Famed Tuskegee Airmen, Alvin J. “Al” Downing, was an influential jazz musician, bandleader, and Gibbs High School educator.
By Gwendolyn Reese
Alvin J. “Al” Downing, influential jazz musician, bandleader, teacher, and member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen.
Born in Jacksonville, 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. Downing started as a cadet at Tuskegee but left the flying program in Alabama because of asthma. He applied for officer candidate school, won a lieutenant’s commission, and returned to Tuskegee where he became adjutant and 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 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 and the 1983 Friends of the Arts award from the Pinellas County Arts Council. In 1996 he was inducted into the St. Petersburg Downtown Hall of Fame.
Downing was the first African-American commissioner of the Housing Authority of St. Petersburg and the first African-American member of the St. Petersburg Symphony Orchestra.