Victor Bailey, the virtuoso electric bassist and educator best known as the final bass player in Weather Report, following Jaco Pastorius, died on the morning of Nov. 11. He was 56, and had long suffered with Charcot-Marie-Tooth disease, essentially a form of muscular dystrophy that ran in his family.
Bailey was born and raised in Philadelphia, by a family with heavyweight music credentials. His father, Morris Bailey, was a writer, arranger and producer important to the renowned Philadelphia R&B scene of the 1960s and ’70s, and his credits included Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes, Teddy Pendergrass, Nina Simone, Patti LaBelle, the Stylistics, Billy Paul and Blue Magic. His uncle was Donald Bailey, a favorite drummer of organ legend Jimmy Smith’s. Victor started out as a drummer but took up bass later on, when the bass player in one of his adolescent bands quit. As he recalled earlier this year in an interview with JT’s Bill Beuttler, Bailey was a natural. “My dad, who never came downstairs while I was playing with my friends, came downstairs and said, ‘Who’s that playing bass?’” Bailey remembered. “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.”
Bailey played acoustic and electric bass in high school, and applied for service in the Navy following graduation. He was rejected due to asthma but accepted into Berklee College of Music during a heady period in the school’s history; among Bailey’s classmates were Kevin Eubanks, Greg Osby, Branford Marsalis, Cindy Blackman Santana, Jeff “Tain” Watts, Frank Lacy, Terri Lyne Carrington, rock and fusion bassist Stu Hamm and shred guitarist Steve Vai.
He got the Weather Report gig through his longtime colleague and friend Omar Hakim, who’d been hired as the band’s drummer and recommended that Bailey send a tape to Joe Zawinul. Bailey joined Weather Report in 1982, when he was in his early 20s, and stayed through to the band’s dissolution in 1986. He appears on the studio albums Procession, Domino Theory, Sportin’ Life and This Is This!, recordings that found Zawinul’s control over the group’s direction increasing, and moving the sound toward world-jazz and pop-jazz. Bailey developed a deep and enduring professional and personal rapport with Zawinul. “I'm the only musician—not only bass player—I’m the only musician who was with every band he had,” Bailey recalled to Beuttler. “Weather Update, Zawinul Syndicate, and then he did a couple of big-band projects in Europe before he died. Then, [in] one of the last interviews he did, they'd ask about all these bass players, [and] he said, ‘Victor Bailey is the one who would be in any band that I would ever have.’”
Bailey also enjoyed a successful and wide-ranging career as a session bassist in pop and R&B, garnering a long list of credits including Madonna and Lady Gaga. A diplomatic presence, he saw musical value in pop—“I’m not a jazz musician; I do it all,” he told Beuttler—and encouraged his students at Berklee to be open-minded while also developing technique and gaining knowledge in music theory. “I think the beauty of Berklee is that we don’t discourage a student from anything,” he said. “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.” Bailey had a production deal with the Atlantic label and a publishing arrangement with MCA during the 1980s and ’90s, but failed to produce the pop or R&B hits he sought. He did record as a leader successfully in the fusion realm, releasing enjoyable and versatile albums including 1999’s Low Blow and 2001’s That’s Right. In the pantheon of bass-out-front showmen, Bailey and his groups demonstrated the importance he placed on musicality. He was enough of a virtuoso that the Fender brand put out a line of signature Bailey electric and acoustic bass guitars, but his mastery was more engaging than overwhelming, and he frequently varied his techniques: He was a tremendously expressive fingerstylist, but he could slap and pop expertly, and with his two-handed tapping he could trace affecting melodic and harmonic contours in his music. Live, his solo-scatting delighted audiences.
In addition to music, Bailey was a skilled painter, who showed in galleries and whose work adorns the cover of Charles Fambrough’s album Upright Citizen.