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Lakecia Benjamin rises up from injury, loss and adversity to address the humanity in all of us

Lakecia Benjamin
Elizabeth Leitzell
Lakecia Benjamin

My very first introduction to Lakecia Benjamin came in an electrifying blue CD that made me perk up immediately. I had never heard of or seen her before, but I was absolutely intrigued. That was in 2012. Since then, Lakecia has been lighting stages up worldwide, celebrating jazz legends like Alice and John Coltrane, all while leaving her mark and a lasting impression with every audience that she plays for. Lakecia is back with a new record Phoenix, an album that takes you on a journey of her life which has seen its fair share of tragedy, with Lakecia herself in a car accident that nearly took her life. The album features legends such as Angela Davis, Sonia Sanchez, Patrice Rushen, Wayne Shorter, China Moses and Dianne Reeves and is produced by Terri Lyne Carrington.

Lakecia and I talked about her journey, from that first album (she says she never planned on doing another) to this new one, and the experiences of life in between that were the blueprint for Phoenix, which was released on January 27.

Watch our conversation here:

Interview Transcript:

Nicole Sweeney:  Being a young girl growing up in Washington Heights, there's a lot of music there. What was your first experience with the music that we lovingly call jazz?

Lakecia Benjamin: Jazz actually started for me at a LaGuardia High School. I had auditioned to get into there, and at that time in New York, they were sending people to their zone schools. And my zone school was a little rough around the edges, so my parents recommended that I audition for the performing arts school and then all of the academic schools. I got into all of them. But Bob Stewart, the great tuba player who used to play with Howard Johnson, Nicholas Payton, Steve Coleman and Sam Rivers, auditioned me that day and I played Charlie Parker's “Yardbird Suite.” I played some classical piece. After he heard me, he said, “You know, I think you sound great. You can read well. Have you ever heard of jazz?” And I said, “No, I haven't heard of jazz.” He said, “What have you been playing?” I said, “I'm from Washington Heights. I've been playing in the reggaeton bands up there, doing gigs.” And he said, “If you could learn to play jazz, would you do that to be in the school?” I said, “I’ll do whatever you say.”

He gave me a list of people I should listen to. And if I liked that, then I should come to LaGuardia. He gave me Charlie Parker, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane. Those were the five that started me. I turned on Duke Ellington first. I loved it. I called him back [and] said, “I'm gonna go to LaGuardia.”

Wow, you can remember which one you listened to first. That's how fresh those memories are. We often talk about how we want to bring the music back to the youth and to the schools, because I do believe that kids will have that reaction.  They'll hear something and it sticks with them. You are another reminder of just that.  Now you have had some amazing mentors. I understand you and Gary Bartz are cool.

I was a big fan of his new group and I’ve Known Rivers and Other Bodies and other albums. At that time I was at the New School, and if you pass out of a proficiency, you can easily pick your teacher that you want to study with. I decided at that early age to start reaching out to all the alto saxophone players that I admired. I found him, went to his gig, and told him, “Could I study with you?” He kind of blew me off and I kept finding him days and days and days after. Eventually, you know, it worked out. We started working together and then I said, “You know, the New School might be able to pay you if you wanna stop making this for free.” So, that's how it started.

Now you have to talk to me about Clark Terry, Mr. Mumbles. I feel like your resume has some heavy hitters on it before it even really began, which is just so amazing. Was Clark as cool as he seemed?

My idol. I was listening to his albums, like Mumbles. I was listening to The Oscar Peterson Trio Plus One, all that stuff with Clark and learning his solos. He called me and said he was starting a new band of young people and he wanted to audition me to see if I could be a part of it. He said, “Do you know where New Jersey is?” I said, “No.” He said, “Well, here's the address and you need to get here before 8 pm tonight if you want to be in the band.” I called one of the little gypsy cabs and I got $20. “Can you take me to this address?” They took me down there and his wife Gwen opened the door, we went down to the basement and he had a music stand, a chair and some music on there. And he was sitting on the side and I told him, “I don't want to be going to no guy's basement.” And he said, “Don't worry about that. You know, just play this song.” He counted it off fast. I played probably the first 20 seconds. He stopped me and said,” You're hired.” I said, “That's all you needed?” He said, “Yea, now we can just play some songs together.”

Lakecia Benjamin Plays Alice Coltrane's "Prema"

So that's how it went. I love it. Talk to me about the seed that planted the idea of Phoenix, this new album.

I think out of all the albums I've done, this is probably the most personal to me. It was September of last year when I was in a car accident. I broke three of my ribs, I broke my scapula, I fractured my jaw, I perforated my eardrum, and I totaled my car. I literally woke up in the woods to some stranger dragging me out of the car. When I went to the hospital, they didn't know if I was going to make it or not. At the time I had started writing the new album, I didn't have a name for it or anything. But I think that experience of just all the hardships we go through in life and just like not knowing.

I was coming from the Tri-C Jazz Festival. I literally played a great set, had a good time, and four hours later I was potentially dead. I guess I wanted to highlight not just that one experience I had of being able to overcome that and still keep going, but I feel like all of us, especially as artists, we overcome a lot of “No’s.” We overcome a lot of finding a way to present the music ourselves when people don't want to give us a chance. I guess I wanted to highlight that type of resiliency we all have and just even in this time of the pandemic and everything. As a people, how we all find a way to keep rising above.

I do remember that because Lakecia and I follow each other on social media. Social media could be a real crazy place.  But I also find it a place where I can keep up with my friends and musicians that I don't get to see. I honestly feel like I remember a time where you were just kind of getting hit. And just hit again. And then hit again. I wonder how people even rise up from something like that. 

During the pandemic, I lost 15 of my family members. On my mom's side of the family, we are the only two left. I just think that there's a lot of time, as artists, we don't say [anything about that loss] because we just post the glitz and the glam. I feel that we all, as a people, can just identify with needing to have some kind of music to soothe that type of pain and soothe that type of experience. Whether you're partying through it, whether you're dancing through it, whether you're just meditating through it. I feel that we don't address sometimes the humanity in all of us.

Your song “Rebirth” is a tribute to family. Talk to me about naming it. That and it being a tribute to the ones who have left us. 

Well, my younger sister is someone I lost back in 2013, so that was a huge low for me. We are only four years apart, and I just felt like I wanted a song that started from a low place, but showed how bright things could get. I felt like we do a lot of talking about uplifting yourselves, but not a lot of coaching each other through the process of that. It's easy to say, “Make your dreams happen.” It's really hard to say, “Let's make a game plan together to get you to where you wanted to go.” I just wanted this music to kind of hold people's hands and say, “Let's go through it.”

You mentioned your sister, which leads me to mention the amazing women on this album. You’ve got some of the most spiritual women walking on this earth today on this recording. I'm talking about Dianne Reeves, who I call one of our greatest storytellers.  I think Dianne can sing a song out of a children's book and change it like no one else can. Talk to me about getting Dianne Reeves and your relationship with her.

I felt with this project, there was only a certain amount of women I knew or certain people that I was going to have to seek out and petition them for appearances. I didn't want Terri to have to do that. I wanted to show I could hold my own and reach out to these people. I had written this song with her in mind, the lyrics, everything. I figured she's always someone I wanted to work with. We only had one experience working together. I think I worked with Terri in Chicago once and you know, Terri always has like 15 stars playing. Dianne Reeves was one of them. I've always been a big fan of how she scats and how she tells a story. I felt that there's no harm in just asking and telling her what I'm about, what I'm trying to do, how much I have, how much I'm willing to get, and can she be a part of it.

She was from the beginning the most pleasant person ever. She never made me feel beneath her. She never made me feel like she's on a grandstand and I'm trying to reach out to her and just get to where she is. She was honest. She was open about what she could do, what she can't do. When I was stuttering trying to figure it out, she said, “How much you got?” She moved me along. I felt that old tradition of the ones that have come before making a way for you. She made that process simple for me. Even when she was in the studio, she was very keen on what do you need. I was really blessed to have someone with that kind of spirit, and when it was all over, she looked into the camera, said, good luck.

Lakecia Benjamin Phoenix EPK

This album is produced by Terri Lyne Carrington—drummer, educator, one of the most badass women on this planet. Talk to me about you two and that relationship, because when I think of someone like Terri Lyne, I think of two women that are inspiring other people, not just a particular gender. Terri Lyne has a way of embracing the women of this music like no one else really does.

My first interaction with Terri actually came because I was a special guest on Charenee Wade’s Gil Scott Heron project. I think she had heard me featured on ?? Essex, and she reached out to someone [who] gave her my email. I contacted her. After that, slowly but surely, she just took a chance to call me for a gig. But for this particular CD, as I was thinking throughout 2021, I was feeling that I wanted to do something different, feeling that I have gone as far as I can go on my own. I needed someone that was going to force me to get out of my box and get out of the normal things I'm thinking and push me to a place that's better.

I reached out to Terri. I said, “Hey, I've got this project. These are the things I'm looking to highlight and feature. Are you interested?” She liked what I was talking about, but wanted to hear the music. I sent her an email with the music. She wrote me back a long email saying, “That sounds great. Let me know when you have it together.” I took that as a sign. That this is not together because I sent all the music. I went back to the drawing board and I said maybe I'm not pulling enough. Even through the process of recording and through the process of really editing and figuring everything out and placing things, because there's a lot of very produced things, I really feel like she forced me to be my best self.

If I played a solo, she was like, “You gonna do another take? That's not what we're looking for.” I really felt the pedigree. When you're dealing with a prodigy, they have seen it before. Her father was a sax player. She really forced me to move to a higher level. I don't think I could have done this whole project without her.

There seems to have been a level of trust that you already had with Terri Lyne to even have her guide you in that way.  Because certain musicians would say, “Nah, I know what I'm doing.”  But you seem to have put all your trust in her hands in a sense.

At first, I think that's what a producer is, but I also think it takes a lot of humility to realize when someone is better than you, when someone has seen more than you, when someone has accomplished more than you. And Terri is someone like me that strives to be genreless. I knew that whatever she was telling me from was from a place of understanding and having been there. I feel like if you've gone so far and you've done everything your way, you've gotten all you can get. So what is the harm in trying someone else's way?

I want you to explain to me and really to some of our listeners that might not understand because you've got the amazing Sonia Sanchez. 

We picked that particular haiku that she'd already done because I really felt it spoke to some of the problems and injustices that we have going on now. It's a shame that it was written so long ago. I felt somehow on the album, saxophone can be open for interpretation. I play a song like “Rebirth.” It can be happy, it can be sad, it can be friendly, it can be a dance song. Something about speaking your truth so there's no question of what we're talking about or where we're coming from. Even throughout the whole album, I wanted to keep reminding people what direction we're going. I was almost trying, with the sound effects and everything, to paint a picture of the mindset I was in and take you through like an audio book of this is what's going on, this is what's happening.

I wrote one song, each month of the year. It took me a year to get through it. I wanted to show the listener, this is what was happening for me each month during this pandemic, each month of my rehab, each month of the recovery. They could see from women and people that have experienced life in an extraordinary way.

There's no one that's experienced poetry or just how hard life can get like a Sonia Sanchez. All of these women—Patrice Rushen, Dianne Reeves—all have their own story of what it took to just get even the mainstream media to listen to what they're doing. How long did it take Terri Lyne to have a place? I wanted to show that that journey of what it means for someone like Terri Lyne to never give up and be where she is now versus when she started, when people were looking, but they were looking through their peripheral.

 Now I'm glad you mentioned Patrice Rushen, who I feel like over the past few years on social media, I've been seeing her name more, which I love. I think there's even a TikTok about, “Forget Me Not.”  Where did you get Jubilation from? I feel like not many people are aware of that album, her second. That brought such a smile to my face because so many people they think of “Forget Me Not” and the R&B songs that we all jammed to back in the day.  But Patrice Rushen is a musician's musician.  I'm so glad that you grabbed her and we can give her more love and flowers. Did you call her too?

I did call her. I mentioned that I was interested in working with her. She, like everyone that's a guest, I had in mind from the beginning. They were the first people I wanted, so that was my first tier. I'm starting out with someone that's genreless and someone that's done a lot and only part of her career I feel like is highlighted. I'm not even a generation away and I spent years hearing “Forget Me Not” at the party. I found love. I've been right there jamming on the late nights. I'm a big fan. But some of the first things I've heard of her is when Joe Henderson was on that record, right? I was a big Joe Henderson fan, and I was researching albums where Joe Henderson was playing the leader. I found this and I said how is there a woman that's on that album Jubilation?

I wasn't intentionally trying to highlight other things she did, but I think just because I am an instrumentalist, that's the side of her that speaks the most to me. Like when my first time seeing her livr was her killing a Keytar solo running around the stage. I think I picked the songs based on what I had in mind for the guest.

Of course, I could just have her sing something and we try to come up with some catchy pop thing. And I wasn't looking with this album to try to draw eyes in order to raise my Spotify hits or to potentially get nominated for this or that. I was looking to bring awareness to all of the things that these women have given and to the things that we are overlooking.

I feel like in this song, this woman has a song like this, that you could even sample this joint. Oh yeah. You know, this is a remix. And I just felt like, how does anybody know about this song? And it's my favorite song of her. So that's how I reached out to her. I said, I have this, this is what I'm trying to do. This is the record I'm trying to make. I want people to see. Even though you're already bigger than day, I feel like you should be bigger than that. If can do anything to help, that's what I wanna do. I feel it's my generation's responsibility to do that. That's how it started and she was really open to it. She was super sweet about it. Maybe it's the Libra nation, I don't know.

We women support each other. For those of you guys that think we're always fighting, there is such a level of support between women that I love, even women you don't know.  You'll walk by and you'll be like, “Go ahead with your yellow shoes on.”  We really have a love for one another and I'm glad we can really like with Patrice Rushen and Dianne Reeves and even Georgia Ann Muldrew. Let's chat about her real quick because that's another name I think more people should have on their tongues.  She is other worldly. How did that come about? Did you guys know each other beforehand? I could see you two being like cousins.

I guess the jig is up. She's not my cousin, but she is my best friend. I knew about Georgia before there was a Georgia. I guess that's why I'm constantly highlighting her. But I feel like in terms of even someone that's taught me how to produce, how to deal with wanting to get out the jazz world and produce more hip hop tracks or just how to function that way. That was where I got all that stuff from. The reason I can play all my instruments sonically is because of Georgia, her family going to their church all the time, helping her mom singing with me.

I feel like she's someone that is extremely underrated, even in the hip hop world when she was in Stones Throw, that's already an underrated underground thing. I feel that I wanted to highlight her because she doesn't get highlighted enough. But I also thought on the title track, she knew personally what I had been through. She knew personally what the year had been like. I was like, “Who could give me this type of vibe?” There are not many singers that come from that super spiritual direction that they're always praising God. Sometimes, even when I'm looking for a vocalist, there is no other person that I can think of but her. That was my main reason for her. We do have a super personal connection.

We're going to give some props to some of the men on this recording, because you've got one of the best. To think that we still have a Wayne Shorter on this earth with us. And you got him on the album. You called Wayne too?  Lakecia, I gotta know. Give me your phone and send me every contact you've got.

Sometimes I don't have the contact info. I spend a lot of time pursuing those 45 or so guests. I just hunt people down until I get a “No” and then keep on pursuing. I had a couple of people in mind. I actually called Sonny Rollins as well. I was looking for someone, not just an elder statesman. I was looking for genderless people. They work with any gender, any time, any art form, and they're beyond space and time. And someone that could leave a message, almost like if the younger generation was listening, this what you need to be hearing.

What could they say and who has that clout and that respectability that their word is bond? That's what I was looking for. That's the reason it came up. Also I felt that I'm glad that he's in good health right now. I feel that we need to highlight more people while they're here before something happens. I feel that he's moving to the later years of his life. And I wanted to do something with him while it could be remembered.

What I love about that is that you have his words, right? Because as musicians we always wanna hear the notes, but how important is it to hear the words from their mouths in their 80s and 90s?  The wisdom that's priceless.

I remember when the pandemic started, I was still on Pursuance and Reggie Workman had to arrange the chat. There are like 500 people of us on this zoom with Sonny Rollins just talking to us. And if you asked the question and you got it through, he would just answer that. And that conversation went on for two and a half hours. It made me think that these people have libraries long enough, we don't hear another note.

I got one more question for you and it has nothing to do with music.  Where do you get all your “fly” outfits from? It's hard to keep your eyes off of Lakecia when she's playing or even when she's not. The shoe game is all that. Is that something from Washington Heights?

No, it's not really a Dominican thing. Clark Terry told me best: “They see you before they hear you.” I always feel like if you're trying to get your message across, you should get it across every way possible. If you walk in how you want to be perceived, that automatically gets people to see something and hear something one way. Then when you're playing, they piece the puzzle together better if you give them all the art forms versus then you just say, “I hope you understand this really deep music on this stage.” I think it's better to just let your personality shine.

Nicole Sweeney is a Queens-born, Long Island-raised music lover. Growing up in New York with West Indian parents, she was surrounded by all types of music every day and the influence of jazz was constant.