A native New Yorker, Lakecia Benjamin has evolved from her beginnings as a saxophonist at Fiorello Laguardia High School for the Performing Arts, to working as a touring musician with Clark Terry’s Big Band, and in her current incarnation as horn section femme-fatale leading the Hot Spot Horns playing for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Alicia Keys, and Keyshia Cole. She has simultaneously transitioned into producing her own original works with SoulSquad, a group comprised of musical peers from her days at The New School University, which she hopes will showcase her writing talents as effectively as her musicianship, while establishing the sound she has lent to so many other artist’s recordings as something uniquely her own.

Photo By Deneka Peniston

When people think of horn players, particularly in jazz, they don’t necessarily refer to female musicians. Has there historically been a lack of influential women on brass & woodwind instruments or are there women who have pioneered over the years to little or no fanfare?

I think it might be a bit of both. In the 20’s or 30’s there was an all female African-American Big Band. There are the Sweethearts of Rhythm. In a big band there’s about 5 trumpets, 5 trombones, and 5 saxophones.  That’s 15 women right there. I think there have been a lot of women, if you really do your research.  With jazz in general, I think a lot of people neglect to do their homework. There have been a lot of women, but there has been a lack of education about female artists, particularly horn players.  It’s more common to see female musicians playing in the rhythm section or playing strings getting more attention.

Do you remember when you first decided to be a saxophonist?  How old were you and what really sealed your interest in that particular instrument?  A teacher, musical experience, recording?

It wasn’t a situation where I suddenly had the urge to play necessarily. I started playing the recorder in school at around 5th or 6th grade. I knew soon after that that I wanted to play saxophone, but there weren’t any available, so I waited a good amount of time to get one. I refused to play any other instrument they offered me, until saxophone was available. It was a dramatic thing for me at the time.

Are you married to the idea of playing within one particular genre or do you have a larger vision for your music and the practice of playing professionally?

I’m not married at all to any genre. I feel like music is music and there are so many different groups and circles of people I play with.  I started off playing salsa and merengue – Latin music.  I moved onto jazz. I moved from there into pop and R&B.  I’ve played folk music. Good music is good music, no matter what it is.  As a musician, I’m 100% behind all of it.

Which musicians would you list as your major musical influences?

I’ve always been a big fan of Maceo Parker, Jackie McLean, John Coltrane, Prince, Donnie Hathaway, The Police; there are so many different people I love.  Jimi Hendrix, Earth Wind and Fire. There are so many people that I’m into.

Has there been an experience since you began playing professionally that has defined your sound or direction more than any others?

It’s all a mix. One thing I have noticed from looking at my musical background is that my beginnings were in rhythm-based music with Latin music, which is all about the feel and the dance. Even though I have moved into different genres since then, I’ve never really been a classical saxophonist outside of my studies. That helped make me a more group oriented musician.  I’ve always been big on entertaining your audience, giving a good show, and maintaining your musical skill and degree of performance at a high level. A lot of people can play well but cannot necessarily keep a crowd’s attention.

While studying at the New School, you had the opportunity to study under some prominent and very respected musicians.  Do you think studying under veteran musicians in classroom situations was as beneficial to your learning experience as actually playing club dates and the like?

I think so.  I went to The New School of Music and essentially everyone on their staff is a legend. There’s Reggie Workman, Buster Williams, Joe Chambers.  I studied with Gary Bartz, Kenny Garrett, and so many other amazing people. The first group I started playing with professionally was a direct result of my association with that professional circle.  I heard about people playing around town or I would be invited to shows and eventually the other musicians would ask me to play with them.  My first gig was playing with Clark Terry’s Big Band.  No one at The New School got me that job, but they got me into the practice of going out to meet other musicians and I was able to meet him.  From there I started playing more big band. I played with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, The Count Basie Band.  I started playing with Joanne Brackeen, Rashied Ali, and it was something of a domino effect.  If you get one gig, people start hearing about you.  You just have to keep practicing.

If you were to explain your sound to someone unfamiliar with your work, how would describe yourself?

I would say whenever people hear horns they automatically associate the sound with jazz. I don’t care if you’re playing Funk, people tend to think it’s a jazzy sound.  I’ve been featured on albums with so many musicians who are not jazz musicians, and I still get the label of jazz even when it obviously isn’t; I could be performing on a Country album and people still refer immediately to jazz. With a horn you automatically get put into that category, so I had to examine it and I do feel like it is jazz in the sense that I am coming from a jazz background where my influences, like Coltrane and others, are pretty obvious in my sound.  It all depends, however, on the style of my sound from performance to performance.  I have my own band, which is more like a traditional R&B and pop sound. That tends to be more of what I write for myself, with some electronica and other influences added in. That’s what I refer to most to define my music.

How has the experience of performing with industry greats like Stevie Wonder, Kool and the Gang, Rashied Ali, and James Blood Ulmer informed your approach to live performance?

When I started, I began with Clark Terry who has always been a big entertainer – Rashied Ali and Cyrus Chestnut, as well. The people I have played with were all big on giving a good show. It becomes a whole different mind set once you move from more intimate venues to major arenas where people go crazy and you are able to experience a crowd of 10,000 people roar.  That gives an entirely different feeling to the act of playing live. It is a whole different concept of how to reach an audience on a deeper level. Even when it comes down to behavior on stage and little things like how to position my body, you really begin to see what grabs people and what doesn’t.

If you could, please talk for a moment about SoulSquad.  Explain the general concept behind the group and any musicians involved.

I went to The New School University and I feel like each college has it’s own clique of people that develop from that environment.  People are formed into groups at universities in the same way they were introduced years ago on the club circuit.  It has become the place where you begin to develop those professional relationships and realize who your peers are going to be.  We all got together in school.  Joe Black plays drums, Solomon Dorsey plays bass, Chris Robb plays piano, and Louis Cato plays guitar. The main concept is to have an outlet for my own ideas and sound instead of always trying to infuse those things into other people’s projects.  I’ve been writing songs and lyrics since I was about 13, and I wanted to put that out there.  As a saxophonist I feel like people are interpreting what I’m saying but there are no words, so it doesn’t necessarily convey my mood.  I made it a point to work with vocalists because of that.  We have an album called Retox coming out in the fall on Motéma Music. There are a lot of good people on the label. The project will feature myself, my band, and half of the album will feature prominent vocalists. The other half will be more instrumental, allowing people to get a good feel for my music as well as my writing.

Do you play any instruments other than saxophone?  If so, please talk a bit about that and what you’d prefer to play if you weren’t on sax.

I play all of the saxophones. I play the clarinet, flute, and piano. I have to say that if I did not play the saxophone, I definitely wouldn’t be a piano player or clarinetist. Those instruments, clarinet and flute in particular, are instruments you have to play in order to work in big band music. It’s essentially a requirement, and I vowed to myself that once I had finished working in that genre I would never do it again because I had to.  Working with keyboards came from needing to hear the harmony to be more in tune with the music. I love the keys, but if I had to play something other than the saxophone I would play the bass.  I have always been addicted to the bass.

A theme that occurs often in discussions with musicians is the lack of social and political commentary in music, especially at a time when things have become quite tense around the world.  Do you believe that there is anything musicians themselves can do to change the landscape of the industry in a way that provides more space for that or is it out of your hands?

It’s never out of an artist’s hands because this is the one artform that everyone is involved in.  I’ve never walked down the street and asked someone about his or her favorite musician and they respond that they don’t listen to music. I have heard people say they don’t like dance or art – maybe they don’t understand photography or painting, but no one says they don’t like music. Everyone has their genre and they use it as almost a coping mechanism.  There are songs for every mood.  I think people are afraid to deal with politics because it’s controversial. If done the wrong way or in a manner that mainstream society deems incorrect, you could actually harm your career. Whenever something is controversial you run the risk of running into someone with more power, especially if you’re emerging as a new musician, who can silence you.  I feel artists may be afraid to deal in that world because at this point we’re already in the position of essentially having to create our own careers.  We’re starting from scratch, so to deal in a business as dirty as politics means you run the risk of shutting your whole operation down.  If it means that much to you to make a message and stand for it, people are going to hear what you’re saying.  Everyone listens to music.  It’s a tricky business but if artists all decided to take a stand, there’s nothing anyone could really do about it.  What are they going to do?  Take music away?  There would never be a situation where there was absolutely no music. I feel like music is the strongest tool for social change. Even looking back at slavery, the first thing plantation owners did was ban the song and the drum because they realized very early how powerful those things could be as tools of liberation. Any great revolution in history has a corresponding era of music.

Growing up, were there any influences in your home life and general familial experience that really encouraged you to nurture your talent?

No. (laughs) When I decided to play the saxophone, I came home with it and got yelled at for bringing this loud instrument home. Saxophone in the beginning is not a pleasant thing, so there was two years of honking before it became bearable.  I came from a young family. My mother had me at a young age and it became a situation where I was listening to Count Basie and Mingus while she was listening to Tupac and Biggie. My grandmother was listening to Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, my mother was listening to rap, and I was listening to big band music.  It was an interesting thing because if my mother got tired of listening to Ellington, I would have to practice along to Arrested Development because that was all she would allow. Adding to that, I grew up in a Latino neighborhood, so out the window people were playing stuff like La Banda Gorda. It was pretty wild. My friends growing up were all Latino as well, so there were many different influences.

Having chosen to play a woodwind instrument professionally, it is easy to assume you’ve become well versed in many different musical genres and styles of playing.  Is there any particular musical tradition you make it a point to try to preserve or explore more than others in your own music?
I try to make it a point to focus on the styles between the 60’s and 80’s when revolution music was big.  There was Earth Wind and Fire and Kool and The Gang.  John Coltrane was making big statements. That was the time period of big statements in music. A lot of social injustice was going on.  There were a variety of things.  Some people were about free love. Others were saying fight the power.  Everyone was involved, from soul musicians to Janis Joplin. I think that everyone felt that was the time to stand for something. I feel like those decades have defined music up until now.  There are eleven year olds who know about Earth Wind and Fire.  I try to make it a point to deal with funk. I don’t think it has been accurately represented, so I strive to put that into my music. Many people don’t realize what funk really is.  You go to see Maceo Parker live, and that is actually funk. I try to encapsulate that sound in some of the songs on my album.  From Sly to James Brown, Eddie Harris, and Don Blackmon, there is a mix of influences.

What has been the most humbling experience of your career so far?  Is there anything about performing live or hearing fan reaction that really touches you?
I was on a tour in Kyrgyzstan and the entire audience began crying while I was playing a piece by John Coltrane called “Alabama.”  I was at the point in the tour when I wanted to go home. I was really tired of being on the road and couldn’t take it anymore.  Then all of the people began sobbing as soon as the song began and that really stayed with me. There was another time when I was playing with Stevie Wonder and he yelled for someone to play during the alto solo on “All I Do.”  I started playing and Stevie was really excited by what he was hearing and it was such a surreal experience, not only to be playing with someone like him, but also to see him so enthused about what I was doing. It’s hard to pick between those two experiences, but they were both great moments.

Do you spend any time as a teaching musician, and if so what is the most important message you try to convey to your students?

I used to teach at Jazz At Lincoln Center’s middle school academy and I have always felt it important for people, in any genre they’re playing, to deal with the history of the music. You’re always going to be yourself and sound like yourself because you have your own voice, but if you don’t do the homework required of your musical tradition, you won’t be prepared at the end of the day.  Get everything you can get from the records, learn everything about the history of the music, and have a good time. Buckle down in the practice room, that’s important, but never forget to have fun when you go out on stage. Have a good time, play, and meet new people.

Do you have any peers in the industry or on the performance circuit in NYC who have really impressed you lately or made you feel compelled to work harder at what you’re doing?

Yeah, I definitely do. I have really been into Chris Robb.  I love his album. I work a lot with Maurice Brown, who I also like. I have been really impressed recently by Radar’s lyrics.  Hopefully he will be participating in my album. I’ve known Igmar Thomas for quite some time, and seeing him grow from playing in Boston at Wally’s to his career at this point is pretty wild.  It is interesting to see people go from not having any gigs to working with some of their biggest musical influences. Sometimes it is hard to step back and look at the bigger picture because you have to work in order to eat, but if you have the chance, it’s a pretty amazing thing to think about.

Can you talk a bit about the experience of putting together your own project and what that particular recording represents to you?

The release is entitled Retox and it’s a collection of the last 10 years of my life; all of my experiences and sounds encapsulated in a bottle. As a musician you spend so much time working on other people’s projects, trying to make someone else’s vision come alive, that it is important not to forget your own. This was the first time I was able to sit back and watch parts of the creative process that I had never experienced before, like having to be in the studio for overdubs and vocals.  Mixing is huge. Things like getting the drums to sound right. I was forced to develop my attention to detail in order to get my own personal message across.

Is it true that you are currently bandleader for multiple bands or is that a tall tale of the Internet?

No. I’m not sure if that was confusion over the fact that I’ve been in so many different bands.  I have my band, SoulSquad, as well as a horn section that I run called The Hotspot Horns, which could be confused because the majority of the jobs we get are pop gigs. It’s a situation where we could pop up on television and someone could be under the impression that the band I’m playing with is really my own band, instead of my horn section playing with a particular band.  As a horn section we have our own projects in the works as well as standing gigs. We play for Kool and The Gang now, and we have played in the past for Talib Kweli.

What most impresses you about your fellow band members, both in practice and in performance?

I think the level of musicianship, most of all. Maybe because I didn’t grow up in the typical model of having played in church or playing to R&B records, I grew up playing with people who spoke a different language than I did and I had to take my cues in different ways.  It is amazing to meet people and hear the stories about how they became the musicians they are now. While I’m from New York, it’s a whole different experience to come from someplace else to New York City specifically to break into music, as your career goal. I never had to leave to go after the career I wanted. Knowing people who had to pack up and move here in order to accomplish their dreams – that drive is impressive.  In high school the teachers would warn us that there are people arriving in the city everyday intent upon getting our jobs.  I wasn’t very appreciative of that advice then, but as I got older I realized how serious it is for people in other places who are saving their pennies just to prepare to come here with the idea of taking over.

As you move forward in your career, what would you like people to remember most about you as a musician?

I would like people to remember the spirit behind my music. I try to be as truthful, honest, and raw with my emotions as I can possibly be at all times. Whether I am writing or playing on stage, my goal at all times is to give complete and honest emotion.

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Words by Karas Lamb

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