Béla Fleck is often considered the world’s greatest banjo player. The sixteen-time Grammy winner has earned awards under the headings of jazz, world music, classical, folk, bluegrass, pop instrumental, gospel and more, and has been nominated in more categories than any instrumentalist in Grammy history. On March 3, 2017, Fleck released Juno Concerto (Rounder Records), a concerto for banjo and orchestra, recorded in March of 2016 with the Colorado Symphony, conducted by José Luis Gomez.
Fleck made the classical connection in 2001 with Perpetual Motion, his critically acclaimed, two-time Grammy-winning recording with John Williams, Joshua Bell, Evelyn Glennie, Chris Thile, Edgar Meyer and others. In 2003, Fleck and Meyer debuted a double concerto for the Nashville Symphony that featured banjo and bass, which they co-wrote. The dynamic pair collaborated again with the Nashville Symphony in 2006 on The Melody of Rhythm, a triple concerto for banjo, bass and tabla (hand drum), this time with Indian consummate tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. All of this built up to Béla’s first stand-alone banjo concerto, The Impostor, a commission by the National Symphony that premiered in 2011, followed by the companion documentary How to Write a Banjo Concerto.
Fleck will perform his Concerto for Banjo and Orchestra No. 3 with the Colorado Symphony at Boettcher Hall this weekend, with Brett Mitchell conducting.
Westword: When did you first pick up a banjo, and how did you know that the banjo was the right instrument for you?
Béla Fleck: I first heard the banjo on The Beverly Hillbillies theme. It was Earl Scruggs, and I just loved it. When I was fifteen, my grandfather got me one. I quickly discarded that stinky guitar and started playing a real instrument!
Did you enjoy country and/or bluegrass music at an early age?
I liked the banjo more than I liked country music. Gradually, I fell for bluegrass singing, but it wasn’t my natural inclination. Now, of course, I’m crazy about the whole genre. But still not so much into "country" music.
Was New Grass Revival the "Grateful Dead of bluegrass?"
Or maybe the "Return to Forever of bluegrass." [NGR] certainly was a very important group in terms of leading the way to where the music would eventually go. I joined well after the course had been set, so I can say that without being accused of self-congratulation! There was a general movement toward a version of the music that reflected the times and the people who were now playing it. New Grass was a prime mover in that group, which also included David Grisman, Tony Rice, Tony Trischka, Bill Keith, Darol Anger, a little later Mike Marshall...and the list goes on.
How many times do you estimate that you have played in Telluride?
My first year was 1982, and I’ve been there every year since then. It’s my 36th or 37th this year, I believe...can someone check my math?
What is your background in classical music, and how does that fit with your approach to banjo?
My classical background is mostly absorbed, and very unstudied — at least in classical terms. My stepfather Joe played the cello, and there was classical music in my high school, so I did hear it organically. But there was no place for a banjo player to learn this music, so I had to figure it out one note at a time. I guess I’m thinking about my early attempts to learn the Bach violin partitas, etc. It was interesting, and I learned a lot from it. Later on, I learned the most by osmosis from my friend Edgar Meyer, who was legit but still approachable. I first wrote pieces with him, and eventually had to go do my own work.
Can you share a brief history of the banjo?
The banjo came to the Americas with the slaves. By the late 1800s, it was the most popular instrument in the United States, with banjo orchestras and ladies playing it in the parlor. It was a formative part of the early jazz music, in Louis Armstrong, and Jelly Roll Morton’s groups, but was discarded from jazz when the guitar came along. Largely, this was because the guitar did not harken back to slavery like the banjo did, and jazz had a largely black constituency. Meanwhile, the banjo was being played in rural areas by white and black musicians. In the 1940s, Earl Scruggs became famous for his new fancy three-finger picking style, delivered from the podium of the Grand Ole Opry while in Bill Monroe’s band. This was a major turning point and a resurgence for the banjo, and has led the way for the next generations.
Why do you think the banjo sounds so distinctive? What makes its tone?
It's a combination of wood and skin, metal and bone. The bridge sits on a skin, which makes it a drum with strings on it!
Can you share a good banjo joke?
I have never heard a good one!
Is there a particular style of banjo that you enjoy playing? What are some of your favorite bluegrass and old-time tunes to play?
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I love the variety of playing many styles. Bluegrass is a home touchstone, but I love diversity.
Could you share a little bit about what listeners might expect at your performances with the Colorado Symphony in Denver?
I will be performing my third banjo concerto, which was commissioned by the Louisiana Symphony to commemorate the tricentennial of New Orleans. We played it for the first time last week, and it went very well. New Orleans is such a musical melting pot, which gave me the permission to do almost anything I wanted and include jazz, bluegrass, gospel and Creole influences. I did listen to a bunch of Louisiana music before I began to write, and then I wrote freely. I’m proud of the piece and excited for people to hear it. It is truly different than anything else I have done, so it passes my test.
Béla Fleck, Concerto for Banjo with the Colorado Symphony, 7:30 p.m. Friday, April 13, and Saturday, April 14, Boettcher Concert Hall, $25-$99.