Musical Legends Bring their 'Banjo Summit' to The Birchmere

Bela Fleck: "If you are going to be making music, you should be in it for life, not to just make a quick buck, and you need to be in it for the right reasons."

Tuesday, Jan 22, 2013  |  Updated 12:26 PM EDT
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Béla Fleck Leads America's Top Banjo players for a Birchmere Banjo Summit

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It is a treat to see a legendary musician live in concert, but to see five legends all on one stage is a rare treat. And a sold-out crowd at the Birchmere got much more than what they paid for as 'The New York Banjo Summit' kicked off their winter tour.

Led by the world's leading banjo player, Béla Fleck, musical greats Bill Keith, Eric Weissberg, Noam Pikenly, Richie Stearns and Tony Trishka brought down The Birchmere to a mix of traditional bluegrass, jazz, and even some classical. 

In a passing-of-the-torch gesture, Béla Fleck congratulated up-and-coming banjoist Noam Pickenly for his first Grammy nomination. The Grammies are something Béla Fleck knows very well, having earned 14 in his storied career, which spans more genres of music than any other musician in history.

Before the show, NBCWashington contributor Peter Kirchhausen spoke to Béla Fleck about his musical beginnings, the state of the music industry, and, days away from President Obama's second inauguration, what President Obama needs to do in his second term. 


Peter Kirchhausen: Before getting into music... we’re days away from President Obama’s second inauguration. And since we are in D.C., I have to ask you a political question. What do you think this country needs from President Obama in his second term?

Béla Fleck: I will say that I dig President Obama, and I think he has done his best to be an even-handed and thoughtful person through this incredibly taxing Presidency, and I have no doubt that he will make me proud as an American in terms of how he handles things in general. But honestly, he’s in such a tough situation and so will the next group of Republicans when they get control. It’s just such a dogfight these days and I don’t think anyone wants the other team to succeed and that is the really disappointing thing about politics these days. No one wants the other side to succeed even if its the best thing for the country, so I think President Obama has a tough road to hoe, and I wish him the best and I know that he will do it in a classy way.

PK: Your name alone smacks of music: Bela, coming from the first name of a famous Hungarian composer. Were your parents deeply into music, and what do you think set the stage for your musical rise?

Béla Fleck: Well, when you look at my name it looks like that; Bela for Hungarian composer Bela Bartok, and Anton and Leos are derived from Czech composers Anton Dvorak and Leos Janacek. I know it sounds like I come from a very musical situation, but my mom and dad split up when I was a baby and my dad was the one who gave me all those musical names. He wasn’t around and I didn’t meet him until I was in my forties, so it was not a very musical situation until my mom got together with my step father, Joe Paladino, who was a cellist. He was playing a lot of classical music, but that didn’t involve me very much. Me and my brother Louie were music fans, and we loved the Beatles and being kids in the sixties, we got to watch all the musical bubbling in the music world so that all contributed. When I got my first banjo at age 15, I had already listened to a lot of different types of music.

PK: From the bios I have read on you, they say that in high school you had a background playing the French horn. Based on what you’re doing today, that doesn’t make much sense. I know that you briefly played the guitar before your grandpa got you your first banjo, but where do your Banjo roots begin?

Béla Fleck: I never managed to play the French horn. I got into New York’s High School of Music & Art by playing the guitar and they thought I was good enough to major in music, but i didn’t play a traditional instrument so they put me on French horn in sophomore year. But I couldn’t play the first note and I never played the first note. So I think it’s in my bio so I can be embarrassed over and over again while doing interviews. But they needed men into the chorus so they they stuck me in chorus and I was less of a failure in chorus than I was on the French horn, but all during high school I incessantly practiced the banjo that my grandpa bought for me when I was fifteen.

PK: On the Banjo Summit tour, one of the banjo players you are touring with is banjo legend Tony Trishka, who was actually an early teacher of yours. How did you manage to hook up with him when you were in high school?

Béla Fleck: Tony was the third teacher that I had, and he was the pre-eminent banjo player on the planet. For me to get to study with him in high school was a major turn of events for me. He was the me of then, that is the best way I can put it without sounding too egotistical. He was an edgy and modern player and he redefined the instrument. I got to be his protege and I tried to be exactly like him. Because he was a touring musician, it was hard to get regular lessons, so every few months I got to jam with him and I would watch him and he would point different things out to me and those jam sessions were very special.

PK: You made a documentary that is now available on Netflix called "Throw Down Your Heart," which is based on a journey you took to Africa, the home of the banjo, to trace its cultural roots. You have also mentioned that the perception of the banjo is that it’s a “cracker instrument” played only by white people in Appalachia and the South which has kept African Americans from embracing an instrument that was brought to America by their ancestors. Are you doing anything to bridge this cultural disconnect? What do you think can be done to put the banjo in the hands of African Americans?

Béla Fleck: I think it really comes out of this feeling that black folks wanted to distance themselves from that instrument by the mid 1900s because it was a symbol of slavery for a lot of people. Maybe a lot of it had to do with white people dressing up in blackface and singing about how great life was on the plantation. An alternative to the banjo came up in the 1960s, and that was the guitar, and the banjo was dropped like yesterday’s news. No one wanted anything to do with the banjo, and that was it. The white Southern side of the banjo is what saved it from completely disappearing. But I think groups like The Chocolate Drops are a good example of the banjo coming back in black culture, and I think that the banjo has lost a lot of stigma that it once had and it has become just a cool American instrument and I think it will start falling into all kinds of hands.

A starter banjo runs around $300, so if someone has the fire and really cares about the banjo, it is an option. When people hear the banjo, it turns them on, and that has to happen first. I’ve been playing with the Flecktones for the last 25 years with the funkiest bass player on the planet in Victor Wooten, and his brother who is one of the funkiest drummers and they are both black and when people hear our music they are exposed to the banjo and the unusual manner that I play it and I think they really like it. Lots of rock bands are starting to incorporate the banjo for a hip sound instead of it being a country hoe-down sound, and its coming back in country music where it was totally removed. I’ve played on Dave Matthew's records and that is also a good thing for the banjo. I think we’ve turned a pretty big corner.

PK: Your first recorded albums were in the late 70s and 80s when people could make a living selling records and CDs, but with the advent of the internet and the wide-scale disregard for intellectual property rights, the music industry has been turned upside down. How chaotic are things right now?

Béla Fleck: All of these things happen in cycles, so when I started making music in the 1970s and started making those records, the notion that I would ever make money on those records was so slim as to be literally impossible. I still have probably made little on those early records. If you sold a few thousand records, you were really doing something in that scene. As the years went by and I played in different bands, I didn’t really see a lot of record sales until I played with the Flecktones. That is when I started seeing 100,000 and 200,000 record sales, and that is 15 years after I got into the music business playing non-stop. And I did not get into the business to make a bunch of money - it was because I love the banjo and I love playing music.

I started to see some huge income coming - especially on the publishing side - in the 1990s. I was writing most of the music and $60,000 checks would show up and I was like, “Holy crap.” I never counted on that happening. Now record sales have dropped off again and if I have a 50,000-selling record that is considered remarkable, where that used to be a disappointment in the 1990s.

But if you go back to the 70s and 80’s, I considered selling 10,000 records a huge success. So I see it as a big cycle that goes up and down. The difference for me is that I’m not selling tons of records anymore but I’m drawing large audiences, and I don’t make a living anymore by selling records, instead I’m back to being a touring artist. That ten-year period where I made considerable income selling records was more of a blip. So many people got into music and it was kind of gluttonous, and now if your still in the music business where there is less money to be made, maybe it’s going to be cut down to a smaller number of people who should actually be making music rather than everyone and his brother. If you are going to be making music, you should be in it for life, not to just make a quick buck. You need to be in it for the right reasons.

PK: What would your tip be for a young person coming out of a top music school, such as my friend who is leaving The Berklee School of Music for a life as a touring artist?

Béla Fleck: I think they need to have realistic expectations and they need to have a cold understanding of where they actually stand in terms of their talent, and it’s a very hard thing to apply to yourself. Our society tends to train soloists. Even in the classical world, we train thousands of violin soloists, but maybe one violinist every several years has enough talent to rise to prominence. Most end up playing in orchestras or teaching, so they have to have realistic expectations. They need to ask themselves “Am I that top-level person?” and they still might not become that standout musician.

It’s the same thing with The Berklee School of Music - all these people come out with all these great skills, but most of the music they know how to play is worthless as far as making them a living, unless they are the one-tenth of one percent that get to make a living out of the abled people that are out there. And then you need to ask yourself whether or not you have the personality to be out there, because the lifestyle is very up and down. You can’t count on what your living will be like year to yea,r and you have to be able to market yourself, which isn’t taught at music schools. You need to know who you should be playing with and you have to be ready to tour incessantly, and that’s not for everyone. You have to know how to reach an audience and that is not something that is taught.

Most people coming out of Berklee, maybe they should go become a teacher at a school, or maybe music will be a part of their life that they do for love and they should find something that will make them money so it frees them up to make the music that they love. A reality check is an important thing to do, and it’s hard because everyone wants to live the dream and we are taught that if you dream enough and work hard enough you will make it but it’s just not always true.

PK: One of the benefits of being Bela Fleck is that so many artists want to play with you. You have been around the world and have played with many of the best musicians on the planet. You are in your mid 50s -- what is left out there for you with so much time for you to do what you want?

Béla Fleck: I’ve gotten to play with a lot more of the people I wanted to play with than I ever expected to, and in a way it took away that desire to go out and play with people to prove to myself that I could hang with the best out there like Chick Corea or Branford Marsalis or Zakir Hussein.

I’m starting to think that there is an unending number of people I would like to play with and I’m sure I will get to do a lot of that in the next period of my life, but I’m trying to look within and thinking about what I can create that comes from me and not always have it be about a collaboration.

For instance, my recent passion has been composing, and I recently wrote the first banjo concerto. I wrote a few with Edgar Meyer who is one of the best all-around classical musicians out there. With Edgar, I was able to co-write and watch how he did it and then eventually I did it on my own for the banjo and orchestra. It premiered last year and it is going to be coming out on a great classical label very soon. I was commissioned to write it, so I was paid a pretty penny -- so I was paid to do something I always wanted to do and now I’m going out and playing with different orchestras. That involves generating every single note and dreaming up a concerto instead of thinking about who I am going to be collaborating with.

I really like developing a classical repertoire for the banjo where I can play in a classical setting with different orchestras and groupings and composing is a lot of fun. I think it’s cyclical - some years I think I should be digging deep into myself and some years I should look for energy and influences from other talented people out there.

PK: Do you have any connection to popular music? Ever turn on your car's FM radio?

Béla Fleck: At this time, I would have to say none. There have been periods when I did, but lately when I started composing I would listen to a lot of NPR which plays classical music down here in Tennessee, listening for some inspiration. And the next project was with Marcus Roberts and his jazz group, so I started listening to the jazz station. Sometimes I turn on Lightning 100, but I can only listen to a couple songs because I’m completely bored by most of the music I hear, but that doesn’t mean that there are not artists out there that I would enjoy or if I’m at a festival that I wouldn’t hear something that I like. And I think there will be a time when I get more into popular music, but it’s not happening right now.

PK: You just mentioned festivals, and there has been a real spike in music festivals all over the country. What are some festivals you would suggest to people to check out?

Béla Fleck: I’ve always been a huge fan of the Telluride Bluegrass festival which is one of the best in the country. I like the Grassroots festival (Trumansburg, NY) and a lot of the same people who do Grassroots do another in North Carolina - it’s a nice blend of world music, acoustic music, and rock and I think that’s a beautiful way to go about it. It’s strange that jazz doesn’t seem to be part of those festivals, I’m not sure why. There are a lot of great festivals out there, and I keep finding out about more and more.

Austin City Limits is another great one if you like the huge Bonnaroo-style, 40-acts-a-day type of format. But sometimes I wonder if these mega-festivals hurt the attendance for music acts in certain areas for the rest of the year. When people spend big bucks to see a show with so many acts, do they have the money to go to smaller events during the rest of the year? Another drawback is that its sometimes hard to listen to music in the huge festivals with so many stages and music blaring but it’s a good way to get turned on to certain types of music you might now have known about.

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