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Christian McBride Remembers Victor Bailey

3.27.60 – 11.11.16

Victor Bailey (far right) with Weather Report
Victor Bailey (far right) with Weather Report

The thing I remember most about Victor is his swagger. He had an unmistakable Philadelphia-born confidence. It was borderline cocky but it never got over there. If you know a lot of guys from Philly, there’s a certain thread in all of our personalities. The Eubanks brothers, Victor Bailey, Joey DeFrancesco, the Brecker brothers, McCoy Tyner, Reggie Workman—every musician you can think of from Philly, there’s a certain thing in our personalities that’s undeniable. We will never allow the folk music, the folklore in jazz, to go away. The guy was amazing and he knew it, and he should’ve been proud of it. If you’re not confident in your abilities, then you’re not going to be playing with too many people—especially not in a band like Weather Report.

The first time I heard Victor was on [Weather Report’s] Domino Theory album. I knew what a legend Jaco Pastorius was, and listening to Victor, I thought, what an incredible personality this guy must have to be able to step into a band like Weather Report and replace Jaco and still hold his own. He probably had to battle two personality demons. You have the irreplaceable Jaco Pastorius, but then you also have the irresistible force in Joe Zawinul. He had to be extra strong in that gig.

I pretty much devoured every note Victor played on Domino Theory, then I backtracked and started listening to albums like [Weather Report’s] Procession. I became one of Victor’s biggest fans, and when I discovered he was from Philly I was extra proud. I moved to New York in 1989 and met Victor maybe a year or two after that. The first thing he said to me was, “Your dad [bassist Lee Smith] was one of my biggest influences.” We sat around and talked about my dad for about an hour.

I was a senior in high school when [Bailey’s album] Bottom’s Up came out. I thought that was one of the funkiest, baddest, greatest records I’d ever heard, and I’m still a little disappointed that that record didn’t become an electric-jazz classic. The timing of that record was so interesting because it was right at the height of the Marsalis renaissance, when people were not paying a lot of attention to electric jazz. I thought that was unfortunate. But the fact that he had a mixture of musicians like Michael Brecker, Mike Stern, Omar [Hakim], Branford Marsalis, Jeff “Tain” Watts and Terence Blanchard … he was very much in the middle [of the scene], just as the personnel would lead you to believe.

When he got the gig with Madonna—ha! That was big news. I remember seeing him right before he went on his first tour with Madonna. We were grilling each other, Philly-style. I was really happy for him. And he was happy that Omar was there with him, so he wasn’t going it alone.

He was absolutely, 1,000-percent musical, all the time. It’s a shame that a lot of electric bass players in the jazz world have to work a little harder at attaining a certain level of credibility. Victor far surpassed that. He’s a great composer, a great bandleader. And he always used to threaten to play acoustic. Much later in his life he studied with Ron Carter.

I saw what was probably one of his final public performances, which was in Montclair, [N.J.], at Trumpets. He had Tain and Marcus Strickland with him, and the music was absolutely incredible. This was maybe five or six years ago. He was with his cane and moving slower than I had ever seen him. I tried not to think of the inevitable, but I could see that his condition had worsened. But he was still playing great. It didn’t affect his chops that night.

I really enjoyed being around Victor. He was a much brighter star than people recognize. When you think about his writing, his arranging and certainly his playing, I would have to put him in the elite, a full-scale musician who was at a high level in every facet of his game. And then again there was that funny, self-assured, confident Philly swagger that I will always miss.

Originally Published