The Unbreakable Spirit of Victor Bailey

The ailing Weather Report alum hopes to return to teaching, producing—and playing bass

Victor Bailey in Massachusetts, 2015
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Weather Report in the mid-1980s (l. to r.): Joe Zawinul, Mino Cinelu, Wayne Shorter, Omar Hakim and Victor Bailey
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Victor Bailey landed his dream job in 1982 when, still in his early 20s, he succeeded Jaco Pastorius to become the last in the line of stellar electric bassists in his favorite band, Weather Report. He stayed with Weather Report until cofounders Joe Zawinul and Wayne Shorter disbanded it in 1986, performing on the albums Procession, Domino Theory, Sportin’ Life and This Is This!, then continued working with Zawinul in his groups Weather Update and the Zawinul Syndicate. Bailey also toured and/or recorded through the years with numerous other big names from the worlds of jazz and pop-Sonny Rollins, Ron Carter, Steps Ahead, Madonna and Lady Gaga among them-racking up appearances on more than 1,000 albums.

But today Bailey, who turned 56 on March 27, resides in an assisted-living apartment in suburban Boston. He is confined to a wheelchair, the muscles in his arms and legs atrophied by the hereditary Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease. His prospects of playing bass again are slim, but he intends to resume teaching at Berklee College of Music; in fact, he says he would already be doing so if the terms of the medical leave he took this fall, as his upper body began failing him, didn’t preclude it.

Bailey recently spent an hour with JT in his sparse quarters, describing his condition and reminiscing about his career. He sat in his wheelchair, dressed in jeans and a gray crewneck sweater, his spirit remarkably upbeat and matter-of-fact.

Bill Beuttler: Can you describe what’s going on with you physically? What is Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease?

Victor Bailey: It’s named for three French doctors who isolated it in the late-1800s. Basically it’s muscular dystrophy. There are many different kinds of muscular dystrophy; saying “muscular dystrophy” is like saying “cancer.” It’s genetic. My grandmother had it, and my father, and one of my father’s brothers. There are different forms of the disease. I have type 1, there’s 1A, there’s type 2, there’s a bunch of different types, mostly characterized by loss of muscle. I have very little muscle on my leg at all, and now I’m starting to lose the muscles in my hands and arms. So it’s been developing. I was functioning normally. I started falling 25 years ago. I would just trip-not often, but just out of the blue sometimes I would trip and be on the ground. And I knew what it was because the disease was in my family. So my legs have been getting progressively weaker for the past 25 years. Only in the last year my upper body has started to fail me. My father didn’t have problems with his upper body until he was in his 70s. He’s a saxophone player and he stopped playing at maybe 77 or 78. I wasn’t expecting my arms and hands to start going bad for another 20 years. I basically can’t even play right now.

That’s got to be awful.

Not being able to play isn’t bothering me as much as I would have thought. I guess I fulfilled every dream I ever had as a musician. Being able to get out of bed or on and off the toilet and take a shower by myself, or dress myself, is way more important than playing the bass. I can’t do those things by myself now, so as much as I would love to play, being able to get out of the bed in the morning means a lot more.

Speaking of fulfilling your dreams as a musician, you joined Weather Report in your early 20s. How did you get there so young?

Well, I started out on drums. My father’s a writer/arranger/producer. He arranged and produced for Nina Simone, Patti LaBelle, the Stylistics, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Billy Paul, Blue Magic-the Philadelphia R&B acts from the ’60s and ’70s. I always played the piano, as long as I can remember, and then at 10 I was gigging in a couple of different bands playing drums, and I switched to bass later on. I was always gigging. I was involved in music every single day as long as I can remember.

Why’d you switch to bass?

The bass player quit the band. I told the bass player, “Well, can I hold your bass?” I picked it up and I could just play all the songs-better than that guy. And my dad, who never came downstairs while I was playing with my friends, came downstairs and said, “Who’s that playing bass?” He said, “You should be a bass player.” I was actually filling and improvising. I could pretty much pick up and play any instrument, but the bass, for reasons I don’t even know, I just felt really connected with it. Once I picked it up I never put it down.

And has it always been electric bass? Have you ever played acoustic?

Yeah, I played acoustic when I was in high school. I played in orchestra, jazz band and all that. When I went to Berklee, which was for a year, I had a stand-up bass. When I moved to New York I left it in the apartment with the guys I was with. I came back like a month later and the thing had walked. I played a little acoustic bass, but I was always more enamored of the electric bass.

You went to Berklee because you couldn’t get into the Navy because you had asthma.

I was gonna do the Navy, man, and then you do your four years and you have your scholarship money. But because I had asthma I was rejected from the Navy. When I got home from the recruiting office my dad said, “Hey, there’s a letter over there for you,” and it was from Berklee, saying I had been accepted to Berklee. So that was almost like a stroke of God. I’m not even religious, but fate, or whatever you want to call it.

At Berklee your classmates were guys like Branford Marsalis and Greg Osby.

My classmates were unbelievable: Branford, Greg Osby, Cindy Blackman, Kevin Eubanks, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Terri Lyne Carrington-she was a little girl but she was around. Frank Lacy, the trombonist. A couple of rock stars: Steve Vai, he left school to go with Zappa. Stu Hamm, who’s a tapping-bass wizard. It was a really amazing group of people. Mark Ledford, who was the vocalist and trumpeter in the Pat Metheny Group, he was my roommate.

Those were the days when a lot of you would go there for a year or two and then drop out and turn pro.

At that time, if you could play you were doing gigs every single night. [If] somebody in school got a gig with somebody in New York, when they needed a bass player or a drummer they’d say, “Hey, I got a friend up at Berklee.” And it’d be guys like Branford and myself, we’d been gigging since we were little kids. You were actually qualified to go to New York and do those gigs. I’ve got students now who can play the mess out of the bass instrument [but] there’s no gig I could send them on. They don’t have the experience.

How does a guy like you, who’s come from the bandstand, try to teach that to student musicians?

I always have them study things that are music. If we’re studying theory, modes-like we’re studying the Dorian mode-well, I have them learn to add “So What?” It’s a minor scale with a major sixth. So I always have them learn a song alongside whatever we study. And I always have them play, I make them play for me before every lesson. I make them find songs every week. Find a song that has this lesson in it. Come back next week and I want to hear you play the song. Then I just encourage them to play with people. Now, in their era they can play with the computer, and they can all play with the phone. When I ask them to play something, they want to pull out their iPhone and find a track. Every week, the first thing I ask them is, “Did you play with anybody?” And half of them didn’t. And I’m like, “There’s 4,000 students here and you guys don’t play together?” And they’re like, “Ah, well, I wrote something in GarageBand and I played with my tracks.” If your roommate’s a guitar player and you play bass, you gotta play with him during the week, please.

Are you paying attention to the current scene? Are there good electric bassists coming along now?

There are guys that are, technically speaking, phenomenal. In my day I thought I had a lot of chops, but now the kids are so much faster and so much cleaner than we were. However, when you say “good,” I think of music. Stanley Clarke, Jaco-those guys made some of the best music ever. It wasn’t just chops. There are some bass players out here now who are phenomenal, but I’m not hearing any music from any of them that I remember. A lot of them are trying to prove how heavy they are when, if you look at all the songs of Jaco Pastorius – who supposedly influences everybody – most of them are not complicated. Most of them are very simple. He’s not trying to be heavy. He could play one note, and it’s heavy.

Older musicians tend to realize that. But you’ve been gigging since you were 10 years old. Coming up, you must have learned that lesson faster.

Well, I learned it faster because I was playing with grown men when I was a little kid, and because my father was a serious, accomplished musician. Philadelphia was not a town where you could have chops and no feeling and get on the bandstand. If you weren’t swinging, cats were not into it. Guys would be like, “Yeah, you soloed great but then you soloed through my whole solo.” It hurt my feelings when I was a kid, but by the time I was a teenager I had kind of figured that part of it out-that you don’t have to always play as much as you can, all the time, to say something.

That’s sort of a tough-love lesson to a 10-year-old, right?

It’s something you need, though.

You were 22 the year you joined Weather Report. Was it difficult fitting in?

I thought I was the greatest bass player at the time, long before that. I fit in because I could. When I was 10 I could fit in with anybody.

Your heroes on electric bass were Stanley Clarke, Alphonso Johnson and Jaco Pastorius. But you thought you were the best?

I thought I was the greatest bass player that there was, at the time. Needless to say I wasn’t, but I thought I was the man. Most of what I did came out of listening to Weather Report records anyway. I got the gig because of Omar Hakim. I was in New York at the time working with Hugh Masekela, and he used to be married to Miriam Makeba. So we did some gigs with Miriam every now and then, and then around ’82 I did two gigs at Carnegie Hall with Miriam, and Omar was on drums. That second night he said, “I have the gig with Weather Report, and Jaco left the band. Send Joe Zawinul your tape.” [Zawinul] called me a couple of days later. He didn’t have my tape yet, and he said, “Well, you’re the guy I’m going to hire. I can feel it.” Once he and Wayne got the tape, they liked the tape-it’s a cassette, that’s how long ago we’re talking about.

Wayne Shorter is renowned for his cryptic remarks. Do you recall any from your years with Weather Report?

I think it was the first time we played together, and he says, “You’re like the girl who left a shadow on your drawer, but once you went to get it, it wasn’t there.” Thirty-three years later I still don’t know what he meant by that. But he says he meant, “You sound great, man.” So I guess it’s a compliment. At the time I didn’t know the guy; I didn’t know he was so interesting.

Omar Hakim, that’s your guy. You’ve done a lot of stuff with him.

Oh, yeah, Omar and I-maybe I’m not supposed to say this- we’re one of the classic rhythm sections. Certain rhythm sections: Rocco [Prestia] and Dave Garibaldi from Tower of Power, Peter [Erskine] and Jaco, and Lenny [White] and Stanley, Philly Joe Jones and Paul Chambers. There are just certain rhythm sections that work well together.

Any Zawinul stories?

Everyone’s got Zawinul quotes. Mine was Joe telling me, “Bailey, you know I’m a better composer den Beethoven.” Then he says, “Well, maybe not better, but I’m up dere.” I think my all-time favorite Weather Report story was the first time we played in Philadelphia, my mom, she didn’t really know anything about fusion but she loved Omar Hakim. We’re sitting in the dressing room-Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, myself, Mino Cinelu, Omar Hakim-and my mother said, “Now, all of you guys can play. But that one on the drums, now he’s good.”

Did that get a reaction from Zawinul?

I don’t remember it. He probably didn’t know it. He’s one of those people like Miles Davis or Ron Carter who, to people who don’t know him, he probably seems very rough and tough. But if you know them, and they care about you, they’re the lovingest people in the world. Joe took extremely good care of me, until the day he died. He was always very, very good to me. And he was funny. If I could get people to say those quotes, he was a funny guy.

Did you play with all those bands that followed Weather Report?

I’m the only musician-not only bass player-I’m the only musician who was with every band he had. Weather Update, Zawinul Syndicate, and then he did a couple of big band projects in Europe before he died. Then one of the last interviews he did, they’d ask about all these bass players, he said, “Victor Bailey is the one who would be in any band that I would ever have.” Which made me really happy, because I was-I was in every band that he ever had. Joe was another guy, like Omar, he and I could just flow together. I think a lot of bass players, once again, guys have a lot of chops but don’t know a lot of music. Some of the other guys, he couldn’t really improvise, because they would have licks together that they knew, but if he started improvising, a lot of other guys couldn’t go with him. But I could pretty much go with anybody. So he and I really played well together. He never had to explain to me how to play. He always had his ideas about things, but we could just play. And he played everything a little bit different every night, too. So he would just improvise, and we would really play together. And I could improvise and he would go along with me.

You mentioned Ron Carter. He played on your latest album.

He played on “Countdown,” I did a version of a Coltrane tune, the third song on the Giant Steps record. I actually transcribed Coltrane’s solo when I went to Berklee, so I made an arrangement around the solo and got Dave Kikoski playing piano and Lenny White played drums. I called another bass player first, who shall remain nameless because they are very famous, but they had a major attitude with me. I don’t know what it was, but their attitude was so bad I said, “OK, I’m gonna call Ron.” And I called Ron never thinking he was gonna play on another bass player’s record. And he said, “Sure, I’ll do it,” and then he came and he did it. And then this other bass player calls to say, “You should have called me to play on that.”

The same guy?

Oh, yeah. But Ron was always very nice to me, like since I was a teenager when they would ask in magazines what electric bass players were really good, he would always say Marcus Miller and me. And he always told me, when I got an upright, “I got a spot for you”-meaning he had a lesson open. Every guy in New York’s trying to get lessons from Ron, and they never can. So I bought an upright about five years ago and started taking lessons with him. Called him up, said, “Mr. Carter, you told me when I got a bass to come see you.” And a bunch of upright players call me asking, “How you get lessons from Ron?” But I took a few lessons from him. Matter of fact, when I played in New York, when I was 19 with Hugh Masekela, he was in the club and he said, “Young man, you sound good. I never heard anybody on the electric bass like that. You know how to play over chords real good. Come by my house one day and let me show you how to play the bass.”

He’s in Guinness World Records for being on 2,221 recordings. You’re on over a thousand, right?

I’m on over a thousand. Ron, if that was in the Guinness Book of World Records that probably was in the ’70s. He’s probably on twice that many by now. This was a guy who was doing studio work every day. For years, for decades. And as many as I played on, I spent more than half the time on the road. But everybody I ever played with was recording, and when you came home-talking the ’80s, when I really started-pretty much everybody who could play had a record deal. For instrumental music. I was in Steps Ahead, and everybody had their own record deal: Erskine, [Michael] Brecker, Mike Mainieri, Chuck Loeb. And also Weather Report. If I played with Lenny White or Billy Cobham or whoever it was, pretty much everybody at every gig you had had a record deal. So there were record dates like every single day.

You’ve also worked with pop stars. Your website mentions Madonna and Lady Gaga.

Madonna, Lady Gaga-those were absolutely great. I’m not a jazz musician; I do it all. I played funk and R&B and pop long before I got into jazz and fusion, and I never stopped. I got my official recognition as a fusion guy, so people want you to be that, but before I made any solo records I was an aspiring R&B [and pop] producer. I had a production deal with Atlantic Records, and I had a publishing deal with MCA as an R&B writer back in the ’80s and ’90s. I just never wound up getting the big hits that I thought I was writing. I wasn’t that interested in being a jazz recording artist. I’ve written way more pop tunes than I have jazz tunes.

When kids come to Berklee, do you have to point out to some of them that there’s nothing wrong with playing pop?

Every now and then you get the kid who has illusions about pop and all that, but I remind him, first thing, that every jazz artist isn’t a great musician. There were many times on a jazz gig or recording that I was just waiting to get my check and go home. I played with Madonna, Omar Hakim was on the drums, Michael Bearden and Jai Winding on keyboards, Paul Pesco on guitar and Luis Conte on percussion. That’s one of the all-time best bands I ever played with. By far. That band was kick-ass. You know, me and Omar, we made a record with the O’Jays. It was later in the O’Jays’ career so it was not one of their biggest records, but me, Omar, Richard Tee on piano and organ, and I forgot who played guitar-one of those guys who’s like a big studio musician. But it was a kick-ass record. People want to know why you would play with the O’Jays. Obviously you’re not going to improvise because those guys are singing, but anybody wants to talk to me about that-listen to Anthony Jackson’s bass line on “For the Love of Money.” You know what I mean? It’s not jazz, it’s not improvised-it’s one of the greatest things anybody ever did. Some of the students have that sort of [negative attitude toward pop], but most of the dudes aren’t there to be jazz guys. They live in a different era now. I make all of them study jazz. I think everybody should study jazz because it has everything in it. But I think the beauty of Berklee is that we don’t discourage a student from anything. If a kid wants to be a hip-hop artist, that’s fine with me. You’re gonna be a hip-hop artist who knows what a C-major-seventh is when I get finished with you.

Do you think there’s much chance you’ll be able to play the bass again?

I don’t know. I’m gonna try. Right now I’m not even strong enough to pick it up. Right now I literally can’t play at all, because my hands don’t function and my arms aren’t strong. I can’t hold my arms up more than just a couple of minutes.

You plan to resume teaching. Is there anything else that you can do professionally?

I’m still writing music. The issue, professionally, is there’s really no production work. Nobody hires a producer to produce a jazz record. There used to be jazz producers; I produced a bunch of records. I’m always writing music. But I’m not as concerned with that now as I am with just trying to heal.

I saw the artwork you do on your website. How long have you been doing that?

I was always drawing and sketching my whole life. I started painting in 1996, and the third one I ever did, [bassist] Charles Fambrough came by my house and saw this painting called “Upright Citizen.” He bought that painting and put it on the cover of his record [also titled Upright Citizen]. So I thought maybe I should keep doing this. But I have the same issue with painting now; I can’t hold my arms up for more than a couple minutes. But we’ll see. I’m getting my therapy, and I don’t think I’m ever gonna run a marathon again, but if I could just paint a little bit, I’ll be happy.

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