Matt Flinner is among the best of a generation of "postmodern pluckers" who regard the five-string banjo as far more than a folksy backup for cloggers, Clampetts or good ol' boy car chases.
In their hands this uniquely American instrument leaves the mythic realms of river boats, minstrel shows and moonshine to reclaim its identity in the roots of modern jazz.That's not to say Flinner doesn't know his bluegrass. At 22, he headlines with Powder Ridge, a "New Grass" group whose acoustic blend of country rock, soul, jazz and blues captured the blue ribbon of bluegrass at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival two years ago.
Last year Flinner won the National Banjo Championship at Winfield, Kan. - "the Wimbledon for pickers," said Steve Block, who writes a column on jazz banjo for the trade magazine Banjo Newsletter.
"But musically, Matt's on his way home," Block said. "He's steeped in (Earl) Scruggs, but his fingers are shot through with jazz."
Flinner, who moved here with his family as a child, is studying jazz guitar at the University of Utah, but only because the school does not consider the banjo worthy of academic pursuit. The banjo is his "primary instrument," and he insinuates it into compositions by such jazz greats as Charlie Parker and Thelonius Monk.
"Matt's as hot as they come. He's one of the nation's great pickers and he hasn't even started," said Dirt Band banjoist John McEuen, whose renditions of Bach etudes and "Mr. Bojangles" have become banjo standards.
The banjo, like jazz, grew out of black folk music. In 1781 Thomas Jefferson wrote of the slaves that "the instrument proper to them is the banjar, which they brought hither from Africa . . .."
Southern minstrels in blackface - one of whom added a short, twangy fifth string - strummed the banjo for both sides in the Civil War. Later, former slaves and soldiers toted it home to the farm and factory, and to the sod cabins and mining camps of the American West.
But blacks soon spurned the five-string as a musical reminder and parody of their past in favor of jazz, also derived from their musical roots. Dixieland and dance steps like the Charleston relegated the banjo, shorn of its fifth string, to the rhythm section, and the forsaken five-string took to the Ozarks and Appalachia.
Flinner credits folksinger Pete Seeger with bringing the banjo down from the mountain. But Seeger himself credited Earl Scruggs, a North Carolinian who almost single-handedly "invented" banjo technique and revived popular interest in the instrument.
In 1967, Scruggs' fast, fluent three-finger picking style reached millions on television's "The Beverly Hillbillies."
"Postmodern pickers - that is, post-Earl - are a different breed," said Block. "They developed a melodic style to pick out the melody note-for-note like a violin does. If you can do that on the banjo, you can theoretically do anything."
But the banjo's contribution to jazz is three-finger picking. While jazz guitarists mostly play single notes with a flatpick, jazz banjo incorporates bluegrass technique: rolls and that idiomatic fifth string.
"This is an exciting time," Flinner said. "I like the comparison to the time when the guitar came into its own, when tuning was standardized and when people like Segovia came along and started to write and render works of art for the guitar."
Something like that is going on with the banjo, he said. "It's gone beyond the province of parking lot pickers."