“I’m looking for someone to keep the orchestra and the music going five years from now,” declared John T. Peek in 2007, on the occasion of his induction into Atlanta Tribune: The Magazine’s Hall of Fame. He kept going for 12 more years, announcing his official retirement at the Southwest Arts Center in April during the African American Philharmonic Orchestra’s 30th year anniversary celebration. The orchestra’s conductor and co-founder died on Wednesday, July 31, 2019.
He was 91.
The orchestra’s first performance was at the Atlanta Civic Center.
“That was on February 24, 1990, when we sold out the Civic Center … 4000 seats,” John recalled. It was the first time that the Civic Center had swelled to capacity. Sixty-five prominent African Americans from all walks of life — university professors to elementary school music teachers — converged upon the center, fronting an audience which included Coretta Scott King, Maynard Jackson, Jesse Hill and the Reverend Joseph E. Lowery, and playing everything from Gershwin to Gillespie.
Peek was a native of Atlanta and a graduate of Clark College, now Clark Atlanta University. At Clark, he studied trumpet with Max Friedentard, the first chair trumpet with the show “Oklahoma,” and studied conducting at the Conductors Institute at the University of South Carolina.
Often at Atlanta’s famed Walla Hodgie club, Peek played with Woody Herman, Duke Ellington and Ramsey Lewis. He went on to play with national and international artists including Ray Charles, B.B. King, Arthur Prysock, Ruth Brown, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie, Natalie Cole, The Temptations and Barry White; and performed in front of Nelson and Winnie Mandela, Bishop Tutu, Maya Angelou, Muhammad Ali, Hank Aaron, Dr. Joseph Lowery, and Andrew Young.
“I was on the road at a time when black bands had to live on the bus because they wouldn’t let us in the hotel. You had to go to a gig, get on the bus and go on to the next one,” Peek remembered.
“There are only one, two or three African Americans on any given orchestra nationwide, and it’s not because the rest aren’t qualified. Truth be told,” said Peek, lowering his voice to a whisper, “it’s because they know we know more than they do.”
An invitation to play in Orlando with 29 members of the Miami Symphony Orchestra led to the organization of the AAPO which, since 1989, had operated under the umbrella of Music South Corporation, to offer Atlanta’s residents of color the same privilege musically, that they believed was largely taken for granted.
Peek is survived by his wife Carrie W. Peek, children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and a host of family and friends.