Approach Terrahn L. Brewer's home near Memorial Stadium, and you'll likely hear the sounds of jazz piano cascading out toward the street.
Terry Brewer, 17, a recent graduate of Lake Clifton/Eastern High School, spends long hours at the upright piano in his family's living room refining his already impressive keyboard skills and working on his own compositions.
Today Terry has taken his talents on the road to the NAACP's annual convention in Chicago. He and 15 other Baltimore area teen-agers will compete for Olympic-style medals and cash prizes with black youngsters from across the nation in fields ranging from architecture and biology to sculpture and writing plays.
The contest, known as ACT-SO (for Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics), is an NAACP convention highlight. It reminds adult spectators of black youth's great promise and convinces talented African-American youngsters that they are not alone. Nearly 2,000 teen-agers, all gold medalists in local ACT-SO competitions, will take part.
"These kids will make you cry, man," said Vernon Jarrett, the Chicago newspaper columnist who founded ACT-SO in 1977. "We're trying to make heroes out of academic achievers so kids can see other kids excelling. And there's great enjoyment among older people at seeing young blacks do something besides get in trouble."
ACT-SO, which has programs in 1,005 U.S. cities and towns, has grown large enough that Monday's awards ceremony will be held at the University of Illinois at Chicago's 10,000-seat pavilion.
Mr. Jarrett, who grew up in the segregated South during the 1930s, says he patterned ACT-SO after the oratory and essay contests he competed in as a youngster in little Paris, Tenn.
"Just because you're poor you don't have to give up," he said. "Those ordinary people made me a journalist by standing up and giving me a great ovation when I recited my essays. It might not have been worth a damn, but they had me thinking it was 'War and Peace.' "
When he sees black teen-agers "working their hearts out" polishing their basketball moves late at night on Chicago's playground courts, Mr. Jarrett says he wants to capture that drive to excel and apply it to science and the arts.
Terry Brewer displays that pursuit of excellence. Music has taken over his life since he began learning piano and trumpet only five years ago. He grew up singing at East Baltimore's New Life Missionary Baptist Church. When his voice changed, he decided it was time to play instruments.
His talent quickly was evident. He soon moved from playing in the Hamilton Middle School band to taking lessons from Peabody Conservatory teachers such as jazz pianist Charles Covington.
Now, even when he is away from the keyboard, his strong fingers are always moving, silently picking out notes on the arm of a sofa or a table.
Terry was the only teen-ager in the Baltimore competition to win gold medals in two categories: Music Instrumental (Contemporary) for his rendition of "I'll Remember April" and Music Composition for his own fast-paced, 12-bar blues tune "To the Limit."
As a gold medalist, Terry won a $200 savings bond and an expense-paid trip to Chicago (his first airplane ride). About 50 relatives and friends -- including 11 members of Brewer's church alone -- are traveling to Chicago to root on the Baltimore teen-agers.
"As far as Terry is concerned, I have truly been blessed," said his mother, Jane Brewer, a city elementary school music teacher. "He's motivated. Most of his time was spent in this house on that piano. Most of his energy was put into his music. I'm thankful he found an outlet he could express himself in."
Terry is a city kid who went to a neighborhood high school, but he managed to avoid the traps of school failure, drug abuse and violence that snared too many of his peers.
"I stayed away from that whole environment. I chose a little handful of people to associate with," he said. "It gets hard. Sometimes you're around people who are not motivated and you start doing what they're doing, which is nothing. My tactic was to step aside."
ACT-SO aims to offer black youngsters the motivation and mentoring that might otherwise be missing from their lives or to enhance what already is there.
About 200 teen-agers took part in the Baltimore ACT-SO program this school year, said Leon Bridges, an architect and ACT-SO volunteer who raises funds for the group and coordinated its trip to the NAACP convention.
Mr. Bridges, who puts in about 400 unpaid hours a year on ACT-SO, expects that the Baltimore program could easily double in size if schools and the media got the word out to African-American youngsters. The Baltimore program's $20,000 annual budget comes from sources including the Fullwood Foundation, McDonald's and Signet Bank, he said.