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The 2023 Jazz Scholar Fellow, Lakecia Benjamin views the Copyright deposit of John Coltrane's "Love Supreme." Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

Lakecia Benjamin: 2023 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar

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The following is a guest post by 2023 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar and 2024 Grammy Nominee Lakecia Benjamin.

In many ways, 2023 was a breakout year for me. I was blessed to be able to perform the music I love, meet new people and experience different countries, languages, and cultures.

Most people don’t know that I started out my college years as a history major. So, when I received notice that I would be the Library of Congress Jazz Scholar for 2023, I was immediately filled with joy, exhilaration and curiosity. I wondered what documents they would have about jazz and its historical context? What new things would I learn about this American art form? And how would this information influence my music and
prospects?

Lakecia Benjamin during her research at the Performing Arts Reading Room. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

When I arrived at the Library of Congress, the first thing that struck me was the beauty of the Thomas Jefferson Building. The architecture reminded me of some of the grandest European halls. The moment you walk in, there’s a feeling of history and legacy. Some of the first works I saw were from the legends that inspired me to pursue music. John Coltrane’s sheet music to “A Love Supreme,” Charles Mingus’s sheet music to “Cumbia,” Max Roach’s personal cards, photos and works. Nina Simone’s handwritten letter to the great Hazel Scott – it was mind blowing. I can’t describe the feeling you get seeing someone like Nina Simone’s actual handwriting, her words and thoughts on paper to another legendary artist.

Audience members often wonder what artists are thinking and feeling in everyday life. But even as an artist you wonder what your idols think. What’s important to them. Who’s the personality behind the art. What private things are they dealing with in their life. The history in the Library makes you feel immersed in the music. From the legendary jazz photos taken by William P. Gottlieb of Louis Armstrong, Dexter Gordon, and Duke Ellington by Gordon Parks to Gerry Mulligan’s Grammy Award for Best Jazz Instrumental Album. You feel the power of those who have come before and all they have achieved. It makes me hopeful for all that can be achieved in my own life; to have your work stamped in the vaults of American history. For the hard work, dedication and talent that has influenced artists all over the planet.

Lakecia Benjamin reviewing materials from the Music Division jazz collections. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

I was able to speak with Sonny Rollins before I attended my Library of Congress residency. He encouraged me to keep learning and seeking out ways to grow as a human being and an artist. To keep trying to attain the highest level of musicianship and to use that to inspire the next generation to become better musicians, humanitarians and scholars.

The Library gave me a chance to explore that advice. I was also able to look through some texts from the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room with collections that dated back to the 1700s, which addressed the spiritual purpose of music in society. The different writings, readings and psalms helped me to understand how the musicians before me viewed their work and art form. Some of those book titles were:

“Reflections upon ancient and modern learning” by William Wotton, 1694.

“An humble attempt towards the improvement of psalmody: the propriety, necessity and use, of evangelical psalms, in Christian worship. Delivered at a meeting of the Presbytery of Hanover in Virginia, October 6th, 1762” by John Todd, 1763.

“The duty and advantages of singing praises unto God. A discourse delivered at an occasional lecture in Andover, on Tuesday, April 6, 1779. Appointed to promote and encourage the religious art of…” by William Symmes, 1779.

Lakecia Benjamin during her research at the Rare Book and Special Collections Reading Room. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

We as artists often contemplate our purpose, role, and place in society. I believe an artist’s job is to inspire, reflect and sonically recreate the human experience during their time period. To push the barriers of what’s come before by adding the present-day without limiting the possibilities of the future. You can never know if you are ahead of your time or immersed passionately in the fragility of the present. But wherever you are, I’ve learned you must give it your all—with your full heart, mind, and soul. The Creator deserves it. Humanity needs it. Those in the future are relying on you to fight for them and to open doors so they can walk in ready to innovate.

Lakecia Benjamin addressing students during her morning youth concert. Photo courtesy of Claudia Morales.

For those reading this, I hope you visit the Library, travel the planet, try new foods, listen to new music and make new friends. It’s the youthful spirit that is always learning and exploring—that inspires a child to become the next Duke Ellington, John Coltrane or Nina Simone. No matter how much you achieve, there’s still the work we as artists all have and are called to do—provide healing and inspiration through sound.

About Lakecia Benjamin
A charismatic and dynamic saxophonist and bandleader, Lakecia Benjamin fuses traditional conceptions of jazz, hip-hop, and soul. Benjamin’s electric presence and fiery sax work has shared stages with several legendary artists including Prince, Stevie Wonder and Alicia Keys. Benjamin’s band Soul Squad melds the vintage sounds of James Brown, Maceo Parker, Sly and the Family Stone and the Meters. Benjamin’s grooves take the classic vibe to a whole new level with sultry alto saxophone sounds creating something special on every cut.

Comments (2)

  1. The blog article on blogs.loc.gov, featuring Lakecia Benjamin as the 2023 Library of Congress Jazz Scholar, provides a captivating insight into the world of jazz and the significance of preserving its legacy. The content is engaging and accessible, shedding light on Benjamin’s experiences and contributions to the jazz community. The article not only highlights the importance of recognizing contemporary jazz artists but also emphasizes the role of institutions like the Library of Congress in supporting and documenting the evolution of this musical genre. Lakecia Benjamin’s tenure as the Library of Congress Jazz Scholar adds a personal and experiential dimension to the narrative, making it a compelling read for those interested in the intersection of jazz, education, and cultural preservation.

  2. Thank you!

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