Consider for a moment bass guitar’s second wave: the deeply talented and acutely attuned crew that followed flush on the heels of low-end liberators Stanley Clarke and Jaco Pastorius. Like the coven of killer keyboardists Miles Davis brewed in the late ’60s, early-’80s names such as Marcus Miller, John Patitucci, Darryl Jones, and Jeff Andrews signaled a new bass dynamic. The fearless figurehead of this movement? That would be Victor Bailey, who eagerly took over Jaco’s Weather Report throne to issue his own dramatic Jazz Bass tones. Bailey would go on to redefine the pocket with his elastic grooves and raise the bar on bass blowing with his command of bebop and vocal phrasing via a wide cross-section of jazz, R&B, and pop recordings, and four acclaimed solo sides. More recently, Victor has been slowed down by health problems stemming from his muscular dystrophy diagnosis in the ’90s. Still, he settled in nicely at the Berklee College of Music, sharing his gift and knowledge as a member of the bass faculty. Unfortunately, late last year his condition worsened, weakening his upper body and requiring a temporary move to a care facility. Compounding the issue is frustrating healthcare-system red tape that has made it necessary for Victor to launch a crowdfunding effort to help pay his mounting medical bills. (To contribute, visit http://www.youcaring.com/victor-bailey-462309.) But Victor’s indomitable spirit and outspoken nature remain intact, and he can rattle off pinpoint details about any of his vast learning and playing experiences.
Born in Philadelphia on March 27, 1960, Bailey grew up surrounded by music. Much of it came from the basement, where his dad, composer/arranger/saxophonist Morris Bailey Jr., had a rehearsal studio, which regularly featured Philly Soul artists and jazz musicians. Victor played piano as far back as he can remember and then switched to drums at ten, working with adults in a professional R&B band at that tender age. Five years later, when the band’s bassist quit after growing tired of young Victor telling him what to play, Victor switched to bass. He recalls, “From the moment I picked it up, I was able to play all of our songs, and I was improvising and filling around the parts, too; the guys in the band were going, ‘He’s running on the bass!’ My dad, who never interrupted when I was rehearsing, came barreling down the stairs asking, ‘Who’s playing bass?’ He saw it was me and said, ‘You should be a bass player.’ I said, ‘I know,’ and I never played drums again.” A few months later, for Christmas 1975, Bailey got a candy apple red Fender Musicmaster Bass. “I became obsessed with the instrument and getting better on it; I didn’t hang out or play sports, I practiced all day, every day. Bass was it.” Thus a journey began, with a thousand half-and whole-steps.
Who were your main early influences on bass?
Early on, I was hearing Tyrone Brown, Arthur Harper, Ron Baker, Jimmy Williams, and Alphonso Johnson rehearsing in my basement, but I was still a drummer then, so I paid little attention to them. When I switched to bass, my big three were Larry Graham, Stanley Clarke, and Alphonso. Then a student teacher brought Jaco’s solo album [1976, Epic] and Weather Report’s Black Market [1976, Columbia] to school, and it changed my life. I went home and took a screwdriver and ripped the frets out of my Musicmaster—taking chunks out of the fingerboard that I had to glue back in—determined to became a fretless player. Because I knew harmony and chords from playing piano, and was applying it to bass, I felt a kinship with Jaco and Alphonso on those two records. I told my dad, “These guys play exactly like me, but a thousand times better!” Jaco stood out as a little stronger influence, especially sound-wise and melodically. I also played upright in my high school jazz band and orchestra. While it didn’t interest me like electric bass, I dug deep into Ray Brown, Ron Carter, and Paul Chambers, which enabled me to walk well enough on electric to do regular jazz gigs in local bars. On the R&B side, I have to cite both Louis Johnson and Bobby Watson with Rufus as key influences.
How did you get to Berklee, and what bass were you playing?
My high school jazz band teacher used to get Downbeat. I’d read it each month and notice that many of the artists went to Berklee; I thought, I need to go there. I wanted to play fusion, which was the new, exciting music. I arrived in the fall of 1978 with my fretless Musicmaster, but not long after, I bought the red ’66 Jazz Bass I used in Weather Report, for $600 across the street from Berklee. Initially, I had the frets taken out, but I was doing a lot of R&B gigs that required slapping, and I realized I needed a fretted Jazz Bass. I went back to the store to try one. I immediately noticed that while the influence of Jaco and Alphonso was still there, I sounded a lot more like myself on the fretted fingerboard. So I bought the bass and I also had the frets put back in the ’66, and I never really played fretless after that.
What led you to study bebop, and what was your path?
I was playing with bebop records in high school, but the person who locked in my focus was Bobby Broom, a guitar student I met when I first got to Berklee. He was 17 and he already sounded like George Benson. The realization that he was both a year younger and better than me motivated me to learn the linear language of bebop and gain the ability to play through the changes like horn players do. That’s not a requirement of bass players; there are plenty of cats who swing their butts off, but when a solo comes they’re kind of skating through the changes. So Bobby and I would get together to ’shed every day. And with the encouragement of my teachers, Bruce Gertz, Whit Browne, Rich Appleman, and John Repucci, I started transcribing solos by Trane, Miles, Lee Morgan, Freddie Hubbard, and others.
What led you to move to New York City, and how did that culminate in you joining Weather Report?
Again, that was Bobby Broom. He had moved back to New York and he had me play over the phone for [drummer] Poogie Bell. A few months later, Poogie came to Boston with [trumpeter] Hugh Masakala, and they needed a bassist. Hugh hired me, and he had two months of work at various clubs in New York—this was early in 1980. So I left Berklee after two semesters, and over the course of that run I got heard by everyone in New York, which led to a steady stream of gigs and sessions.
Hugh’s wife, [vocalist] Miriam Makeba, called me to do two nights at Carnegie Hall in May 1982, and the drummer was Omar Hakim. We had done a track on Bobby Broom’s debut album while I was still at Berklee, but jamming at soundcheck, we realized we had an instant connection and chemistry; we felt grooves the same way. Afterward, Omar said he had the gig with Weather Report and that they were looking for a bassist. He gave me Joe Zawinul’s address to send him a tape, and told him about me. Joe actually called me before he got the tape and said, “I know you’re the guy I’m gonna hire—I can feel it.” We went to L.A. to rehearse and record Procession [1983, Columbia] at Joe’s home studio in Pasadena. I just remember the sound of Joe and Wayne Shorter filling the room, and my mind being blown that I was playing with them.
The burden of replacing Jaco was probably more a media creation than your reality.
Absolutely—Joe and Wayne had moved on from that version of the band and were looking for something fresh. Omar and I felt like, we’re Weather Report now, check us out. And Joe was similar to Miles in that he incorporated whoever was in his band into the music. Both he and Wayne were writing with us in mind.
How did you approach your role?
The same way I always do as a bass player, which is first to identify the groove and the feel, then come up with a basic part, and then figure out where I can improvise around it—all in the name of finding the best bass line for the song. I often thought I had better bass lines than what Joe was giving to me, so it was a combination of what Joe had written, me trying to mold the part to best make the music move, and finding a little space to improvise. I wasn’t thinking lead bass, like Jaco played much of the time; I was more about being the bass player and adding my personality. The other advantage Jaco had was being on hand to mix his bass. I think my playing would have stuck out more if I’d had a say in the mix; Joe mixed my bass and it didn’t have a lot of punch. The best sound I got on my four Weather Report records was on “Consequently” [1986, This Is This!, Columbia] because I wrote and recorded it.
How about on the solo side?
I got my solo spot in each show, in which I was free to do whatever I wanted, as well as having solos on some tunes. Joe and Wayne very rarely talked about or rehearsed solo sections; that would develop on the road. In our first rehearsals I kept harassing Joe, Where can I take a solo? And he said, “Don’t worry about that, we all know we can play; we gotta get the music right.” That was the difference between Weather Report and other improvisational bands of the time: They really worked on the quality of the compositions and arrangements. Joe and Wayne would spend an hour at soundcheck working on 16 bars of melody. Joe, who was always encouraging me to do my own thing, would say, “Bailey, one day you’re gonna have your own band. Make sure your music is together enough that you could do the entire show without anybody soloing and still knock the audience dead.”
When the blowing commenced, what was it like to follow Wayne and Joe?
It was a challenge from the start, because I was practicing bebop at the time, and Joe would say, “Don’t play any bebop on my bandstand—Wayne and I already did that.” But the glaring difference was I had only been playing six years, so I sounded like I was trying; they never sounded like they were trying. Wayne was so brilliant. I’ll never forget, there’s a song on Domino Theory [1984, Columbia] called “Blue Sound—Note 3,” a slow ballad in F minor. Although it didn’t make it onto the album that way, in rehearsals I would solo on it before Wayne; I’d play a million notes, everything under the sun. One day after my solo he turned around and looked me right in the eyes and played three chromatic notes, Ab, A, and Bb. Then he proceeded to play those three notes in so many different ways, with like a bar and a half between each phrase. It was so profound, it completely wiped out what I had played! He was basically telling me, you just played a whole bunch of stuff, now check this out. Those guys were at the level where they spoke through their instruments, while I was playing stuff I had worked out and practiced.
How do you reflect on your post-Weather Report sideman career?
Well, I played with Joe in many of his bands up until he passed in 2007, and that continued to be a tremendous learning experience. For me, the music was great, but it never quite measured up melodically, without having Wayne playing the melodies. Right after Weather Report, I loved doing Steps Ahead with [drummer] Peter Erskine; we had a killer band but we only did one record. And I’ve always enjoyed the CBW trio with Larry Coryell and Lenny White; it’s one of the few bands where I can fully express myself on bass in a “sideman” role. In truth, when Weather Report ended, I wasn’t thinking about being a bass artist; I was an aspiring R&B writer/producer. I had a publishing deal with MCA, which enabled me to write songs for artists like Kashif and the Force M.D.’s, and I was enjoying doing sessions with a wide range of people.
Ironically, your R&B side led to your first solo album.
That’s right; Atlantic president Sylvia Rhone liked some of my R&B music, and when I went to meet her she said, “Are you the same Victor Bailey from Weather Report?” I said yes, and she said, “If you still have your chops on bass, I’ll give you a jazz record deal.” That was how Bottom’s Up came about in 1989. I was constantly writing at home on my four-track, so I already had all of the tunes for it. Atlantic promoted it well, with a whole wall at Tower Records in the Village, and I booked tours in Europe, Japan, and the States. But smooth jazz was coming on, so I didn’t get a lot of airplay. One day I was up at the label and I overheard someone in another room say, “Victor Bailey is great, but he doesn’t sell enough records.” The week I signed with Sylvia, she also signed En Vogue, who sold five million albums. I sold 60,000—very respectable for a jazz record, but not enough to keep the label from dropping me.
Your four albums cover a wide range of styles and different bass sounds, but you retain your distinct musical voice.
That’s just me expressing who I am, someone comfortable in several different styles and willing to blend them, as well. In truth, I never had a musical direction for my albums; it was more picking from a bunch of songs I had at the time. As for using different tones, that’s mainly for inspiration. Joe used to do that; he’d find a synth sound he liked, and it would inspire a tune. I’ll find a sound and it will inspire the melody or the bass line, or how I solo. Being attuned to tones is also from my being influenced by different kinds of bass players and the way they sounded based on where and how they played the instrument. For example, in a fusion setting, I’ll play back by the bridge, to try to cut through the guitar and keyboards; whereas if I’m walking on a standard, I’ll pluck up over the bottom of the fingerboard and try to wrap my sound around the band, like an upright.
What can you share about your experiences with Madonna and Lady Gaga?
Madonna happened at the recommendation of her then-musical director, Peter Schwartz, who had the same attorney as Omar and me. She was familiar with us from Weather Report, and she asked us to do Saturday Night Live in early 1993; it went well, and she hired us for her world tour. I was impressed because Madonna was all business, all the time, and she knew everything about her music—from synth sounds to tempos. She would tell us a song sounded “rushed” or “slow,” if we were too on top of or behind the beat, and once we adjusted, it sounded like Madonna. You might not think there’s a Madonna feel, but there is! The theatrical elements of the show necessitated having programmed loops, but Omar and I told them which ones to turn off, and the basic kick-snare-and-bass was us. I also played keyboard bass on some songs, using a George Duke-like strap-on keyboard.
Lady Gaga I knew as Stefani, this little Italian girl in jeans playing the piano and calling out the chord changes to me. At that point she had a development deal with another label, and her producer, Rob Fusari, was friend of a friend. He hired me to come over every weekend to cut demo tracks—I did over 40. One of them, “Brown Eyes,” made the first Lady Gaga album [2008, The Fame, Universal]. When I initially saw her new persona and costumes, I was surprised. I hope some of the material I played on comes out—they were good songs, more harmonically and melodically advanced then the simplified dance music she became known for.
Let’s talk about your painting career.
I was always able to draw well as a kid, but my painting started in 1996, when I went into an art store to buy a sketch pad and the owner talked me into getting an easel, canvas, and paints. My first painting was “Upright Citizen,” which the late bassist Charles Fambrough bought and used for the cover and title of his album. Since then I’ve probably done about 200 works and I’ve had numerous exhibits. The key for me, other than the enjoyment, is I recognize I’m not as emotionally invested in it as I am in music. If I’m working on a song and I can’t get the bridge right, I won’t be able to sleep that night; if I don’t think a painting I did is that good, I just move on to the next one. It has also taught me to be much less objective about myself and my work, and let people judge for themselves—because every time I’ve had an exhibit, the paintings I think are best are never the ones that sell.
How have you taken to teaching?
It was something I really wasn’t into when I was younger, but I did a clinic at Berklee in 2012, and I told John Repucci I might like to come back when I’m older to teach there. When Steve Bailey took over the bass department, John mentioned it, and Steve made me a great offer with plenty of flexibility and the option to bail if I didn’t like it. But from the first day I absolutely loved it. The students are very serious about learning, and I’ve realized with my experience I have something to offer and give back. The true joy is seeing students grow and improve, week by week. To watch a student go from his first semester to appearing on Saturday Night Live makes you feel like a proud father.
How would you diagnose the state of young bassmanship?
Well, the most impressive aspect—and I don’t know if it’s good or bad—is the high level of technique. Young players are so fast and clean it’s remarkable. I thought I had a lot of chops in my day. Unfortunately, I have too many students who are all technique; ask them to play a song or a blues and they’re blank. The problem is too many of them don’t play with other musicians like my generation did. They play by themselves, with their devices. Another drawback is they don’t have as much of a chance to go out and see musicians play. The music they know is from YouTube, but you can’t feel the music on YouTube like you do at a concert. Also, the majority of clips they watch are solos. They’ll show me someone soloing on You-Tube and I’ll say, How come the only place I ever see these cats is on YouTube? Sometimes I have to be harsh and say, I can’t recommend you for any gig I know of; you can’t play a bass line, you can’t groove, and you don’t know any songs. My overall focus is on making them the best musicians they can be, through the study of harmony, reading, and different styles of music—but it’s also on giving them the skills to become working musicians, so they can get through a gig.
What can you reveal about your health problems?
I have a form of muscular dystrophy called Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, named for the three French doctors who discovered it; it’s pretty rare, affecting about 1,400 people per year in the U.S. Basically, I’m losing the muscles in my body because the signals from the brain through the nerve paths to the muscles are not transmitting. No one has been able to pinpoint why or where this breakdown is, so there’s no cure at this point. It’s genetic in my case, as my grandmother, father, and uncle were all afflicted. I was diagnosed at 30, with it affecting my legs to the point of my needing a wheelchair in recent years. Usually, upper-body problems don’t occur until later in life—my dad had to stop playing sax when he was 77—so I wasn’t expecting to have this trouble at 55. At this point, my arms and hands have become affected. I can’t play bass because I don’t have enough strength and control of my hands. More important, I need help with basic everyday living, like getting dressed and getting in and out of the shower. Right now, I’m in an assisted living facility with 24-hour care, in Newton, just outside of Boston.
What’s your course of treatment?
I’ve been getting physical therapy, which will enable me to get stronger and more functional, and be able to teach and play bass again, but trying to get the best medical care has been a real battle. I was in a facility with more advanced treatment and I was getting stronger, when my insurance company stopped paying for it, forcing me to leave. Since then it’s been a fight at every turn. Let’s just say the realities of the American healthcare system are not pretty. But through my disability advocate, I’ve been fortunate to get help from various organizations and foundations who reach out to musicians in need. There are benefits planned by my best friend, [drummer] Jeffrey Lewis, and by Berklee through Steve Bailey. And I’d like to thank everyone who has contributed to my crowdfunding campaign; I’m getting a lot of love and support from people all over the world, which is a blessing. My goal is to resume teaching at Berklee next semester.
How do you reflect on your career to this point?
I think I’ve accomplished most of the goals I had as a kid, including my dream of playing in Weather Report. My aim was to become a musical player whose career spanned a few generations and stayed relevant based on that musicality. As in most professions, it’s all about the acknowledgement of your peers. I’ve gotten to play with artists like Joe, Wayne, Michael Brecker, Lenny White, Sonny Rollins, and Billy Cobham, and they’ve shown appreciation for what I do. I take the most pride in being an electric bassist who is a serious musician, which is not a necessity for a successful career in bass. I worked hard to learn not only the music of my heroes, but the music of the artists who inspired them, and then put it into my own voice. That said, I’ve got more learning and playing to do.
Basses Fender Victor Bailey Signature Jazz Bass, fretless Jazz Bass, Bass V, and acoustic bass guitar; ’56 Kay upright
Strings Various light-gauge DR Strings (.040, .060, .080. .100)
Amps Markbass Bass Multiamp head with two Standard 104HR cabinets, MicroMark 801 combo
Effects Zoom 607 Bass Multi-Effects/Expression Pedal, Boss OC-2 Octave
Other Moody straps
5 Favorite Sideman Albums
1 Weather Report, Domino Theory
2 Steps Ahead, Magnetic
3 Bobby Broom, Clean Sweep
4 Lenny White, Present Tense
5 Weather Report, Procession
5 Favorite Tracks (solo or as a sideman)
1 Victor Bailey, “Kid Logic,” Bottom’s Up
2 Victor Bailey, “Countdown,” Slippin’ N’ Trippin’
3 Weather Report, “Molasses Run,” Procession
4 Victor Bailey, “’Round Midnight,” Bottom’s Up
5 Weather Report, “D Flat Waltz,” Domino Theory
5 Favorite Compositions
1 “Kid Logic” (Bottom’s Up)
2 “Do You Know Who/Continuum” (Low Blow)
3 “Sweet Tooth” (Low Blow)
4 “Like a Horn” (Slippin’ N’ Trippin’)
5 “Low Blow” (Low Blow)
5 Favorite Solos
1 “Feels Like a Hug” (Low Blow)
2 “Brain Teaser” (Low Blow)
3 “Joyce’s Favorite” (vamp-out solo, Bottom’s Up)
4 “Countdown” (Coltrane’s solo, Slippin’ N’ Trippin’)
5 “Like a Horn” (Slippin’ N’ Trippin’)