BY JON WILSON, Columnist
Jazz master Alvin Joseph Downing, widely known for his music and for his connection to the famed Tuskegee Airmen, also achieved at least two historical firsts in St. Petersburg.
He became the first black member of the St. Petersburg Housing Authority in 1966, which at the time ran Jordan Park and Laurel Park. Downing also was the first black member of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.
But his musical achievements, which included infusing young people with an appreciation for music of all kinds, made Downing a legendary personality in St. Petersburg.
Known simply as Al – and eventually the “Ambassador of Jazz” – Downing returned to St. Petersburg in the 1960s after a 21-year stint in the military. He soon saw that the city offered few opportunities for jazz musicians to get together, and even fewer chances for young people to cultivate their musical talent.
He organized the Allegro Music Society and the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association, which proved to be outlets both for musicians and aficionados.
Having taught at Gibbs High School before the start of World War II, Downing is credited with organizing the school’s marching band and orchestra. After the war, he renewed teaching. He began at Gibbs Junior College, and later transferred to St. Petersburg Junior College’s Clearwater Campus, teaching music theory, keyboard, brass, woodwinds and percussion.
When he retired from formal teaching, Downing continued working with youngsters, becoming a special favorite at Perkins Elementary. The school named its theater after him, and a mural by Herbert Davis honors him. The mural portrays Downing surrounded by a children’s choir and orchestra, and its message to the youngsters is “Reach for the moon.”
Born in Jacksonville, Downing’s father was a railroad porter and street musician; his mother was a seamstress. He formed his first band, Ten Clouds of Joy, while still in high school.
He attended Alabama State College, transferring to Florida A&M. There he met his future wife, Bernice “Bunny” Gause. Early in World War II, he enrolled as a cadet at Tuskegee, but left the flight program because of asthma. Given a clerk’s job, Downing soon grew restless, applied for officer candidate school and won a lieutenant’s commission.
Returning to Tuskegee, he became adjutant, then commander of the 613th Army Air Force Band. It entertained troops on bases throughout the United States and Japan, and Downing earned the rank of major before he retired.
Such was Al Downing’s talent; he might have left St. Petersburg for a larger city. But he preferred to stay home, working with children and advancing the appreciation of jazz.
“Most people who get educated always go to New York or someplace, trying to hit the big time,” Downing told a newspaper. “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.”
His devotion was recognized in 1996 when he was inducted into St. Petersburg’s Downtown Hall of Fame.
The Ambassador of Jazz passed away in the year 2000. He was 83.