free-form, 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 can remember, or 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 is John Coltrane. He was a true master at absorbing everything he could play – he could play anything he wanted to play, anything that he heard. Yet his playing tended to be grounded in what he had already learned. He was drawing on a history of relationships and theoretical understanding of the instrument and implementing it.

In his earlier playing, particularly with Miles Davis, there was a certain groping, a certain uncertainty, a certain kind of struggle of maybe not knowing. As the music went on and he played more and more, when I would listen to him, I could understand 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.

The Art of Forgetting

There’s nothing wrong with developing technical and theoretical knowledge, but please remember to forget it. We try to hang on to things, and that’s why I’ve always encouraged the students I’ve had – yes, the theoretical aspects of music are important, but that’s all they are. You can develop that, whether it’s technique or understanding or whatever, and that’s the first aspect. The second aspect is to forget it. Don’t hang on to it.

I think the simplest way 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 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 first approach is very self-centered. The second one requires that you surrender, that you give up. You get there by letting go of 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, then you enter a whole other realm – a very highly intuitive realm.

The Folly of Formal Jazz Education

Much of current jazz pedagogy is structured in a way 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 can memorize the form and the melody, and you can 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.

It’s like we’re having a conversation right now, right? We’re using a language, and we’re speaking, and we’re trying to make 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.

The Genius of Forgetting

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-koan, it’s a famous writing of his, 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.

The Serendipitous Awakening

It was my senior year in high school, 1953. I was part of a band, playing drums, and we 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.”

During that performance, I had a serendipitous experience. Looking back at it now, there was some kind of illumination, a light, that appeared – 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 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.

The Foundations of Musicianship

I can’t undervalue that experience. 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, 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. For 60 years, that’s been my approach.

The Two Types of Singing

There are two kinds of singing, and we all do it, but we’re not really aware that we are doing it sometimes. There’s the actual singing with the body, so that the breath is being used, and you’re actually making a sound that someone else can hear. And 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, and 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.

The Zen and Spontaneity of Improvisation

I generally have a routine where I get up in the morning, 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. 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, and that usually initiates something that is to follow.

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, and she said, “I may have a problem.” We finally found a hand specialist in Paris, and 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. Oh, yeah, absolutely, absolutely. Because you’re forgetting yourself, you forget the self, and you 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.

The Power of Harmonic Imagination

I discovered years ago that I can internally hear the 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.

Mastering the Harmonic Language

I would point out that in particular for bass players, one of the beginning practices they could

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