If there is a list of all-star bassists, Victor Wooten is on it. More than “just a bass player,” his solos during concerts are legendary. A true innovator, he continues to find new ways of playing the bass that conjure unique melodies and sounds from both the electric and upright. Even as he’s forged a successful solo career, he is the consummate team player and has lent his talents to Béla Fleck, Branford Marsalis, Dave Matthews, India Arie, Bill Evans, and Keb’ Mo’ to name just a few.

Themes of freedom, enlightenment, and autonomous self-expression are rife in his music, his pedagogy, and his views on life. So it felt preordained that I interviewed Victor Wooten on the day that Troy Davis was executed. It was a day when many people were trying to make sense of the world and the decisions that are made around us. The mood of September 21st was heavy, complicated, and urgent. Talking with Wooten about his views on music, spirit, and life was an apropos reminder that music has always been an important means through which we express difficult emotions and grow into being better people.

I know that spirituality plays a major role in both your life and your music; can you talk more about music as a conduit for spirituality?

The music gives me a way of expressing spirit and talking about it. The music gives me a way to relay messages. You don’t have to agree with it, but this groove I put on it you cannot deny. Your body is going to move to it even though your mind might disagree with what I am saying. It allows people to enjoy the music as opposed to if we were in a church and I was just talking to you and you may get mad because I used the word “god” in a way you don’t like. I wrote a song called “I Saw God” and in the song I say, “He looks like me/She looks like you.” In the song “god” is both male and female and that would make a lot of people mad. But when you hear that African groove and Richard Bona singing all this African stuff you can’t deny it, you have to move to it. I like music for that reason. It affects you on different levels and it’s hard for a person to deny it.

Because music is so personal and experiential, is talking about genre and categories useful?

I think that music should be put into categories, but it shouldn’t be a category that is viewed as one being better than another category. In other words, we have races of people, and we should have races of people. People are different, but it should not exclude that we are all one – a race of human beings. We have different species of flowers and we need to be able to distinguish those flowers, those trees, the different cars, the different houses on your block, but we all understand that they’re all the same thing, but different versions of them. So music is the same in my mind. Music has different types and different styles, but it doesn’t mean that one is better than the others. The different genres and different names allow us to recognize our differences. I think it’s when we start to categorize our differences as being better or worse that we get into problems.

Then what genres would you say that you enjoy playing?

I play many different genres. I don’t want to be considered as just a bass player that plays funk, or R&B, or jazz. I don’t want to only play that, but I know that I play jazz, funk, fusion, rock, reggae, country, and bluegrass. I like the fact that I can play all of those different genres on one CD.

You are a part of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and you have played bluegrass music, many African Americans are disinterested in the banjo, country music, and bluegrass. Why do you think that is?

People’s ideas [about genre] are shallow. I can say that I don’t like rap music, but that’s only if I’ve heard a certain style of rap music. For anyone that says, “I don’t like this genre of music,” I always say, “I can prove you wrong.” I can play some of that genre that I know you’ll like. And for people who don’t like banjo, we have to remember that back in the Louis Armstrong days and the minstrel shows, jazz music had banjo in it before it had guitar in it. I can play you some of that stuff that I know someone will love. I can play someone music by the Carolina Chocolate Drops and a person will love that. They’re playing banjo and fiddle and guarantee you that any African American will love that. I don’t think it’s the genre of music that people don’t like, but I think it’s the way it’s displayed that people don’t like.

The other thing about banjo is that most people don’t even know that it came from Africa. A lot of it is giving people some history that will allow them to open up their minds to what they’re actually listening to.

Today it seems that everyone is rushing to become a “professional” musician as early as possible, can you talk more about the importance of still keeping music fun?

Music is becoming a chore. When that happens to children, you can squeeze the music out of them. There are a couple of things to think about. One, music is a language. It’s a form of communication and it’s a form of expression. For example, sometimes I can express myself with music better than I can with formal words. But they both serve the same purpose. It’s a way of getting things out; with music I can make you smile, laugh, or get angry. I can make you have to get out of your seat or quiet a whole room. So if music is language, I ask myself, “What language am I best at?” I’m best at English. I’m fluent in English. When I look at the process of how I got good at English, I realize that one of the main components of getting good at a language is jamming with people. When you have a child, you don’t think “I need to get my child English lessons.” With English we just talk to the child and we put the child in situations where she can talk with different people. We surround the child with what it is we what we want them to learn. With music we try to find a teacher, which is good, but it’s a slower process. But if we were to put the child in jamming situations they would learn more quickly. In bluegrass, that is still how people learn. You don’t go to college for bluegrass. You go to college for jazz and classical and that’s why in a lot of cases jazz and classical music have become stale.  Jamming is component to learning anything naturally. I like for people to get together in music and just jam so that you’re doing it more than you’re just practicing it.  Jamming gives you the ability to see people who are better than you and seeing people worse than you. Seeing people worse than you helps you remember your own ability, seeing people better than you gives you something to strive for.

You can have a band with incredible musicians, but if we’re not working together as a unit, then we are not that incredible. In other words, if we are all playing incredible music but it’s not together, then it sounds horrible. When we work together, we can be less incredible, but the music raises to a higher level. For example, I can play two notes, maybe a C and a C# side by side and they sound like they clash. They don’t work. But when I take the C up an octave, it becomes the major 7th of a chord and they no longer clash they sound beautiful. Changing the octave of one note changes something that sounded horrible to something that sounded beautiful. So if that is true in music, could that be true in life? Are there situations in life that seem horrible, but maybe if we change our viewpoint or change the situation we can change the octave of the situation to recognize the beauty in it. I think music is a great way of demonstrating this.

I know that you’ve been running music camps for a while; is trying to restore the fun to performance part of your motivation?

I found that I could talk about any issue in life such as: religion, racism, prejudice, inequality, how people need to work together, but I just call it “music.” When I call it music it is still a safe method of talking about these things that can be painful to talk about. I use music to discuss these things while at the same time helping to people to be better musicians.

About twelve years ago I started running music camps to help people become better musicians and to free people’s minds from the constraints of what we conjure up just to play music and to bring people back to nature. We’re destroying our human nature as well as the nature of the Earth. So I call it music/nature. It used to be only for bass players but now it is for any musician.  We’re just about to finish our twelfth season and it is called “The Spirit of Music.” It is for ages fifteen and up. We also do a jam camp where people just come in and jam for fun. It’s been a very positive thing and it’s helping musicians around the world become music freer with their music.

Over your career you have made it a point to remain in a band and also do solo projects. How does your duality contribute to your music?

It is important for me to do solo and group projects so that I can express the different sides of myself. So I can express myself as completely as possible. The bass guitar is designed as a supportive instrument. The bass guitar is one of the main foundations of music. It’s designed to create a foundation that holds up the rest of the band, like the foundation of a building. It has got to be the strongest part of that building, but nobody is going to walk into a building and say, “Hey! Wow! I love this foundation. It’s mighty strong.” It goes unrecognized, but it must be the strongest part. Well, the bass is very similar to that. The bass should be understated, but in that understatement it is usually under-appreciated. But nowadays, because of past bass players like Charles Mingus, Stanley Clarke, Larry Graham, Bootsy Collins, and Jaco Pastorious, the bass has been brought to the forefront. Now we have been able to have solo bands, we can play melodies on our instruments now. This helps us to express ourselves in a more complete way because there is a way of starting to lose yourself when you are just supporting other people. Sometimes you need to allow your voice to be out front. I believe you’re expressing yourself completely when you are doing both.

But because the role of the instrument is supportive I make sure I get opportunities to play for other people. I’m known as an out front person and one who does incredible solos. I could get lost in that, but I look for times when I can go back and  “just be a bass player.” I look for times when I can not be noticed and just play the bass line with no solos. That helps ground me. I think both sides of that musical identity are needed.

We are in a period where many artists are circumventing labels and putting their music out directly. What are your thoughts on the current music industry?

It is the day and age of the independent artists. So many artists years ago got taken advantage of so horribly. It took brave artists like James Brown and Little Richard to come out and voice their issues and try to regain control that alerted artists that maybe there is another way. Then the next generation of artists, like myself, began branching out. Instead of selling music to record labels, we would lease it to them so that the record label is in control of that music for five years but then it comes back to us. So I’m at a place now where a lot of my earlier records are mine again.

In the past no artist could afford to make a record on his or her own. We had to treat the record label like a bank in order to make a bank. It is similar to how most of us have to borrow money from a bank to buy a house. But what that means is that the bank owns your house. That’s what ended up happening with all the music. But now artists as are doing more of the work themselves records labels have to change or go out of business.  There’s no record label that is going to treat an artist fairly. You have to take things into your own hands, and that’s what I’m doing.

So now I release my own music on my own label Vix Records. I’m now bypassing the record labels and finally getting treated fairly in the music industry. Next year I’m going to release my nest real solo project. I’m constantly putting things out through my music label. I credit the hip hop world for letting us know that this way is possible. They would sell thousands of records out of their trunk with no advertising and no label. It was all word of mouth. That’s one thing I love about that genre of music.

I was surprised to learn that you’re also a publisher. Your book The Music Lesson puts me in the mind of others symbolic novels like The Alchemist. Can you talk more about why you wrote the book?

A few years ago I wrote a novel. I wrote it because, after many years of teaching camps, visiting schools and universities my outlook is slightly different from most people who are teaching music. Students kept asking me to write and book and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted students to write their own book. For years, I told people that if you want a book, take notes and learn the information so well that it’s no longer my information it’s yours. Then write your own book. Then eventually I realized I could write a story. So I wrote a fictional story that expresses my views and more through a story. The book has been a huge success.  I’m currently writing the sequel to The Music Lesson.

Recently, I ended up doing an audio version of the book where one can hear all the characters and their voices. Then I scored a lot of music for the book as well. The score for the audiobook is now available on Amazon and www.victorwooten.com. So I just released the soundtrack to my book.

Visit Victor Online

Interview by Fredara Mareva

Photos by Scott Stewart, for more of Scott’s work checkout his site HERE.

 

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