Teen's national anthem wows Tampa Bay Rays playoff crowds
Right around the rockets' red glare, at the fulcrum of a complex song that has driven divas to drink, a young man with calculus homework blew star-spangled soul into the national anthem.
Players cheered; fans wept. And the kid's alto saxophone, a heaven-kissed beauty, sparkled under the bright lights of Tropicana Field.
It was the finale of the American League Championship Series between the Tampa Bay Rays and the Boston Red Sox. Game 7. The home team's biggest night ever.
"I felt a competitive spirit, too," 17-year-old BK Jackson said a few days later. "I wanted to motivate the fans. This is our house."
So Jackson, a senior at Tampa's Blake High, walked out in front of 40,473 fans and turned The Star-Spangled Banner into an intimate moment. Soulful, hopeful, powerful. Lyrical, yet without a single lyric. He found new pauses and punctuation and heartbreak in a tune covered more than Happy Birthday to You.
"Whenever I play it, I try to get into it,'' he said. "You can't play music if you're not feeling it. I don't want to be a con artist and sell you something I don't feel. I play it like I love America.''
After the anthem, BK found his mother, the woman who books his live gigs and makes him take out the trash at night. She told her son that his playing had made the woman sitting in front of her weep with joy.
BK Jackson smiled.
"You know, Mama," he said, "I was feeling that one myself."
• • •
BK Jackson is waiting on a phone call. Not from the Rays this time, who discovered him years ago at a sports banquet.
This would be a call from Major League Baseball, which makes all entertainment decisions regarding the World Series. BK has played at five of the Rays' postseason games. Carl Crawford loves him. So does B.J. Upton. No matter. The phone has been silent in BK's Thonotosassa home.
"Maybe they don't want to give the Rays an edge," said BK's mom, Regina Jackson Underwood, 47. "Maybe they're afraid he's their good-luck charm."
Instead, MLB selected has-beens like the Backstreet Boys and Los Lonely Boys to perform the anthem at Games 1 and 2 at the Trop. When asked about booking talent for the Big Show, MLB officials admitted a vague knowledge of Jackson. But alas, no call.
Earlier this month, BK opened for Tony Bennett at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. He has also opened for B.B. King. ("They had a rug out on stage, and I remember looking down and thinking, Man, that's B.B.'s rug!")
Earlier this year, when he was still 16, Jackson became the youngest finalist in the history of the Capital Jazz Fest in Columbia, Md.
Then he won the darn thing.
He recently released his second album, On the Move, a smooth, soft-jazz dazzler. He wrote several of the 11 tracks, inspired by the playing of sax biggies Cannonball Adderley and Grover Washington Jr.
He is always humble. "I'm still learning," he said of the recording process. "Still trying to soak it all in."
He often hears grumbling from veteran performers who haven't had his success. "Some people say I'm only 17, and I can't play. But I use that as motivation. Hey, they didn't put me up on stage just 'cause I look cute with a saxophone."
• • •
First he tried the drums, the clarinet, the trumpet. None felt right.
In a last-ditch effort to make the middle school jazz band, he reached for a saxophone. "When I first started, I couldn't get a sound out of it," said Jackson, hanging with his friends at a cramped table in the Blake cafeteria. "I thought the sax was broke. Finally I made this sound. Horrible, honky."
He was 11 at the time. A year later, he was working his first gig, a wedding.
BK credits God and hard work for his success. Mom Underwood, who works as a bookkeeper at Blake, only smiles when asked if her son is a prodigy. "He's worked very hard at this. And he still has to do the dishes at night.''
She used to sing, but won't accept credit for passing along any musical gifts. Her husband, Ralph Underwood, whom BK considers his father, is not musically inclined, either.
BK's biological father died when his son was only 2. He was a jazzman, a trombone player.
And then there's Robert Griffin, a former Blake High jazz instructor. Griffin taught both Jackson and alum Eric Darius, now a star on the prestigious Blue Note jazz label. Jackson and Darius have become friends.
"Both of them share a spirit so pure, so honest and sincere," Griffin said. "You have to be willing to have that spirit channel through you."
Now an assistant professor at Florida A&M University, Griffin says BK has been blessed with "God-given abilities: a great ear, good sense of pitch, sense of timing. But he's also eager to learn. You have to have a good attitude."
Griffin feels like "a proud papa" these days, especially upon hearing of BK's success at Tropicana Field. "We always told the students that their instruments are very powerful. When you are onstage, you are in total control of the audience."
The message stuck.
• • •
When BK was 14, he wanted to work at McDonald's. "My friends were bringing home paychecks," he said. "I wanted some money, too."
Mom said no way. "I told him you have a gift," Underwood said. "Now use it."
Besides the baseball games, B.B. King and album-release parties, BK plays a steady stream of gigs on both sides of the bay. "I'm careful where he plays," Underwood said. "After all, he's only 17."
He practices every night, for at least two hours. Sometimes his mother will come in his room and ask him if he still wants to work at McDonald's. His answer? "Naaaah."
BK plans to study business administration either at the University of Central Florida or the University of South Florida. "If I do make it as a musician," he said. "I want to know what's going on financially."
So for now, he'll hang with his friends and sell albums and play with the stars. He'll grow up. He'll get even better.
And yes, he'll think about playing the anthem at the World Series. He thinks the Rays will win it all in six games, which is interesting because Game 6 would be Wednesday in St. Pete.
And if that happens, maybe, just maybe, BK can play that song one more time.
"Yeah," he said, smiling, "that'd be nice."
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.
Check him out
To listen to BK Jackson or buy
his new album, go to www.bkjackson.com.
To see an amateur video of him performing the anthem at Tropicana Field, go to Sean Daly's blog: blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic.