Special Photo ---- Lithonia resident and jazz musician Antonio Chand Bennett, shown here in concert, will perform in his hometown of Covington on June 14.
Because acclaimed saxophonist Antonio Chand Bennett hails from Newton County, it should come as no surprise as to whom he considers his musical mentor.
"T.K. Adams is pretty much the reason why I still play," Bennett said of the iconic local music instructor and band director. "He's a major role model in my life and he's always been there for me, as a person and as a teacher. I credit a lot of what I do to him because he passed his love of music on to me."
Originally a clarinet player, Bennett -- who with his band will perform an Arts Association in Newton County-sponsored free Second Friday Downtown Concert at 7 p.m. on June 17 on the Covington Square -- didn't care much for his original instrument until he learned it was also Adams' chosen musical tool.
"I started out playing the clarinet -- my mom forced me to play it," Bennett said. "I hated it, but I excelled at it. Then I realized that Mr. Adams played the clarinet when he was a boy and he told me it was OK. I didn't realize it then, but I learned it was better to start out on clarinet than saxophone. I've definitely benefited from that."
Bennett's long-held desire to play the saxophone, however, eventually won out.
"Since the third grade, I've gravitated towards the saxophone," the 1989 graduate of Newton High School said. "I can remember when Mr. Adams would bring the kids from Cousins Middle School down to my school, Porterdale Elementary, and when I heard one guy playing the saxophone, that's what I knew I wanted to play."
Now a player of the alto saxophone who also plays flute and clarinet, Bennett -- who now lives in Lithonia with his wife, Stephanie, and daughter Katelyn -- began his professional music career not long after graduating from technical school (where he studied computer programming), working with a variety of gospel and church-based artists in Jacksonville, Fla. He has since expanded his musical horizons to incorporate smooth jazz, rhythm and blues, pop, rock, blues, funk and other styles into his repertoire.
Artists Bennett has performed, recorded or shared the stage with include the late James Brown, Toni Braxton, Vickie Winans and Mark Winans, among many others. He pointed to Michael Brecker, David Sanborn, multi-instrumentalist Gerald Albright and smooth-jazz superstar Najee as his primary influences.
"Growing up as a '90s baby, I know that smooth jazz was really strong during that time," he said. "Najee is a personal friend of mine -- this guy was playing before I was in the womb. When you think smooth jazz, you think Najee. I've been fortunate to spend time with him and he's given me some ideas."
In addition to his musical acumen, Bennett has embraced his work in the computer field and enjoys bringing art and technology together in his performances. Besides performing on traditional, acoustic instruments, Bennett use electronic effects (such as harmonizers) to complement his playing.
"I've always known I wanted to be in music and computers and I've been blessed to be able to do both," Bennett, who works by day as a software developer, said. "I've been fortunate to do things I love to do -- I don't have to do something I hate and call it a job. I've actually been able to incorporate the two many times. Thanks to technology, I don't have to go to a big studio to produce recordings. I can pretty much do it in my own studio at home. Being a techie and a musician has been beneficial."
As a past member of the Adams-founded Newton County Community Band, Bennett has played on the Square before but his upcoming performance will be his first local concert as a bandleader.
"When I was at Newton High School, I was the captain of the marching band and I remember marching around the Square," he said. "This is the first time I'll play on the Square as a solo artist. It's kind of surreal, but it feels full circle coming home and playing three miles from where I grew up. It will be great to see so many familiar faces."
As for what he plans to play in Covington, Bennett says he's keeping an open mind and open ears.
"We tailor our show towards the audience," he said, noting he'll bring a six-piece ensemble (with two female vocalists) to Covington. "We won't just play jazz -- I can do anything from a Mozart concerto to 'Achy Breaky Heart.' We cater to the crowd -- I want them engrossed, entranced and entertained, not looking down at their smartphones.
"We want to keep heads bobbing. If the heads aren't bobbing, we'll stop whatever song we're playing and go on to the next song. We'll do a lot of jazz, a lot of R&B, pop and rock. We'll play some Gershwin, some Beatles and some Frankie Beverly and Maze -- there are a lot of things where you'll find jazz. You'll have a musical journey with us. We want to touch everyone in the crowd."
For more information on Antonio Bennett, visit www.atlantasaxman.com.