Born c. 1958 in New York, NY; son of a public school teacher. Addresses: Record company--Columbia Records/Sony Music Entertainment Inc., 550 Madison Ave., New York, NY 10022-3211. Booking--Joe Brauner, Monterey Peninsula Artists, 509 Hartnell St., Monterey, CA 93940, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Management--David Bendett, David Bendett Artists, Inc., 2431 Briarcrest Rd., Beverly Hills, CA 90210, e-mail: email@example.com. Website--Béla Fleck Official Website: http://www.flecktones.com.
Béla Fleck is an acknowledged master of the five-string banjo. An unassuming artist whose virtuoso performances fuse jazz, rock, Irish balladry, and bluegrass, Fleck cannot possibly be confined to a strict genre or even considered "new grass." His is an original style, a hip, urban sound that just happens to come from a uniquely American instrument traditionally stereotyped as being anything but sophisticated. Time magazine contributor John Elson called Fleck "the Paganini, or maybe the Jimi Hendrix," of the banjo, noting that the Grammy Award winner has taken "this jangling folk instrument into jazz, classical music, and beyond."
Fleck never touched a banjo until he was fourteen, but by the time he was in his mid-twenties, he was cutting solo albums and picking with the New Grass Revival, a premier bluegrass band. His later work, with Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, is more likely to be heard on jazz radio stations than on country stations. "I wanted to play like pianist Chick Corea," Fleck disclosed in an interview with Down Beat magazine. "I could look up and down the banjo neck and everything was there that you needed to play the notes, but no one had come up with the technique to play it. I started working on things most musicians work out on for most instruments, like working on scales, finding a way to play the chords. There was nothing remarkable about the things I did except that they were on the banjo."
Fleck was born and raised in New York City. He and his brother lived with their mother, a public school teacher. "I never met my father," Fleck declared in Time. "He taught German for a living but was crazy about classical music. He named me after Béla Bartok, the Hungarian composer. He named my brother Ludwig after Beethoven. It was rough. The torture started in kindergarten."
Fleck was just about ready to start kindergarten when he had his first brush with the banjo. Like many Americans, he initially heard the instrument in the theme music of the 1960s television series The Beverly Hillbillies. Fleck recalled in Time that he and his brother were watching the show at his grandparents' house. "The theme music started, and I had no idea it was the banjo," he said. "It was Earl Scruggs in his prime. I only remember hearing something beautiful. It called out to me."
Other musical influences intervened, however. Fleck learned to play guitar and was influenced by pop and rock as a youngster. Then, at 14, he saw the film Deliverance, with its "Duelling Banjos" bluegrass theme. "The sound of the banjo just killed me," he remembered in Time. "It's like hearing mercury."
He got his first banjo at age 15 in 1973. "Some people say banjo is an instrument you either love or hate," said Fleck. "For me I just instantly loved it. I couldn't put it down for days. I didn't want to go to sleep. I got up early to play it. I thought about it in my spare time. On the bus to school I was thinking about it. I was so excited to get home and play it again. I tried to play other instruments, but nothing else ever really caught on, nothing else called out to me that way."
He began to spend up to eight hours a day locked in his room, experimenting with the instrument. He was accepted into Manhattan's High School of Music and Art, but since the banjo was not considered a serious instrument there, he played guitar and studied music theory. He took private banjo lessons with three teachers, Tony Trischka, Erik Darling, and Mark Horowitz. He also learned, as many bluegrass musicians do, from listening to and imitating such bluegrass pioneers as Scruggs and J. D. Crowe. He also was absorbing musical ideas from additional, seemingly disparate, sources such as Yes, Charlie Parker, The Beatles, Joni Mitchell, and Return to Forever.
As soon as he graduated from high school in 1976, Fleck moved to Boston and took a job with the bluegrass band Tasty Licks. In 1979 he moved south to Lexington, Kentucky, to help form the group Spectrum. Fleck confessed to a Time correspondent that his first exposure to Southern bluegrass was a "big culture shock." He added: "I was a little cocky, but down South, they didn't think I sounded so great because I lacked tone and I didn't have a great sense of rhythm. They were right." Fleck perfected his technique and cut his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, in 1980.
He joined Sam Bush, John Cowan, and Pat Flynn in the New Grass Revival in 1981. The band, of which he and Flynn were the newest members, were all ready well known for pushing the acceptable musical limits of bluegrass. Throughout the 1980s the New Grass Revival continued to raise the bar and musically experiment. Stereo Review correspondent Alanna Nash proclaimed the band "the ultimate progressive supergroup" with "its own unique, indescribable, and innovative blend of jazz, rock, reggae, gospel, rhythm and blues, and whatever else strikes its fancy."
Almost every New Grass Revival album recorded since Fleck's arrival features an instrumental withhim as its principal performer and composer. Among these are the Grammy-nominated "Seven by Seven," "Big Foot," and the popular "Metric Lips."
New Grass Revival disbanded in 1991. Fleck and Bush have played together live and in the studio since on Bush solo releases from 1996'sGlamour & Grits to Ice Caps: Peaks of Telluride, released in 2000. Bush has reciprocated, appearing as a guest on Fleck's solo and band projects. Perhaps the best example of this synergy is Strength in Numbers, a one-off recording project with Fleck, Bush, Jerry Douglas (dobro), Mark O'Connor (guitar/mandolin), and Edgar Meyer (bass). The group was "sort of the de facto house band" at Telluride for years when they recorded a single album under the moniker. Fleck also performed on various other artists' recordings throughout the decade including Andy Statman, Ginger Baker, Rhonda Vincent, and Dave Matthews Band.
For Fleck, this freedom from the constraints of a band and genre offered him an opportunity to play more jazz-oriented material. As Seth Rogovoy pointed out in a 1996 article, Fleck has taken the banjo, "from its fixed role as a lead instrument in the traditional bluegrass ensemble, restored it to its long-forgotten home in the jazz band, and by recognizing no limitations on its potential, transformed the way it is played and imagined."
He formed Béla Fleck and the Flecktones in 1990 with a pair of brothers, Victor and Roy (a.k.a. Future Man) Wooten, on bass and Drumitar, and added Howard Levy on keyboards and harmonica. Jeff Coffin would join the group well after Levy's 1992 departure. Their music has been embraced enthusiastically by the jam band community. Fleck has recorded with several notable bands in this genre including Phish, Government Mule, and Leftover Salmon and he frequently appears at numerous music festivals, including bluegrass, jazz, jamband, and world music festivals.
After a decade-long relationship with the Warner Bros. label, Fleck signed a five-record deal with Sony's Columbia Records. This package stipulated that he would record two projects for release on Sony Classical, a solo album, and two discs with the Flecktones. The first of these was Outbound, released in 2000. William Ruhlmann, writing in an oblique review on All Music Guide, essentially called the project a random mess. "Fleck really offers no defense to the charge of being a musical dilettante, he simply celebrates the surface pleasures of different varieties of music, offering an overlapping series of appetizers," he wrote. "A fan of any particular style is liable to feel that it has been trivialized, but Fleck doesn't mean any harm. His music represents the pursuit of facileness as a musical goal, one that he and his band achieve with alacrity."
Fleck seemed to fare better with the critics with 1995's Tales from the Acoustic Planet. This project combined both jazz and bluegrass, featuring guest artists from both worlds: Chick Corea, Branford Marsalis, Douglas, Meyer, and Bush. The credo adopted by Fleck and his mates is virtuosity. If someone can play their chosen instrument expressively, the music being played is incidental. "Béla's bad, man," said Marsalis, who first played on UFO Tofu with Fleck, to Down Beat in 1997. "Béla just has that thing. When you hear the music, you say, 'Yeah, I'm down,' and that's the true test for me. ... It was one of the original jazz instruments, but it was mostly a strumming, picking instrument. ...Even banjo solos were just like 'chink chinka chink,' which is not what Béla's doing at all. He's playing the goddamn thing."
Perhaps no other album to date has attempted to combine all these influences in one package than 2003's ambitious Little Worlds. Guest artists on the three-disc set included Bobby McFerrin, Marsalis, The Chieftains, Douglas, and Bush. Jason MacNeil, music critic for the online publication PopMatters, said it appeared adopted the "everything but the kitchen sink to pad albums and give fans more than they anticipated and, in some cases, even wanted" approach. "Béla Fleck has decided to try the same format." A second single disc was released at the same time. MacNeil called the full project, "Long, average and thoroughly unappealing, unless you are the ultimate Fleck fanatic."
But Down Beat's Jason Koransky observed similarities to Weather Report, the great jazz group of the 1970s and 1980s known for its improvisational prowess. He said the project "stands as a milestone, and ... offers the best song-writing and production of the Flecktones' recording career."
In The Big Book of Bluegrass, Fleck discussed his artistic goals and his position in the music business. "I think I just have to follow the path where the music leads me and play as many different kinds of things as I can," he said. "Basically, I try not to take it all too seriously. As Alan Munde once said, 'It's only a banjo.' I mean, how seriously can you take it? It's like being the best kazoo player in the world."
Critics have taken it seriously indeed. Elson concluded that Fleck's work "is pure revelation. ... His technique is always at the service of a sophisticated musical imagination that can make the banjo sound as if it were born to play jazz."
by Anne Janette Johnson and Linda Dailey Paulson
Béla Fleck's Career
Played with Boston-based bluegrass band Tasty Licks, 1976-79; member, with Jim Gaudreau and Glenn Lawson, of the group Spectrum, 1979-81; joined New Grass Revival, 1981; group disbanded, 1991; formed group Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, c. 1989 (other members include Howard Levy on keyboards, Victor Wooten on bass guitar, and Future Man (a.k.a. Roy Wooten) on Drumitar). Also cut albums as a solo artist and has done studio work in Nashville with Loretta Lynn, the Statler Brothers, Randy Travis, Sam Bush, and others. Has made television appearances, with the New Grass Revival and the Flecktones, on Hee Haw, Nashville Now, and the Lonesome Pine Specials; continued exploring limits of the instrument in experimental recordings, including a recording of classic masterworks on banjo and the three-disc Little Worlds, released in 2003.
Béla Fleck's Awards
Named top banjo player in the nation by Frets readers' poll more than six times since 1981; Grammy Awards: Best Country Instrumental Performance (with Asleep at the Wheel) for "Hightower," 1995; Best Pop Instrumental Performance (with the Flecktones) for "The Sinister Mister," 1996; Best Instrumental Composition (with the Flecktones) for "Almost 12," 1998; Best Contemporary Jazz Album (with the Flecktones) for Outbound, 2000; Best Country Instrumental Performance (with Alison Brown) for "Leaving Cottondale" from Fair Weather, 2000; Best Classical Crossover Album for Perpetual Motion, 2001; Best Instrumental Arrangement (with Edgar Meyer) for Claude Debussy's "Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum" from Perpetual Motion, 2001.
- Selected discography
- Crossing the Tracks Rounder, 1980.
- Natural Bridge Rounder, 1982.
- Daybreak Rounder, 1987.
- Places Rounder, 1988.
- Drive Rounder, 1988.
- Tales From the Acoustic Planet Warner, 1994.
- The Bluegrass Sessions: Tales from the from the Acoustic Planet, Vol. 2 Warner, 1999.
- Perpetual Motion Sony, 2001.
- Ten From Little Worlds Columbia, 2003.
- Little Worlds (3-CD set), Columbia, 2003.
- With the New Grass Revival
- Deviation Rounder, 1985.
- On the Boulevard Sugar Hill, 1985.
- New Grass Revival EMI America, 1986.
- Hold to a Dream Capitol, 1988.
- Friday Night in America Capitol, 1989.
- The New Grass Revival Live Sugar Hill, 1989.
- New Grass Anthology Capitol, 1990.
- With Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
- Béla Fleck and the Flecktones Warner Bros., 1990.
- Flight of the Cosmic Hippo Warner Bros., 1991.
- UFO Tofu Warner Bros., 1992.
- Three Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest Warner, 1993.
- Left of Cool Warner, 1998.
- Outbound Columbia, 2000.
- Live at the Quick (DVD), Columbia, 2002.
- With others
- (With Tasty Licks) Anchored to the Shore Rounder, 1979.
- (With Spectrum) Opening Roll Rounder, 1980.
- (With Spectrum) Spectrum Live in Japan Rounder, 1983.
- (With Jerry Douglas, Mark O'Connor, and others) Inroads Rounder, 1987.
- (With Strength in Numbers) The Telluride Sessions MCA, 1989.
- (With Spectrum) Too Hot for Words Rounder, 1990.
- (With Asleep at the Wheel) The Wheel Keeps on Rollin' Capitol, 1995.
- (With Tasty Licks) Tasty Licks Rounder, 1997.
- (With Alison Brown) Fair Weather Compass, 2000.
- Kochman, Marilyn, editor, The Big Book of Bluegrass, Morrow, 1984.
- Billboard, March 4, 1995; October 10, 1998.
- Bluegrass Unlimited, November 1978.
- Chicago, December 1986.
- Down Beat, July 1986; July 1988; August 1991; March 1997; October 2003.
- Guitar Player, February 1989; July 1990.
- People, May 25, 1992.
- Rolling Stone, July 13, 1989.
- Stereo Review, May 1985; January 1988; November 1988; September 1990.
- Time, June 11, 1990.
- Variety, July 4, 1990.
- "Béla Fleck," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 26, 2004).
- "Béla Fleck and the Flecktones," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com (January 24, 2004).
- "Béla Fleck & The Flecktones: Little Worlds (Special Edition)," PopMatters, http://www.popmatters.com/music/reviews/f/fleckBéla-littleworlds.shtml (January 25, 2004).
- "Béla Fleck: Born To Play Banjo," The Berkshire (MA) Eagle, http://www.berkshireweb.com/rogovoy/interviews/fleck.html (January 25, 2004).