Jazz bass guitarist Victor Randall Bailey of Boston, MA passed away peacefully in Stafford at the age of 56 of ALS (Lou Gehrig’s Disease).
Born in Philadelphia, PA, Victor was a professor of music at Berklee College of Music in Boston, MA.
Last night I received a text from my mother, linking to the above obituary. “The legend is dead,” she wrote.
The name Victor Bailey really was the stuff of legends in my childhood home. My parents were musicians. My mother was a song writer and piano teacher, my stepfather played guitar, and on the weekends their wedding band practiced in our basement. When the house wasn’t filled with the sound of live top 40 hits or my mother’s students plunking away at Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, my family’s impressive stereo system played everything from Bill Evans to early-90s grunge. There was never silence.
If you picked up a Jazz, or heck, a stereo magazine in those years, you might have spotted Victor Bailey on the cover. But his renown as a bassist wasn’t why he was famous in our house. Or at least, that wasn’t all of it.
My mother tells the story like this. In the early 80s she was a student at Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was a jazz composition major, but played out regularly (and missed commencement because she had a gig– a fact of which I am inordinately proud. Mom had her priorities straight). She was a pretty good pianist, and though she wrote a little, her speciality was performing. But like all artists she was self-conscious. In an attempt to improve she was overly aware of her flaws, and worried too much what other players thought of her technique.
One day, so the story goes, a truly renowned and genius Jazz bassist came to speak at Berklee. He sat on stage with his instrument in his lap, answering a moderator’s questions while occasionally playing for the crowd. My mother was in awe. It was like having a Q&A with Jesus, she said, and seeing this master play in person, just a few feet away, was awesome.
Seated next to her was her friend, Victor. Throughout the performance Victor sat with crossed arms and sour but intent expression. Like my mother and the other audience members he was rapt, but less enchanted. When the Famous Bassist finished a particularly impressive riff that left the rest of the hall in appreciative silence, Victor got to his feet and shouted at the stage.
“I can play that shit.”
Now here’s the thing. Victor could not play that shit. Victor was a sub-par bassist at best. But Victor never let that stop him. As my mother tells it, he would boast his way into sessions with musicians of much greater experience and talent, ignoring their stares as, a few songs in, his lack of skill became all too apparent. But it didn’t matter to Victor. He showed up. He played that shit, even if it sounded like shit.
So cut to my mother in the auditorium, slipping lower and lower in her seat, trying to cover her face, as Victor stands beside her, claiming to be on par with the guest speaker. Not just claiming, certain. “I don’t know him,” Mom whispered to the horrified girl beside her.
So how did Victor go from the hacky loudmouth to a famous bassist in his own right, and a professor to boot? Well, while my mother, by her own admission, sought out musicians whose skill was equal to or less developed than hers, Victor was never afraid to embarrass himself. As such, he was always surrounded by the best players. In those sessions, there was nowhere to go but up, and he learned from the better players around him. He watched them play, grew by observing, mimicking, and drawing from their experience. In the end his infectious attitude endeared him to his bandmates, but more importantly, his skills improved. And improved and improved.
“You always want to be the dumbest person in the room, Kate,” he told my mother.
And this piece of advice is precisely what my mother told me.
The Legend of Victor Bailey, as told by Mom, probably grew and stretched over the years like most legends do, but decades after Victor Bailey and my mother had fallen out of touch, the phrase, “I can play that shit,” was bandied around my house. To my stepfather it was more of a joke, but to my mother and me it’s a kind of battle cry. A reminder to throw yourself in, of the power in ignoring self-doubt, the wisdom of being the dumbest person in the room.
Failure is not only inevitable but necessary for progress. I am a chronic over-thinker, but I’ve thrown myself into a few deep ends, and never regretted it for long. Seeing that Mr. Bailey passed recently, at such a young age, is sad, but he accomplished so much in his all-too-short life. He didn’t wait, he stood up. He jumped in. That’s a life well-lived.
Keep playing that shit, man.