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ArtSpotlight

Lifetime Achievement Spotlight

Ernie Calhoun
Musician

Photograph by Herb Snitzer

Tenor saxophone player Ernie Calhoun became an octogenarian in April, but the thought of retiring hasn't even begun to enter his mind. On any weekend the beloved entertainer is apt to be donning his best suit and strutting out with his horn to play for a concert or a private party. Always in charge, he'll be bringing with him a rhythm section of long time friends, established musicians, somewhat younger, of course. He'll be recognized and cheered by many during the course of the evening.

 

Born in Jacksonville, Ernie was the youngest of three boys in the family, but moved as a baby with his parents, Joseph and Martha, to Akron, Ohio. Four years later, his father, an electrician, died. His death broke up the family, causing Ernie's two brothers to go to live with grandparents and leaving Ernie's mother alone to care for him. In 1938, when he was thirteen, she brought him back to Florida. Ernie attended all-Black public schools in Tampa graduating from Middleton High and playing a saxophone in the school's band.

 

At seventeen, Ernie helped the World War II war effort by working as a rubber compounder in the chemical lab for B.F.Goodrich. This enabled him to buy his first horn. Essentially self taught, Ernie took lessons from a teacher he called "Professor Rodriguez" often walking to his house at night in lamp light, two miles from the end of the bus stop. The walk was worth it, he said. He was developing his rich, full sound on his saxophone.

 

Ernie and his mother lived on Central Avenue in Tampa across the street from J. Pellara Grocery and Butcher Shop. Next to the shop was the Central Hotel where visiting musicians stayed. Ernie worked as a delivery boy, bringing food to the musicians and hanging around to listen to their rehearsals. Meanwhile Ernie was practicing three hours a day on his own and one day the soulful sounds of his horn floated through his open window to the hotel across the street. Percy Mayfield, a blues and ballad musician, soon rapped on the door of the Calhoun house asking to meet the sax player. Though Ernie's mother hesitated to disturb him, the meeting with Percy Mayfield led to a job for Ernie that very night and at eighteen he went on the road with the group.

 

At this time Ernie was making friends with a future legend, 16-year old pianist Ray Charles who arrived in Tampa in 1946 after leaving the Florida School for the Deaf and Blind in St. Augustine. Ray played in the Manhattan Casino in St. Petersburg and the Blue Room in Tampa. From his hotel room on Central Avenue he walked to Ernie's house to study and practice with him. They worked together in the Manzy Harris Orchestra and later with Charlie Brantley and the Honeymooners. After three years, Ray left for Seattle and stardom, but Ernie never forgot his sessions with him because Ray always kept in touch.

 

Ernie was a teenage Army enlistee in World War II for a brief tour and later he served in the Korean Conflict. Assigned to the 167 Rangers, 2nd Division in Korea, he suffered a leg wound from a mortar blast in 1950. To complete his service he drove Army trucks through muddy roads, carrying ammunition to the front lines.

 

Ernie attended Morehouse College in Atlanta on a scholarship, becoming active in the civil rights movement. When his mother took ill, he returned home and continued his studies at vocational schools, pursuing business law and accounting. He had dreams of being an attorney.

While playing his saxophone most nights, Ernie had a full-time day career. He worked as a job developer for minority youth at the Tampa Comprehensive Employment Program from 1973 until 1996. The nonprofit job placement organization, later known as WorkForce, was funded by the Federal government. It called upon Ernie to be not only a technical advisor, but to serve in a community relations capacity helping minority youth to succeed, many of them handicapped and from low income families. Serving as many as 600 youth at a time, he coordinated their on-the-job training opportunities in factories, hospitals, offices, department stores, etc. then sought to place them in regular jobs -- all the time worrying how they could get from their homes to work and back. Following up, he became their personal counselor, urging them to save some of their money and to better themselves in life. He touched the hearts and lives of thousands as he gave a helping hand to those who needed it. He promoted economic growth for minorities and he derived satisfaction from learning of the success of his clients. "We had the love and concern for the people," Ernie recalled. "Our work helped to unify us as a people." Under his watch, the Tampa Comprehensive Employment Program became a model operation for the nation. From the youth program Ernie was called upon to also assist in the senior citizen program with a staff of 139 persons to help him direct the public employment service. Though no longer holding this challenging job, to this day he still gets occasional calls for help.

 

Over the course of his 65-year music career, Ernie traveled with the Lloyd Price Big Band throughout the Southeast, then played in Canada with drummer-organist Chris Columbo. In 1958, he came off the road and launched his own band, "Ernie Cal and the Soul Brothers, " which had a steady gig five nights a week at the Ace Lounge and Club on Cass Street in Tampa . "Our band backed visiting headliners, the best and the greatest," Ernie recalled, "Cab Calloway, Lionel Hampton, Duke Ellington, Jimmie Lunceford, we played for all of them."

 

Ernie's band evolved in 1961 into the "Al Downing and the All Stars" band. By 1964, it was considered by many to be the leading jazz band in the Tampa Bay area in the past century. Piano legend, the late Al Downing, was the group's esteemed leader, but it was Ernie's golden tenor that created the group's unmistakable rich sound, recognized and loved by so many jazz followers.
Al Downing founded the Al Downing Tampa Bay Jazz Association in 1981 to help promote and preserve America's classic jazz music. Ernie, a charter member, supported the Association throughout its exceptional efforts to present jazz programs to the general public and to provide scholarships for the education of young jazz students. The octogenarian continues to be a loyal standard bearer for jazz in Tampa Bay.

 

--By Maggi Bevacqua-Geddes



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