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Jazz Icon Victor Wooten Urges Drew Students to Put Feeling into Music

Grammy winner teaches and performs.

March 2019 – Renowned Jazz bassist and five-time Grammy winner Victor Wooten performed with students and professors and taught music during a day at Drew University.

Wooten, the guest of Drew Theological School’s Social Justice Leadership Project, is not only a jazz genius but a teacher who emphasizes liberation and social justice. He seemed right at home talking to students from classes at Drew’s College of Liberal Arts and Theological School.

During the sessions, he encouraged an open dialogue, with Wooten often drawing from his book, The Music Lesson: A Spiritual Search for Growth Through Music, which emphasizes spirituality and music.

When asked how to overcome writer’s block, he said to think about a baby learning to walk, as it takes practice to succeed. “To write good songs, you have to write some bad ones. But if you’re only trying to write good ones, you are going to get blocked,” he said. “Beauty can be found in all things, and it’s up to us to see it.”

Wooten emphasized the importance of theory in music and how powerful it is. As he explained, “Understanding music theory will help you be a better writer, similar to language theory.”

The bassist also urged students to “put you inside your music, find who you are, know what makes you sound like you.” He further noted that we study musical greats, but rarely study ourselves, adding, “Your aim is to be the best you can possibly be.”

Playing music can physically affect others by making them feel the energy and vibrations of it, according to Wooten. In short, musicians have the power to make others react. As Wooten put it, “We’re doing more than playing some notes.” As such, he encouraged students to “put feeling into that music.”

To illustrate his point, Wooten invited Theological School student and beginning drummer Tiffani Wheatley to join him and play. While accompaning her, he said “relax and feel it.” Quickly she became comfortable, drumming with little instruction, which prompted Wooten to recall a saying from his mother: “In the mind of an acorn is a whole tree.” Ultimately, he challenged the students to open themselves to the possibility of greatness.

Wooten capped his day at Drew with a performance at the Dorothy Young Center for the Arts before a spirited and lively capacity crowd. Accompanying him on piano was Mark Miller, associate professor of church music and composer in residence. And for a few songs, they were joined by Elias Ortega-Aponte, associate professor of social theory and religious ethics, on cajón and Nancy Lynne Westfield, professor of religious education and director of the Social Justice Leadership Project, on didgeridoo.

The finale was an original arrangement of both “Hallelujah” and “Amazing Grace,” with Theological School student Brandan Fox joining the musicians to sing lead. By the refrain, the audience was standing and singing along with the impromptu band Wooten had created that day.  

“The Social Justice Leadership Project is grateful to Wooten for his generosity of spirit and infectious joy,” Westfield said. “We are pleased that Victor Wooten will continue the collaboration which was birthed on his first visit to Drew.”