The Man Behind the Music

Al Downing Jazz Jam St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert

Alvin J. “Al” Downing at the Piano
Photo Credit Unknown

Major Alvin J. “Al” Downing was a virtuoso pianist, respected band leader, jazz pioneer & historian, revered educator, decorated military officer, civil rights leader, devout Christian and loving husband and father. His tenacity and passion for education, and more specifically for jazz, shattered color barriers throughout Tampa Bay and built a legacy that stretched around the world. He called St. Petersburg home for nearly 60 years and spent much of that time ensuring jazz would thrive as an art form on the Gulf Coast, a goal he most certainly achieved and a mission that continues to this day through Al Downing Jazz.

Gifted from Birth

Alvin Joseph Downing was born in 1916 in Jacksonville, Florida, the middle child of Ernest & Mary Downing. His father, a railroad porter and street musician, and his mother, a seamstress, adhered to their idea of the American dream and pushed for the best life they could provide for their family, developing a close kinship with one another and a high reverence for the Baptist faith.

He had an affinity and curiosity for music from a very young age. His relationship with the piano that later led to his love of jazz developed when his cousin Gladys, who had been taking piano lessons, convinced him to practice the piano in her place. After his parents discovered the switch, they acquired a piano and arranged lessons for him at the age of five.

Al continued his lessons throughout elementary and middle school, and in the beginning of his high school years he organized his first band, The Ten Clouds of Joy. After graduating from high school, he chose to attend Alabama State College, later transferring to Florida Agricultural & Mechanical College where he met his future wife Bernice “Bunny” Gause.

After graduating from college, he moved to St. Petersburg Florida where he began his teaching career at Gibbs High School, the African American high school of the community. Not having enough students for a marching band, he put a dance band together, the first band ever formed at Gibbs. With his encouragement, some of the students, including Buster and Steve Cooper, went on to widely-acclaimed national music careers.

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary Lt. Alvin J. Downing Gibbs High School
Tampa Bay Times
March 30, 1940
Sil Austin Buster Cooper Gibbs High School Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing

Tampa Bay Times
December 12, 1946

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary Lt. Alvin J. Downing Gibbs High School
Alvin J. “Al” Downing with
Gibbs High School Band
St. Petersburg Times
Oct. 26, 1941
Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary Lt. Alvin J. Downing Gibbs High School
Al” Downing with Gibbs
High School St. Cecile Chorus
St. Petersburg Times
May 26, 1940

To Tuskegee & Beyond

Al taught at Gibbs for three years before he was drafted into the United States Army Air Force (USAAF), the United States’ aviation appendage during World War II.

Al’s deployment formally formed the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group, but history would remember these groups as the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first ever African American pilots of the military and for those that comprised this group, although understandably apprehensive about the idea of war, were excited by the idea of African American pilots.

Stationed at the Tuskegee Army Airfield, also known as Sharpe Field and a predominantly black base, in Tuskegee, Alabama, with Bunny back home in St. Petersburg, Al qualified for flight school, but a medical examination designated him “grounded” due to asthma. Ever resourceful as the military is, however, Al was made use of as a clerk in the offices of the command center. Not content with being a clerk, Al applied for officer training and in 1944 completed officer candidate school making him a Lieutenant.

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Captain Alvin J. Downing Lietenant Lt. US Air Force
Capt. Alvin J. “Al” Downing
St. Petersburg Times
July 27, 1947
Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary Lt. Alvin J. Downing Lietenant Lt. US Air Force

Lt. Alvin J. “Al” Downing
Source Unkown
c. 1948

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing

Maj. Alvin J. “Al” Downing
Artwork by John Silva

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary Lt. Alvin J. Downing Tuskegee Airmen

From “The Tuskegee Airmen”
By Lynn M. Homan, Thomas Reilly

Shortly after becoming a Lieutenant he was made the adjutant of the 613th Air Force Band. However, when the Tuskegee Army Airfield was closed Al was transferred to Lockbourne Air Base and was shortly after promoted to squadron commander and leader of the 613th Army Air Force Band where he was responsible for organizing a musical program to “establish a good working relationship” with the white citizens of Columbus, Ohio and stymie their disdain for the newly transferred Tuskegee Airmen whom they regarded as trouble makers after the highly gossiped Freeman Field confrontation, a series of incidences where Tuskegee Airmen, stationed at Freeman Army Airfield, attempted to integrate an all-white officers’ club, which resulted in multiple arrests of African American officers.
As a solution, Al created a talent show that required one squadron to entertain a different squadron every week. This proved to be successful and, with the help of Private First-Class Calvin Manuel, a professional actor before entering the service, a variety show was created called Operation Enjoyment. Operation Enjoyment was so successful that “Colonel Joseph F. Goetz, chief of the entertainment section of the USAF…persuaded the Air Force to sponsor it on a tour of bases throughout the United States.” The show name was changed to “Operation Happiness,” consisting of magic and comedic acts, dancing, singing, and ended with a “thrilling piano battle between Private First Class [Ivory] Mitchel and Lieutenant Al Downing, in which the entire cast sang the Army Air Corps song, “Into The Wild Blue Yonder”.

As a songwriter and lyricist, Al wrote numerous songs, but one of the most notable was the original Tuskegee Airmen Theme Song, in addition to a wide range of national touring productions for the USAF. He would go on be awarded the Bronze Star for one of his productions and was posthumously awarded the Congressional Gold Medal, along with 299 of his brothers-in-arms from the Tuskegee Airmen, by President George W. Bush in 2007.

Music & More After the Military

After 21 years of service, and reaching the rank of Major through his work for the 613th Air Force Band, Al officially retired from the Military in 1961 and returned to St. Petersburg where he reestablished his teaching career at Gibbs Junior College, now St. Petersburg College, where he taught piano, organ, music theory, brass, woodwind, instrumental percussion techniques, and applied music courses. Ever a leader and inspiration in the Black community, Al also became the first Black member of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra, the first Black member of the Housing Authority in St. Petersburg, FL and the first Black person to serve as an Official of Local 729 American Federation of Musicians.

After returning to St. Petersburg, Al was approached by Ernie Calhoun, the leader of a well-known local jazz band named “Ernie Calhoun and the Soul Brothers”. Ernie offered Al a job as the organist for his band, and Al accepted. The abilities of a good organist were highly sought after in the musical community in the 1960s. Al’s organ of choice, a B-3 Hammond, increased his value as everyone wanted a B-3 Hammond. The partnership established between Al and Ernie helped introduce Al to the extensive network of local musicians. Al was a popular soloist on piano throughout Tampa Bay, and whenever possible, he would also use his talents to delight his fellow veteran servicemen.

As a soloist, Al often accompanied the Alumni Singers and played organ for his own congregation at the First Baptist Institutional Church, as well as for several other church choirs and services. Although he was known for his piano playing, Al could play literally every instrument!

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing

Tampa Bay Times
April 4, 1953

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing
Tampa Bay Times
September 9, 1972
John Lamb Ernie Calhoun Frank Royal Harold Rebeck Al Downing All Stars Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary logo
Al Downing & The All Stars
Tampa Bay Times, August 18, 1978
From left, standing: Lester McCrae, Frank Royal, Al Downing
Seated: Ernie Calhoun, Harold Rebeck

The Ambassador of Jazz

Shortly after joining “Ernie Calhoun and the Soul Brothers”, Al started his own band “The All Stars”, which consisted of a wide array of musical talents of different ages, musical backgrounds, and race, but with a common interest in jazz. For Al, it wasn’t about who you were, what color you were, or what religion you were; it was about what instrument you played. This lack of racial boundaries in Al’s musical world helped bridge a few gaps in the musical community, ultimately adding to the promotion of integration. Al and his All Stars were featured numerous times at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday, as well as the Dixieland Jazz Classic (now the Suncoast Jazz Festival), the Sam Robinson Jazz Festival and the World War II Tuskegee Airmen salute in Tarpon Springs, FL.

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing
Tampa Bay Times
February 23, 1973
Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing

Tampa Bay Times, January 13, 1974

In 1971 the integration of white and black schools was initiated county wide in Pinellas County and though this eliminated, to some degree, racial boundaries in education and networking, there were still very few outlets in the community for jazz, and even fewer for young people to perform and appreciate jazz outside of the bar scene. Though there were many job opportunities for other types of musicians, jazz was seemingly getting snuffed out. Al’s newly formulated band “The All Stars” saw the deficiency of jazz first-hand and to help bring new life to jazz Al, started the “Allegro Music Society.”

The Allegro Music Society, although passionately pursued, was shortly disassembled as political pressure from the local musicians’ union discouraged membership to the Allegro Music Society and threatened the survival of local bands, as the union was, in essence, a band’s accreditation at the time. Most clubs would not hire a band without the backing of the local musicians’ union. Still passionate about creating outlets for jazz musicians, Al reorganized a concept for another organization that would keep jazz alive for both prospective and current musicians and to reintroduce people to the golden days of jazz. The result was the formation of the Al Downing Florida Jazz Association in 1981.

Unlike the Allegro Music Society, the Al Downing Florida Jazz Association was successful in formulating a functional and sustainable association that provided outlets for jazz musicians as well as education opportunities for those who wanted to learn about jazz. In 1984 the Al Downing Florida Jazz Association absorbed the Tampa Bay Jazz Society creating one entity for the advancement of jazz. When the two organizations merged proposition to drop the Al Downing name from the title was quickly rebuked and denied, as it was clear that Al Downing was truly the “Ambassador of Jazz”, a title given to him by The Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation.

Unlike the Allegro Music Society, the Al Downing Florida Jazz Association was successful in formulating a functional and sustainable association that provided outlets for jazz musicians as well as education opportunities for those who wanted to learn about jazz. In 1984 the Al Downing Florida Jazz Association absorbed the Tampa Bay Jazz Society creating one entity for the advancement of jazz. When the two organizations merged proposition to drop the Al Downing name from the title was quickly rebuked and denied, as it was clear that Al Downing was truly the “Ambassador of Jazz”, a title given to him by The Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation.

Allegro Society St Petersburg Times Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th anniversary logo

Tampa Bay Times
April 4, 1953

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing
Tampa Bay Times
November 3, 1983
Al Downing Obituary Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing
Tampa Tribune
February 23, 2000

Hall of Honor

As a civilian, Al also received many awards and honors including the title of “Ambassador of Jazz” bestowed upon him by the Clearwater Jazz Holiday Foundation, 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 in 1984 and the 1983 Friends of the Arts award from the Pinellas County Arts Council. June 10, 1989 was named Al Downing Day by the City of St. Petersburg. In 1996 he was inducted into the St. Petersburg Downtown Hall of Fame.

On February 19, 2000, at the age of 83, Al died at his home from heart failure. One year after his death, Perkins Elementary School for the Arts and International Studies dedicated its theater to his memory in honor of Al’s devotion to teaching music to children. In 2004, the Boys & Girls Clubs of the Suncoast placed his likeness in the role models mural in their newly renovated, historic Royal Theater performing arts center. A new mural was dedicated to Al Downing at the Westshore Apartments in Tampa on September 12, 2021, as part of their tribute to prominent figures in Tampa Bay.

A True Family Man

His incredible lifetime achievements notwithstanding, Al Downing was, first and foremost, a family man. Al and his beloved wife Edna Bernice “Bunny” Gause Downing had three daughters: Dierdre Downing-Jackson, who now resides in Los Angeles, California, Evelyn Downing Hamilton (deceased); and Alvinette Downing McCleave, who lives in Duncanville, Texas, along with a host of grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews all across the country.

Al and Bunny met as freshman at Florida A&M University in 1935 and were friends for many years before he would write a note confessing his love for her and asking if she would marry him. She accepted, and the two were wed on Dec. 20, 1944 in her mother’s house in Bartow.

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing Bunny Downing Anniversary

Tampa Bay Times
January 12, 1995

Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing Bunny Downing Anniversary
Alvin & Bunny Home Brochure
Page 1
Al Downing Jazz St. Petersburg FL best jazz music Tampa Bay Sarasota Florida Gulf Coast concert 50th Major Alvin J. Downing Bunny Downing Anniversary

Alvin & Bunny Home Brochure
Page 2

Al’s 20 years of distinguished and decorated military service stationed them in various locations across the U.S., as well as twice in Japan. After his retirement, with the rank of Major, Al and Bunny returned to Florida, deciding to purchase a home in St. Petersburg. According to a historical pamphlet created by Al’s children, “When Alvin and Bunny decided to move to St. Petersburg, they proceeded to get financing to purchase a home. Mr. Downing dropped Mrs. Downing off at the bank to begin the process while he parked the car. She met with a loan officer who gladly began working out the details for a loan. As soon as Mr. Downing walked in and approached his desk, the loan officer decided that he could not offer help to them, now realizing that this was an African American couple.

Alvin and Bunny proceeded to leave the bank but as they walked toward the door, a white man approached them. He explained that he had overheard the conversation, apologized for the way the bank had treated them and asked if they had found a home yet. Alvin and Bunny told him that they were still looking. Then the man explained that he was a contractor that just built his house only a couple of years ago and that he and his family would have to be leaving for health reasons. If they liked the home, he offered to finance it, himself. That is the house that is located on 25th Street in St. Petersburg. The contractor spoke up and did an extraordinary act of bravery during a very tumultuous time in the early 60’s. He truly blessed the Downing family through his sense of equality and respect for people of all races.”

A Legacy of Love

Al and Bunny lived their lives truly in the spirit of loving others, regardless of race, color or creed. According to Al’s obituary in the Tampa Tribune on Feb. 23, 2000, Dierdre Downing-Jackson said, “Perhaps [Al’s] most important legacy…wasn’t his music. He taught us how to love. That’s why our friends are purple, pink, green and every color of the rainbow.”

Al Downing left a legacy of love, and he is still missed by friends, family and his community to this day. After Bunny passed away in 2011, Al and Bunny’s home was later designated a historic site, and for a time patrons could even schedule a tour to view their historic memorabilia. Evelyn would recount returning home from school one day to find a 26-piece big band rehearsing in the living room. The home, his children recalled, “served as a haven for musicians, family, friends and the community.” The spirit of what Al stood for in his life carries on in all those whose lives he touched, as well as through those who continue to bring his vision to St. Petersburg and the surrounding communities through Al Downing Jazz.