Just in case you aren’t familiar with BÉLA FLECK, there are many who say he’s the premiere banjo player in the world. Others claim that Béla has virtually reinvented the image and the sound of the banjo through a remarkable performing and recording career that has taken him all over the musical map and on a range of solo projects and collaborations. If you are familiar with Béla, you know that he just loves to play the banjo, and put it into unique settings.
Born and raised in New York City, Béla began his musical career playing the guitar. In the early 1960’s, while watching the Beverly Hillbillies, the bluegrass sounds of Flatt & Scruggs flowed out of the TV set and into his young brain. Earl Scruggs’s banjo style hooked Béla’s interest imme- diately. “It was like sparks going off in my head” he later said.
It wasn’t until his grandfather bought him a banjo in September of ’73, that it became his full time passion. That week, Béla entered New York City’s, High School of Music and Art. He began studies on the French horn but was soon demoted to the chorus, due his lack of musical aptitude. Since the banjo wasn’t an offered elective at Music & Art, Béla sought lessons through outside sources. Erik Darling, Marc Horowitz, and Tony Trischka stepped up and filled the job. Béla joined his first band, “Wicker’s Creek” during this period. Living in NYC, Béla was exposed to a wide variety of musical experiences.. One of the most impressive was a concert by “Return to Forever” featuring Chick Corea and Stanley Clarke. This concert encouraged further experiment- ing with bebop and jazz on the banjo, signs of things to come.
In 1981, Béla was invited to join the progressive bluegrass band New Grass Revival, lead by Sam Bush on mandolin, fiddle and vocals. With the addition of Pat Flynn on guitar and NGR veteran John Cowan on bass and vocals, New Grass Revival took bluegrass music to new limits, exciting audiences and critics alike. Through the course of five albums, they charted new territory with their blend of bluegrass, rock and country music. The relentless national and international touring by NGR exposed Béla’s banjo playing to the bluegrass/acoustic music world.
Towards the end of the New Grass years, Béla and Howard Levy crossed paths at the Winnipeg Folk Festival. Next came a phone call from a friend who wanted to introduce him to an amazing bass player. Victor Lemonte Wooten played some licks on the phone for Béla and the second connection was made. In 1988 Dick Van Kleek, Artistic Director for the PBS Lonesome Pine Series based in Louisville, Kentucky, offered Béla a solo show.
Béla put several musical sounds together with his banjo, a string quartet, his Macintosh computer and also the more jazz based combo. Howard and Victor signed on for the concert, but the group still lacked a drummer. The search was on for an unusual drummer/percussionist. Victor offered up his brother Roy Wooten, later to become known as FutureMan. Roy was developing the Drumitar (Drum – Guitar), it was then in its’ infancy. A midi trigger device, the drumitar allowed FutureMan to play the drums with his fingers triggering various sampled sounds. The first rehearsal held at Béla’s Nashville home was hampered by a strong thunderstorm that knocked the electricity out for hours. The four continued on with an acoustic rehearsal and the last slot on the TV show became the first performance of Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
Any world-class musician born with the names Béla (for Bartok), Anton (for Dvorak) and Léos (for Janacek) would seem destined to play classical music. Already a powerfully creative force in bluegrass, jazz, pop, rock and world beat, Béla at last made the classical connection with “Perpetual Motion”, his critically acclaimed 2001 Sony Classical recording that went on to win a pair of Grammys, including Best Classical Crossover Album, in the 44th annual Grammy Awards.
The recipient of Multiple Grammy Awards going back to 1998, Béla Flecks’ total Grammy count is 14 Grammys won, and 30 nominations. He has been nominated in more different categories than any instrumentalist in Grammy history.