A Q&A with Victor Bailey
By Geoff Gehman
Bassists aren’t supposed to wreck the joint. Yet that’s exactly what Victor Bailey did to the Mauch Chunk Opera House during his 2009 gig. He rocked, bopped and generally tore up the psychedelic shack. He did things to the bass that his guitarist, drummer and saxophonist did to their instruments; instead of being a gatekeeper for time and tone, he made and broke gates. He even brought down the house by suggesting that Ben & Jerry’s should introduce a new ice cream: Mauch Chunk.
Bailey will return with his chunk of funk to the Opera House on Sept. 8, this time as co-leader of an all-star band with more than 31 flavors. The former Weather Report bassist will perform a one-off show with Larry Coryell, the fabled fusion guitarist, and Lenny White, the renowned drummer of Return to Forever, the fabled fusioneers. Expect jazzed-up rock classics, rocked-up jazz standards and hemi-powered originals, all delivered with head-spinning dexterity.
During a recent phone interview from his home in Newark, Bailey discussed teachers (Morris Bailey Jr., his composer-saxophonist father), mentors (keyboardist-composer Joe Zawinul, Weather Report’s top dog) and bosses (Madonna). Famous enough to have a bass named after him, the 52-year-old Philadelphia native is not quite famous enough to have a sweetheart record deal or a namesake ice cream.
Q: Why do you like playing with Larry and Lenny besides the fact that you’re all killer cats who have performed all over the map?
A: I get to play the bass the way I play the bass. In other bands I’m playing other people’s bass lines, other people’s grooves. I’m there to be “the bass player,” to make other people feel good. With Lenny and Larry, there are no restrictions. I may play a supporting role on their tunes, but for the most part everyone has input. We’re all there to express ourselves: that’s what makes it a standout group. You get to hear, and see, the real Victor Bailey.
We have a special chemistry. It’s been there right from the start, when musicians couldn’t get into the country for one of Larry’s records, and Larry called Lenny with like two days’ notice, and Lenny said to Larry: “Why don’t you call Victor?” And we got together and actually did the record [“Electric,” Chesky Records 2005] on the spot with no rehearsal. We still don’t need to rehearse to just take the stage and create fire
Q: Do you, Lenny and Larry have any special roles, any distinct divisions of power? For example, who decided that you should record Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression” and Thelonius Monk’s “Misterioso”?
A: Well, we choose a category for each song. And then we throw a bunch of titles and ideas out there and usually one sticks. We’ll say, “Okay, let’s pick rock,” and we’ll pick a Hendrix tune. Or we’ll mention every Monk tune we know. We chose “Misterioso” mainly because Lenny and I didn’t want to do “’Round Midnight” or “Straight No Chaser” or any of the other Monk tunes that have been done a million times.
Q: It’s been six years since the release of “Traffic,” CBW’s second and last record. Do you plan to cut a third CD?
A: We’d love to make a record but it’s tough. A lot of major labels don’t have a jazz division anymore. A lot of smaller labels want you to pay them to record. Our names have enough value that we can work, but the budgets and the distribution deals are so up in the air that it’s really not worth recording. The Internet I guess is the way to go, so maybe we’ll release the next record on iTunes. But we’re not exactly sure about the when and how.
Q: When you hit 50 you decided that you were going to showcase all your skills, to put more of you out there. You founded the group VBop so you could swing with standards. Do you still want to cut a record of you singing R&B?
A: It’s the same dilemma as with CBW: How get you get it recorded? Where do you get it recorded? How do you get the money to get it recorded? I’m not sure people would flock to hear a 50-year-old singing R&B who doesn’t have a phenomenal voice. It’s difficult trying to figure out where I fit in. I don’t rap, I don’t dance, and I don’t sing that much. It’s a shame, because I probably have enough music for 10 records.
Q: As a kid you were always quizzing your father about music. You’d ask him to identify a note bassist Ray Brown played, and he’d tell you “That’s a flat 9.” What’s the best musical advice your dad gave you?
A: His thing was: Know how to read music. Know theory. Know your instrument. Know your stuff. He always said that the guys who had it together had the potential to become working musicians.
My father had two bass players he really liked. One guy was more of a natural musician who didn’t really know theory or the name of the notes. The other guy was more of a technician; he could read anything and play different styles. My dad would tell me: “Victor, I have to cut five tracks today and if I use this [more natural] guy I’ll be waiting all day. But if I use the other guy [the technician] I could get my record cut.” So the best advice he gave me was: Get the job done, no matter what the circumstances.
Q: You consider Weather Report founder Joe Zawinul a mentor. What’s one of the essential lessons he taught you?
A: Joe taught me to really focus on the quality of the music. I’ll never forget what he told me one of the first times I met him. He said: “One day you’re gonna be a band leader and you’ll have to make sure the music is so together that you can do a show and nobody will play a solo and you’ll knock people dead because the quality of the music is that good.”
I remember Joe and Wayne [Shorter, Weather Report’s co-founding saxophonist-composer] would rehearse for six months, and after six months they’d still be working on the smallest details. The phrasing of the melody. The harmony. When the drums should be louder. When the bass should be louder. The volume of the bass.
All the great people have that talent: Charlie Parker. John Coltrane. Herbie Hancock. Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie. Freddie Hubbard. Miles Davis. So many people play their behinds off and you can’t name one song they did. Whereas you can name me every Miles record and I’ll tell you what songs are on there. Not only the songs, but the arrangements, too.
Q: You spent nine years in Madonna’s band. What was the attraction?
A: It was just a fantastic job. She put on an entertainment spectacle. Just to be there, at the back of the stage, watching the spectacle unfold, was phenomenal. It was like going to Cirque du Soleil.
The job also paid a whole lot of money. I was able to save for retirement, buy a house, do some nice things for my parents. And if anyone thinks I sold out, I’ll just pick up a bass and shut them up fast.
Q: Do you have a dream project? Is there anything you want to do with the sort of passion you had when you were 16 and vowed you’d be the next bassist in Weather Report?
A: I’d love to have a really big record and expand my audience, particularly in the United States. But, really, there’s nothing I haven’t done that I haven’t wanted to do, other than becoming a bazillionaire.
Victor Bailey: The Scoop
His father, Morris Bailey Jr., wrote R&B/soul songs recorded by Patti LaBelle, Nina Simone and the Stylistics
He joined Weather Report when he was 19, replacing Jaco Pastorius
He honors Pastorious in his composition “Did You Know Jaco?” and another bass hero, Larry Graham, in his composition “Graham Cracker”
He first played with Madonna in a pickup band for the entertainer’s 1982 appearance on “Saturday Night Live”
He’s described his live lessons on Skype as “more like bass player hang”
Geoff Gehman is a former arts writer for The Morning Call in Allentown. First favorite song: the Beatles’ “And Your Bird Can Sing.” First band he swore he discovered: Mott the Hoople. His idea of a wonderful world: anything Louis Armstrong sings. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.