TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Bernard Jackson was hardly the only student at Florida A&M who had to miss his school’s football season opener last fall – and the celebrated return of the Marching 100 – because of work.
What separates Jackson from his classmates is his job. He couldn’t be at Bragg Stadium last September because he was in Minneapolis with his boss, the acclaimed musician Prince, helping him prepare for an appearance on Jimmy Kimmel’s late-night TV show.
“I think it was Minneapolis,” Jackson, a 22-year-old senior at FAMU, said. “We might have been in L.A.” Welcome to life in the fast lane for a saxophone prodigy. Bernard Kenneth – his friends call him BK – Jackson would have graduated by now except that he has been forced to reduce his class load to accommodate his ever-blossoming music career. He is on track to get a degree in music industry this summer, about the same time his solo record, Life of the Party, a compilation of all original compositions, is due to be released.
Jackson, who stands all of 5-feet-5 and is blessed with an easy, warm smile, auditioned to be in Prince’s five-member saxophone section in August 2012.
He was hired immediately, and his school schedule has never been the same. “It’s hard to keep track sometimes. Prince’s people call and say this is where I need to be,” Jackson said. “I just get on the plane.”
Jackson is far less impressed than others about the company he’s keeping during his final year in college. The Tampa native fell in love with the saxophone – he is equally at ease with every variety of the instrument, from baritone to alto sax – in his early teens. He has opened for Tony Bennett at a Clearwater jazz festival.
When he was in high school he was in demand at night clubs throughout the Tampa Bay area. Enter Regina Underwood, Jackson’s mother and “momager.” Underwood laid down the law. College is not optional. Club gigs in high school happen only when all homework is accounted for, and not every club passed her inspection.
“Bernard has been performing at festivals since he was 15. I wanted to protect him,” she said. “There were a couple of nightclubs that I thought were inappropriate at age 15. I wanted to continue to protect him until he was 21, or of age.
“I don’t know when I realized how good he is. I think everybody else was telling me; because I was his mom, I loved what he was doing,” she added. “I just wanted him to be the best he could be. I have done my best to make sure he has a good head on his shoulders.”
Jackson had just turned 17 and was about to enter his junior year at Blake Performing Arts High School when a family friend in FAMU’s Tampa alumni chapter asked Jackson to come perform at a downtown hotel. The chapter was welcoming the university’s new president, James H. Ammons, as he toured the state.
Jackson obliged, with Underwood’s blessing. He did what he always does. He blew his horn as heads bobbed, fingers snapped and, in some cases, jaws dropped. Ammons, wide-eyed and amazed, offered Jackson a full scholarship on the spot to come to FAMU.
It took more than a year for the idea to take root. He had planned to stay in Central Florida. He had a fan base, after all. He wasn’t sure he wanted to be that far from it.
“At the time, Florida A&M wasn’t on my radar,” he said. “I’m glad I did make this decision. It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made in my life. The opportunities that I got here are second to none.”
At FAMU, Jackson was neither pressured nor expected to take part in the marching band. Not that he doesn’t love “the 100” – he simply didn’t have the time to devote to it. He developed an interest in student government and became Student Senate president his sophomore year. He got involved in the student radio station and has hosted a jazz program from time to time.
He also has been able to maintain a relationship with one of his mentors, FAMU music professor Robert Griffin. Griffin had taught Jackson in high school and migrated to FAMU’s music department one year ahead of Jackson. “BK started recording individually sooner than many of the other students. He’s always been a little ahead of the game in that respect,” Griffin said. “He learns quickly and he’s got a real creative personality.
“He’’s got a lot of heart and is real sincere in what he does. He plays from the heart and you can feel that,” Griffin added. “He’s always been a forward thinker. He’s got a good business sense. BK realizes there’s more to being a musician than just playing the notes. You need to be aware of the business side of what you’re doing.”
Jackson demurs when asked how much he earns playing with Prince. The internationally acclaimed artist who for a time eschewed his single name for a symbol, takes good care of his musicians, Jackson said.
FAMU is only the first step in his higher education journey, if his current plans hold up. He wants to go on to earn a master’s in marketing to be followed by law school and a thorough understanding of entertainment law.
Jackson also is a student of his art. He refers to the legions of smooth jazz sax players as graduates of “Grover Washington University.” He can describe at length why he prefers the bebop riffs by Dexter Gordon to those of Wayne Shorter. And he loves to quote Cannonball Adderly, a jazz great and FAMU alum who is actually buried in Tallahassee (yes, Jackson knows all of this).
“Someone told Cannonball Adderley, ‘I love the way you play that sax!’ His answer,” Jackson said, “was, ‘What sax?’
“The moral of that story is the saxophone becomes an extension of your body. It’s something you naturally do and you express it through another arm. It becomes an extension and I play what I feel,” he added. “It comes straight from the heart.”