By Bob Andelman
October 17, 1984
By a combination of popular acclaim and default, pianist Al Downing is Pinellas County’s father of Jazz.
“You live by your reputation,” he joked. It’s getting so people call and say, ‘We want you to play. We haven’t heard you, but we hear you’re good.’ I don’t know – (maybe) I shouldn’t tell those people I just retired, so I can hold onto my reputation.”
Downing, 68, has been playing and teaching jazz on and off here over the last five decades and continuously since 1961.
A 1939 graduate of Florida A&M University, he came to St. Petersburg and became a teacher at Gibbs High School, where he started a dance band.
“Some of the kids coming out of St. Petersburg, their first experience with jazz was with me,” he said recently.
Downing said that despite the attention drawn to the music during Jazz Holiday, this area never has had a strong jazz tradition.
“Please come and go. They have it for awhile: then they stop. There is no place that I know of that offers a steady diet of jazz, five to six days a week. I just can’t be so very enthusiastic about the jazz spirit in this area. It’s a one-time thing – every Sunday or every Monday. But you don’t have that kind of spirit that runs every day.
“We’re letting people with this talent let it go to waste. Your tenure is either sporadic, short-lived or uncertain.”
ONE OF the problems is that so many performers and listeners have so many ideas about what jazz is, from Dixieland to classical to jazz fusion. Downing suggested that “maybe you’ve got so-and-so playing here, but they’re not playing the kind of jazz people want to hear.
“I’ve seen Billy Taylor come to this town and get almost a no-show audience. It is depressing . . . I’m still searching for the answer.”
A possible salve for the local scene would be the emergence of a young musician based here, a Herbie Hancock or Richie Cole, to excite the area’s interest, Downing said.
However, Downing can’t encourage young people to follow jazz exclusive of other things.
“My advice to those youngsters pursuing jazz has been : Don’t put all your eggs in one basket. Jazz is such an insecure commodity, you couldn’t depend upon it for a livelihood.”
There is optimism though, from an”awakening” interest in jazz brought out by groups like the 1,000 member Sarasota Jazz Club. Downing himself operates the nonprofit Florida Jazz Association, which currently has 70 members and publishes a monthly newsletter.
ALTHOUGH HE retired in 1983 from teaching (after 20 years at St. Petersburg Junior College), Downing has no plans to give up jazz.
“It’s beautiful music” despite the pitfalls, he reasserted. “I find it an enjoyable way for me to have that freedom of expression, to give vent to my moods. Jazz is more the performer than the music itself. It’s what the performer is trying to communicate. He feels something but he doesn’t feel it in a conventional way . . .
“Behold the guy playing Guy Lombardo in a jazz style. You can’t say that isn’t jazz – the guy over there will say that is jazz.”