When I was in high school, I had a music buddy whose name I have hopefully temporarily forgotten. We were only friends for about six months, so it’s not the worst sin that I can’t remember his name, although I am stupefied to discover this memory lapse now. He was a “grown-up”, perhaps 28 ( I could be seriously off here, I just am not sure), a guitarist, and had a great Jazz record collection. He was super nice to me, and made no big deal of our age difference. He played in a rockabilly band, and gave me a green coat I wore for years. I’d go over to his house, we’d play guitar together and I would tape his records. In those days I’d do anything to make friends with someone who had a good record collection. I HAD to hear this stuff, and even records we think of totally canonical now, like, say, “Way Out West” or “Bird & Diz” were really hard to find. I still have a bunch of these tapes – Rollins, Monk, Bill Evans – mostly Milestone “two-fers”. At the time my nameless friend (David?) was taking lessons from Gary Peacock in “reharmonization”. I think he had taken classes from Peacock at Cornish, and then continued on privately. Reharmonization, I learned, was putting different chords to familiar Jazz standards.
Around this time my uncle Jack died and left me some money, I think $1,500. I decided that with this money I too would take lessons in reharmonization from Gary Peacock (never mind that I didn’t even know the original chords of standards!). I really didn’t know much about him, mostly just resume items - he had played with Bill Evans and Albert Ayler. I doubt I had heard much Bill Evans, except for Kind of Blue and maybe Sunday at the Vanguard; I’m certain I hadn’t heard Albert Ayler. Keith Jarrett’s “Standards Vol. 1”, with Peacock and Jack DeJohnette, came out right about this time, 1983, and I did get that. Miles had recently come out of retirement, and Wynton’s second record had just been issued.
At the time Peacock lived with his wife and kids in Seattle’s University District, about a 15 minute bus ride from my house. After the first or second lesson, I stopped at Peaches, the big record store in Seattle, which was only a couple blocks from his house. There I found the Arista/Freedom reissue of Ayler’s Vibrations, with Peacock, Don Cherry, and Sonny Murray. I bought it, and still own this record today. I loved it immediately; it was brash, punky and exuberant. To this kid who had been jamming in basements on Hendrix and Who songs, it sounded familiar and weird at the same time.
Peacock quickly ascertained that in my case, what was called for pedagogically was some very basic concepts of harmony and melody: the overtone series, scale degrees, how a key is defined, how a melody can express a harmonic progression, etc. I was chastened, which, as I see it now, was probably what I was secretly looking for: a teacher to take me down a few pegs, and build me back up. A teacher who wasn’t at all satisfied or impressed with what I thought I knew about music.
(Did Gary bury his head in his hands after I left, wondering how he had fallen so low as to explain triads to 16 year-olds?)
I was humbled, starting back at square one, but I still wanted him to know I was hip. I mentioned Ayler and that I had been experimenting with my friends with “free” playing. Did he have any advice? This is my memory of what he said:
“By 1962, I knew probably 1000 tunes. I could play them in twelve keys, I could play them backwards and forward. They became so ingrained in me that I no longer needed to remember the songs as such, I could just play, and the songs took care of themselves. From there, free playing wasn’t so much a leap. I would just play the next note I wanted to play at that given moment. I’ve come to feel that there is no difference between playing songs and playing free – you’re always free to play what you want, what you hear. Even if you’re playing a piece of classical music, completely notated, you’re still making a choice to play that next note written in front of you, or not. In this sense, all music is free music.”