Saturday, December 25, 2010
Grammy-award winning bassist Victor Wooten already had a bass in his hands at an age when some people are still learning to talk.
Raised in a military family with four older brothers known for their musical ability, Wooten started learning the bass when he was two years old from his then ten-year-old brother Regi.
By age three he was with his brothers as they played concerts in their Hawaiian neighborhood. At age six he was with them when they opened for Curtis Mayfield.
The brothers continued to play as the family moved first to Sacramento, then to the east coast. After landing in Newport News, Virginia in the early 1980’s, they began work as musicians at Busch Gardens theme park in nearby Williamsburg.
Convinced by his brother Roy that he could play the instrument, Busch Gardens offered Wooten a job as a blue grass fiddler. Ironically, Wooten had never played the instrument and had to give himself a crash course to take the job.
Busch Garden administrators never knew he was anything other than an experienced fiddler.
At the park, Wooten met New York and Nashville musicians and in 1988 moved to Nashville, where he met New Grass Revival banjo player Bela Fleck. The two joined with Wooten’s brother Roy (also known as Future Man) on drums and Howard Levy on harmonica and keyboards to form Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, which Wooten still plays with today.
He began his solo career in the 1990’s, first forming Bass Extremes with fellow bassist Steve Bailey. His 1996 debut album A Show of Hands is considered a seminal bass recording. He went on to release What Did He Say? In 1997, the Grammy-nominated Yin-Yang in 1999, and the double-CD Live in America in 2001. In 2005, a literal who’s who of bassists that included Bailey, Bootsy Collins, Rhonda Smith, Will Lee, Oteil Burbridge, Gary Grainger and Christian McBride joined Wooten, his brothers and other musicians for the Soul Circus CD.
His 2008 album Palmystery featured the Lee Boys and bluesman Keb Mo. A song from Palmystery,”I Saw God,” was featured in the movie “The Moses Code.”
Also in 2008, Wooten joined two of his heroes, Stanley Clarke and Marcus Miller, to form “SMV.” The three toured together and released an album, Thunder.
The five-time Grammy winner is also a three time winner of Bass Player magazine’s Bassist of the Year Award, the only musician to have won the award more than once.
He is also known for Victor Wooten’s Bass/Nature Camp, an instructional camp for musicians located near Nashville.
Wooten talked to Beldon’s Blues Point about his own life after discussing his cousin, rhythm-and-blues singer Keymace (you will hear from her—and from him talking about her—in an upcoming post, so don’t go away):
BBP:If I recall, your brother Regi taught you the bass when you were like, what, two or three years old?
Wooten: Exactly. Exactly. I was about two or three years old when he started teaching me. And I’m the youngest of five brothers, so I have four older brothers, and by the time I was five, I was lucky enough to be out doing some gigs. Like I did a tour opening for Curtis Mayfield when I was about five or six years old. And so I was lucky, in that sense, I was surrounded by my parents and my brothers and I was kind of inducted early on into this music society. And I’m kind of seeing the same thing with Keymace. Even though she may not have been part of a regular band when she was young, she was still singing and performing and surrounded by her relatives and her cousins that were musical, so she kind of has a similar background to me.
BBP: Let me ask you about something I heard about you. Do you run a camp in California for bass?
Wooten: It’s in Tennessee and it’s really for any instrument, not just bass. It started out in the year 2000 as just for bass players and now we’ve grown because now we have our own property that we run these camps on and so now we’re doing any instrument, all ages.
BBP: Somebody told me that you do training, not only on the instruments, but a lot of breathing exercises. How does that figure into it?
Wooten: Well, you don’t perform if you don’t have the body and the mind to perform with. And so a lot of us musicians take care of our instruments, but not our bodies. You know, there are people who will go out and wash their car every day, but don’t take care of their body. And so, it’s like when you speak, when we’re talking right now, you are using an instrument to talk with. But you know, because talking is a natural thing you’ve done your whole life, you now know that the instrument you are talking with is not all important. In other words, the focus doesn’t go to the instrument, the focus goes to what it is you have to say. Because nobody is interested in your instrument. If I’m sitting in front of you, I’m not staring at your mouth, I’m listening to what you have to say, what’s coming through the instrument. So a lot of us musicians get caught up and get lost in the instrument. “Oh man, what kind of instrument you got?” And it’s not about the instrument. When you sit that instrument down, it doesn’t make a sound. The music comes from you, from the inside. And so I do a lot of things that deal with your inside. Who you are as a person. What is your life’s story? Because once you have a life’s story and you have something interesting to say through your instrument, then people will listen. That’s why we love someone like B.B. King, Michael Jackson, or the Beatles or Elvis. It’s not just that their music is good, but they are telling a story that we all can relate to and we all want to hear it. And to me that is one thing that is a little bit missing from the younger artists here. That you can tell that the story they’re telling in a lot of cases—and this is not to criticize anyone—a lot of times the story is not authentic. Not like B.B. King, or Stevie Wonder or whatever, or Ray Charles, where you can really feel that thing. And so, that is one of the things that I work with a lot with musicians is that inner story, that inner beauty that we have, and I cultivate that. And then the instrument, the rest of it is easy after that.
BBP: You started out playing with Curtis Mayfield at five and you were at Busch Gardens for a while. I used to go there when I was a kid. Were you part of the house band there or were you kind of playing with different bands that toured through there? How did that work?
Wooten: I played for a few years in the country music band, in the bluegrass and country show. And me and a few of my brothers worked at that park for a few years on and off. And it was at a time that we weren’t doing a whole lot of touring and recording, so we got some musical work there. Rather than working at McDonald’s or something, we got musical jobs. And it wound up being a blessing. You know, I wouldn’t be where I am right now today without that because that’s what turned me onto Bela Fleck, the banjo player that I play with today. Everything’s got a blessing in it if we find it.
BBP: You kind of experiment with different kinds of music. I know you’ve kind of been involved in Indian music. I guess your watershed band would have been Bela Fleck. What did that do for you being part of that band?
Wooten: For one, it expanded me as a musician, because here I am playing different kinds of music. But I’m blending my background, my soul, R and B, Motown background, I’m blending this now with jazz, bluegrass and country-time stuff and we created a whole new sound because of it with this band. And then it also expanded the other musicians, because my brother and I—my brother Roy plays drums in that band. Because of our background—and we were very confident in our music and our ability—it actually pushed the band in an original direction. But music to me—styles of music are like people, and so for me I don’t want to just associate with one race or group of people, I want to know about all kinds of people. And what I find out in learning about these people is that even through our differences we are a lot alike. And I find that music is the same way. The more types of music I play the better musician I am. The more types of people I mingle with the better of a person I am. And so to me it all worked together that way.
BBP: Tell me about the double-thumbing technique. I understand that you first learned that from your older brother?
Wooten: I did. I learned it from Regi, and it was before it even had a name. But he taught me that because that’s the way he uses a guitar pick. Any guitar player uses a pick in a down and an up direction, where most bass players use their thumbs in only a down direction. So my brother Regi showed me that because he could use it, we could do it. Any guitarist can do it. Because it’s just like using a pick. So when he showed me that, it just made complete sense to use your thumb like you’re using a pick. And so basically that’s all it is. Bass players have made it a little more difficult, but if you think about it it’s just like what a guitar player does, but instead of using a pick we’re using our thumb. That is not easy but it’s very beneficial.
BBP: And tapping (a rough definition: fretting and playing notes with both hands, so that you are playing your bass in the same manner that someone plays a piano)? How does that figure into what you do?
Wooten: Tapping came about for me because I used to copy all of my brothers. Whatever they did, I wanted to do. But for some reason I would learn their techniques on my bass. Like I never practiced playing the piano and I still really can’t play piano today. But I would pay attention to what my brother Joseph was doing. And I’d also hand him my bass and say “hey play this like a piano, let me see it.” And he would lay it in his lap and use all ten fingers to play notes, and I was like “whoa, this is cool.” Then I would start messing around with it. But then in the early nineties, no eighties, I heard a guitar player named Stanley Jordan and all of a sudden here is this guy that is doing it exactly. I mean it sounded like he had perfected just a simple idea I was stealing from my brothers. So when I finally saw Stanley Jordan actually doing it on a guitar, that is really what set me off in the proper direction. Once I heard him and then once I saw him, that’s really where my confidence in tapping came from.
BBP: And the lower action (Another rough definition from an amateur bass player. The action is the distance between the strings and the neck. Theoretically, the smaller the distance, the less work it takes to play) on the bass. That figures into a lot of what you do, am I right about that?
Wooten: Well you know, I don’t know. I guess. See my action for me is not low or high, it’s right where I need it. It’s like, if you play basketball, you’re going to wear shoes that are comfortable. And whether the heels are high or low, I don’t know. It doesn’t make a difference, it’s what’s comfortable. So I’ve met some bass players where my action is very low to them, and I’ve also met some where my action is high for them. So, you know, for me it’s right. I just put it to where it’s easy for me to play. Because if I’m going to do this every night, I don’t want to work hard at it. I want it to be as comfortable as possible. And so for me, it’s not high or low, it’s just right.
BBP: Who is your favorite bass player now? Who have you learned the most from as a bass player?
Wooten: Well, I learned from everybody. Stanley Clarke was one of my heroes. Larry Graham. Bootsy Collins. James Jamerson. I could name a bunch of them. Jaco Pastorius. I could really name a lot. Chuck Rainey. And then there’s a bunch of newer bass players, a lot of friends of mine that I grew up with down in Virginia who are now famous players. I like them all. But I don’t have one favorite. Because music is too big for me to pick just one person.
BBP: You mentioned Stanley Clarke, and I know the three of you did an album together. Marcus Miller, Stanley, how’d that come about?
Wooten: Believe it or not it was an idea of mine that I just never let die. Years ago, early 90’s, whenever I would see Stanley Clarke or Marcus. Then when it finally started getting to a place where I was starting to make a little name for myself, they would come to town or I would see them at a music festival, I would talk to Stanley and Marcus and say “hey, man, the three of us, we should do something one day.” And I just kept saying that, kept saying it over and over, years and years. Literally. And then, what happened is a few years ago, Stanley Clarke was given a lifetime achievement award by Bass Player magazine up in New York. They asked Marcus and me to present the award to him. And then they asked us to get on stage and play “School Days” with him. And once we did that, it was over. It was like “Okay, we got to do this now.” That was where it finally really came together. And it got in their heads “This is too good, we got to do this.”
BBP: After the album and after the tour was there any way that that collaboration changed you as a bass player?
Wooten: Definitely. Definitely. It would have been a wasted opportunity had it not changed me. I’m a better musician because of it, but at the same time I learned a whole from them. Not so much about the instrument, but other things. You know, just being on tour with them and seeing how they run their lives, when they call their wives, when they go to the room to write music, when we’re in the studio and there’s a problem, meaning there “I don’t understand how to solo over this.” Seeing how they work through that, you know, just learning that these guys are human. Cause for years they were just gods. Which is cool, but you learn more about them when you understand that they’re human. They make mistakes, here’s how they get through it. That to me was really, really nice. That helped me out a whole lot, just to be able to understand their process. I knew their playing, I already knew they were gods on the bass, I’ve known that forever. But to get to see them more as human beings really helped me out in my life, not just my musical life.
BBP: I noticed you played with Prince at one point. What was that like? That must have been a real experience for you.
Wooten: Yeah. To get a chance to play with any of your heroes that as a kid you were listening to is always a treat. But it’s also a challenge, because, you know, to go back to Stanley, I met Stanley when I was nine. So even to this day when I get around Stanley, I feel nine again, you know, so to get around someone like Prince, it’s hard to get around him. He doesn’t let people close. So when you do, it’s like wow! You have to work hard to control yourself. And the first time I did it, the first time we didn’t play together, but my band was playing in Paisley Park, his big compound in Minneapolis. He had hired my band to play a party. And just being around there and him coming up and showing us the place, saying we could go wherever we wanted and whatever, you know, it was so cool. And then when they came to Nashville, after that I was invited to the show. And I was invited to the afterparty. The afterparty was a big jam session. So it was like Larry Graham and Prince and his band and Rhonda Smith (singer/bass player who, among others, played with Prince) was on bass—I got a chance to play with all of those guys. And that was a treat. It was a highlight I will never forget.
BBP: It must be an honor to have Prince hire you to play a party.
Wooten: Yeah. Yeah. I can remember getting that phone call. I was like, “Wow.” Okay.
BBP: Everytime you say something, it kind of brings up another question. You said you met Stanley Clarke when you were nine?
Wooten: Yeah, when I was living in Virginia, he was touring with Return to Forever (fusion band of the 70’s that was reunited for a 2008 tour). And so my brothers took me to that show. And after the show was over, we hung around. So you know you got these five kids hanging around to meet the band, they met us. They let us in the dressing room, you know, and Stanley Clarke gave me a mailing address to mail him. I did. He sent me back autographed photos and stuff. And he remembers that. To this day he remembers these kids and he tells me “I knew you were going to turn into something great.” And a lot of it is due to his friendship towards me way back when. He wasn’t like “Get away, little kid.” He was very friendly. He actually wrote me letters and stuff. So, you know, that’s really nice, and that helps me make sure I treat people the same way.
BBP: Did he actually hear you play the bass then?
Wooten: He did not. Not until later. Not until much later did he actually hear me play.
BBP: What was his reaction then?
Wooten: He loved it. He loved it. Because he saw me with Bela Fleck and the Flecktones and I was spinning the bass around my neck, you know, I was doing crazy stuff and his eyes lit up. It was really nice. Really nice.
BBP: I just want to throw in this last question. I understand that you are a practitioner of (the martial art) Wing Chun?
Wooten: Yeah. That is true. That is true.
BBP: Does that figure into your playing, any aspect of that?
Wooten: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah, I haven’t really talked publicly about that until recently because, a lot of times when you mention martial arts, other martial artists want to immediately know how good you are. And I’m not interested in that. So, but yeah, I love doing it, and again, anything that enhances or even just minutely affects your body and your mind, and uh how you can control your body and your mind and vice versa, allow your body and your mind to take control over you, how that happens is directly related to music if you allow it to be. So, even at my camp, my wing chun sifu usually shows up and offers some things, some suggestions, some exercises and some ideas to every student. And the students are surprised at how beneficial what he has to offer is. And for a lot of people it’s their favorite part of the camp.
BBP: Huh. Wow. And I guess you have a lot of guest instructors at your camp. Who have you had there?
Wooten: Absolutely, yeah. Because I don’t want to be the only person. I don’t want everyone to come out of there thinking like me. So I have a lot of different people there. There’s a great six-string fretless player named Steve Bailey whose been there at every camp, from the very first one. As well as an older bass player named Chuck Rainey whose played on everything from Aretha Franklin hit songs to Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World” to Steely Dan’s popular music to the hit theme song from Fred Sanford. He’s played on everything. But he’s on every camp. So those are like some of the staple instructors that are there every time. But at each camp there’s always surprise guests. And so people are starting to know that when they go there, there’s going to be surprises. And so a lot of campers will get together and say “hey, well who was at your camp?” And someone may say “I was at the camp where Stanley Clarke was there and Will Lee was there.” (As in response) “Oh man I was at the camp where Marcus Miller and Rhonda Smith and Michael Manring (check out our interview with Michael Manring: http://beldonsbluespoint.blogspot.com/2010/04/when-after-starting-his-class-with-ten.html ) was there.” (As if still another person) “Really? Oh man I was at the camp where Billy Sheehan was there.” So we’ve had Esperanza Spalding, Rhonda Smith, Dennis Chambers, harmonica player Howard Levy. We’ve had all sorts of people. Bela Fleck. You know classical players, all sorts of things there.
BBP: How long has your camp been open?
Wooten: Since the year 2000. We’re now headed into our twelfth year.
BBP: Amazing. Is there a direction you’re looking at taking the camp right now?
Wooten: Well, two and a half years ago my wife and I purchased a 150 acre farm. And so with the help of our students and some friends, we’ve turned that into our new location, which is called “Wooten Woods.” And that’s where all of our camps are being held. And so since we have the perfect place now, our goal is to have people come there. My goal is not to have a camp in this part of the country, that part of the country. I’d rather people to come to where we have it set up already. So the thing I’m leaning towards now is starting to do longer camps. For example I just did last summer a three-week camp where people were there for three weeks and we were really able to have some major transformations at that point. So I’m hoping that one day I’ll be able to offer a full nine-month school program which will be a music program like at a college but for one year where people can get college credit and come there and learn about music, but music as it pertains to life. Because in my opinion the world doesn’t need another good guitar player. We need more good people. But when you play guitar people listen to you, so I think we should have something to say. Not just a bunch of complicated licks.
BBP: Any advice you have for bass players right now? I mean I’m a bass player so I can’t let this go by without asking.
Wooten: Sure. The thing about becoming a good bass player is to understand the role of the bass. And that role is to support other musicians. The role of the bass is the same role as the foundation of a building: it’s got to be the strongest part. It has to hold everybody else up. It’s not there to get attention. You know, that can happen, but nobody walks into a house and starts complimenting the foundation. The goal when it’s doing its job is to hold everyone else up. So learn how to do that first. Learn how to support a vocalist, how to support musicians, where a lot of bass players are learning how to solo first and how to double-thumb and tap. But learn how to support a band. Once you learn how to do that you’re going to be in more bands than you can handle because everybody’s going to want you. And then what I would say after that is listen to music, don’t just listen to bass players. Listen to all music. Because it’s like you’re in a family when you’re in a band. And a family has to listen to each other. And that’s going to make the best musicians, to become a good listener. In my opinion the most important part of music, the best skill you can have, is not playing your instrument, but how well you listen.
BBP: Just one more? This is great.
BBP: Is there anybody out there who you’d like to play with who you haven’t played with yet? And what’s in the future for you?
Wooten: Well, there are tons of musicians whom I would still love to play with, in all different aspects. In the jazz world there’s people like Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, different people like that. In the rock world, you got Steve Vai, who used to play guitar with David Lee Roth. I love his playing. A guitar player named Allan Holdsworth. John McLaughlin. I could name a whole bunch of people that I believe it would be fun to play with. But then there’s a lot of young people. I find fun people to play with that I’ve never met when they come to camp. Music is just enjoyable, you know. So even getting to perform with Keymace (he called his cousin up on stage at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 club, where she sang Anita Baker’s "Angel”) was a treat.
BBP: What are we going to see next from Victor Wooten?
Wooten: I have some things that are happening in the beginning of next year, some announcements I’ll be making that I’m not ready to go public with yet. Like some records I’ll be putting out. But I will say that I have a book that’s available called “The Music Lesson,” which puts a lot of these things that I’m talking about into a story. Rather than writing an instruction book about music, I wrote a story.
BBP: A fiction story?
Wooten: Exactly. About a teacher and a student that’s called “The Music Lesson.” That’s been out a couple of years and even the U.S. government has been sending the audio version to the troops in Afghanistan and Iraq, so that they can hear it. Because I just released the audio version, and so I’m going to be writing a sequel. Hopefully it should be ready to come out next year.
BBP: And what will the sequel be called?
Wooten: I don’t know the title yet, you know, but it will have something to do with…people will know it’s “The Music Lesson, Part II.” But I haven’t settled on that title yet. But the story continues…
BBP: That’s great. And it will be the same characters.
Wooten: And new ones. The main teacher, he will definitely appear in the book. There’ll be some new characters and some of the old characters.
BBP: Wow. That’s incredible. How about recordings? Are you going to stay with Bela Fleck?
Wooten: Yeah. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones will have a new record out, coming out in the summer. And we’ll be doing an extensive tour. But people should keep watching my website for an early announcement next January, where I’ll be announcing some new things that I have coming out.
BBP: We going to see Stanley, Victor and Marcus again?
Wooten: You know, I hope so. We don’t have a plan yet. But I’m hoping that we get back together and do something.
BBP: I do too.