A few years ago, a chance meeting in Washington, D.C., literally sent Lakecia Benjamin running across town in formal wear, saxophone in hand. The reason? A chance to play with Stevie Wonder. To hear her tell the story, it was a lucky break—that she made it to the venue, that the icon showed up as promised, that she had a chance to take a burning solo on “All I Do,” circumstances that provided her entrée to Wonder’s circle of musicians.
Benjamin is full of these kinds of anecdotes: serendipitous encounters with legendary musicians (trumpeter Clark Terry, bassist Reggie Workman, and drummer Rashied Ali among them) that have helped her, at 29 years old, forge an impressive career path. She tells these stories with a mix of humility and awe. But you don’t have to talk to her for long to figure out that her success is due in equal measure to her tenacity and hard work, traits that are coupled with a fearlessness to explore. When you hear her perform on Thursday, December 8, at the David Rubinstein Atrium, you, too will understand what has been immediately apparent to the musicians who have fostered her talent: that she’s truly special, an immediate standout.
Lara Pellegrinelli: Why did you name your band SoulSquad?
Lakecia Benjamin: As a kid, I thought it would be cool to have an army of funky musicians. And calling the band a squad is meant to reflect a communal feeling in the music.
LP: And what does the term “soul” means to you?
LB: It’s music that speaks to the African American experience. There’s always a direct emotional message. People need to get out their emotions, whether it’s happiness, sadness, frustration, or anger. And we create a free space to express those things in a positive way.
LP: Your formal education was in the jazz tradition. Was there a point at which you made a conscious turn towards funk and soul?
LB: I struggled with this when I released my album Retox . I thought: “I play jazz gigs. My CD is more funk.” I’d already been playing with pop artists and hearing people say, “Oh, Lakecia is trying to get over.” I finally had to come to peace with it. This is where music is for me. It’s undeniable when you hear me play that the jazz tradition is there.
LP: The New York jazz scene is often talked about a place where talent converges. It attracts musicians from across the country. What was it like to grow up here?
LB: It’s different when you’re in your formative years. There’s a common misconception that your mother will allow you to go to the Village and hang out with Art Blakey. You really just stay in your neighborhood until you’re a teenager. You don’t get to experience it. You’re in New York and, eventually, someone else tells you that this is where it’s at.
LP: And you’re from Washington Heights?
LB: Yes. I started off playing merengue. I love that music. The saxophone is like the drummer; it’s the only instrument that never stops. You play jaleos, four bar phrases that are the hardest four bars of your life. Crazy arpeggios, very exacting—like classical music.
I’m not Dominican, but my whole neighborhood was. For a long time I had no clue that I was African American or what that meant. We all looked the same, so I assumed we were all the same. The first time I met another girl with the name Lakecia was when I went to high school. She thought I was crazy when I asked if she was Dominican.
Honestly, that’s the beautiful thing about jazz: it’s still communal.
LP: After graduating from La Guardia High School of the Performing Arts, you went to the New School. What was the experience of being there like for you?
LB: Oh, boy. I didn’t like it. I was told I should drop out, that they didn’t think I would be a good musician.
LB: Those are the exact words.
LP: How did you push through it?
LB: I was already a disciplined person. It was very meditative for me to be practicing. I could practice eight hours a day and not think about anybody. I still didn’t see saxophone as a career. I just kept doing what I was doing as a kid. And then I got my first gig with [trumpeter] Clark Terry. He started a big band called Young Titans of Jazz.
Honestly, that’s the beautiful thing about jazz: it’s still communal. The other genres are not passing down a tradition. The top pop artists aren’t getting that from someone else. Even if they say Aretha Franklin was their mentor, they’ve probably never met her. They’re being bred in little jars of fashion.
LP: When I watch you, one of the things you have gotten from more popular genres is your stage presence.
LB: You have to actively engage people, not play at them. Music is a sharing thing. I play something; you feel something. I push it back to you.
LP: One of my favorite compositions is “Maceo,” a tribute to saxophonist Maceo Parker of James Brown fame.
LB: He’s one of the musicians who has really influenced me. I first got to hear him when I was sixteen. It’s so inspiring to see people appreciate instrumental music like that.
LP: I hear you’ve been working on a new project with producer Brian Bacchus. Can you talk about it?
LB: There’s been a theme behind some of the new material, a feeling that people are separated and energy is low. I wanted to make something that inspired people to move forward. One of the pieces is called “March On.” It’s not protest music, but it’s about taking control of your circumstances and how everyone needs somebody to help get you there.
Lara Pellegrinelli is a Lecturer in Music & Theater Arts at M.I.T. and lives in Jackson Heights, Queens.