Randy Billings: Pub Fiction
JOURNAL: A day with Victor Wooten
When I was first diagnosed with cancer, I remember joking with my wife that I was too old to benefit from the Make A Wish Foundation, which grants wishes to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Most certainly, my wish would have been to return to Hawaii, where my wife and I honeymooned last August. There, we fell in love with the land, lifestyle and the people.
Except that one guy, but that's a different story.
But then, two weeks ago, my wife's uncle George left me a cryptic message on Facebook, saying he had signed me up for Victor Wooten's master bass class at Buckdancer's Choice Music music in Portland.
How could this be?
George has told me many stories about Victor Wooten, who is one of the greatest bassists to touch ever four strings. They had known each other for more than 20 years. Victor's first guitar was a toy Mickey Mouse wind-up guitar with plastic strings. His brothers removed all but a few strings and Victor would thump one sting, while they jammed around him.
George, a craftsman who makes bows for the upright bass, sells them all over the world and plays in the Portland Symphony Orchestra, had been working with Victor on a top secret bow project, which I shall not disclose in these pages.
So this was it. My make a wish. After all, Victor grew up in Hawaii, the youngest of five children.
Last Friday, June 25, I was invited to lunch with George and Victor. I couldn't make it, because I had to work. I met up with them at the master bass class.
Victor took to the stage, grabbed his bass guitar, adjusted some knobs and sat there looking blankly. Suddenly, his fingers began moving up and down the fret board, hammering out not only traditional base lines, but two finger tapping of chords and plucking harmonics. He also used a loop pedal with great restraint and mastery.
No matter what he did, he did it effortlessly, as though the instrument was a naturally extension of his body.
When finished with the intro, he told everyone the class would not be a concert. Instead, he invited the audience to join him in a conversation about playing the bass. And he sat there for about two and a half hours answering questions, some of which were probing and insightful while many were just plain stupid.
Throughout both his playing and his discussion there was an unwavering humanity ("I love everybody until they give me a reason not to love them") and sense of humor.
For example, one person asked about the electronics in his bass. Victor said he was trying out a new active and passive switch where he used to have a kill switch for the bass. The person seemed intrigued. Wanted to learn more about the kill switch, which turns off the bass when not being used.
"I've never heard you use that one before," he said.
"Of course you haven't," Victor replied lightheartedly, but without being sarcastic.
Throughout the discussion, it became clear that Victor's bass lessons were really about life.
First were the concepts of freedom and acceptance. Comparing bass playing to a language, he seemed baffled that people only practiced the eight "correct" notes of a scale, when there are 12 notes in all.
"When you learn the alphabet, you don't just practice some of the letters. You practice all of the letters," he said.
When talking about soloing, he said anything you play can work, as long as it grooves – as long as it dances. Sometimes, he will have a lick he wants to close with and, if you hit, it justifies everything that has been played to that point. He gave us exhibits, all the while assuring us that no matter how bad a note you play, "you're always one note away from a good note."
Many bassists seemed to want secrets to the fast and flashy, slapping style Victor has become known for. But Victor resisted, saying that is a small amount of his playing. (His concert later that evening backed it up.) Grooving and playing to benefit the song and its surrounding musicians is 90 percent of good bass playing: it was the cake. All that other stuff, was the icing.
"When you stick you fork in that icing, there'd better be some cake," he said.
One of the best analogies Victor used was talking about how he feels on stage with a group of great musicians. He plays a lot of jazz fusion, having shared the stage with the likes of Chick Corea. He equated the music as a hurricane, but the space he likes to play is in the eye, that calm center where everything is under control.
Speaking of space, he also talked about playing the space in between notes, as much as the notes themselves. There is a lot of Zen Buddhism in this outlook.
When the class was over, I hung back with George while the audience lined up to get their basses signed and photos taken with Victor.
Once the last person had gone, George introduced me as family – the one who married his niece. "Oh," Victor said. "You're the one." I immediately felt the need to defend myself, but was quickly disarmed by Victor's smile.
I was in.
We gathered up his gear and headed to the sound check at the Port City Music Hall in George's Honda Civic. Victor informed us that his book, "The Music Lesson," had just sold 50,000 copies. Being a writer, we talked about how the book was written, as a series of stories and parables rather than the brass tacks of bassing.
Driving along Congress Street, George related some historical buildings to Victor, who seemed genuinely impressed with our quaint, oceanside city.
Inside the music hall, I got to watch a master at work. After getting the sound levels, the quartet, consisting of Victor's older brother, Reggie, on guitar and a drummer and keyboardists, began running through some tunes. Most notably a tribute to Michael Jackson.
Throughout their rehearsal, I was amazed by how much it reminded me of practicing with my brother and one of my best friend's when we had a band called Billings Brew, which won the Maine Blues Contest and travelled to Memphis, Tenn., for an international competition.
There were no sheets of music. Only musicians feeling out their parts, singing variations on possible endings and playing them over and over again. Then, when nailed down, they would ask, "Are we going to remember that?"
The highlight came when Victor asked George to unsheathe an upright bass he had just bought. It was a hand-carved Italian bass from the 1780s. George looked it over with great admiration, before handing it over to me.
"Mind holding on to this for a second?" he asked.
I grabbed it. And one can't grab a bass like that without playing it, so I did. I noodled around for a while, thinking about how remarkably easy it played, unlike mine. The sheer age of the bass was too much to comprehend. I became nervous. I was, after all, playing Victor Wooten's bass!
A while later, Victor picked up the bass and tried it out on stage. After playing it for a while, he shook out his left arm, as though it was cramped. After playing for about 20 minutes, he asked George to go on stage and play it, so he could hear it out front.
Victor stood next to us, still shaking out his arm.
"That thing is quite a work out, isn't it?" I teased him.
"Sure is," he replied.
"Are you going to play it tonight?"
He just smiled, rolled his eyes and shook his head.
Shortly thereafter, my wife, brother-in-law and I left to go eat some dinner. We came back and were blown away by the show, which was absolutely amazing. (My appologies to the lady to called me annoying for taking video of one song.)
As good as the concert was, it was made even better having had the time to get to know the man behind the music. It was more like watching a good friend play in a local bar, than a world-class bassist gracing the stage.
When it was over, I left the club. I never posed to have my picture taken with Victor, who, though sleep deprived, would have certainly amused me. Even without that photo, though, I can rest assured that the pictures in my mind will never fade.
Randy Billings can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org