music in the park san jose

.Rhonda Benin Busts a Move

Her 10th annual ‘Just Like a Woman’ concert celebrates female musicians at the Freight & Salvage

music in the park san jose

NASA and private space exploration companies—listen up, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and others—could learn a lot from Rhonda Benin. The East Bay-based jazz and blues vocalist remains, at age 69, all about discovery.

Returning March 23 to Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage like a celestial sun on an annual orbit, Benin, along with six top female vocalists and a band of first-rate female instrumentalists, will shine their lights and celebrate the 10th anniversary of “Just Like a Woman.” Benin founded the show to bring visibility to women artists during Women’s History Month.

This year’s performance follows the established format: A full evening designed like a Motown review performance that rocks and rolls out vibrant, sizzling R&B, jazz and blues tunes, and includes softer moments when a ballad crooned by one of the artists casts a hush on the crowd and nearly brings what is most often a sold-out audience to tears.

Among other highlights, the show is bathed in the full spectrum of Benin, whose generous glow creates a sense of connection and intimacy between the audience and the spectacular solo headliners and whose signature, upbeat energy swings from golden to red hot and cool blue and is most evident in her physicality when singing.

“I can still bust a move,” she says. “It just might not last as long as it used to.”

There’s no reason to believe the second half of her statement, especially when she describes what her recent “retirement” means. After decades of working as a full-time teacher in the Oakland Unified School District, Benin is officially no longer in the classroom.

“I’ve gone back to my early days when I was with Linda Tillery and the Cultural Heritage Choir and we did vocal workshops to educate people about African-American roots music,” Benin says. “When Sweet Honey on the Rock was recently at Cal Performances, an educational component had us going into the schools to get kids excited and to understand what they’d experience at the performances. And I’m still going into one school per semester part-time, and teaching an adult course at the California Jazz Conservatory.”

All that, plus throttling up her solo performing career, which means she’s less focused on surveying the scene for women in jazz than on creating one.

“I’ve been working to reconstruct my career, so I don’t spend time evaluating the field as a whole,” she says. “As far as I can see, there are women working in jazz. There’s a big jump in women’s programming during Women’s History Month, but the rest of the time looks the same. I’m doing my part in it, so as long as I can do this show, I feel good. I know the best way to counteract what I see that I don’t like is to hush up and do something about it. I found a way with ‘Just Like a Woman’ to fix something I thought wasn’t right and was missing in the business.”

This year’s fixers underscore a theme of longevity; the kind that’s never static but is constantly surging forward. The lineup includes, in addition to Benin, California Jazz Conservatory founder Susan Muscarella; former member of the Grammy Award-winning band “Train” and Oakland native, Nikita Germaine; Grammy winner and Oakland-born organist and composer, Sundra Manning; boogie woogie piano queen, Wendy DeWitt; vocalist and member of Bobby McFerrin’s vocal group Motion, Ms. Tammi Brown; and the award-winning singer-songwriter, Dakota Dry.

The band featured in the show is the Lillian Armstrong Tribute Band led by pianist/composer Tammy Hall Hawkins and including bassist Ruth Davies, drummer Ruth Price and saxophonist Kristen Strom.

Collectively, the show emphasizes the keyboard. The multidirectional paths taken with the piano by the performers are prismatic, expanding the range across their various styles and skills.

“It goes without saying after 10 of these shows that I’m able to select and invite great artists,” Benin says. “Some have been part of hit-making music machines for 30 years. I’m thrilled we’re all coming together for another great night of music. It’s women diving in and always surpassing the musical horizon. It keeps pushing up, and as a 69-year-old lady I’m happy the show’s doing what it’s supposed to do.”

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