Interview with Bassist Victor Wooten –
In one of our earlier issues I raised a question to our staff members—that being, who do you feel has more or less carried the torch since Jaco as far as “innovation” on the bass is concerned. Many names came up as opinions flowed in and everyone mentioned absolutely deserved the praise they received. But the name most prevalent in those responses was Victor Wooten. Considering the stature of the players we have on staff, it was quite a compliment to Victor, as well as all others mentioned.
It would be easy for me to sing Victor’s praises with all that he has brought to us musically in so many ways, but beyond that, I find it interesting and noteworthy that literally “everyone” I’ve spoke to about Victor makes the point that not only is he a great musician, but a great human being as well, and after a lengthy interview with him, I got to truly see the depth of this mans character and his passion for his art. I can easily understand why so many people see him as much more than just his player persona.
Not all great “artists” are great “communicators”, but Victor shines in this area, and has no problem presenting a much greater picture to consider and embrace as far as living and working as an artist, and then tying all that together to become a better human being as well.
I know you’ll enjoy hearing his thoughts, and in my humble opinion, the odds of reading this article and not sitting back and reevaluating “some” aspect of your artistic quest are very small.
Jake: I have to tell you that when I was preparing my questions for you, one of the first things that came to mind is your philosophy on music as a language. I feel your presentation on this subject helps give players a better perspective on what’s truly involved in our role as an artist/musician. Could you elaborate on this premise of music as a “language”?
Victor: I haven’t yet met a musician that doesn’t agree that music is a language. One of the things to consider is that when we compare the two, music and language, we realize that they really serve the same purpose. In a nutshell, they are both forms of communication. They’re both forms of expression. It’s a way of getting something that’s inside of us out, and a lot of times the purpose is to convey a message or feeling to someone else, and the other person usually understands what we’re saying.
The cool thing about music is people are allowed to interpret in their own way, and there’s not the same misunderstanding of the individual words that we experience in language, as in English. But for the most part I believe that they serve the same purpose as a form of expression, a form of communication. Like I said before, it’s rare that I’ve met a musician that doesn’t agree that music is a language, to the point where we call it the universal language. I can go anywhere in the world and not speak the verbal language, but we can pick up instruments and instantly communicate like we’ve known each other forever.
Jake: In my interview with Alain Caron, he had very similar things to say about his playing being a language of its own, right down to comparing syllables to phrasing.
Victor: Right! You can move people with this language. The difference is that it’s rare that I’ve ever met a musician that actually treats music like our first language, English. We agree that’s it’s a language, but for some reason we treat music totally differently. Most of the time when it comes to learning music, I would go as far to say that we go about it backwards, in reverse. I’m not saying that any approach is wrong, that’s not my point. Realizing that English, and I only say that because it’s my first language, and music are both forms of communication, it’s easy for me to see that I’m still much better and more comfortable with English even though I’ve been playing for a very long time. So when I look at the approach that we use to learn and speak, and even teach English, and compare it to the usual approach we take to learn music, I realize, wow, it’s a drastically different approach, to the point where I say that we’re learning music backwards. Let me explain what I mean by that.
Lets say that I have a child that I think wants to play piano. My first thought is going to be who can I send her to for lessons—nothing wrong with that. But if I take that same approach—if I have a child that wants to speak English, for me to think, ok, who can I send them to for lessons is an odd thought. We just surround the kid with people speaking that language. We talk to the child and allow them to talk back, uninhibited. They can say whatever they want, and we hardly teach them anything for the first few years, and what I mean by ‘teach’ is teaching in the classic sense of the word as in sitting them down and giving them instructions. We don’t do that for the first 3 or 4 years at least. We let the child fend for itself. We more or less throw them in the deep water when it comes to speaking English. They have to figure it out themselves. I recognize a few key factors when I look at what allows us to get good at speaking English quickly, really quickly. I want to present these factors because as far as learning music goes, we seem to be looking at what, 15 or 20 years to obtain that same skill level communicating on our instrument.
One important element is realizing that basically, we don’t teach the kids anything. That’s a key one, and what I mean by that is when you teach someone, lets say music, the first day of lessons a child, or I should say person, learns what’s right and what’s wrong as far as our approach and how to do things. That immediately cuts part of our creativity off. The fact is that nobody wants to be wrong, especially a child. They do not want to be wrong. So in essence, it cuts part of our freedom of expression off. We are immediately afraid to really express with our instrument because of the fact that we might be wrong. And if we’re wrong, the teacher will let us know immediately, and we tend not to feel good about that. Where with English, as a child, for quite a few years you’re rarely if ever told that you’re wrong. You’re just allowed to say and express totally how you choose, with your own voice and your own choice of words, or even sounds. The interesting thing is that if you do it wrong, enough, you’re not told that you’re wrong; you’re made to feel good about it until you get it right. So with that kind of freedom, the freedom to explore without being shut down, you learn quickly. By the time you are 2 or 3 at the most, you’re freely improvising, putting it together your own way, right or wrong, and everyone gets it. In music, we don’t have that as a general rule.
Now, here are a couple of other examples. In English, basically, we’re allowed to, and almost forced to jam with other people immediately, from day one. You’re actually encouraged to jam with other people. I’m using musical terms now as far as “jamming” goes. You’re just communicating, freelancing—free expression with other people. When you think about it, the people that you’re jamming with are already pros; they are professionals in this language. They understand their instrument, that being English. We’re encouraged to jam as a baby. As a very beginner, you’re jamming with professionals. That’s an amazing thing right there that we don’t provide in music. You’re told you’re a beginner from day one, and you have to stay there for quite a few years, and then you’re allowed to advance to the next level. After you actually get good, where you’re good enough where someone’s not going to teach you anymore, we send you out to pay dues. You have to go out there and learn the ropes—we don’t do that in English. The similarity between the two languages is that we are surrounded by both of them at all times when we are learning. There is never a time when you are not surrounded by music, music plays everywhere. Even when it is not playing, the silence, the space “is” a part of music. You learn to understand what silence does with English, and silence as being a part of music, so that’s why I say you’re surrounded by music all the time.
So that’s a commonality between the two languages. But that’s not the factor that makes it different, that makes us learn one of them quickly, and one of them slowly. So here’s the thing—-everybody learns English quickly. If you’re not speaking good English by 3, we know there is a problem. There is some kind of misfiring or misconnection in your brain. So not being a pro by lets say 4 or 5, not being a professional like us in English indicates that there’s something physically wrong with your brain, and that’s not the exception, that’s the norm. We expect you to be like us by 5. Now in music, it’s the exception that lets say by 10, if you’re really great, and sound almost like a professional, maybe not quite a professional, but close, you’re considered a prodigy, or a genius. So that’s the exception, and again, totally backwards. But here’s the guarantee, here’s something I can promise you 100% of the time—-if you find a child prodigy, you’re guaranteed that someone else in that household is doing the same thing. Someone else is playing that same instrument, or something close to it. So that means if we treat music like a language, and surround the kid with it, allowing him or her to jam with the pros, allowing them to freely express, uninhibited, they become a child prodigy. They pick up this language as quickly as they do English, and that’s how I learned it. I was learning English and music at the exact same time, in the exact same way, and that lets me know that our approach to English does work in music, and you can learn it just as quickly.
Jake: An interesting analogy, and what comes to mind for me is imagining what happened in Mozart’s home that gave him the ability to write his first symphony at the age of 5.
Victor: I don’t know Mozart’s story, but I would almost guarantee you that one of his parents was a musician.
Jake: Kind of in this same vain, there is no denying that your technical prowess has helped you build the successful career you now embrace, but I feel you’ve been clear on making the point that this is just a tool to convey a much greater message. Have I read you correctly?
Victor: Yea, 100%, it’s a tool. Sometimes it’s a tool just to knock you out of your seat. But it came from a tool of needing to hear a sound. For me as a kid, especially when I was a little bit older, kind of starting to reach my teens, which at that point I had been playing music for a very long time, I actually was already gigging and touring. So when I was really trying to hear a sound, especially when Jaco came along and made it really popular to listen to horn players and the like, I was stuck listening to drummers. I had a thing for wanting my bass to sound like a drum. I wanted to play those rhythms; I wanted that power, the power in a drum solo and hearing a cymbal crash. I couldn’t figure out any of that stuff on the bass. So basically, in trying to capture that sound, the technique I needed showed up. I worked on it a little bit and figured out a few things. But it came out of a necessity to voice what I was hearing, again, just like we do with English. So that’s where the technique came from.
And then in doing it, I started realizing how it affected people, as well as how it affected me. I worked on it more and developed more ideas, and then used it for different purposes, to help get out the rhythms and other things I was hearing. But I also understand how the notes as well affect emotions, as well as rhythms. So I use both of these factors to drag emotions out of people, or put emotions in people as well.
Jake: I’m sure that many people in the bass community have heard about your Bass/Nature camp. Actually, one of my students attended your camp about a year ago and was quite moved by the experience. For those who might not have heard about your camp, could you briefly explain what the focus of that week is all about?
Victor. There are actually a few concepts we focus on. One of the main ones is showing people how to look at things musically, and I’ll talk from a bass players standpoint, as the camp so far has been geared towards bass players. I like to show people that they’re already a good bass player. They may not know it yet, but they are, and I can prove it to you. That’s one of the first things I will approach. I may not say that, or I might say it, but that’s what I know going in. “They” just don’t know it going in.
Let’s look at it this way. How do you know what a good bass player is, how can you know? If you know something, you know it from the inside out. In other words, what a good bass player is, is inside of you, that’s how you would know. And so in realizing that your knowledge of a good bass player is inside of you, which means in your head, you are one, whether you’ve played the bass before or not. So now we just have to teach you to play the instrument, because what a good bass player is supposed to sound like is something you already know. If I play good, you know it. If I play bad, you know it. So now we just have to get you there.
Most of the people we meet have actually played the instrument for years, or at least a year, so it’s actually easy. The thing is, you have to recognize your mode of thinking, your method of thinking. I then have to hijack that from you for a moment, and I ask you to let me do it. And I’m saying “me”, but it’s not just “me”, it’s a whole crew of people. There is a bass staff, and a nature staff, and I’ll get into that in a second. The main key is that there is a good bass player in there, and we need to get “you” out of the way so that this good bass player can come out to the forefront. Again, I have to hijack your mind, and what I usually tell people is that I like to short circuit their brain for them, just for a little while, and give them different things to think about.
Basically, we’ve found ways of doing it. Another thought is that when we do things, and it doesn’t matter what it is, we want to be good at it, we want to do it naturally. If I can play the bass, I want to be natural at it. In other words, I don’t want to be uncomfortable, and I definitely don’t want to be unnatural. I don’t want to have to be thinking too much when I’m playing. I don’t want to have to over-focus or over-concentrate. Like when I’m speaking—I don’t have to focus too much at all, unless there’s a little problem, then I focus a second, and then I unfocus again and I just let the words come out on their own. That’s a natural approach, that’s the way I want to play.
If I take the word natural and look it up in the dictionary, it shows that the word natural is a derivative of the word nature; it actually comes from the word nature. So in my quest to become natural, I’m really questing to be like nature. Nature is one of the most natural things that we can directly witness. Nature doesn’t need us. Maybe in some sense it does, but it’s nature without us. It has its own laws and follows its own rules, and regardless of what we try to do to it, it comes back. It just does what it does, and doesn’t have to think too much about it. It just follows its natural course. So that’s what we’re trying to do, we’re just trying to be like nature.
In music, we take the exact opposite approach. We’re told that in order to get good, we have to woodshed, and what that means is basically we have to close nature off. We have to sit in a room, a four walled room, which is actually what we mean by woodshedding. We close off nature to become like nature, and to me that’s backwards. Think about learning a language in a four-walled room. You can study that language for a long time, but I guarantee you you’ll come out speaking with an accent, and you hear it in musicians all the time. We study, we go to college, and again, don’t get me wrong, these are not wrong approaches, they’re just approaches that take longer when I compare them to English. That’s my whole mode here, I just compare it to English and that’s why I can say it’s backwards.
So my thought with this camp was, what if we made natures room, what would that do. Another thought is that I started studying nature from a teacher back in about 1990. This is a man named Tom Brown Jr., a great naturalist that has written a bunch of books. I found out about him by reading his first book called The Tracker. It was written about 25 or 26 years ago. Getting a couple of chapters into this book, I was hooked and blown away. This guy was showing parts of nature that I never knew existed. In my mind, whenever I find someone like that, whether it’s a musician, or a martial artist, or whatever, I say man, I’ve got to meet that guy—I’ve got to find him. And so with Tom Brown, I did. I found him and started taking classes with him. In my first class with Tom, I remember how passionate he was. He was talking about nature, he was talking about awareness, he was talking about tracking animals, and he was speaking with such passion, and he taught with that same passion. He often brought tears to his students through the passion he had. And I thought, you know, what he’s talking about, nature, awareness, tracking, in my eyes was the same as talking about music, and he’s teaching it the right way.
So because I know music, I had already been playing for 30 years already, I took my knowledge of music and applied it to what he was talking about, and it really helped me understand it, quickly. It was like I didn’t have to start from the beginning. I took a bunch of his examples and exercises, and his mode of teaching, and started applying it to music. I experimented on myself first, and then on my friends. I started with a good friend of mine named Steve Baily. I would try things with him just to see if it would work with other people, and I started to talk to him about these classes I was taking.
Eventually, I started talking to him about doing a camp so we could show these ideas to other people. We were doing a lot of clinics and tours together at that point, and that’s kind of where it started. It was a combination of looking at music in a different way, and then taking some of Tom Browns awareness exercises and giving them to people. We introduced a lot of different concepts that people hadn’t done before, and it seemed to excite them, and then we immediately made them take those experiences back to their instrument. With these new experiences, we found it kind of changed their brain in a subtle way, and they brought that back to their instrument. We found it allowed them to explore and express on their instrument in a different way. By changing their experience, we changed their expression, and it freed them up on their instrument. If someone presents something out of the ordinary to you, you’ll remember that. You may not even know what it is, but you’ll hear it in their voice, and your instrument is nothing but your voice, or said another way the tool of expression for your voice. If you allow these new concepts, it will show up on your instrument, and when these new things come out, and you realize that it sounds good, even the mistakes, you get hooked and start to go for more of it. Here’s where you start to realize, there is a good player in there.
Jake: I know you’ve been working with the Chick Corea Electric Band recently. What has it been like playing with, in my humble opinion, one of the most pivotal bands in contemporary jazz?
Victor: For the most part it’s been incredibly fun, and great. The other side of that is it has been an incredible challenge. It’s a physical challenge playing Chicks music, but more so, it became a mental challenge, and all of a sudden I’m going through the same things that the students at the bass camp go through. I watch the players at the camp go through this mental thing when they’re playing in front of me, or Steve Baily, or Chuck Rainy, or whoever, and here I am going through the same thing playing with Chick. I have to use the tools that I give at my clinics. I didn’t think I’d have to go through that.
All of a sudden I get a call from Chick Corea, and that’s a jolt, just hearing Chick on the phone. I don’t know where he got my number, but all of a sudden, it’s Chick Corea, and all of a sudden I’m scheduled to do a gig with him. Aside from just physically having to learn all the music, you realize, wait a minute, this is a gig that John Patitucci has been doing. I can’t play like John Patitucci, I’m not comfortable on a 6 string, and I can’t solo over changes like Patitucci. People know Patitucci’s sound. And then I think, Chick is the guy that played with Stanley Clarke, my idol for all these years—I can’t play like that. Chick also did stuff with Jaco, and all this information starts going through your mind, and it plays with you. So you rehearse and you tell yourself, it doesn’t matter, he’s calling you to play “you”!
Then you get on stage and you look, and there’s Chick—that’s Chick there, and he hits one note on the piano and you recognize that sound, and man, it’s so beautiful. And then there’s Frank, and Eric and Dave, and you’re there, and you’re the new guy, and you’re just hoping to play it good enough so they like it, and it doesn’t sound too different. You’re battling between playing it the way John Patitucci played, or playing it the way you play it. You’re trying to blend the two, and it’s a mental rollercoaster. It became a physical effort just to relax, and play the way I play. I keep telling myself, you know, he didn’t call me to come in and sound like Patitucci. Chick has heard me play and he knows I don’t sound anything like Patitucci—I couldn’t if I tried. I realized that I needed to do what he called me to do, and that’s play the music the way I play it. All of a sudden for the first time in years, I had to force myself to play like myself, and just play the music the way I hear it and feel it, and if he makes a suggestion, take it in, learn from it, and do it. It’s a mental thing, which music is, which language is.
Jake: So the teacher becomes the student.
Victor: Absolutely! You know, I’ve always heard you teach what you most need to learn. Here I am after years of saying these things and helping people break through their mental blocks, and here I am having to break through my own—and it’s fun. It was beautiful for me, exactly what I need to grow as a human being and a musician—I’m growing in both of those directions right now.
Jake: You’ve been blessed to work with some of the best musicians on the planet. If you could wave the inimitable magic wand, who else would you hope to work with in the near future?
Victor: Well, I’m trying to wave that wand right now because I’m scheduled to work with Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller. We got a chance to play one show together and it was great, and it kind of lit a fire under the three of us. We’re trying to make this happen, to wave that wand right now. So that’s a big one for me.
I never got to meet or play with Jaco, and quite frankly, I really love to work with bass players. It’s nice to support another bass player, and for soloing, it’s nice to have a great bass player underneath you. You get to feel what these other people get to feel, that’s rare for us.
I’ll have to find another time to work with Miles. Hopefully, that will get to happen. I could still go through a bunch of names of people. One of my favorite guitarists is Steve Vai. I’ve been a huge Steve Vai fan since the David Lee Roth days. I just like his persona, and his playing is great. I hope to do something with him one day. I haven’t worked enough with Vinnie Colaiuta. I got to do one recording session with him, and I’d love to work with him again. I’d also love to work with John McLaughlin. Beyond that, it would be fun to do something with Prince. We haven’t collaborated as yet. Would also love to do something with Larry Graham. I could go on and on here; there are so many great musicians out there. I also got to play with the Jaco Big Band, the Word of Mouth Band. You can imagine what it’s like for a bass player to stand in the middle of that sound. In the same light, I would never like to see anyone but Rocco play with Tower of Power, but can you imagine being in the middle of “that” sound? Those types of things are a major thrill.
Jake: A final question here—best that you can, could you give me a brief look into what your book “Music Lesson” is all about?
Victor: I took a lot of stories, a lot of true stories from myself and other people, as well as a bunch of ideas and concepts that I talk about and share at camp, and put them into a story. The Music Lesson is a novel. It’s not the typical lesson book per se, even though there are lessons in there. I’ve been doing the camp since 2000, and over the years people have been asking me at camps and clinics to put this information into a book, something they could take with them. I knew for the most part people were looking for an instruction book, and an instruction book was exactly what I didn’t want to write. An instruction book is viewed as the truth, at least the author’s truth. Truth is debatable, and arguable, and we do it all the time. I didn’t want that. I want people to have their own way, their own method.
But I “do” like giving pointers. I like giving people other things to think about—to point them in a new direction and say hey, look at that—go where you want, but take a look at this. I love doing that. So I wanted to write this book, but I didn’t know how to do it. I felt that I had some things that needed to be said, because when it comes to teaching music, I see a huge hole. If I could be as bold to say that I don’t think that most of us teachers are teaching what it really takes to be a good musician. The equivalent of that is if I wanted to teach you to speak English, and all I taught you was the alphabet, and kind of “English” theory—nouns, pronouns, verbs, and the like, it would be silly to expect you to be a good communicator just giving you this English theory. I’d have to talk to you—I’d have to treat you like me. If I’m a good speaker, I have to treat you like one immediately, which is what we do with our kids as far as English goes. So I’d have to do that right away.
In realizing that, I saw that there was something missing in the way people taught. There was a hole, and I wrote that book to fill that hole. It’s not a theoretical/modes and such approach. It’s some of the other things I have mentioned. A lot of it is really autobiographical or biographical really—that’s the way I feel about it. I could even stretch that. There are some things in there that I may not agree with, but I like putting it all in there.
Basically, it’s the story of a bass player living in Nashville TN, who wants to get better—needs to get better, because he’s not getting the gigs he needs to survive, and he’s not progressing any more musically. He’s doing all the things he knows he needs to do. He’s practicing his modes, he’s running his scales, but it’s not getting him gigs, and he’s not getting better. So he needs to make a change. Either move to a new town and start all over or whatever—he just doesn’t know what to do. But he does make the decision to get better. One day he discovers there is a man standing in his house. This man is wearing a motorcycle helmet, a blue NASA style jumpsuit, and he’s carrying a skateboard—just a strange looking guy. And it’s weird, because he’s not scared looking at this guy. He feels there’s something familiar about him. So he asks the man who he is, and the guy says, well, I’m your teacher, and that’s where it starts. He says teacher of what, and the guy replies, teacher of nothing—I can’t teach you anything. So already, it’s strange. The teacher finally says, I can show you lots of things, but I can teach you nothing. So he proceeds to show this student some amazing things about music and life, and the student quickly starts to make the connection, and the differences between the two slowly starts to disappear. He realized that in becoming a better musician, he’s becoming a better person, and vive-versa. He now realizes that for a lot of us, as we get better at being a musician, we get worse at being a person. We get worse in life, and we see this all the time.
Again, I will venture to say it’s because we close ourselves off from the natural approach, which is nature. I’ve been saying at clinics lately, show me someone who practices 8 to 10 hours a day, and I’ll show you a person that’s hard to get along with. That’s true more times than not. A lot of our great musicians had horrible people skills. You could feel that they just practiced a lot, and a lot of us pay the price for that. Either we die young, or whatever. Anyway, the book addresses that, and it addresses music in a different way. There’s some weird stuff in there, as well as things you already know. There certainly will be some things in there that you don’t agree with, but they’re in there on purpose. As Michael the teacher says, if I always tell you the truth, you’ll start to believe me. And basically, he doesn’t want his student to believe in him—he wants the student to believe in himself. If you just believe in me—well—what if I’m wrong?
Jake: I kind of see a Zen approach here.
Victor: You know, people tell me that, and I don’t know a lot about Zen. I do know any good teacher that has a desire for his student to grow knows that it’s not just about him. We, the teachers, are just a signpost, another piece of direction on your path. If your driving down the road, you don’t stop at the sign, the sign is just pointing you where you want to go, and a good teacher knows that you’re headed somewhere, and a good teacher will make it not about him right away. This is what the book is about. The teacher is strange—questionable. He answers most of your questions with a question to get you to answer your question yourself, so you can’t rely on him.
Jake: Active listening to coin an old phrase.
Victor: That’s right, and there are questions that will remain unanswered.
For more information, visit Victor online at www.victorwooten.com