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Al Downing, 83, jazz pioneer, dies

By CRAIG BASSE and ROMAINE KOSHARSKY

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 22, 2000


ST. PETERSBURG -- Alvin J. "Al" Downing, an influential jazz musician, band leader and teacher in the Tampa Bay area, has died at age 83. Mr. Downing, popular in local jazz circles for more than three decades, died Saturday (Feb. 19, 2000) at home of heart failure, his family said Monday.

In recent years, the founder of the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association battled several illnesses. After a 1993 gallstone operation, he was stricken by pneumonia and did not recover for more than three months.

But in less than a year, the retired Air Force major was back at the piano, leading his band at the St. Petersburg Historical and Flight One Museum in St. Petersburg. He later entertained at the Suncoast Dixieland Jazz Classic in Clearwater and the Sam Robinson Jazz Festival in St. Petersburg.

Three years ago, he and his All Stars provided the music for a salute in Tarpon Springs to World War II's Tuskegee Airmen, the nation's first black combat pilots.

Mr. Downing started as a cadet at Tuskegee but left the flying program in Alabama because of asthma. He later won a commission and returned to Tuskegee, where he became adjutant, then squadron commander and leader of the 613th Army Air Forces band. He continued his military career until 1961, putting together entertainment for bases in the United States and Japan.

Upon his return to St. Petersburg, his hometown since before the war, he noticed quickly there were few outlets for established players or young students interested in jazz. Forming the Allegro Music Society and the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association, he sponsored concerts and trained young players.

Teaching first at Gibbs Junior College, he transferred after integration to the Clearwater campus of St. Petersburg Junior College. He taught piano, organ, music theory, brass, woodwind and instrumental percussion techniques and applied music courses until his retirement in 1983.

He remained dedicated to the area, even when offers came to move on to bigger cities.

"Most people who get educated always go to New York or someplace, trying to hit the big time," he said in 1996. "I wanted to pass my knowledge to some youngsters, rather than making a name for myself. It feels good to be able to help other people."

Some of his contributions were recognized in 1996, when he was inducted into the St. Petersburg Downtown Hall of Fame.

For his 80th birthday, a gathering of the best talent the area had to offer honored the performer and teacher sometimes called the "Ambassador of Jazz."

In an interview that year, he said: "I guess I'm getting a lot of attention at 80. I get all these honors because of my wanting to keep alive the fact that jazz is America's classical music. Jazz was invented by the black man, and we've got a rich heritage that I don't want to see die."

Born in Jacksonville, Alvin Joseph Downing formed his first band, Al Downing's Ten Clouds of Joy, in high school. When it came time to select a college, he picked Alabama State College, known for its excellent bands, but later transferred to another historically black school, Florida A&M College (now Florida A&M University).

After graduation in 1939, he settled in St. Petersburg and began teaching. An organizer of the music program at Gibbs High School, he put a dance band together when he was unable to find enough recruits for a marching band.

He remained at Gibbs until World War II, when he was drafted into the Army Air Forces.

Mr. Downing was the first black member of the Housing Authority of St. Petersburg and the first black member of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.

He received many awards and honors, including a key to St. Petersburg for outstanding community service, a 1984 Martin Luther King Jr. Drum Major for Justice Award from the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the 1983 Friends of the Arts award from the Pinellas County Arts Council.

Survivors include his wife of 55 years, Edna "Bunny" Downing; three daughters, Dierdre Downing-Jackson and Evelyn Downing Hamilton, both of Los Angeles, and Alvinette Downing McCleave, Orlando; 11 grandchildren and seven great grandchildren; and several nieces and nephews.

Friends may call today from 3 to 8 p.m. at McRae Funeral Home, 1940 Dr. M.L. King (Ninth St.) S. A wake will be from 7 to 8 p.m. A funeral service will be at 1 p.m. Wednesday at First Baptist Institutional Church, 3144 Third Ave. S, with burial at Royal Palm Cemetery South.

-- Information from Times files was used in this obituary.

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