Things to Do in Fort Wayne and Beyond

Making Music His Own Way

Steve Penhollow

Whatzup Features Writer

Published October 19, 2017

Heads Up! This article is 5 years old.

When you ring up Victor Wooten expecting one thing, you may come away with another.

Wooten is widely acknowledged as one of the finest bassists in American popular music, a man who has distinguished himself in multiple genres.

He will bring his own ensemble to C2G Music Hall on October 29.

A journalist preparing to interview him might easily assume that such topics as superlative bass playing and acknowledgement for greatness will be on the agenda.

But it’s bigger than that for Wooten.

Wooten seems to have almost no ego – which is to say, he doesn’t have the fragile ego common to some famous artists.

He doesn’t need you to butter him up and he feels no need to butter himself up.

Wooten said he appreciates the awards his work has earned and the admiration it has elicited, but he doesn’t base his self-worth on them. He said he can’t let the opinions of others define him, even when they are flattering opinions.

Asked how he goes about choosing sidemen (a germane question given that Wooten is a virtuoso), he said that character is as important as acumen.

“It starts with how well they play, but it always ends with who they are as a person,” he said.

Wooten is the youngest of five brothers.

The Wooten Brothers Band existed before he was born and it awaited his birth.

Wooten said his brothers knew he would be the band’s bass player when he was still in his mother’s womb.

Wooten was three when his brothers gave him a toy guitar and told him to try to play along with the band. By the time he reached five, he was the band’s official bass player.

“Any younger sibling looks up their older siblings,” he said. “This was a way for me to belong and participate with my four older brothers. I was definitely excited about that.”

Wooten said a friend introduced him to B?la Fleck in the late 1980s. When Fleck subsequently needed backing musicians for a TV show, he called Wooten and his brother Roy, a drummer.

“We knew it was special,” Wooten said of this opportunistic grouping of musicians. “We just didn’t think it was a band.”

Thirty years later, Victor and Roy Wooten (aka Future Man) are still members of B?la Fleck and the Flecktones.

At any given moment these days, Wooten could be performing with his own band, with Fleck, with the Wooten Brothers Band, in a trio with Stanley Clark and Marcus Miller or with some other luminary who has suggested they should make beautiful music together.

Wooten also teaches at a music camp outside Nashville that he founded in 2000: the Wooten Woods Retreat Center.

It’s a good bet that the Wooten Woods Retreat Center is a music school unlike any other.

Wooten said he got the idea to create the school from naturalist, tracker and author Tom Brown Jr.

“I read a book of his, and then I started taking his classes in New Jersey,” he said. “What he called nature, I called music. I liked the way he taught nature better than the way most musicians teach music.”

Instruction at the Wooten Woods Retreat Center is collaborative and immersive.

There is no practicing, per se. No drills.

Think about how you learned to speak English, Wooten said.

“You weren’t made to practice,” he said. “No one told you to sit in a room and say these words over and over. You weren’t separated into a beginner’s class. Your parents never said, ‘You aren’t good enough yet. You can’t speak to us. Go speak to other babies.'”

Children learning to speak aren’t even corrected when they get things wrong, Wooten said.

“If you keep calling it a blankie, your parents start calling it a blankie too,” he said.

Wooten’s school emulates language immersion, which he believes is a more natural way to learn.

“Our approach is different,” he said. “It may not be for everyone. But it’s designed to free you up, to make all the things that used be hard a lot simpler and to have you leave there much better musicians and much better people.

Wooten said this is how he learned music, even though his brothers weren’t aware that they were choosing one approach over another.

“The reason I know this mindset so well is that it’s totally how I learned,” he said. “I was learning music and English at the same time and in the same way.

“My brothers would sit down to play,” Wooten recalled. “There would be an empty chair with a toy guitar. I knew it was for me, and I would sit down and jam with them.”

When babies first start imitating language and expressing themselves verbally, they’re not expected to get the words right, he said. The parents are just encouraged by the communication and want to encourage more of it.

“The parents adapt to the baby’s way,” Wooten said. “[Traditional music instruction] is exactly the opposite. You don’t get to express your way. You have to immediately learn someone else’s way and you’re wrong until you learn that way. And that’s the main thing that locks musicians up.”

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