Having replaced Jaco Pastorius in Weather Report at just 22 years old, the late Victor Bailey, who passed away in November 2016, is still widely regarded as one of the bass world’s greatest ever players.
Much like Jaco, Victor was raised on a wide-range of musical ideas thanks to his father Morris Bailey Jnr’s job as a top-flight composer and arranger to the likes of Patti LaBelle, The Stylistics, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes and legendary jazz singer Nina Simone. His father was also an acclaimed sax player, recording and performing live sessions with McCoy Tyner, Jimmy Smith and Lee Morgan.
It’s perhaps thanks to his father’s open-minded approach that Bailey was able to embrace Jaco’s legacy in Weather Report, while stepping into those shoes to replace him in the very group that made Jaco a household name. Yet Jaco’s influence on Bailey was more spiritual than technical, and he was unflinching in his criticism of the hordes of bassists claiming him as an influence.
“It’s interesting how many people are supposed to be influenced by Jaco who have no groove and no soul!” said Victor when I interviewed him in 2010. “Everything the guy ever played always had a groove, always a feeling, and it wasn’t always a million notes all the time! I try to remind all these young guys – and they’ve got his records and they’re always mentioning Jaco – none of his songs are complicated.
“The two tunes that everybody wants me to play, they always want me to play Teen Town or Donna Lee really fast. They are not fast! The way he played Teen Town is not fast; his version of Donna Lee, he didn’t play it that fast, and it’s just as hard to articulate the way he did it and with that feeling. Needless to say he could do incredible things, but everything he wrote was full of feeling and soul.
“I understand that to young guys the guy who is fastest is always the best, but I was always a music guy, and I always point this out – there are guys that are heroes on YouTube … I mean guys that do unbelievable things on the instrument, that I have never seen on a gig and I’ve never seen in anybody’s band. Do you want to be that guy or to play bass with people?”
It was through his connection with drummer Omar Hakim that Bailey was offered the much coveted but no doubt intimidating position of bassist with Weather Report and Joe Zawinul. His authoritative playing was more than a match for Jaco’s benchmark-setting energy and agility, yet bolstered with his own uniquely growly bass tone. “I’m a real groove guy, but groove to me doesn’t mean repetition, it just means feeling. So if we are waltzing three, I want to hear that three; if we’re playing a swing funk I have to feel that the whole time.”
Bailey obviously had immense respect for his former Weather Report boss. “When I first played with Joe Zawinul one of the first things he told me, and it’s something I’ve never forgotten.
“He said, ‘When you have a band make sure your music is together enough that you could do an entire show and nobody plays a solo, that you knock the people dead because the music is that together.’ Joe and Wayne, especially Joe, were always picking the music apart – all day, every day. Teeny, teeny little points to constantly improve the quality of it.”
Among Victor’s many sideman gigs his work with Madonna is among one of the more high profile, taking him right to the top of the pop tree. “All I ever think about with a gig like that is, ‘I’m going to play my ass off!’ If I’m playing the bassline to Like A Virgin I’m going to play the hell out of it! The same way as if I were playing Teen Town, there’s really no difference.
“With Madonna it was a phenomenal band, with Omar Hakim on drums, Michael Deering the keys player, and we approached it the same way we approached Weather Report’s music – we rehearsed it and we went out to kick ass!”
To listen to Victor Bailey powering through Weather Report classics like Procession, Two Lines and Fast City, there’s a live album entitled Live in Cologne 1983 that’s available as a download (opens in new tab) and as a DVD (opens in new tab).