Beyond the Spotlight: A Conversation with Lakecia Benjamin

Judd Danby, a Lafayette-based composer, jazz pianist, and music theory teacher chats with GRAMMY-nominated alto saxophonist Lakecia Benjamin about her rise to the top of the jazz scene and her upcoming performance headlining Purdue University’s 2024 Jazz Fest on January 19, 2024.

Beyond the Spotlight: Lakecia Benjamin (a 4 part series)

Musical Roots

Judd Danby: Well. We are so thrilled to be welcoming here to Purdue Convocations and to our concurrent jazz festival alto saxophonist, composer, and bandleader Lakecia Benjamin. Welcome. 

Lakecia Benjamin: Oh, thanks for having me. 

Judd: So, we’re going to put together some conversation here, and I’m going to share some of your music along the way. Just to kind of help everyone coming into your show on January 19th get that much more out of it. So I wanted to, kind of jump in and have you talk a little bit about your musical pathway, and I just wanted to set it up with my own observations as I’ve gotten to know your recorded output and your biography. As I understand it, you have some deep roots with, you know, Dominican and other Afro-Latin musics from Washington Heights and New York. Obviously you’re immersed in funk, hip hop, R&B, all kinds of things. And if memory serves, your first album Retox came out in 2012, is that right? 

Lakecia: That’s correct. 

Judd: Super cool. And to me as a listener, it sounds like so many different musical threads are kind of in musical balance with each other. And there’s been this trajectory for, what is it, 11 years to to last year’s release of Phoenix, where while all of these different elements are still present, I kind of hear this is me as a listener. I kind of hear an album like Phoenix as maybe something that a marketer would more squarely be able to put in the jazz bin, if you know what I’m saying. So I’d love to hear your thoughts about all of those different threads that have played into your creative musical life and thinking and, what you think about that, what I said about that trajectory. 

Lakecia: Um, I’m not sure. I think the best way to answer the question that’s kind of not a question is I did start off playing a lot of merengue music and salsa music. Those are my upbringing. So, like my first time I got a saxophone, the first time I started playing, I was in an after school program and we were charged with playing block parties on the block. We were playing at the Port Authority station, the bus stations, the parks, all the Dominican parades. So it was kind of like our job. My early upbringings were just me learning how to keep people on the dance floor. And, you know, that style of music, there’s no way to stop that. I moved on to, I did get into jazz immediately. Next, I went to high school. I went to LaGuardia High School, which is a music and art high school. And there my director was, his name was Bob Stewart, and he was really big in. I guess he was right. Tuba player. Yeah, he was playing with Sam Rivers. He was playing with Nicholas Payton. He was playing with Greg Osby, him pretty girl, Richard Abrams. So there was a variety of the genres of jazz. 

Lakecia: So I when I got there, I became the lead alto player, and I didn’t know anything about jazz. So he gave me a couple of albums to check out in order to see if this was for me. It was John Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus Big Band, Duke Ellington Big Band, and Dizzy Gillespie Big Band

Judd: So nice. 

Lakecia: Yeah, yeah. I just happened to get those ones. He named those people. So my first one that I put on was Duke Ellington Big Band, first song Clark Terry solo. So I immediately was, you know I guess, caught the jazz bug. 

Judd: Absolutely. That’ll do it. 

Lakecia: Yeah. Went on, went on to college and actually like you mentioned you went to Rutgers, I went to Rutgers… actually it’s not in my bio. I only went for semester for history. 

Judd: Oh okay. 

Lakecia: I decided that, no way, I’m just going to go back to New York and try to figure out my path. So I went to The New School, and there I kept going with jazz. And at that point, I think we just had like a back and forth between. I started playing with Clark Terry, I started playing with Rashied Ali, but then I also started getting calls for like, you know, hip hop was starting to incorporate now bands coming back and live, especially live shows, that are choreographed, dancing around and having a good time. So all of those stories of how I got into it was a little, you know, adventurous. But I started playing with Missy Elliott. I started playing with Alicia Keys, I started playing with all these kind of hip hop artists and, uh, becoming like a horn section. So it was my job to, if you’re a young student out there, I’m in charge of the trumpet player and the trombone player in my section. I’m the one that gets us the gigs. I’m the one that pays everybody. I’m the one that decides the parts. I’m the one that gets the choreography together. I’m kind of like the sole domain of that. So from doing that, I kind of started adventuring outside of the hip hop world and more into the classic. I don’t know if you call it classic R&B and pop, but like more the Stevie Wonder range, the guys that were big time stars, but they know the music, they know the history and they come from the culture. And then from there, it just kind of you’re right. The trajectory kind of went on as I was doing these things, I was playing with Gregory Porter. I had already released like an album of mine, just to kind of get my feet wet, and I’m in the pop world, so I was kind of making it that way. 

Judd: Is that Retox

Lakecia: Yeah, Retox and Rise Up kind of have that… 

Judd: Okay. Yeah. 

Lakecia: …foundation, mainly because that’s what I was doing. 

Judd: Let me share a little bit of, of the opening track from Retox, which has the wonderful title “Soulsquad.”

[Clip of “Soulsquad” by Lakecia Benjamin]

“Ladies and gentlemen, put in your headphones and relax to the sweet sound of Soul Fly. Ha, ha! Ain’t that funky. I think I’m ready… to the bridge…”

Pursuing Mentors

Lakecia: Okay, so my next phase, I kind of think you’re right, in terms of that, I did start getting more into the classic jazz box. I think after you spend like, let’s say, what, six, seven years telling everybody, put your hands together, get on the dance floor. I started to get a little tired of the same thing over and over again, and I felt I was no longer – I was living a good life, but I was no longer challenging myself. I started going back to what got me started in all of this. What are the musicians that I really admired? And John and Alice Coltrane came up. Because of their, I guess, just excellence in music as musicians, but also their excellence as people. They’re known for being super spiritual, for being super about humanity. They want their music to heal. And I just think those two things together sum up what I’m trying to do.

So I started Pursuance with that intent and the process of it. A lot of the old legends that were people I knew, or specifically Reggie Workman, he told me that he had just got the NEA Jazz Master Award. So I was like, oh, cool, we’re going to totally celebrate. So I go down to The New School to celebrate with him, and then he just happens to lightly mention, oh yeah, when you’re 82, you can get it too. And I just can’t describe how that rubbed me so the wrong way that someone I know that played with Art Blakey, they played with John Coltrane, Alice Coltrane, all of these people, Dexter Gordon, is telling me he has to wait 82 years to receive a small award, a small amount to be submitted into history. So that kind of started me along the lines of adding more guests to the album while they were alive to show, I guess, to show a younger audience how the lineage of jazz is passed down. That is actually because of Ron and Reggie mentoring Regina Carter and Dee Dee all these people. It all goes down to me and my generation. So then I just hope that with the power and the force of getting all these people together, as people get interested in me as an artist, they’re forced to Google Ron Carter. Well, who’s Dee Dee Bridgewater? Well, Meshell Ndegeocello is here. I know funk music, but I don’t know jazz. So that was my goal to just kind of start. Leaving a legacy – like if I died tomorrow, I didn’t want the story to be incomplete of who I am as an artist. So that that’s what moved me next to Phoenix. You know, if you keep going down the spectrum.

Judd: And there’s some really beautiful things on Pursuance: The Coltranes, let’s pause and listen to just a couple of excerpts. So that is a really beautiful project. and I did want to before we get to the latest album, Phoenix, I wanted to ask you a little bit about one of the threads that I notice as kind of, different on the surface, as we might say, Retox and Pursuance are a common thread is that you bring in lots of guests. In many cases, perhaps, people who have been around longer, and are more experienced, whatever that, you know, that means a lot of things. But I was, I was wondering about because, of course, when we hear you on January 19th (2024), it’s going to be the quartet or the quintet?

Lakecia: Probably quartet.

Judd: Okay, cool. And I’m guessing that a lot of the elements, because you’ve got some tunes where there’s a fair amount of production value with, you know, spoken text being mixed in by recording. I’m guessing that there are some things you just can’t bring to the stage for practical reasons, right? You’re not going to have an entourage of guests with you. So I was a little curious for you as a musician; you’ve got that kind of recording thread and then everything that you do as a live performer, and they kind of create a counterpoint with each other in the sense that when you’re with your quartet, it’s probably a different kind of experience than having all those guests on different tunes. First of all, is that true?

Lakecia: In my opinion, I would say no, that there is some truth in the fact. Who wouldn’t want to see Patrice rushing? Who wouldn’t want to see Angela Davis standing there? Who wouldn’t want to see? So in that regard, yes, the magnitude of the presence of them is gone. But I also rap. And also in my Phoenix project, I speak the parts and I also rap the parts that I feel. And as an entourage, my keyboard player has keyboards and stuff. So we get the full production of what happens on the album. When we actually recorded it, even though it doesn’t sound like that, it is just the four of us in there playing. And then the guests with their parts on top. So it’s actually… we’re always a quartet for Pursuance and for Phoenix.

Judd: Great.

Lakecia: Yeah, so it’s cool. But you were one of the only people that actually noticed that even in Retox, I was still, I guess, frantic… let’s call it that.

Judd: I would say generous, but. Okay.

Lakecia: Yeah. I only recognize because of Pursuance now, but you’re actually one of the few people that can see. Even when I started off, this wasn’t a concept that really intrigued me.

Judd: It’s great. It’s great. Because I can imagine as a performer it’s going to bring some kind of a different, inspiration or something, I don’t know.

Lakecia: To me, it brings the best out of me. I’m not just recording. I’m in the studio standing next to Ron Carter recording. I’m having Ron Carter tell me. “Oh, you know what? Coltrane played it this way.” I’m having Reggie Workman say, “well, you know, he actually wrote this song for this person that we all knew.”

Judd: Oh, wow.

Lakecia: In the morning. So when he got up, you know, he always had a tea. You know. Okay. When when John came in the room, did you feel a presence? Oh not really. You know the things behind the artist that you can’t understand or like Terri Lyne Carrington. She’s someone that I respect her journey, respect her craft. So she if tells me “the solo’s not right,” the solo’s not right. You have a peer telling you that, then it can easily get into a debate. But from one of the things I admire about that generation is they used to tell all these stories of, oh they went to the jazz clubs and they sat in with Art Blakey, and that’s how they got the gig. And Monk was there, and we used to go to “Bird’s” house and practice, and these days we can’t do that anymore. I mean, COVID did a whole thing, but no one’s going even to see Ron Carter play. You have to, like, hone in on when you can see him. So I’m trying to find ways to recreate the way that they became great through these collaborations. So now we’re collaborating on the CD. But also, like when I get off the phone with you, I’ll just text Dee Dee, “how are you doing? How’s it going?” I’ll stay in contact now. I’m calling you every day asking, hey, I’m working on this. What do you think about it? You know, so I’m looking for mentorship within the collaboration and the guest aspect. So I only consider guests that I feel the mentorship will continue.

Judd: Fantastic.

Phoenix, Rising Up

Judd: So, we’ve all kind of encountered this, this incredible story of your terrible car accident as you were beginning to work on Phoenix as a project and first of all, let me just say, I am so glad that you have, you know, come back well and healthy from that. And I’m sure I’m joined by everyone else in the world to be glad for that. Selfishly, of course, we’re also lucky that we keep getting to hear your incredible music. But I was thinking about the double meaning of the phoenix. Right? We think about the rising again. But there’s also this idea that you’re rising from the ashes. And I’m a little bit interested to hear as you tell us about this project. If there’s anything from your creative past, your spiritual past, whatever it may be, that you would say was left behind in ashes, whether it was from the accident or not, or just the passage of time and what’s, you know, stayed with you.

Lakecia: Well, I mean, each project that I’ve had or just the kind of life I’m living, there has been a lot of adversity, like you said, you know, the first album came out in 2012. So even with the success we have now with Phoenix and the thing, you know, we’re totally blowing up the charts, everything, that’s a good decade of putting in the work and struggling to get record labels to hear me. You know, all of these projects I financed myself. I put the money together. I found the guests. I convinced everyone, you know, I’ve had even in the last year or two, 15 members of my family have passed.

Judd: Oh, my.

Lakecia: This idea of like, I guess a phoenix, when you think of it, just once, it’s bloomed and there it’s this beautiful, mystical, healing, powerful spiritual bird that is here to just help and enhance things. And as time goes, it keeps getting better and better. So when I thought of just the need for it to, at a certain point when it reaches peak to keep bursting into ashes and re-blossoming, I thought like, you know, imagine like the pandemic is going on. Music has shut down. I released this where I spent all of my savings on everything, and the whole world says, “take a break,” and then we start scoring and everything again. I’m losing family members day by day by day. I’m living in New York, where there’s refrigerated bodies of people everywhere – ambulances.

Judd: You had Wallace Roney on a track.

Lakecia: Yeah, yeah.

Judd: We lost him to the pandemic.

Lakecia: You know, everything is going on. Sirens are going on in New York. The sides that have riots, you know, everything is just happening in a chaos. And then we finally get into the summer where things start picking up a little bit and we start doing gigs. And on my fifth gig back, I wake up covered in blood in the middle of the woods with some guy dragging me to try to get me back on the main road, and no idea that that’s even happened. I just know that I’m bloody, being dragged through the woods. So I went from hearing like one of my favorite Kenny Garrett songs to that. Do you know? And I kept blacking out in the process and just waking up. Not sure was I going to make it. I remember asking the guy, “am I going to make it? And he told the ambulance driver to drive faster. That was his answer to me. And then when I finally get back. You know, my scapula’s broke, my ribs are broke, my jaw is broke. I’m missing a lot of mental, I guess, awareness. And to go from, okay, I think I’m back to I think I may have, I could have died, to I’m not sure if I’ll be able to play again because my jaw is now out of whack. To, now I’m going to record Phoenix. So I think I just wanted the listener, even when the way it starts off to see my process, I guess the world’s process. And just, when you get to the end of it, to just know that no matter what phase you’re in, in life, what time, what’s going on, there’s a chance, there’s a hope, there’s dreams. It’s possible. If you’re a young person, you know, you don’t have to go by what other people say is possible. There are people that told me I couldn’t get Wayne Shorter, couldn’t get Angela Davis. No way she’s going to get Terry to produce that. She’s so busy. And they’re all right here, and we’re all going to the Grammys. So I just want people to know, like. Stay true and give people a message of like. You know I’m doing the best I can. But that resiliency, we all have it as humans to keep going.

Judd: So let me share a little bit of the opening track (“Amerikkan Skin” from Phoenix). So as I listen to that the first time I thought, okay, sirens. And then we hear, you know, this spoken word about, revolution and things. But then I thought, as I got to know about you and I thought, wait a second, maybe those sirens really have a double meaning. And then as I was listening to it, it’s such a cool, you know, burning, not just in a trivial way. It’s this intense piece. And I started noticing I was I was hearing, like a little whiff of Ornette Coleman’sLonely Woman.” And I thought, well, I bet she was pretty lonely lying on that highway, you know, when she was awake. So I didn’t know if if you were aware of channeling any Ornette or anything like that, or…

Lakecia: You should really get like, the MacArthur “Genius Grant,” like you should just sign up for it right now. I want that song, “Amerikkan Skin.” I wanted to make my own version of “Lonely Woman.”

Judd: Oh, wow! Well..

Lakecia: I’m a big Ornette fan of him and Don Cherry and that song, just the kind of the tone it sets with the drone and everything, but it sounds like more is happening. That’s 100% what I had in mind for “Amerikkan Skin.”

Judd: It’s great. And it’s not like a okay, she’s stealing from, you know, it wasn’t anything like that. It was just like, holy mackerel, she’s in that Ornette space. And actually, I hear it again later on within “Basquiat.” Is that is that a reference to Jean-Michel the painter?

Lakecia: Absolutely. That’s actually a whole suite. And that’s just one part of it. But that is him.

Judd: But I hear kind of that heterophony that Miles (Davis) and Wayne (Shorter) had on Nefertiti. I mean, there are all these beautiful like wisps of, of I don’t know what you want to call it, influence or reflection or celebration.

Lakecia: “Awards, sir!” You’re the only person that has told me that.

Judd: Really?

Lakecia: And that is exactly how it came along. That’s exactly what I was thinking. Verbatim.

Judd: Let me share a little bit of that. (“Basquiat” from Phoenix) So I’d like to share a little bit of one more track, Lakecia. And it’s a beautiful tune from from Phoenix called “Rebirth”. Anything you want us to know about that before we listen?

Lakecia: That actually is the song, even though Phoenix is the title track of the album that exemplifies, I guess, the pain and the healing and the aspects I’m going for, “Rebirth” is the only track on the album that, before I came up with Phoenix, I was going to call the album Rebirth. Because I thought that that track and that song and that everything signified the message I was trying to give out, you know, the idea of being reborn. But then Phoenix hit me and I was like, oh, that’s so much cooler.

Judd: Well, it worked beautifully together, you know.

(“Rebirth” from Phoenix)

Let It Rip!

Judd: One of the things I found myself thinking the strangest thing, which is, you know, there was that period of time when a lot of newborn girls would get names like, I don’t know, Faith, Hope, Charity, stuff like that. And I’ve always thought a couple of things. One is I can’t think of any guys names that are like that, which is weird. The other thing I thought is, well, what about a name like Tenacity? Wouldn’t that be a cool name? And then it actually became my private nickname for you, I have to tell you. Because as I read about, like, the way your story is about even, like getting into playing the saxophone in school or pursuing teachers or hopping up on stages trying to get gigs. And then of course, more recently, all of those guests that you’ve pursued that you were telling us about. As well as obviously coming back from from a major, you know, physical thing like your accident. I just think Tenacious is really, captures it. And I was thinking about Fear, right? Isn’t it the opening of “March On” from Rise Up, where it says we either live our fears, or our dreams are our fears. Right?

Lakecia: Fear. Yeah.

Judd: And I was thinking as a as a jazz educator, I wanted to take a moment because we are going to have a lot of students attending and teachers. One of the things I noticed over the years was that the idea of improvising causes a lot of fear for young players. And I would always think about what’s my relationship to their fear and how can I help move them through that, learn from it, and get past it. And, you know, I’m going to guess that the many tenacious, things you’ve done over the years, you probably have sometimes felt some inner fears, because we all do. But what would you say to the younger players out there who are just getting to make this music about how to negotiate their own relationship, to being afraid of that, and moving through that, and learning from it.

Lakecia: I mean, that’s actually secretly why my songs keep bringing up that fear and pushing through, even though now I’m pretty bold and, you know, the appearance of it is I’m super determined. I’m never going to stop. Which is actually the case, but I started off completely afraid of improvisation. I was a good reader. I was a good scale player and, you know, by the book kind of person. And I had a professor that would not stop trying to make me solo and improvise what that means. So I was constantly in fear, scared, yelling, screaming, lashing out. Now, as I look back on it, I realize that not only was I scared because I didn’t really know what to play or who I was to express it, but I was afraid of the embarrassment. If I messed up, the others around me would bring it up. The fear is that what if Barbara thinks this is silly? What if she starts laughing and talking about me? And you need some time to build up that muscle skill of just constantly failing. So I would tell somebody, if they’re just starting and they’re scared of improvisation, especially in front of people, try doing it by yourself. And when I say by yourself, when you go to your practice schedule, if you’re doing 30 minutes of long tones, 30 minutes of scales, turn on Spotify, anything, YouTube, any type of music. A song that you like. And when no one is there, let it rip. I mean, play whatever you think you can play along with it. It could be the wrong notes. Right notes. Just make a pact with yourself and your parents. Things are gonna to get real in here. And so I mean, let it go. I mean, because I’m a firm believer how you practice is what you bring to the show and the rehearsal. So if you can get into a groove where it feels like you’re working your improvisation muscle. So you start off like, I’m not a very strong girl, but I practice my weights. I have 5lbs, 10lbs soon then you can lift more. Do as much as you can by yourself with these records, and then make sure you get a friend, a bass player friend, a drummer friend, and you guys have a pact. No matter what they think of us at school, we go and go home, and me, you, and the drums. And that’s what we’re doing. And there’s no wrong things here, you know? So create safe spaces, I say.

Judd: Nice. And how can teachers maybe help create that at a school setting? Any ideas?

Lakecia: I would say eliminate the wrong notes concept. I start out with teaching my students statements instead of all we’re going to do is on a pentatonic. We’re going to do this over a blues scale. Or we’re going to do this in B flat. We start off just with a rhythm and just… I wish I had a sax here to show. Just teach your student how to make a you know, you come out on stage, the whole world is listening. What do you do? You know, maybe you just go “bah baaaah bah.” You know something that the people immediately can feel. And I’ll play that with the student and have them play it back. Then we slowly keep doing that for a time so their ear starts getting better. They start getting more comfortable and don’t give them too hard of phrases, just one- two- note things. Then slowly add that into the blues going on just maybe in B flat, and then they usually have a little bit more, I guess, joy. Like if my students know they play “bom baah” and they know the class is going to go well. So make the class affirm with each person, each time.

Judd: Very cool. Well is there anything that you want us to listen for on January 19th? Anything you hope that we take away from your show?

Lakecia: Oh, man. I hope that we’re completely turnt up having the best time ever. I’m a firm believer that I’m here for the audience, not the other way around. So I’m looking to create a space where people can have a good time, they can have fun, that they can bring multiple generations and everyone can relate and feel safe and feel free to just let go. You know, I’m a pretty energetic entertainer, let’s say that.

Judd: Well, we are definitely looking, but more importantly, listening forward to that. Thanks, Lakecia, for taking the time and being here with us today, and we can’t wait to have you here on January 19th.

Lakecia: So cool.

Judd: Take care.

Lakecia Benjamin & Phoenix

2024 Purdue Jazz Festival

Headlining performance

Friday, January 19, 2024 / 8:00pm / Loeb Playhouse