PROGRESS VILLAGE — The tween and teens start hollering even before Eric Darius takes the stage.
They scream when they learn that the jazz saxophonist is from Tampa.
They shout again because he graduated from Blake High and once more because he has played with artists like Prince.
But when the bassline of Usher's O.M.G. rumbles the wooden gymnasium bleachers, the middle schoolers turn to look at each other. They are in shock, but they still manage to shriek.
Darius wanted to prove to 400 students at Progress Village Middle Magnet last week that jazz is not just for old people. Jazz is not elevator music. Jazz is not music to fall asleep to.
"I think I kind of opened up their ears and their eyes," Darius said after his Progress Village performance. "I'm just trying to give some of myself to them."
While on his nationwide tour, Darius visits schools to address music education and appreciation. His hometown kick-off continued with a visit to Orange Grove Middle Magnet on Wednesday, and he has scheduled an appearance at Blake for early next week.
At Progress Village, his saxophone bobs from its glitzy strap as he jams to the blaring pop music, infusing the sound that seizes his body.
His energy gets the students shimmying in their seats and pumping their fists. When Darius, 28, closes his eyes to play, girls shriek and cover their mouths and turn to their girlfriends: Oh my god!
They sing along and scream when the track scrambles into another Usher tune.
Darius shouts back at them. "Betcha didn't think I could do that with a saxophone, huh?"
He has their attention.
Darius polls the audience on TV-watching and video game-playing habits. Sitting in front of the TV, he warns the masses of raised hands, won't get you anywhere.
He tells them about writing music at age 13, studying hard through high school and at the University of South Florida.
There will be obstacles and let-downs and setbacks, he says, like his rejection from the performing arts conservatory the Juilliard School. "But it's what you do after that," he says, that measures success.
• • •
Playing with Progress Village's jazz ensemble, Darius' example encourages 13-year-old Marco Bonacquisto, a curly-haired saxophonist, to practice scales more diligently and give more flair to the boring exercises.
It inspires 14-year-old Jakob Wahlers, another saxophonist, to reclaim music that he was ready to forsake for art and cooking lessons.
And Darius challenges 13-year-old Mike Ryan, a quiet, tall guitarist with glasses, to mimic a melody of rapid-fire notes twirling and dipping. Back and forth, they trade and match improvised jazzy rhythms.
A smile creeps across Mike's face, small at first then broad.
Darius promises the assembly one more song. "Let's have some fun," he says.
The gleeful tune of Cee Lo Green's hit song Forget You pounds through the speakers. Darius motions to the sound technician to turn it up.
At first, only the bravest dare to stand and sway. But then Marco busts out the running man, the dance made popular by MC Hammer. By the end of the song, kids have flooded down from the top rows of the bleachers to groove on the gymnasium floor.
"Follow your dreams!" Darius shouts one last message into the microphone amid the chaos. "Follow your dreams!"
Stephanie Wang can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (813) 661-2443.