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Bassist Victor Bailey on Making Good Music

A young Victor Bailey, hanging out at Mike Stern’s New York studio with Jaco Pastorius, once tried playing Pastorius’ fretless bass. The neck was a wreck, the set up was horrible, and the strings were ancient. If that weren’t enough, it buzzed intermittently from the nut to the end of the fingerboard.

Eager to help, Bailey offered to jump in a cab and take it to be fixed. Pastorius took it from him and proceeded to make the bass sing. Bailey says he realized that Jaco knew every aspect of that bass; including every dead spot, every buzz, and every place he needed to dig in to get the sound he wanted. Not only did Pastorius know how to play that bass, he knew how to make good music with it.

“A lot of people are into playing, but not as much into music,” says Bailey, who is known for his solo records, playing on over 1000 recordings as a studio musician, and on numerous tours with pop mega star Madonna, and of course, succeeding Pastorius as bassist for the jazz/fusion group Weather Report. Weather Report keyboardist and co-founder Joe Zawinul remains one of Bailey’s mentors. He explains, “Zawinul was never concerned with how much chops someone had, it was always about the quality of the music. There’s a big difference between playing and making music.”

Bailey says he’s seen some phenomenal players do unbelievable things on the bass when they are on stage by themselves, but notices that in many cases he doesn’t see them as part of a rhythm section. Bailey remarks, “A lot of guys are amazing players, but don’t necessarily make quality music. The most important thing all the time for me and the people I work with is that the music feels and sounds good.”

“In order to make music that sounds good, you don’t necessarily have to be the most technically advanced player,” says Bailey. He says an overall musical sense and concern for the quality of the music can be much more important than virtuoso performances in many cases. Bailey advises, “Use what you have to make something interesting. There are plenty of musicians out there that may not have the most chops, but they know how to command the stage – and rock the house. Guys who can do that AND have lots of talent, knowledge and ability, now those are my kind of guys!”

If your goal is to be a first-rate player like Bailey, however, he says it’s absolutely essential to know what you’re doing. “You have to study your instrument until it’s second nature. When you hear chord changes and modulations, you can’t be guessing – you have to know where to go without hesitation. Anything that’s put in front of you – you need to be able to handle – immediately! That’s what separates the top players from everyone else.”

Bailey should know. He played his first gig three weeks after he got his first bass – he was 15. “I’ve always been a studious person. I came home from school and spread my books out and did my homework before I went outside. I read the encyclopedia. When it came to music, I wasn’t satisfied just knowing the bass line; I also wanted to know the chords and harmony. My dad, a master composer, arranger, producer and saxophonist, had a jazz collection of guys like Oscar Peterson and Ray Brown and I used to ask him, ‘Why did Ray Brown play this note?’ and he’d tell me, ‘Well that’s a flat 9.’ I’ve always been inquisitive, and I’m still that way, to this day. There are still a whole bunch of things I think I could do better.”

Bailey notes that even after 30 years of playing, if he doesn’t touch the bass for one day, his flow isn’t the same. “I noticed that if I play for just 10 or 15 minutes per day it keeps me connected to the instrument. If I don’t stay in touch with the bass, it might take me a whole set before I feel my flow is good. Practice gives you a natural connection to the instrument.”

When Bailey practices, he says he plays a combination of things; solo studies (currently, he’s working on a Bach piece) then he may groove for an hour, then maybe do some bebop soloing, or play some old R&B or rock bass lines. “I’m always trying to improve the quality of my playing – the sound, touch and feel. I’m always thinking about feel. As I’m playing the bass line, my head is moving to the groove – just as much as if I’m on stage. I’m thinking, ‘How long do I hold this note, should I leave a space? Should I play them perfectly even, or play one note with vibrato, and the next with no vibrato’?”

That said, Bailey acknowledges that depending on what someone wants out of playing the bass, it may not be necessary for them to practice all day, every day. He says players should determine what they want to be, and do what it takes to get there.

“I once taught a woman who ended up playing bass in a big rock band. I played Stanley Clarke’s School Days for her and she said, ‘I don’t want to play like that.’ She spent all day working on music – but it was writing songs. She wanted to be good enough to write good bass lines and to not have to search around all day to figure out where the song was going. She was very clear on what she wanted out of it, and I think that’s key.”

And most importantly, Bailey advises, don’t give up. He says developing skills takes time and consistent effort. Again, Bailey should know. He recalls a recent gig he played in New York, on Long Island. After the gig, a man came up to him, said excitedly, “Wow I really like how you play the bass – I’ve never heard anyone do what you’re doing. You should really stick with it, you really have a future in this business.”

Victor Bailey recently completed a new CD with the trio CBW – with Larry Coryell and Lenny White. Bailey says the new CD, recorded for Chesky Records, will contain jazz, rock, funk, fusion, “a little of everything.” Keep an eye on for details of upcoming concerts and tours.