At first glance, one would think the gray-haired man with the infectious laugh was a typical elder in the community.
But 79-year-old Charles Austin has lived a life so rich, a fiction writer couldn’t have dreamed it up. A legendary saxophone player with credits that span from America to Europe, Austin is anything but ordinary.
He is Miami’s resident jazz impresario and the epitome of a renaissance man. The native Miamian has blazed trails as a saxophonist, multi-instrumentalist, educator and composer. Add to that the fact that he did it all while being a husband and a father and his genius is even more admirable.
His life is full of highlights. He’s performed with many greats, including his mentor, Dizzy Gillespie, Count Basie, Cannonball Adderley, B.B. King, Marvin Gaye, James Brown and Stevie Wonder.
He was the first black musician to play in the orchestra at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach; the musical conductor of the smash broadway hit Purlie; and winner of a 1954 edition of the “Ed Sullivan Show,” in which he simultaneously played two saxophones, holding one upside down.
But Austin said one of his proudest moments came when he was handpicked by the Nixon administration to accompany George Crumb, a renowned classical composer, to play at an American Library erected in Romania during a time when they weren’t so welcoming of Americans, and more particularly of blacks.
“Many people had submitted their music to the state department, but they chose mine. I went and I was so scared. But I got out there and I played some of the pieces I’d written and some music by Romanian composers. The people loved it. It was one of the most important times in my life,” Austin recalled.
Austin was also a driving force in music and education on the local level. In addition to being a regular performer at Miami’s Hampton House when it attracted national black icons like Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X, he also started the music program at Brownsville Middle School when it first opened, and co-founded Miami Northwestern Senior High’s PAVAC music program.
Austin’s introduction to the horn came after his parents divorced and he relocated to Memphis to live with his uncle, Dr. W.A. Bisson. A near fatal bout with pneumonia when he was 13 indirectly led Austin to pick up the sax. Bisson, who was the top black physician in the city, bought his nephew the instrument in hopes that playing it would help develop his lungs. Austin fell in love with it and immediately began studying to hone his craft.
“Music has been my life. When I found out I could do it and do it well, I worked at it. I studied under some of the top teachers, including Howard Brubeck for jazz music theory,” Austin said.
Austin was married to his wife, Judith, for 44 years until she died of cancer.
Sheila Austin is the eldest of their six children. She recalls from her childhood that her father was a strict disciplinarian who emphasized belief in God and education. As for his music, Sheila remembers her father being insanely dedicated to his craft, but noted that it wasn’t his only talent.
“Music was his first passion. But a lot of people don’t know that he’s also a very prolific writer and painter. He does wonderful abstract designs and work. In fact, at one point he was designing his own album covers,” Sheila said.
One of the things Sheila admires most about her father is the way he dropped everything to take care of her mother when she got sick.
“I remember thinking way back then that this is what it meant when they said in the wedding vows ‘in sickness and in health,’” Sheila said.
Ruth Greenfield, founder of the first integrated music conservatory in Miami, said Austin is one of Miami’s most precious treasures.
“Charles Austin is our jazz legend here in Miami,” Greenfield said.
Amy Rosenberg, founder of The Overtown Music Project, agreed with Greenfield. She recently booked Austin to play for a musical festival that honored the spirit of Overtown. She said he proved to her 400 attendees that he’s still got it.
“I am in awe of Charlie Austin. He is an extraordinary musician….I think his playing is lush and beautiful and his CDs are must-haves,” Rosenberg said.
Though Austin still plays, the educator in him is now dominant as he spends lots of time talking to youth.
“I go and talk and try to inspire youngsters…That way when I get [to heaven], I can say, ‘Father, I did good down there’ and tell Him to ask someone to testify,” Austin laughed.
Photo by Khary Bruyning. Charles Austin