At the risk of exaggerating, the Winthrop Festival of the Arts took a giant step into Greater Brandon music history last week when it landed saxophone sensation Eric Darius for its celebration the first weekend in May.
Organizers of the two-day juried fine art and fine craft show, now in its second year, added music to the event with the incomparable Belinda Womack playing an April 30, Friday night gala. Darius will cap off the festivities with a May 1, Saturday night outdoor concert.
In my estimation, Darius is the biggest recording act to ever play in the Brandon area. Go beyond the Florida State Fairgrounds, the Florida Strawberry Festival and the Dallas Bull, and you would be hard pressed to find a better-known artist to come to our humble burg.
Well, there was that one time Young Joc (or was it Young Jeezy) played at a local nightclub, but c'mon, that doesn't count.
And don't be deceived by the fact that Darius is a Tampa native and resident. He wears the title of legitimate international star, having played around the world, including recent visits to Japan and Jakarta, Indonesia.
In January, he was one of the headliners on a smooth jazz cruise, and in years past, he's shared the stage with names as big and diverse as Brian McKnight, George Benson, Wynton Marsalis and Prince.
The Blake High graduate's resume includes three critically acclaimed CDs, a No. 1 hit single on Nielsen's R&R/Billboard Contemporary Jazz charts and four Top 10 chart songs.
Of course, I'm biased because I'm a fan. But trust me, this is huge.
I actually wrote, "huge, huge, huge," but my editor is trying to rein in my enthusiasm.
My excitement might be tempered if my dealings with Darius had revealed a person whose kindness didn't sparkle as much as his music. But he's a genuinely nice guy. In fact, that's why he's coming.
Darius is lending his talents because the Brandon '86 Rotary Club's event raises money for 13 charities.
"It's my responsibility to give back and help make a difference in the community," Darius said by telephone between appearances in Pennsylvania. "Regardless of what the financial circumstances were, I definitely wanted to help with the event."
Darius brings a contagious energy to his live performances, and critics hail his music for its fresh, distinctive sound. He also takes risks, fusing pop, hip-hop and even reggaeton into songs on his fourth album, Goin' All Out.
Now he's working on his next album, due out this summer, and says it will continue to reflect his musical evolution.
"My music is a continuous journey," Darius said. "I look at my albums as reflecting a point in my life, and as I learn, I think my music reflects that growth in my playing and my songwriting."
The best news? We may get to hear some of the new tracks at the Festival of the Arts.
It was Womack who helped event chair Mary Boor land Darius. The jazz and gospel vocalist has long been a local favorite, and she continues to perform at various events around town.
The only person giddier than me about Darius and Womack coming to town may be Boor. She said she's envisioned a music festival, "done right" at Winthrop for eight years.
When last year's inaugural festival drew more than 70 artists vying for a juried first prize of $3,000, she knew she had an event that could make her music vision a reality.
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Pockets of Tampa Bay — Vinoy Park in St. Petersburg, Coachman Park in Clearwater — have staged such concerts for decades.
Why not us?
"There's not an awesome music fest that goes on in east Hillsborough County," said Boor, who hopes for a crowd of 2,000 and believes the concert could draw 6,000. "It's everywhere but east Hillsborough County.
"Some have said, 'I'm not sure if Brandon or Riverview is ready for jazz,' but it's ready."
In addition to the headliners, Music Showcase will oversee a children's stage during the day that will feature some of the area's most talented youth performers. The fact Darius got his start on similar stages around Tampa Bay isn't lost on him.
"No matter how big I get, I take time to give back and make a difference because that's where it all started for me," Darius said. "I'm very committed to being part of the community."
So, look for me at the Festival of the Arts on May 1. I'll be the guy sitting up front.
That's all I'm saying.
For tickets and information, go to winthropartfestival.com.