Blue Note recording artist Eric Darius has spent some time playing venues all over the world, but next week he's coming back to where it all began with a performance at the Center for the Arts at Wesley Chapel.
It's a little north of the neighborhood in Tampa where Darius grew up, but he did cut his chops some in Pasco, playing sax about 17 years ago with a little group called the North End Jazz Band. The youth community band was sponsored by Academy at the Lakes School and led by Patrick McDermott who was then a band director at Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes.
"He was the first kid to show up to audition, so I figured I'd play a little blues with him," said McDermott, who now serves as director of the Wesley Chapel arts center. "He blew me out of the water. He was a musical genius at the age of 13."
A friendship born of mutual respect grew as McDermott took his young players to venues and festivals throughout the state. Eventually the group disbanded. Darius graduated from Blake High School in Tampa and then the University of South Florida, where he toured with USF's South Florida Jazztet. Then he went on to on to a bigger stage, playing with the likes of Prince, Wynton Marsalis, Wyclef Jean, George Benson, Brian McKnight and Mary J. Blige.
A few years ago McDermott called his former student to ask if he'd willing to play the center and offer a workshop for students.
It was a resounding success in inspiring young musicians, McDermott said.
"The kids just loved it — it was tremendous," he said.
Each year since Darius has come back to perform and conduct student workshops. It's a mission he has chosen with the hopes of keeping music programs alive in the schools and inspiring students to work hard to follow their dreams, whether in a music vocation or not.
"This is my way of paying it forward," said Darius, who recently took time out to play with a junior high band in Farmington, Utah. "A lot of people told me, 'You can't do it. It isn't easy. There are a lot of tribulations with this.' If you have the drive and the passion for it, that will supersede all those things. I want to encourage them, spark that passion with the hope they will take it with them (and) take it back to their schools."
Darius promises to keep that up, even though he has been on a whirlwind since moving to Los Angeles two years ago.
"It has been nonstop," he said. "I've had so many opportunities to grow, to increase my sound. I've been on tour with my band. I'm working on a new album and plan to have that out in the summer of 2014. I played live with Mary J. Blige. There's been so, so many really great opportunities for me there."
Even so, Darius says he loves to come home.
"Tampa is really where it all started for me," he said. "I love seeing the fans who have been supporting me from day one. I never forget where I came from."
Michele Miller can be reached at [email protected]