Teen sax sensation from Tampa now tours with Prince, works on album

TAMPA

The resume grows longer for Tampa saxophonist BK Jackson.

Right above "Tampa Bay Rays good-luck charm," the 21-year-old can now add, "toured with Prince."

Yes, that Prince. The one with 30 Top 40 singles, 10 platinum albums and his own record label. Prince has toured for more than three decades, and in September, Jackson debuted with him at Chicago's United Center as the youngest member of his band.

"It was very shocking," Jackson said. "It was my first time with him on an actual gig. I wasn't sure what to expect. I've never been a part of something that sold out that fast at that magnitude."

Since then, Jackson has played more than a dozen shows with the music icon, from Minnesota to California. This summer, the band will play three nights in Switzerland from July 14-16, right before Jackson's 22nd birthday.

Given that Jackson has been performing for audiences since he was in middle school, he's awed but not overwhelmed by the opportunity to play in sold-out arenas with an icon.

The Blake High graduate built his popularity wowing folks at local concerts and festivals and gained even more prominence when he played the national anthem before the Rays' 2008 American League Division Series.

Since then, he has become a Rays favorite and played the anthem on opening day at Tropicana Field this month.

Jackson landed the jaw-dropping opportunity with Prince when a mutual friend in the industry called and said he was putting a horn section together.

According to Regina Jackson Underwood, Jackson's mom and booking agent, BK and the band thought the audition was for an artist backed by Prince, not the star himself. It wasn't until they had flown to Minnesota and Prince walked in that the magnitude hit them.

"I think it's simply because other people have gotten to know BK, gotten to know his talent, gotten to know his work ethic, gotten to know his personality and who he was," said Jackson Underwood, who lives in Thonotosassa. "And then they said here's this opportunity we want to present to you. When you go out and do your best, other doors open to you."

Prince's reputation as a private artist is spot on, Jackson Underwood said. The concept of asking him to sign a photo for a friend is unrealistic. But Prince does know the young saxophonist's name and has even given him a shout-out on stage.

"We're ordinary people and you see this icon," Jackson Underwood said. "And to be able to have that connection with this icon, that's something else."

While the artist formerly-and-currently-known-as Prince is reserved leading up to performances, Jackson said he's kindhearted and hands-on during rehearsals with the band.

"You'll get more time with him in rehearsal," Jackson said. "When it's show time, he's getting in his zone so I tend not to go around him in that light, but when we're rehearsing things and when there's downtime and no pressure, he's really one of the nicest men I've ever met in my whole life."

While there is no word of another record since his 20Ten release, Prince has been on the move with his Welcome 2 tour. He recently announced shows for April and May and appeared at this year's Grammy's.

"Everyone has their own personality for Prince," Jackson said. "Mine revolves around his humility. His love for the music, his love for the work, his love for people in general."

To get a sense of just how demanding touring with one of music's living legends can be, take each show and double it. Because after playing for a couple of hours, Prince follows up the show with an after party, usually at a smaller nightclub near the arena.

But it's more work than party. Each post-concert performance is completely different, Jackson said.

"It's more like a big house party," Jackson said. "It's great because you really get to see him. That's really when he's in his element. The after parties are a lot more intimate, and I think he enjoys that intimacy and being close to the crowd."

Apart from the capacity to sell massive numbers of seats and bring in crowds from all over, Jackson is also learning from the pop rocker what it means to master every form of music.

"He'll go from jazz to funk to rock to just everything," he said. "It's amazing to sit back and watch him orchestrate the entire thing, because we are watching him. Everything happens on the fly."

There's a good chance during a show that the band might not know what's going to happen, Jackson said. But that's what gives each performance that tangible energy.

"The audience loves it," Jackson said. "He goes with what he trusts and his emotions and what he's feeling at the time. It's fun for us and it never gets boring that way."

The band rehearses more than 50 different songs, and Prince's catalog is even deeper. That means Jackson and his bandmates need to be prepared at all times for Prince to deviate from the set list.

"I've never played the same show in the months I've been with him," Jackson said. "Never. Ever. Each show is different every night."

Jackson's favorite songs to play are Extraloveable and Musicology. The latter especially is all about the groove, Jackson said. Even when the band is in rehearsal, he can't help but stand up and get into the music.

"No matter what style you're playing, it's all about the groove," Jackson said.

Though the rehearsal and tour schedule are demanding, Jackson is still finding time to finish school at Florida A&M University, work on his solo album and enjoy life as a 21-year-old.

"I'm very 21," Jackson said. "I like to go out and have a good time and dance and party with my friends. I don't lose that."

Thankfully, Jackson said, most of his friends enjoy success in the work they do and support each other's pursuits and dreams.

For Jackson, that includes finding the balance between being on call to perform with Prince when needed and producing his own album on the side.

Because of the crowded schedule, he has pushed back the release date of his album a couple of times.

Jackson aims to appeal to a younger crowd than what is normally drawn to instrumental music. A lot of older musicians in the jazz industry say they aim for a young sound, but Jackson feels like it's something he has captured because of his own youth.

"It's going to be a sound I'm going to be able to sit back and call my own," Jackson said. "It's a sound that's not like anything out there."

Caitlin Johnston can be reached at cjohnston@tampabay.com or (813) 661-2443.

Teen sax sensation from Tampa now tours with Prince, works on album 04/11/13 [Last modified: Thursday, April 11, 2013 11:04am]

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