Banjo player and producer from New York City who started out on the guitar but was enraptured by the banjo playing of Earl Scruggs on the soundtrack of The Beverly Hillbillies. He finally got a banjo when he was fifteen years old, courtesy of his grandfather. It was 1973. The movie Deliverance had turned “Dueling Banjos” into one of the biggest instrumental hits of all time, and every budding banjoist seemed to cut his teeth on it.
Bela enrolled in the High School of Music and Art in New York, but banjo wasn’t a part of the curriculum. He tried his hand at the French horn, but his passion was for the banjo. While on a train into the city, a fellow banjo player recommended an instruction book to him, called How to Play the Five String Banjo, which was written by Pete Seeger . As banjo was not offered in high school, Bela had to find alternative means to learn the complicated instrument. His guitar teacher put him in touch with Eric Darwin, whose folk leanings undoubtedly complemented the teachings of Pete Seeger . Eric then introduced him to Mark Horowitz, a bluegrass specialist with an encyclopedic memory for banjo riffs.
After about two years, Bela began studying under the tutelage of Tony Trishka, who encouraged him to continue experiencing with jazz. All of these influences would shape Bela’s eclectic style. Shortly after graduation, he was already playing professionally, with a group called Tasty Licks, in Boston, Massachusetts. They released a pair of albums on his watch, a self-titled effort in 1978 and Anchored to the Shore in 1979.
He cut his first solo album when he was only nineteen. Crossing the Tracks was voted Best Overall Album by readers of Frets magazine. The musicians from Tasty Licks went their separate ways, and Bela hooked up with bassist Mark Schatz. The two of them spent the summer months busking on the Boston streets. As Boston was not exactly a pantheon of bluegrass, Bela and Mark moved to a place that was, Lexington, Kentucky. It was here they co-founded Spectrum with Glenn Lawson, Jimmy Mattingly and Jimmy Gaudreau. Spectrum released an album a year from 1981 through 1983, including Opening Roll, It’s Too Hot for Words and Live in Japan. Meantime, Bela cut his second solo album, Natural Bridge, which featured guest stars such as Mark O’Connor and Ricky Skaggs . Bela would return the favor by appearing on Ricky Skaggs’ 1982 album, Highways & Heartaches, which produced the #1 hits, “Heartbroke” and “Highway 40 Blues”.
It was around this time that Bela joined New Grass Revival, who were considered to be a “progressive bluegrass” group. They released a live album, recorded in Toulouse, France, in 1983. The always restless Bela also formed a side project entitled Banjo Jazz, a forerunner to the Flecktones. In 1984, he appeared as a guest musician on Sam Bush’s Late as Usual; Likewise, Sam appeared on Deviation, which is credited to NGR but is widely considered to be another solo album of Bela’s, with guest artists.
Bela tried his hand at producing in 1985, for the Nashville Bluegrass Band on My Native Home and Blaine Sprouse on Brilliancy. It would turn out to be more than a hobby, as he would go on to produce many of his own recordings. Cases in point are 1986’s Inroads and New Grass Revival. In 1988, he released Drive, which has the distinction of being nominated for the first-ever Best Bluegrass Album Grammy. It was a banner year for Bela, who was wooed by Dick Van Kleek to do a TV show on PBS. For this occasion, Bela assembled a virtuosic band comprising Howard Levy and brothers Roy and Victor Wooten. They would become The Flecktones. By the time the PBS special was finally broadcast in 1992, they had already recorded two albums, a self-titled debut and Flight of the Cosmic Hippo. Howard Levy’s tenure ended with 1992’s UFO TOFU. In 1993, the remaining members released the aptly titled Three Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which featured guest appearances by Bruce Hornsby and Branford Marsalis.
Bela continued to produce his own solo projects, as well, such as 1995’s Tales from the Acoustic Planet, although the album did include the other Flecktones, as well as Chick Corea and Edgar Meyer. The Flecktones were by no means done, however. In 1996, they released a live double album entitled Live Art and won a Grammy award for Best Pop Instrumental Performance for “The Sinister Minister”. They also went on the road with the Dave Matthews Band from 1996 and 1997. Bela did a guest turn on Matthews’ 1998 offering, Before These Crowded Streets. In 1997, sax-man Jeff Coffin infiltrated the band at live events and appeared on their 1998 album, Left of Cool. At the turn of the millennium, they released Outbound, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Bela also won a Grammy for Best Country Instrumental Performance, with Alison Brown, for “Leaving Cottondale”, and Best Classical Crossover Album, for 2001’s Perpetual Motion. The album earned an additional Grammy for Bela’s and Edgar Meyer’s arrangement of “Doctor Gradus Ad Parnassum” from Claude Debussy’s Children’s CornerSuite.
In 2003, The Flecktones bestowed a generous three-CD set on their fans, entitled Little Worlds. For those on a budget, Ten From Little Worlds, a single CD, was also released. Bela and Edgar Meyer continued to collaborate in the new millennium on projects such as 2004’s Music for Two and the ambitious “Double Concerto for Banjo and Bass”, which was performed in tandem with the Nashville Symphony.
The Flecktones took a break in 2005, but Bela didn’t: He co-wrote the documentary Bring it Home, which was about The Flecktones; He co-produced Abigail Washburn’s debut album, Song of the Traveling Daughter; He recorded a CD with The Sparrow Quartet; and, he formed Trio! with Stanley Clarke and Jean-Luc Ponty.
In 2006, The Flecktones re-emerged with The Hidden Land, which won a Grammy for Best Contemporary Jazz Album. Chick Corea and Bela Fleck reunited in 2007 for The Enchantment, and supported it with a tour. In 2008, The Flecktones released their first Christmas album, Jingle All the Way. It won a Grammy for Best Pop Instrumental Album in 2009. His Throw Down Your Heart, draws heavily on African influences, and features musicians from Madagascar, Mali, Senegal, South Africa, Tanzania, and Uganda. As of April 2009, he had embarked on a tour of the Midwestern and Eastern United States. In 2011 he premiered his Concerto for Banjo in Nashville with the Nashville Symphony Orchestra who had commissioned the piece.
Bela Fleck is considered to be one of the best banjo players who ever lived. He has racked up eleven Grammy awards and has been nominated in more categories than any other recording artist in history.
Here he is with New Grass Revival performing “Seven by Seven”…