When Mindi Abair first picked up a saxophone, it was bigger than her — but she didn’t think much of it. No one told her it was an odd instrument for the 8-year-old girl to play, until it was too late, she said.
Seated across from her saxophone professor at the University of Miami, he took one look at the college freshman and said, “Girls don’t make it at this school. I’ll let you into the education department, but I won’t let you into the jazz department.”
She was devastated.
“I grew up with hippie parents that just said, ‘You can be anything you want to be, peace and love, everything’s great.’ I found out that wasn’t the case then,” Abair said on Thursday during a recent telephone interview from Los Angeles. “But you know what? I think that was a great turning point for me. I realized, you can take things that happen, the blockades, and you can use them to your benefit.”
His rejection lit a fire inside of her, she said. “I went, ‘One day, I’ll come back here and you’re gonna apologize. You’re gonna wish I went to this school. I’m gonna show you that I was worthy.’”
Now a two-time Grammy nominee with a pair of #1 spots on the Billboard album charts — her tenth studio album, “No Good Deed,” set to drop June 28 — Abair lives in Napa with her fiancé when she isn’t touring the country with her band, The Boneshakers, who will make a stop on Friday night at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center.
“We love to be on the road, we love to be in front of people, that’s our happy place,” Abair said. “We love making records, but it’s our perfect scenario to be in front of people making music and them into it with us, making people a part of the show. That’s where we get our energy. I grew up on the road with my dad’s band; that was my normal, so it makes sense to me. I love it.”
Every day when she came home from school, Abair never knew what she would find — drums set up in the living room, cables running across the floor, a singer rehearsing in her bedroom closet. The house was a wellspring of music, she said, between her father, Lance Abair, who played saxophone and keyboard in his band, The Entertainers, and her grandmother, opera singer Virginia Rice, a fan of Italian arias who let it show.
“I totally wanted to sing like Tina Turner or Ann Wilson from Heart, and I couldn’t,” Abair said. “But with the saxophone, it’s like a human voice. It becomes an extension of you and it just became an extension of who I was. It made me bigger and it made me be able to express things differently than I could in just my own voice. And I loved that. It became a part of me, and I still, to this day, feel like it’s just an extension of my voice.”
The natural-born front-woman leads with that voice, backed by her band of Boneshakers: Rodney Lee on keys, Ben White on bass and vocals, Third Richardson on drums and vocals and Randy Jacobs on guitar and vocals.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles, I landed in a rock band and Randy Jacobs was the guitarist,” she recalled. “On that first night, I’m standing on stage and it’s all new, and he’s mid guitar solo and he did a back flip into the audience — still playing — and landed on his feet and kept playing. And I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I’ve got to be friends with that guy.’ He started his band, The Boneshakers, right after that.”
Their bands intermingled for a number of years before joining forces in 2015 for their first album, “The EastWest Sessions,” and have consistently toured together ever since.
“It’s awesome to be the only girl in a band. It’s completely awesome. You learn a lot, I’ll say that,” Abair said. “Every woman should be on a tour bus for at least a month out of her life, and the stuff that we all learn is amazing. But you know, the guys are my big brothers, too. We’re all in it together and they’ve very protective of me, and we’re all incredibly respectful of each other.
“I think if you surround yourself with greatness, you rise to the occasion,” she continued. “And I’ve always taken the stance that you should have players in your band that are better than you, because it makes you better. And these guys are better than me, they’re incredible, and every night we just have fun playing off each other and there’s an incredible strength to being on stage with them.”
But during meet-and-greets after their shows, there is almost always one well-intentioned fan who feels the need to say to Abair, “Hey, you’re pretty good for a girl. Wow.”
And so, she wrote a song about it — “Pretty Good for a Girl,” which appeared on “The EastWest Sessions”— and it is now one of her favorite songs to perform.
“I think every woman has heard that at some point. It’s universal for all of us and it makes us laugh and it makes us proud — like, ‘Yeah, I’m pretty good for a girl, that’s right I am,’” she said. “You take something that might be construed as a weakness and you make it a strength, and it’s fun. It’s good to be out there, hopefully empowering the next generation, or at least for those of us who have gone through it for a while, you’ve just got to sit back and laugh at it.”
A few days earlier, Abair was cleaning out a filing cabinet and stumbled across her college admissions essay to the University of Miami, outlining her future goals as a musician: to write her own music, to start a band and, in between, fix up an old house.
And that is exactly the life she is living now — complete with a circa-1916 Craftsman in Hollywood. “I’ll get dirty and paint and sand and do all kinds of crazy stuff to my house, and then I’ll go make music,” she said. “I think I knew when I was 17 years old, I had it in my mind. And it worked out.”
After her unfortunate meeting at University of Miami, she transferred to Berklee College of Music in Boston, where she received a scholarship becauseshe was a woman.
“It wasn’t because I was a great player, that’s for sure. I was green as they come,” she admitted. “But I was one of three percent women at that school.”
They celebrated her, she said, and encouraged her to play the music she loved, which was not jazz. It was the soul, funk, and rock ’n’ roll that inspired her father. And through that music, and the support of her teachers, she found herself.
“I ended up in the right place, probably not for the right reasons,” she said. “And since then, I have gone back to see that old saxophone professor. And he did say, ‘You know, I should have let you in.’ Amazing, right?”
She laughed lightheartedly.
“It’s fun to see the world change, and to be a very small part of it. Hopefully, in the future, no one will go through the same kind of thing that I went through there,” she said. “I love the fact that doors are opening for women and we’re inspiring each other, and there’s women doing such amazing things now. We’ve got to celebrate that.”
Mindi Abair and the Boneshakers will play a concert on Friday, April 5, at 8 p.m. at the Westhampton Beach Performing Arts Center, located at 76 Main Street in Westhampton Beach. Tickets are $45 or $55. For more information, call (631) 288-1500 or visit whbpac.org.