Young Composer and Saxophonist Excels

Jazz student at Community Music School-Detroit named Seymour Simons Scholar.

Benny Rubin was named a 2016 Seymour Simons Scholar.
Benny Rubin (right) joins MSU Jazz Studies professors Randy Napoleon (left) and Rodney Whitaker (center) at the popular Dirty Dog Café in Detroit.
Benny Rubin (far right) joins Associate Professor of Jazz Studies Diego Rivera (far left) at the annual Jazz Spectacular concert at MSU in 2016.

Benny Rubin admits he didn’t know what a saxophone was when he decided to join the middle school band. Now, six years later, the 17-year-old is on track to build a career as a jazz saxophonist, composer and teacher through the support of the MSU Community Music School-Detroit.

In October, Rubin was named one of six 2016 Seymour Simons Scholars at CMS-D in recognition of his talents as a jazz and composition student. Funded through the Lampert Family Foundation based in San Francisco and family of the Detroit-native and composer of the jazz standard “All of Me,” the scholarship will cover Rubin’s annual tuition for CMS-D’s Spartan Youth Jazz program, summer camp and private studies with CMS-D jazz composition faculty member Scott Gwinnell. The scholarship will also cover some college prep and application costs as Rubin looks to study jazz and jazz composition after high school.

“I was so thankful when I first heard about the scholarship,” says Rubin. “A lot of these kinds of opportunities aren’t heard of for high school students. I was excited to get this extra help.”

Rubin started at CMS-D in 2013 after his family moved from Flint to Detroit and enrolled him in the Detroit School of Arts. Intent on learning everything he could about playing the sax, the teen began coming to CMS-D after school to study through the Spartan Youth Jazz Program.

“Benny loves, loves, loves to play and perform,” says Jill Woodward, director of CMS-D. “Anytime we have an invitation to play at an event, he’s there—ready and available. He takes his artistry very seriously.”

One of those invitations included sitting in with MSU Director of Jazz Studies Rodney Whitaker and Assistant Professor of Jazz Guitar Randy Napoleon at a recent performance at The Dirty Dog Jazz Café in Detroit. Woodward says she later heard it was the first time the popular jazz venue had featured a high school musician.

Program Manager Elizabeth Lanni of CMS-D commented on Rubin’s talents. She said his willingness to share what he learns is part of the passion and respect he shows for jazz, and is terrific to see in a young person.

“Some of the other students call him ‘Uncle Benny’ because he’s kind-of an old soul,” she says. “He likes to discuss history and theory, and he really holds true to that jazz tradition of mentorship. Now that he’s a senior, he’s taken some of the younger cats under his wing to help them along.”

Rubin says he has always liked expressing himself through music from the first day he picked up the saxophone. While he started out playing band music and gospel, he gravitated toward jazz as an art form for storytelling. Driven to create a unique sound, he began composing and formed his own quartet that plays his original pieces and jazz standards in and around Detroit .

“One of the things I like about jazz is that it’s appreciated all over the world,” he says. “All different kinds of people can understand the music, no matter what language they speak.”

LaKisha Jones says she was surprised that her son was so motivated to play and perform, given that no one in their family was musically inclined. She remembers the days when he first started playing, and how he would come home feeling inspired and confident from working with other students, artists and musicians at CMS-D.

“Now when I see him performing, I don’t even recognize him,” she says. “At home, I hear him practicing, I hear him playing, but when I see him perform, that’s where he really shines. Sometimes it’s like I’m just another person in the audience saying ‘who is that?’ I think he can go all the way to the top.”

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