Danny Barker and Bela Fleck are the opposite ends of the jazz banjo timeline. Barker is a survivor from the banjo’s first heyday, before the advent of the electric guitar; Bela has been credited with taking it to new levels, and introducing a whole new generation to the instrument.
Recently, both banjoists spoke with OffBeat: Bela, by telephone from the West Coast, two days after he performed on “The Tonight Show”; Barker, from the porch of his house a couple of blocks off St. Bernard Avenue. Barker and Bela’s paths crossed last November at the Banjo Institute convention in Tennessee. Both musicians participated in the convention’s “Banjo Meltdown,” a marathon showcase of five-string (and in Barker’s case, six-string) talent.
Bela said he was well aware of Barker’s position in banjo history prior to meeting him, and was familiar with his work by way of Barker’s contributions to Wynton Marsalis’ The Majesty of the Blues. Barker wasn’t really familiar with Bela’s work until a visitor screened Fleck’s Flight Of the Cosmic Hippo for him.
Though separated by 50 years, the two men share similar opinions on numerous subjects related to jazz and the banjo. What follows amounts to a side-by-side conversation with Where It Came From and Where It’s Going.
The musical compatibility between the two may not be obvious. But Barker was eager to hear Bela’s stuff.
He listened to Flight‘s first cut, the jazzy “Blu-Bop.”
“That’s wild…that’ s one helluva sound.”
Later, he added, “It’s a whole new approach to it. It’s going to make that instrument popular again.”
He asked for a copy of the tape.
Barker, 82, is the pioneer. As a child, his first instrument was the clarinet. He moved on to the ukelele, and made the jump to the banjo at the age of 13. For the next sixty years, he would alternate between banjo and guitar. Based out of New York and New Orleans, he played with many of the greats: Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Cab Calloway, Charlie Parker, Billie Holiday. As jazz grew up, he was right there with it.
He’s now regarded as one of New Orleans’ elder jazz statesmen, an originator of jazz banjo, and a keeper of the flame. His most recent album was 1989’s Save the Bones. He regularly performs at the Palm Court Jazz Cafe, and attracted a sizeable crowd at the Chicago Jazz Fest last month.
Why the banjo and jazz parted company:
“The banjo was an instrument that bands preferred to play with because you could tune it up and the band could be in tune with it. It was loose, and wasn’t strict, and you could give and take here and there, which you couldn’t do with a piano. With a banjo, you could march with it, and if you played it right, it had a nice tone to it.
“It was very vaudeville. You could dance with it, you could do tricks with it, you could twirl it. Get two or three banjos on the stage, they’d do a whole circus act with it. And it had a nice mellow tone to it.
“But with the coming of the electric guitar, the amplified guitar, there became a whole new sound in America; they’re always looking for something new. Then when they made the solid-body guitar, that wiped out the banjo.
“Musicians are always ready to put down something. They put down the banjo, and next went the tuba. When electric bass came in they wanted to put down the string bass. This is a put-down country. They’ll put you down in two seconds flat; before you can say ‘jack-sprat,’ you’re gone.”
Why he quit playing banjo, and why he was reluctant to become a guitarist:
“I stopped playing banjo in 1930, ’cause my banjo was stolen.
“And I was disappointed, because all the people I saw playing guitar were blind men on the corner with tin cups and kids leading them around, or them other cats that played for drinks, going around from bar to bar, telling about how rough the world was to them. That was my impression of guitar players.”
(However, he overcame his misgivings and went on to play guitar for eight years in Cab Calloway’s band, beginning in 1939.)
How he became reacquainted with the banjo:
“I went to work on this radio show, and the producer said, ‘Danny, you think you could play the banjo again? I got some tunes I want to do with the banjo.’ And I said, ‘Man, I haven’t played the banjo in 10 years.’ They said ‘If you don’t do it, they going to bring someone in here [who will].’
“So I went to this man’s shop. He must have had a thousand banjos hanging on the walls. I bought some strings from him. He said, ‘You play banjo? I don’t know what I’m going to do with these banjos, if I’m going throw them in the East River, or burn them up. I’m paying rent for these banjos. I’m going broke with these banjos. I can’t sell one, but there’s some wonderful banjos.’
“I went the next week and asked what he wanted for a banjo. I gave him $9. It had a split head.”
(The employee of another music shop nicknamed this instrument the “guit-jo,” because, unlike the standard five-string banjo, it had six, like a guitar.)
On Bela’s belief that modern jazz places too much emphasis on soloing:
“Everybody’ s learned their instrument, they got good training and virtuosity. I picked up a lot of mine, and it’s wrong…I don’t have the training. I’m not interested in being a hero. I do Louis Armstrong’s music, King Oliver’s music, New Orleans music. People who like black music will accept mine as such. I’m not out to impress anybody. But I’ve got some rhythms I play that other people don’t know nothing about.”
The negative impression some folks have about the banjo:
“I was thinking of getting me a square banjo, like a box, you dig? Some people look at it (his conventionally-shaped banjo) and get all disgusted, until they hear it. Other people are getting down on it, but they look like they’re disappointed. They don’t want to hear something from the [early] 1900s. ‘Where is he comin’ from? Give him a slice of watermelon, or some pumpkin pie.”’
On Bela Fleck and other players who stretch the boundaries of the banjo:
“These people are giving the instrument its due. Today man, these cats are virtuosos, and they going to bring the instrument up. I make a living with it, and I ain’t ashamed to play it.
“Now every time I look around, some of these youngsters want to get a six-string banjo. And I heard a couple of them on records playing some of the rhythms I played. They’ve got my records and they’re in the woodshed, ’cause it juices up a band.”
Some final thoughts on Bela:
Barker examines a group photo of the Flecktones.
“That’s the boys that work with him?”
He gestures to the tape deck; Flight‘s seventh track, “Jekyll and Hyde (and Ted and Alice),” is pouring from the speakers.
“Put this on a little louder. I’m enjoying that.”
He points out Roy “Future Man” Wooten’s striking headgear.
“I need to get me one of them hats. I got me one of them coats in the backroom, like a military coat, and I’m going to get a hat like Napoleon. All that’s show business.”
He turns to his wife, who had joined him on the porch. “I wonder who could make me one of these hats?”
The Flecktones are not your typical group, his visitor observes, musically or visually.
“Well, that’s what it’s all about. You don’t just stay on the plantation with it all the time, or the steamboat. You go into the concert halls with it, and that’s what these people are doing. They’re going to make fabulous money, and that’s going to help me, ’cause I’m coming out looking like Napoleon.”
Fleck, 32, the innovator, is something else entirely. He, too, picked up the banjo early on, but found himself drawn to the bluegrass music of the Appalacians. He would eventually record for Rounder Records as a solo artist, and he played in several bluegrass and folk groups, most notably the New Grass Revival.
But his formative years had also exposed him to jazz, from Charlie Parker through Chick Corea, and he yearned to merge that influence with the banjo. After forming the Flecktones in 1988, he got his chance.
Bela Fleck and the Flecktones released its second Warner Brothers LP, Flight of the Cosmic Hippo, this summer. Like its predecessor, the recording is decidedly modern, a seamless instrumental fusion of jazz, bluegrass, funk and classical influences. Fleck and keyboardist/harp player Howard Levy dance over the rhythmic punch of the Wooten brothers, bassist Victor and percussionist Roy. Flight hit number one on Billboard‘s Contemporary Jazz chart in September.
Fleck and company are touring the country, spreading the 5-string gospel. They performed for several thousand at this year’s New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival.
Why the banjo faded out:
“I think that banjo was the rhythm instrument in jazz because it was loud, and you could hear it without microphones. But once the guitar got electrified, it became the instrument of choice and all the banjo players became guitar players, and nobody played banjo anymore. I think it was a volume thing.
“I’m really into the fact that banjo was a jazz instrument originally, and people don’t seem to realize that around the country. They say that I’m bringing the banjo to jazz, and I’m going, ‘No.'”
Problems with modern jazz:
“One thing that is a little bit disturbing about contemporary jazz these days is that so much of it is basically a rock rhythm track with one guy soloing on top, and no interaction. Interaction, to me, is one of the main things about jazz. It’s not the soloist, it’s what happens underneath him and how it all works together.
“It’s like a new thing, separating it out, and you might as well buy a generic rhythm track and then do some hot soloing on top of it. It’s like something that’s been pre-thought out, not something that just happened in the studio, or just happened to the musicians.”
On meeting Barker at the Banjo Institute convention:
“I met Danny and I told him I play jazz, and he said, ‘Oh, is that right?’ And I played him some stuff I had learned, some John Coltrane and Charlie Parker stuff, and he got real excited about it.”
His reaction to rejection by major jazz labels:
“I was surprised when a lot of the labels didn’t take us, to tell you the truth, because the record was a pretty big statement, I thought, and I knew that there were labels that would take it. But I wanted to start out with a major jazz label. When they didn’t hear it, I was a little surprised and I started to wonder, ‘Maybe I’m wrong, maybe it’s not what I thought it was. ‘
“My dream was to be on a major New York or L.A. jazz label. I figured there would be more validation in being in the center of it rather then coming through the back door. But I ended up being completely wrong. (Warner Brothers’ Nashville office) ended up being the ones who were still excited and interested in the project after the big New York/L.A. guys said, ‘No, I don’t think it will go.'”
Why he doesn’t dress semi-formally for gigs:
“If you’re going to wear a coat and tie, you better be Beethoven, because people are going to get bored if you’re not. Maybe I’m not heavy enough to wear a coat and tie, but I think the music I like to play is fun and exciting and challenging…and serious. That’s the way I like to play it.”
Is jazz ”the best” music:
“I don’t make a differentiation in level. It’s like bluegrass and jazz, neither one of them is better then the other. No idiom is better than the other, and jazz is an idiom, just as bluegrass is and Irish music is and so forth.
“It’s a very complex idiom, but it’s still an idiom. A lot of people think it’s the Holy Grail of music, and maybe it is, cause there’s more history and so forth than a lot of things, but that doesn’t make bluegrass or Irish music or Indian music any less.”
On what he’s doing for jazz:
“What’s interesting is I think we’re exposing a new audience to jazz. We’re exposing a bluegrass and acoustic music audience that likes the Grateful Dead…we’re exposing those people to jazz, and they’re digging it.”
The bluegrass/jazz connection:
“Earl Scruggs (perhaps best known to the masses for the “Beverly Hillbillies” theme music) kind of revolutionized 5-string banjo, and then sort of an evolution took place with 5-string players, starting with Earl. Each banjo player would come along with new innovations and a lot of great players came along and brought it to new levels.
“Eventually they all started wanting to be able to play jazz, because all the most highly-evolved banjo players in bluegrass understood that jazz was really hip and thought that they should be able to try and play it. And there’s some really great players.
“But nobody’s really quite made the headlong jump into jazz, trying to do it legit, that I know of, before me.”