Just a little over four years ago, Patrick The Bass Player and I drove to Victor Wooten’s Bass And Nature Camp, about an hour west of Nashville, in the hope that we could learn how to “jam”. It didn’t work out for us — but I suspect it didn’t work out for Victor either, because in the years that followed the “jam sessions” disappeared from the camp calendar.
For 2019, the camp listed just one open weekend, at just over three times the price of the old sessions and with quite a bit of rigor added to the schedule. I decided to pay the money and go, for two reasons. The first was that I’d left a Handwired Tube Screamer on the premises, and I was anxious to get it back. The second, and more relevant, reason was that I’d pulled an Eddie Van Halen in the four years since my last visit, which is to say that I’d replaced a likeable and competent bassist with… my own son.
John started playing upright bass in the school orchestra last year. Two months ago I bought him the remarkable little Ibanez Mikro short-scale bass, in the Jaco Pastorius sunburst finish. I didn’t expect him to take the instrument seriously, but he did. We’ve been learning various songs in bits and pieces, but I’ve had to give him very specific direction on how and what to play. Which makes sense; he turned ten a month ago.
My expectations for the weekend were low. We loaded a few instruments into the Lincoln and put two bikes on the hitch rack because I figured he would get bored after a few hours of the camp, at which point we would street ride in Nashville until we got bored enough to go home.
John had other ideas. Unbeknownst to me, he’d been practicing some of the main line from Jaco’s version of “The Chicken”:
During the Friday night warmup, when everybody was kind of noodling on various instruments in preparation for dinner, Victor heard John playing it and he took me aside. “I’d like to bring your son up with my band when we start the evening.” His band included Jeff Coffin, the former Flecktone who now plays horns for Dave Matthews, and Buddy Strong, DMB’s new keyboard player. I think these guys have maybe twelve Grammys between them.
“Uh, maybe… let me ask him.” To my surprise, John agreed to do it. I was a lot more nervous than he was; he’d already internalized the idea that he was the only kid on the premises and that everybody around him was a first-rate musician. So he went up on stage with very little concern. What happened next seemed like something out of a fever dream, something that I might have cooked up in my own head after I broke my leg in 2015 and while I was strung out on various painkillers: for about twenty-five minutes, John played his line “in the pocket” with the drummer while Coffin and Strong soloed over it. When he started getting obviously tired, Victor and another fellow backed him on a unison line. Eventually John indicated that he wanted to stop, at which point the band accelerated into hyperspace while he stood there next to Victor and watched.
I could tell that he was angry, and sure enough he was: “I’m not as good as those other players. I was wasting their time.” Only my eternally self-critical perfectionist of a son, the same kid who lost two out of seventeen matchups with his self-proclaimed “racing nemesis” over four months and referred to his overall performance as “trash riding”, the kid who won so many fencing matches he started fencing left-handed then lost his temper when he failed to win one out of five bouts the first night he switched, could have come up with this version of events.
“Dude, you did great. You stood next to the world’s greatest living electric bassist and you played in time.”
“Whatever.” And he stalked off to the “Woodshed” building. I gave him ten minutes to be alone. When I came in, I found him plugged in and jamming with a bunch of adults, watching the tune changes, playing “in the pocket”. In the space of a night he’d gone from the kid who would often flub a three-note line in the living room to a living, breathing musician. The next day, during a brief “nature walk” up a remarkably slippery mountain, Victor stopped and singled John out: “You could play anything the Rolling Stones need, man. You could do that gig.” Later on that day, a fearsomely accomplished twenty-something multi-instrumentalist referred, non-ironically, to “young cats like us,” meaning him and John.
We ended up staying until midnight two evenings in a row, at which point I called time on the whole thing and dragged John to the Hutton Hotel in downtown Nashville so Dad could catch up on his sleep. Some time around 8pm on Saturday he’d switched to drums, which he had no trouble playing in a band setting. Then he’d sat down at a keyboard and improvised a bit. It was frankly surreal for me to watch all of this. Music has been a big part of my life but I’ve never had much success with it. Brother Bark is an outstanding saxophonist but he is careful to note that he got there by simply working twice as hard as everyone else around him. John appears to do it all without effort. On the drive home, he decided to sing some of Pat Metheny’s guitar lines in perfect pitch.
Halfway through the trip home, while I mourned the fact that the camp had lost my Tube Screamer at some point between 2015 and now, we stopped at the Louisville skatepark so he could stretch his legs for fifteen minutes or so. “You can try each line just once, then we have to go.” And he rode just as naturally and effortlessly as he’d played. For the first time, I found myself wondering: What if he hurts his hands.
With an hour left to go in our drive home, John got tired of listening to music and talking about bikes. “I want to make up a game where we have a certain number of points and we create combat teams and we decide whose team would win. We start with 100 points. Each unit has to be rated in five areas: attack, defense, speed, stealth, cost. I choose Leopard tanks and assign them 5,4,4,0,5 for a total of 18 points. Which means I can have five units in the field.”
“Uh, I choose twenty armadillos with anti-tank mines on their backs.” And things got sillier from there: one million flies, a tortoise with a nuclear weapon, “hillbillies on lawn mowers with swords.” Twenty minutes after I dropped John off with his mother, I got a text from her.
“I heard all about the weekend,” was the first line. Yes, I thought, maybe I’m not the worst father ever, I spent a few grand to give the kid a once in a lifetime opportunity to play music on equal terms with the best headcutters in the jazz world, I put him up in a five-star hotel, he never missed a meal, he rode a destination skatepark on a custom full-suspension mountain bike with a dropper post. The phone buzzed again.
“What’s this about armadillos?”