CHARLES AUSTIN JR.: “Music has been my life,” he said. “When I found out I could do it and do it well, I worked at it.” STOCK PHOTO

MIAMI – Miami musician Charles Austin Jr., a saxophonist who performed with legends such as Dizzy Gillespie, B.B. King and Marvin Gaye, and taught generations of students, died at Memorial Regional Hospital in Hollywood on Jan. 16 from natural causes, his daughter Sheila Austin said.

He was 93.

Austin, a Miami native, also performed with “Godfather of Soul” James Brown, Count Basie and Cannonball Adderley.

He blazed trails not only as a saxophonist but also as a multi-instrumentalist, educator and composer, while balancing his career and being a family man to his late wife, Judith, his six children, eight grandchildren and six great-grandchildren.

Music was his passion from an early age and the sounds of his horn echoed throughout the United States and Europe, as the jazz impresario was the epitome of a renaissance man.

Austin was the first African American musician to play in the orchestra at the Eden Roc Hotel in Miami Beach; was musical conductor of the 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.

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," Austin told the South Florida Times in 2020. "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 made a bigger impact in his hometown when he was a regular performer at Miami’s historic Hampton House, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Muhammad Ali and Malcolm X stayed during their visits because Blacks weren’t allowed at white hotels in Miami Beach and Miami.

Austin also started a music program at Brownsville Middle School when it first opened, and co-founded the Performing and Visual Arts Center, also known as PAVAC, at Miami Northwest Senior High School in Liberty City.

Austin’s parents’ divorce and a brush with death when he suffered from pneumonia when was 13 years old led him to pick up the saxophone after he moved to Memphis, Tenn. to live with his uncle, Dr. W.A. Bisson.

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.

Sheila Austin said her parents met while serving in the U.S. Navy and her father began his music career, first as a music teacher, after he was discharged.

She said her mother would accompany her father to his gigs and their marriage was the picture of bliss.

"In between gigs they had date nights," she said. "They were the talk of the town because of the love they had for each other."

Austin put his music career on hold to take care of his wife when she was diagnosed with cancer.

The couple had been married for 44 years when she died in 1997.

Sheila Austin said following her mother’s death, her father played at local scenes and collaborated with many artists performing at festivals and music workshops.

She said she and her siblings were required to pick up a musical instrument and learn to play.

"We all played … that was a must in our house," said Sheila Austin, who played the flute. "We all had to learn how to play instruments."

Her niece, Dawn Michelle Johnson, followed in her father’s footsteps. Johnson earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in music from the Juilliard School of Music in New York, and is a member of The Strings Queens which is currently on tour and scheduled to perform at South Dade Cultural Arts Center this year.

Austin said Johnson started performing at 15 years old including performances with Miami Beach’s New World Sympathy conductor Michael Tilson Thomas.

Johnson also has performed all over the globe including Russia. "My dad always wanted his students to go to Julliard but he did one better when his own granddaughter attended the school," Sheila Austin said. "My father was so proud of her."

Like her father, Sheila Austin made an impact on Miami’s cultural arts while serving 21 years at the MiamiDade Department of Cultural Affairs. "I was part of the Miami cultural development scene," she said.

Visitation for Charles Austin is set for Tuesday, Jan. 30 from 3 p.m. to 7 p.m. at Richardson Mortuary, 4500 N.W. 17th Ave. in Miami.

A memorial service is scheduled for Wednesday, Jan. 31 at 10 a.m. at Church of the Open Door, 6001 N.W. 8th Ave. in Miami.