Steve Bailey has composed a new chord for his career, strumming on a dream devised as a teen.
The Myrtle Beach native and bass guitar extraordinaire -- who has played with such music luminaries as David Benoit, Kitaro, the Rippingtons, Jethro Tull and the late Dizzy Gillespie and Mel Torme -- has taken a leave of absence from Coastal Carolina University to chair the bass department at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.
In a phone call late last week from Boulder, Colo., amid a weekend of three weekend dates in the Centennial State on a tour with friend and fellow bassist Victor Wooten, Bailey said his road to this position reflects quality time spent with so many people with whom he’s worked and taught.
He said a year ago, he never would have foreseen this opportunity emerging for him to oversee a department with 400 bass players and 30 faculty at a school whose alumni include Alicia Keys, John Mayer and Esperanza Spaulding.
Bailey called Berklee “the most progressive school in contemporary music,” with “the biggest bass department in the world.” He said it fulfills a childhood wish to finally go there.
With “100 percent” certainty, he said, this new venture would not have resulted without his tenure at Coastal, which began with an artist-in-residency in the last decade. The experience and ability to navigate and understand a university system assisted immensely with his gaining the Berklee post, he said.
Having had such “good friends and mentors” at CCU such as Donald Sloan, its music department chairman, and Philip Powell, who will step in again in August as chairman as Sloan steps back to concentrate on music theory and his personal composing, Bailey said he’s ready to learn new lessons in administration.
“This is becoming a student again in a big way,” Bailey said, floored to succeed Rich Appleman, who retired in May after 40 years. “The guy … was chairman of the department when I was in junior high and wanted to go to Berklee.”
Sloan said he wouldn’t be surprised to see Bailey play a role for CCU’s music curricula again.
“He added a new dimension to the program,” Sloan said, “and he always strove for excellence with whatever he did. … I learned things from him that I know the students do today.”
The dimension of the Coastal recording studio that Bailey helped establish, Sloan, said, extended to students beyond just the music majors.
“It also was an entry to a number of other majors, who might not be skilled at instruments, but wanted to participate,” Sloan said. “Many of the things he started will continue in his absence, which is the essence of a builder.”
Powell values Bailey as “a generous person” who has always stayed so down to earth, with so “refreshing” an endeavor ahead. Powell also through friendship with Bailey, said he has widened his world view of popular music.
“For all of his pop and jazz music direction and technology,” Powell said, “he demonstrated a serious pedagogy and discipline that I didn’t know was possible. It kind of opened up a whole new avenue of possibilities for us at Coastal.”
Besides just being able to record music, thanks to Bailey’s innovation, CCU staff can teach youth how to use the technology, Powell said.
“There are real jobs to be had with people who are musicians and tech savvy,” Powell said.
Enjoying a balance
Bailey, who sees the magnitude of his new post “as a big challenge,” with such a large department, said he already enjoys the pace, with some work by computer and phone amid tour dates, even offering a Berklee position to “one of my personal bass heroes.”
Stating that he remains heavily rooted in his hometown and his long-held thoughts that he would retire at Coastal, Bailey said that during the interview process last fall at Berklee, he froze to absorb the atmosphere, “humming like a beehive,” he observed outside a building with studios for recording and jam sessions. He said it was an energy he felt as a college student.
“I placed my hat down on that cold day, he said, “and I listened to the excitement of these students.”
Bailey said those bassists share a “passion to practice and practice and be the best.” That inspiration in “a large conservatory environment” resonated with the high standards he holds himself.
Grading his own students at CCU as “wonderful,” Bailey sees some of them moving on to Berklee as soon as “next semester.”
Bailey said he loved helping bring more contemporary and commercial music to Coastal, including an accent on recording technology in a studio, to showcase “real world” knowledge “to make a living as a musician.”
“That’s why Berklee is such an amazing place,’’ he said. “They invented the concept essentially, of the whole idea of contemporary and commercial music and technology being woven into serious academic facilities.”
Noting his wife and daughter’s comfort already with being “city girls” in Boston, Bailey said his home remains Myrtle Beach, with his studio, and his mother nearby.
“For me, this is like I’m commuting to Boston,” Bailey said. “My family’s moving there, but I’m still committed to Myrtle Beach, and my ultimate goal hasn’t changed, to give back to Myrtle Beach in any way I can.”
Bailey’s tour dates with Wooten, for clinics or for Berklee business, will lead him to such places as South Korea, China, Taiwan and across Europe, alternating with a week or two abroad then stateside.
Asked about the Boston scene, with teams in all four major U.S. sports, Bailey joked he’s “kind of ‘asports’ in a way,” but his friends include guitarist Bernie Williams, a former center fielder for the New York Yankees.
Bailey has suggested to Williams they meet to see a game by the Yankees archrival Boston Red Sox, and the reply was favorable. Bailey said he in turn joked to Williams of the need to bring a garbage can, “to block the debris thrown and the collateral damage at you.”
Contact STEVE PALISIN at 444-1764.