Victor Wooten

spiritual growth through music

by Bruce Mason


• I had myriad opportunities to chat with legendary music icon and spiritual teacher Victor Wooten during his three successive annual pilgrimages to the Haven on Gabriola Island. During breaks in the intense daylong workshops, before and after sound checks and performances and over breakfast and late-night beverages, I had the chance to share thoughts and stories with him and with the highly engaged and enlivened participants from far-flung corners.

See a video featuring Victor Wooten: Music as a Language >

For 30 years, the Haven has programmed wide-ranging courses for personal and professional development. Executive director Rachel Davey says Victor is “hugely successful. The entire property is alive with music, discovery and conversation.”

At 48 years of age, Wooten is now equally renowned for his singular and inspirational publication The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music (Berkley, 2006), which turned readers on their ears, including faculty and students at the famed Berklee College of Music, Stanford and other prestigious institutions, where it is now listed in curricula. A novel soundtrack is available this month. The book grew out of an ongoing global demand for lessons on his unique style, approach and elusive techniques. It took shape while he was developing his unprecedented Center for Music and Nature at Wooten Woods, the 150-acre retreat he purchased with his wife on Duck River, near their home in Nashville.

Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten in Istanbul, Turkey
Stanley Clarke, Marcus Miller and Victor Wooten in Istanbul, Turkey

The parable and firsthand journey not only created a buzz among musicians, but also resonated with a growing, diverse audience as copies passed from hand to hand, read, re-read and keenly discussed. As a result, Wooten has been dubbed, among other things, “the Carlos Castaneda of music.”

Drawing on the art form for inspiration and example, he explores and shares concepts of creativity and the art of living, examining blocks, tools and skills to shift patterns, habits and other limits to accessing the full range of our resources and potential.

It became clear in conversations he is increasingly concerned that music is endangered, a worry that developed through his observations and perspectives as a touring musician, in-demand session player and soloist, teacher, father, skilled naturalist, best-selling author, magician, acrobat and committed, consciously evolving human being. And it is a subject of his next book.

However, the question I wanted to ask first is how it feels to be referred to as “the world’s best bass player” with virtually every mention of his name. “I’m still not used to that kind of stuff, especially since guys I learned from and look up to are still playing above me,” Wooten says. “At first it made me want to talk about Stanley Clarke and many other great musicians and influences, but I’ve discovered an initial response – ‘Thank you.’ Everyone’s free to make their own decisions and how they look at others. I have no desire to change that. What’s important to me is to try and seize the opportunity to help people begin to see themselves in the same way.

“I’m put up on lots of pedestals and rather than take myself down from them, I’ve learned, wow, if people have those high sights, they can envision possibilities. My focus is on the potential people have to achieve lofty goals, to try and help them realize they can do everything I’m doing and more. That’s my approach now – to let people say great things about me and then bring to their attention and awareness that they can also accomplish wonderful things, coaxing them to climb up on those so-called pedestals.”

Wooten has earned every major award for bass guitarists, including five Grammies. He is the only musician named “Bassist of the Year” three times by Bass Player magazine. In 2011, Rolling Stone magazine voted Victor one of the Top 10 Bassists of All Time.

He recalls his unusual, formative early days: “When I was born, my four brothers were already playing and needed a bass player to complete the family band. They started teaching me as soon as I could sit up straight and I was performing in nightclubs and theatres by five and touring as the opening act for the likes of Curtis Mayfield a year later.”

The accolades were immediate and affectionate, including “eight year-old ace,” “Michael Jordan of the bass” and “one of the most fearless musicians on the planet.” And there are many stories, the stuff of Wooten legends. Victor had never played violin, but in 1981, older brother Roy recommended him as a bluegrass fiddle player for a gig at an amusement park. With an instrument borrowed from his high school orchestra teacher, he learned the popular tunes and tricky techniques almost overnight, landing the job. Twenty years, dozens of recordings and frequent global tours later, the eclectic, genre-bending ensemble continues to create completely new sounds and sustains its reputation as an international phenomenon through relentless invention and experimentation.

In the meantime, Victor released his first solo project, A Show of Hands, recorded with only a four-string bass, no multi-tracking and much groove and soul. It is a revolutionary CD widely recognized as one of the most important bass records ever made.

At the core of his music and message is his belief “music is a language,” cogently articulated in his five-minute TEDEducation You Tube video. “Because I learned music at a very, very early age – from birth – my outlook is different from most people about how music is taught,” he says. “Think about learning English; no one ever made you practise. You were encouraged to jam with professionals all the time, to feel good, including about being wrong. Mistakes didn’t matter as much as jamming constantly.

“We’ve also been listening to music all our lives and know what’s good without analyzing it. Our bodies move. It’s a feeling. And if you can recall that feeling and recreate it while playing, the music comes out instantly and spontaneously. It’s similar to not having to be motivated to talk or to focus on our instrument, our mouth, and obsess over technique and constantly practise scales. We speak before we learn the alphabet because all we require is something to say. I believe we should really go inside of ourselves and strive to become what we find.

“Basically, the message is you can make whatever is in your heart work. The groove and feeling is more important than the notes, in life and in music.”

At the Haven, Amazing Grace is played every sunset and when it was recommended to Rachel Davey that she Google Victor’s arrangement, she invited him to design and present a workshop for musicians and non-musicians alike. In last month’s Common Ground, Judy Collins spoke about the power of redemption in the song. Victor agrees and demonstrates an example of what he hopes we all find in music and in life, also captured and taught on You Tube. However, he fears we are lost.

In The Music Lesson, his mentor Michael observes, “We have forgotten, as a species, how to listen.” Expect a further exploration and explanation in the book’s sequel, now in progress. “I sense symptoms of an illness and if it grows, the result could be the death of music as we know it,” Wooten explains. “After all, only parts of a body break down before it dies and, for example, music is disappearing from our schools. We are losing our natural ability to listen, to hear and fully sense feeling and emotion and I want to help free the full experience of music. Its range and dynamics are compressed on MP3s. Music is becoming more and more commercial, trend-driven, canned and pitch-corrected. We’re consuming small samples instead of the entirety and fullness of whole albums and live concerts, playing music in isolation with and on computers.

“Music is out of balance and I want to re-focus attention on the song and the living feeling, not its recording,” he concluded.

Expect Victor to follow and enlarge the credo instilled by his mother who frequently interrupted family jams with wise advice he adheres to daily: “Boys, the world already has lots of good musicians. What it needs is more good people. As you learn, ask yourself why you are doing it and where you want to help lead people.”

Bruce Mason is a Vancouver and Gabriola-Island based five-string banjo player, gardener, freelance writer and author of Our Clinic.

three players on the stage photo © Petitfrere

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