Bela Fleck The Banjo Maestro

Written By Sonny Akbar Sembada

Hi, my name is Sonny Akbar Sembada and I welcome you to my blog, The Uncle Jazz. The main topic of my blog is everything related to jazz music.. 

Béla Fleck: The Banjo Maestro and Sonic Explorer Extraordinaire

The banjo maestro Béla Fleck – the banjo virtuoso that some folks call the ultimate banjo player worldwide. Others say he’s basically flipped the script on what people think about banjos with his incredible performances and mind-blowing recordings that jump through all kinds of music genres.

This dude has taken his banjo on a wild ride through solo projects and cool collaborations. And if you know Béla, you know he’s all about playing that banjo and tossing it into some seriously cool setups.

Early Banjo Crush and Musical Wanderings

Béla’s a kid from New York City, starting his music journey with the guitar. Fast forward to the early ’60s, he’s watching the Beverly Hillbillies, and the bluegrass magic of Flatt & Scruggs hits him like a lightning bolt. That Earl Scruggs banjo style? Béla was hooked. “Like a spark in my head,” he’d say later.

But it wasn’t until his grandpa got him a banjo in ’73 that the banjo fever took over. That same week, he enrolled at the High School of Music and Art in NYC. Started with French horn, quickly switched to the choir. Banjo wasn’t on the school menu, so the banjo maestro Béla went hunting for lessons from outside pros like Erik Darling, Marc Horowitz, and Tony Trischka.

This is when he joined his first band, “Wicker’s Creek.” Living in NYC, Béla soaked up a ton of different musical experiences. One that really stuck was a “Return to Forever” concert featuring Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. That gig pushed him to experiment more with bebop and jazz on the banjo, hinting at new things to come.

Early Banjo Crush and Musical Wanderings
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After high school, the banjo maestro Béla headed to Boston to jam with Jack Tottle Tasty Licks. There, he kept exploring jazz, dropped two albums with Tasty Licks, and his first solo banjo album, “Crossing the Tracks,” with Rounder Records. And guess what? That’s where he first linked up with future music buddies Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas.

Noodling with New Grass and Banjo Evolution

When Tasty Licks called it quits, Béla hit the streets of Boston with bass player Mark Schatz for a summer of jamming. They then packed their bags for Lexington, Kentucky, forming Spectrum with Jimmy Gaudreau, Glen Lawson, and Jimmy Mattingly. Spectrum did their thing until ’81. In that time, Béla and Mark jetted to California and Nashville to record their second album, “Natural Bridge,” with a crew of musical heavyweights.

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In ’81, the banjo maestro Béla got an invite to join New Grass Revival (NGR), led by Sam Bush. Throw in Pat Flynn on guitar and John Cowan on bass and vocals, and NGR took bluegrass to new heights. Five albums in, they’re blending bluegrass, rock, and country music, touring non-stop, and blowing minds. And Béla Fleck’s banjo is now officially on the bluegrass/acoustic music map.

Solo Grooves and Flecktones Takeoff

During his nine years with NGR, The banjo maestro Béla kept pumping out solo albums for Rounder, including the game-changer ’88 album, “Drive.” He also rolled with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Edgar Meyer, and Mark O’Connor in Strength in Numbers – an acoustic dream team. Their MCA album, “The Telluride Sessions,” also earned them street cred in the acoustic music scene.

As the NGR era wrapped up, Béla and Howard Levy crossed paths at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Next thing you know, a friend hits him up about a bass player looking for a gig. Victor Lemonte Wooten jams some licks over the phone, and the connection’s made. ’88 comes around, and the banjo maestro Béla gets offered a solo gig by Dick Van Kleek, PBS Lonesome Pine Series honcho in Louisville, Kentucky.

Solo Grooves and Flecktones Takeoff
image source: Creator: Alan MESSER Copyright: CREDIT: Photograph by Alan MESSER

For that gig, the banjo maestro Béla throws a bunch of musical sounds at his banjo – string quartet, Macintosh computer, and a jazzy combo. Howard and Victor hop in, but they’re missing a drummer. They’re on the hunt for a quirky drummer/percussionist, and Victor suggests his brother, Roy Wooten, aka FutureMan.

Roy’s working on the Drumitar (Drum – Guitar), still in its infancy. A midi-trigger device, it lets FutureMan drum with his fingers to trigger all sorts of sampled sounds. First rehearsal at Béla’s Nashville crib gets disrupted by a wild lightning storm that kills the power for hours. But these four keep going with acoustic jams, and the last slot on the TV show becomes the debut of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

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