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Béla Fleck on Classical KC: Blurring musical lines and unexpected success

Béla Fleck.
Courtesy of artist
Banjo player and composer Béla Fleck.

Legendary banjo player and composer Béla Fleck has been a cross-genre leader for decades. Brooke Knoll speaks with Béla about first taking the banjo into orchestra rehearsals, improvisation in classical music and performing in Kansas City with his band of over 30 years, the Flecktones.

Scroll down for some online-only bonus content to find out what orchestral standard Fleck is currently adapting for the banjo.

The singular musician Béla Fleck brings his group The Flecktones to Kansas City on June 12 for a performance at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts.

With Howard Levy on harmonica and piano, Victor Wooten on electric bass, and Roy "Futureman" Wooten playing a homemade "SynthAxe Drumitar," the Flecktones are a quartet unlike any other.

When the group formed in Nashville in 1988, did Béla think it would last?

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones
Courtesy of Artist
Béla Fleck and the Flecktones

"No," Béla jokes. "I have stayed the course all the way. Howard left in 1992 and came back in 2010. It's been great having him back and we've kind of gotten back to the original concept of the band, which was these four kind of inventors on their instruments, that have found completely unique ways to play their instrument."

"It was the reason for the band in the first place, to put this bizarre group of people together and see what we could do musically."

Bringing together a myriad of musical combinations is not unusual for Fleck: His most recent project combines the Indian tabla rhythms of Zakir Hussain and the fluid bass of Edgar Meyer with Fleck's banjo playing.

Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain
Courtesy of artist
Béla Fleck, Edgar Meyer and Zakir Hussain

And while the banjo doesn't fit into the traditional definition of classical music, Fleck's life has been shaped by it — literally. He is named after famous composers Bartók, Webern, and Janáček: Béla Anton Leoš Fleck.

With all his classical music chops and cred, he welcomes a return to classical music's improvisatory roots.

"We don't expect classical musicians to be able to improvise, but when [classical music] was new, everybody improvised their own cadenzas. You'd play the piece, but you'd play a solo and you'd have to come up with your own stuff just like any jazz musician would do today."

He is an established and respected crossover classical artist, having worked with major orchestras around the globe, but that wasn't always the case. When he first started bringing his banjo to orchestra rehearsals there was some "doubt" and "skepticism."

"I could just feel there were some question marks. And so what I would do is try to be so on top of my parts that from the first note of the rehearsal, I would set the stage for the level I was hoping for.

Inevitably, Fleck won over those skeptical orchestra members with his musicality.

"[They] would jump to attention when I showed that I knew what I was doing, and they were intrigued and by the end. There were a lot of people thanking me, but, you know, not in the beginning."

At this Kansas City performance, Fleck is confident old and new fans will have a great time.

"We are gonna be playing a nice set of songs from different periods in our career. There'll be some things that people want to hear, some of the standards of the Flecktones, but we'll also be hitting some stuff from different periods...a pretty nice, diverse set we've come up with. So, yeah, we'll be rocking it out."

Béla Fleck and the Flecktones performs at the Kauffman Center on June 12 at 7:30 p.m. Find out more at

You can learn more about Bela Fleck at

Bonus Content
What is Béla Fleck's next musical passion and how is he translating a 100 year old piano showpiece to the banjo? Find out in this special online only content.
Béla Fleck performs a banjo concerto

Sam Wisman is a Senior Producer for 91.9 Classical KC and a backup announcer for KCUR 89.3. Email him at
Brooke Knoll is the digital audience specialist and afternoon host for Classical KC. You can reach her at