Bass superhero discusses his musical upbringing, the Béla Fleck gig, collaborations with Steve Bailey and the SMV project
Exclusive interview with FBPO’s Jon Liebman
June 14, 2010
Victor Wooten, known for his solo recordings and tours and as a member of the Grammy-winning supergroup Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, has won practically every major award given to a bass guitarist. He was voted “Bassist of the Year” by Bass Player magazine three times and is the only person to have won the award more than once.
The youngest of five brothers, Victor began playing music very early in life. By the time he was 3, he was performing neighborhood concerts with his brothers in the front yard of their home. At age 6, he was touring with his brothers as the opening band for soul legend Curtis Mayfield.
Victor has recorded and/or performed with a wide array of artists, including Branford Marsalis, Mike Stern, Bruce Hornsby, Chick Corea, Dave Matthews, Prince, Keb Mo, Gov’t Mule, Susan Tedeschi, Vital Tech Tones (with Scott Henderson and Steve Smith) and the Jaco Pastorius Word of Mouth Big Band. His bass playing can also be heard on the soundtrack of the Disney film, Country Bears.
Victor has released several CDs as a leader, including A Show of Hands, What Did He Say?, Yin-Yang, Live in America, Soul Circus and his latest effort, Palmystery. He has also collaborated with fellow bassist Steve Bailey on their critically acclaimed Bass Extremes series. Wooten spearheaded the idea for the supergroup SMV (Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller, Victor Wooten). The band’s CD, Thunder, along with its wildly popular tour, received rave reviews from audiences the world over.
In addition to his prolific output of books, CDs and DVDs, Victor remains active in delivering lectures and workshops and organizing his camp for aspiring musicians. Now in its tenth year, the Victor Wooten Bass/Nature Camp has helped hundreds of musicians of all ages from all corners of the world.
FBPO: You sure got an early start as a bass player! Tell me about your family and your musical upbringing.
VW: I’m the youngest of five brothers: Regi on guitar, Roy “Future Man” on drums, Rudy on sax and Joseph on keys. There are only eight years between Regi and me. When I was born, my brothers knew they needed a bass player to complete the family band, and that was me. They gave me a toy instrument to strum while they played music. It was cool because I was learning to play without having to worry about where to place my fingers. I didn’t start off thinking about an instrument or any other technical stuff the way most musicians do. This allowed me to feel the music instead of the instrument.
When I was around 3 or 4 years old, Regi took the two high strings off one of his guitars and that became my first bass. He showed me where to place my fingers to produce certain tones. The important part is that I was learning how to play the notes to songs I already knew. That made a big difference and helped make learning the instrument more fun and much easier. Much like a baby learning to talk, I already had something to say.
FBPO: So, that’s how you settled on the bass? You were the youngest in your family and all the “good” instruments were already taken?
VW: Yes, and it was a blessing. Being a young child who looked up to his big brothers, the bass allowed me to fit in with them while having my own role to uphold. It was really cool for me as a kid. I had four older siblings to hang with, as well as the important responsibility of being the bassist of the band. There was no way to fake it.
When I was around 5 years old, we moved to California and my parents started booking real gigs for us. Soon after, our band, The Wooten Brothers, toured as the opening act for the legendary soul singer Curtis Mayfield. Regi says I turned 6 on that tour.
FBPO: What kind of music were you exposed to as a child? Was it all funk, soul and Motown or were there other styles that may surprise us? What were your brothers listening to?
VW: I listened to whatever my brothers listened to. The great thing about growing up in the ’60s was that radio stations played everything. Rock, soul, jazz and anything else could be heard on the same station, so we heard it all. In the late ’60s and early ’70s, Motown was very popular so, of course, we listened to that. I can remember my parents taking us to see James Brown at the coliseum. I’ll never forget that. Also, every Sunday, my mom would play gospel records on the stereo and I know my dad loved listening to The Grand Old Opry on the radio. It was a musical smorgasbord! Really, it was all just music to us. It wasn’t until later that I realized there where different styles.
FBPO: Getting the gig with Béla Fleck seems to have been responsible for people first starting to discover you and your playing. How did you get that gig?
VW: I first met Béla in 1987 while visiting my friend Kurt in Nashville, Tennessee. Kurt knew all the best musicians in town. He’d been telling Béla and others about my brothers and me, so it was the obvious thing to get us together while I was there. The first thing we did was call Béla on the phone. I had my bass with me, so Béla asked me to play something for him over the phone. He said it sounded sort of like a bass banjo. I guess he liked it. That led to a visit to his house and a jam session with the two of us in his kitchen. It was just a little while later that he was invited to film a television show called The Lonesome Pine Specials in Louisville, Kentucky. He decided to put a band together for the show and asked me if I’d play bass. Naturally, I said yes. He told me that he’d just met a crazy piano player named Howard Levy, who also played harmonica, so all he needed was a drummer. I told him he had to meet my brother. The rest, as they say, is history. I thank Béla, the band and the listeners for introducing me to the world.
FBPO: The duo project you did with Steve Bailey was really cool. How did that come about?
VW: Steve, Les Claypool and I met in the early ’90s at a photo shoot for a bass amp company we endorsed, named ADA. They made a very cool programmable digital pre-amp called the MB1. It was a long day and Steve and I wanted to play, but the speakers weren’t completed and didn’t work. So, we ended up just talking and acting silly. Steve and I really hit it off. We kept in touch and soon after came up with the “two basses and a drummer” idea. We contacted a company and, with a little nudging, convinced them to pay for an instructional CD and book and Bass Extremes was born. The company was very happy. Bass Extremes was one of their biggest sellers and definitely their biggest bass product.
FBPO: How about the current SMV project, with Stanley (Clarke) and Marcus (Miller)? Where did that idea come from?
VW: I can be very persistent when I want to! I gently bugged Stanley and Marcus for years about doing a project together. It was probably seven or eight years later, when Bass Player magazine called on Marcus and me to present Stanley with a Lifetime Achievement Award, that we finally got to play together. After presenting the award, BP asked us to join Stanley on stage to play his hit song “School Days.” I don’t know where they got that idea. We had such a great time playing together that we decided to record and tour. It was a dream come true! Playing with my heroes was a challenge, a lesson and a blessing. I hope we do it again.
FBPO: How would you compare SMV with the BX3 trio of Stuart Hamm, Jeff Berlin and Billy Sheehan?
VW: The main difference was that BX3 never really played together as a trio during their show. They each played their own segment. I personally think that was a mistake for them. I would have loved hearing how they sounded as a band. Just think of what the three of them could’ve come up with together. They are all amazing! But they denied their audience of seeing them as a group. SMV’s main focus was the three of us as a group.
FBPO: I recently saw John Clayton perform with Christian McBride and Rodney Whitaker at the Detroit International Jazz Festival. Do you think these bass ensembles are picking up momentum or are they more like novelty acts, appreciated only by bass players?
VW: The fact that you saw them at an international jazz festival should answer that question.
FBPO: Tell me about some of the educational resources you’ve developed. The Groove Workshop, for one, is really hot!
VW: Thanks, Jon! That video was meant as a companion to my book, The Music Lesson, and it follows the same outline. Anthony Wellington joined me on that video. We’re also in our eleventh year of running the Bass/Nature camp and now we own our own camp/retreat location called Wooten Woods. It’s a place where people can have a different experience and approach music, nature and life from an alternate angle. In recent years, we’ve added many different types of camps for all musicians. You can find our schedule on our website. When I started teaching music years ago, I felt there was a huge area that was being neglected. Most teachers focused on “note- based” lessons without an equal amount of time on other equally important parts of music, so I decided to aim my efforts toward filling that gap. I’m not saying that what I teach is better; I’m just trying to fill in the necessary blanks, like adding vegetables to a meal.
FBPO: What lies ahead for Victor Wooten? What would you like to do that you haven’t done yet?
VW: Well, I still have more music to record and more ideas to share. I really enjoy sharing musical ideas with people at camps and clinics and will hopefully continue doing that. I’m hosting my first three-week bass camp this summer and hope to expand that in the near future. I’d love to offer a whole summer music program that actually offers college credit.
I’d planned on having most of my next CD recorded by now, but I haven’t even started it yet! It sounds really good in my head, but I haven’t figured out how to sell that yet, so, I need to find time to record.
The Music Lesson Audio book should be available later this year. I think people will really enjoy listening to it. It’s a 7-CD unabridged version of the book with each character being read by a different voice, including legendary bassist Chuck Rainey as Uncle Clyde. I also scored it with a ton of original music. It includes many musicians, such as my 6-string fretless friend, Steve Bailey, and a big band version of “The Lesson,” featuring the original members of Béla Fleck & the Flecktones.
I’m currently writing the sequel to The Music Lesson book. I don’t know when I’ll be done with it, but I’m hoping for a 2011 release. I’m also still touring with my band and the Flecktones. Fortunately, I’m staying busy.
Oh, what I’d like to do that I haven’t done yet? Take at least two years off from touring and spend it with my family. That would be nice.
See our follow-up VIDEO interview with Victor from the 2013 International Society of Bassists convention: