Music Monday: Happy Birthday, Béla Fleck! | Los Angeles Public Library
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Music Monday: Happy Birthday, Béla Fleck!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Bela Fleck playing his banjo and collage of his album covers

Béla Fleck was born on July 10, 1958. Fleck is a virtuoso banjo player who has taken the instrument far beyond the expected bluegrass and folk music.

Like many of his generation, Fleck's first exposure to the banjo came from movies and TV – "Dueling Banjos" from the movie Deliverance, and "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" from The Beverly Hillbillies. At fifteen, Fleck was given a banjo by his grandfather. He was supposed to be studying the French horn at the New York High School of Music and Art but spent so much time practicing the banjo that his horn studies suffered, and he was eventually transferred to the school's choir.

After high school, Fleck briefly joined the bluegrass group Tasty Licks. That group didn't last long, though, and Fleck was invited to join New Grass Revival, a somewhat controversial band within the traditional world of bluegrass. The members of New Grass Revival looked like rock musicians, with long hair and casual clothing, and they played music by artists who had nothing to do with bluegrass, like the Beatles and Bob Marley. Fleck spent most of the 1980s with New Grass Revival, and the band's popularity grew throughout the decade. They disbanded in 1989, and Fleck went on to found the band for which he is best known, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.

With the Flecktones, Fleck stretched the boundaries of bluegrass even further than New Grass Revival had done, mixing it with jazz and pop. The group was impossible to classify; their music video for "The Sinister Minister" was played not only on Country Music Television, but on BET and VH-1 as well.

As a solo artist working without the Flecktones, Fleck has taken the banjo out of the bluegrass realm entirely, often by collaborating with musicians from other countries and cultures. The 1996 album Tabula Rasa was recorded with Vishwa Mohan Bhatt, playing an Indian version of the slide guitar, and Jie-Bing Chen, playing the erhu, a two-string Chinese fiddle. In 2010, Fleck's Throw Down Your Heart featured collaborations with traditional musicians from across Africa, as Fleck explored the banjo's African origins.

Fleck has taken the banjo into jazz, recording two albums with pianist Chick Corea and one with the Marcus Roberts Trio. And he's even explored the banjo as a classical instrument, writing two concertos for banjo and orchestra – "The Impostor" and "Juno" – and a triple concerto for banjo, bass, and tabla, an Indian drum. Most recently, he's begun recording and performing as a duo with his wife, Abigail Washburn, who is also a skilled banjo player.

Fleck's adventurous nature and willingness to cross genre lines have given him Grammy nominations in more different categories than any other musician; he's won the award fourteen times, in country, pop, jazz, classical, folk, and world music categories. Much more of Fleck's music is available for streaming at Freegal and Hoopla.