Jump back a year. Among the most highly anticipat- ed concerts at the 2012 Montreal Jazz Festival was the reunion of three of the greatest bass players in the world – Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten. Busy individual schedules mean that aligning dates when all three are in the same place at the same time is infrequent, and so a chance to see the trio on stage together was eagerly awaited by jazz and bass fans alike. The concert was a brilliant example of just how far the bass guitar has developed since its inception as the anchor in almost any band in any genre. In the hands of musicians like these, the bass can take front and centre stage and its diversity and depth of style is shown in all its formidable glory.
The following morning, BGM joined Victor for a leisurely breakfast in his hotel. As we poured the coffee, Victor talked about his history as a musician, and his approach to the bass, starting at the beginning – his childhood.
“I am the youngest of five brothers, and the four older than me all play different instruments,” he says. “Reggi plays guitar, and Roy plays drums – he’s also known as Future Man, he plays with me in Bela Fleck’s band, the Flecktones. My brother Rudy, who has passed away, played saxophone, and Joseph plays keyboards. It sounds like a made-up story, but it’s true: when I was born, they already knew they needed a bass player – and that was going to be me. When I was little, and I mean around two years old, they would sit me down with them and put a toy instrument in my hands. Then they would play, and I wouldn’t know much, but I learned rather quickly. It’s the same way a baby learns to speak a language, by listening and being included. Being a part of the whole thing, I learned to play bass really early. So I’ve grown up never really doing anything else except play- ing the bass guitar.”
Unlike most kids who dream of playing lead guitar, with its stage-front position and oodles of adoration and attention, Victor was marked down for the bass. “They already had a guitar player,” he agrees with a wide smile. “I was always gonna be the bass player by necessity, that was how it was. My first bass guitar was called a Univox: it was a Hofner violin bass copy, the famous McCartney shape. My second bass was an Olympic, which I got because I was such a Stanley Clarke fan. When I was in seventh grade, at the beginning of my teens, my parents got me a second-hand Olympic, and I still own both of those basses. My third bass was my Fodera, which I still play today.”
Any bass player who grew up seeing Stanley Clarke will remember their first sight of him at 22 – stick-thin, with his bass high on his body and his long fingers working their magic – and dreaming of getting somewhere vaguely close to that style and invention. The difference for Victor was that he was totally sure that he would be following in Stanley’s path: the route was already mapped out, ready for him to follow.
“Growing up with four brothers who were musicians, and also our parents who were really open thinkers, there was an atmosphere that nothing was impossible, you just had to work up to it. That was the way I grew up, it was an amazing environment in which to grow. Anyone growing up in the same environment as I did would probably be a better player than I am, because I never liked to practise. I learned as a kid, and I don’t know any kid that likes to practise. I didn’t want to practise it, I wanted to do it. There is a good side to that way of thinking though, and that is that I learned things quickly, and I learned things well. The downside of that mindset is that people who are that way do not always develop a good work ethic. Anyone who likes to practise and who has a good work ethic would be way past where I am as a musician. My outlook is based on the fact that I have been playing bass since I was five years old: I have never not been a gigging musician. I got to be good the same way you learn to speak a language as a small child. You do it by talking to people all the time. You don’t sit there woodshed- ding, you learn by doing it, and it’s the same with music for me. I did have to practise, of course I did, but I never ever got to like it.”
Comforting news for all readers who find practice the least enjoyable aspect of learning to play the bass – you don’t have to like doing it, you just have to do it. So what were the aspects of practice that the young Victor found tedious, even though he carried on anyway? “Well, some of that was just learning songs. I would have to learn a song for a wedding, or a nightclub, something someone had asked for, and I was six or seven years old, having to figure out the notes, and learn to play. I found jazz theory hard to learn, in the same way that learning French is hard to learn if you’re not born there. I grew up in a funk world, so learning to play bebop was a little bit different. I wasn’t in the environment to just go out and play it, so that was challenging for me, and that is not always fun! I am still getting there with it.”
The fusion bug hit early, he tells us. “Listening to bands like Return To Forever, The Mahavishnu Orchestra, Weather Report, those bands, I got into fusion quite early. It’s related to jazz, but a little different in terms of the changes. I got pretty good at playing fusion: to me it’s just like hyped-up pop music, at least it is the way I approach it. So I’m still getting there with jazz playing. I am better than I used to be, but I still have a way to go.”
Wooten has spent his entire life being an innovative and ground- breaking talent. What creates the urge to break boundaries and seek out new ways to develop the bass, we ask? He gives the question some thought, before deciding his response. “It can be a few different things. It can be a simple desire to be different, it can be having an explorer’s mind, but for me it was just hearing things. Growing up with my brothers who were always thinking outside the box, and also with my parents who were always open to all different styles of music. Back in the 60s, you could hear all styles of music on one station. There wasn’t any splitting of genres and styles. ‘Pop music’ just meant it was popular. Now it’s a style of its own: people say ‘I play pop music’. Back then pop was James Brown, Led Zeppelin, The Beatles, Sly Stone, all on one station. We were open to all that and willing to learn those styles.”
Interestingly, the thought occurs that each of the bands that Wooten has mentioned are all linked by one important feature – they each have an outstanding bass player. He agrees: “That’s what great music needs. It doesn’t have to be flashy, but it does have to sound complete, and the bass does that.”
Asked how he responds to criticism of his playing, Wooten replies: “Well, first and foremost, you have to be able to do it for yourself, and be really objective. It helps to have family and close friends around you who understand what you do, and are willing to talk to you honestly, and I do have those, and I listen to them and take notice. Not only do they know of what they speak, but I know that they have the best interests of me as a brother, or a friend at heart, and they want my music to be as good as it can be, and we’re on the same page with that. The public aren’t good at being objective, they mostly like to tell a musician how great he or she is, and you have to learn to see past that.”
He adds: “Don’t ignore it because you want your audience to love you: of course you do, so pay attention to that, but just don’t believe all of it, the good or the bad. If you believe the good, you have to believe the bad. A good review saying you were wonderful is great, but one saying you sucked has to be absorbed as well. In the end, I am my final gauge. It comes down to what I’m happy with and what I think of what I am doing. Trying to please everyone is a dead-end road, so I try to make sure that I’m pleased, and that I’m making the best music that I can make.”
Talk turns to Wooten’s immediate plans: a gig tonight with his own band in Montreal, followed by a flight down into the States for another show, and onward from there. Being a top-level musician with a recording and touring career means time away from home and family, something that Wooten feels is a downside to his occupation. “It’s not easy being away from home a lot,” he confirms with a sigh. “My daughter is eight, and she said to me recently, ‘Daddy why do you have to be famous? Why can’t you just work in a store, and then you can be home every night?’ It’s not easy to hear that: I miss my children and my wife when I’m away. I do have plans in place, though. I’ll be 50 in a couple of years, and then I’m going to sit back for a couple of years, and not commit to touring as much as I am now. I’ll still make music of course, but I won’t be on the road all the time.
I have a music instruction book out called ‘The Music Lesson’ that is doing very well; a lot of schools are using it. In two years I will have the sequel out, and I’ll be doing some teaching in summer camps, which I do now, just some more of it. Maybe I’ll coach some baseball at school, just take it a little easier, spend more time with my family.”
“Don’t get me wrong,” he concludes. “I do love touring, and seeing different places, and having the chance to play alongside my heroes, but I have to make time for the important things in life. Music is always a huge part of my life, but so is my family, and I am going to enjoy rebalancing things a little in the near future, and see which road that takes me. I am very blessed, and I think about that every day.”