There’s a famous Far Side cartoon in which a newly deceased orchestra conductor is being shown his assigned spot in Hell; awaiting him, of course, are rank upon rank of banjo-players. Along with the accordion, the banjo is one of those musical instruments that seem condemned to be the eternal butt of derision. Woodstock banjo colossus Bill Keith – who toured everywhere on the bluegrass circuit as a member of Bill Monroe’s band – once claimed that he was amassing an exhaustive collection of banjo jokes for eventual publication.
But if there is one person in the world who in the past couple of decades has raised the homely banjo to a level of respectability, even awe, among connoisseurs across many musical disciplines, it’s Béla Fleck. Words like “dazzling,” “genius” and even “best banjo-player in the world” fall far short of what this guy has managed to accomplish with the much-maligned instrument. Citing Charlie Parker, Earl Scruggs and Chick Corea as primary influences, Fleck has been nominated for Grammy Awards in more categories than any other musician ever (country, pop, jazz, bluegrass, classical, folk, spoken word, composition and arranging): 30 nominations in all, of which he has won 15 Grammies…so far. Expect that number to keep going up. Meanwhile, he’ll be playing this Sunday, September 1 at Opus 40.
A New York City native, Fleck attended the High School of Music and Art, starting out on the French horn, but began his banjo education under the tutelage of another visionary of the instrument: the great Tony Trischka. Soon afterward he teamed up with another young progressive bluegrass player, bassist Mark Schatz, busking the streets of Boston and playing in a band called Tasty Licks. He released his first solo album, Crossing the Tracks, in 1979, and then joined mandolinist Jimmy Gaudreau in the band Spectrum. But it wasn’t long before another world-class mandolinist, Sam Bush, recruited Fleck to join a group that was already changing the way the world thinks about bluegrass music: the rock- and jazz-inflected New Grass Revival.