From Vegas lounge to pop star: The unlikely story of a sax man

These days, James King plays saxophone in the pop band Fitz and the Tantrums, but he used to play zydeco in one of our fine Vegas lounges.

During King’s struggling years, he took a job in a zydeco band at the Orleans casino after the hotel opened, while he took a year off from studying jazz at the California Institute for the Arts.

“It was like being in the trenches as a musician,” King tells me. “It’s a lot of long hours, and you have to know a lot of songs.

“You may play to a couple of dejected gamblers, or you may play to a room full of people. That was a big, formative experience.”

This Thursday, King will take the stage at the Cosmopolitan pool with Fitz & the Tantrums, and he will not take that pop stardom for granted, since he remembers the Vegas hustle.

“There’s a whole army of musicians out there that are in the trenches doing that lounge work, and doing club work, and doing weddings, and every job imaginable.

“I am very aware I am in the minority right now of sax players, woodwind players, and any jazz instrumentalist that has a role out front in a recognized band on the pop charts,” he says. “It’s really fortunate.”

This spring, King returned to Vegas when his band opened for Bruno Mars at the Thomas & Mack Center for a private Google party.

“When you think ‘Employee Convention,’ you don’t really think Thomas & Mack Arena,” King says. “But Google had, I think, every sales partner from around the world at this convention.”

King and his band of schooled musicians learned something from Mars, the pop star.

“He put on such an amazing performance. We said, ‘We really have to step up our game. This guy is such a consummate performer. His band is so tight.’

“It’s been a great summer (touring) with him. Bruno has been gracious at every turn and really supportive, and so nice to us.”

King worked hard to mesh his jazz and pop sensibilities. He was raised by a jazz guitarist father and a cellist mother.

“I was going to flute lessons and practicing saxophone and flute for hours of day,” he says. “The girls I had crushes on were into Depeche Mode or Bon Jovi or 2 Live Crew. I was like, ‘OK, how do I connect the dots here?’”

Then he got into ska and reggae. In the seventh grade, King got into David Bowie — not that that made him more popular.

“As a short kid, it doesn’t matter that you play saxophone. You still get stuffed in the trash can.”

He has spent his career fashioning a signature sound, earning gigs with Christina Aguilera, Cee Lo, Mariah Carey, M83, Tony Bennett, Jimmy Cliff and even “Spongebob Sqaurepants.”

Thursday, when Fitz performs their single “More Than Just A Dream” (from the movie “Out of My League”), you will notice King’s sax is learned and crafty.

“I take a solo on it every night, and it’s not your Clarence Clemons rock and roll thing. I’m coming at it more from a Pharoah Sanders” angle.

If you worked with King in Vegas, Tweet him (@jkingsax).


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