A Sweet Sound

Nonagenarian Al Sweet is young for his age.
Steve Lyons, director of the St. Louis Park Community Band, left, and Al Sweet, enjoy making music.

You might think after spending 40 years in the educational system, someone might simply want to be done with teaching and learning, and simply want to relax.

But that’s not the case for Alan Sweet, the 91-“and a half”-year-old St. Louis Park Community Band member who plays the trombone and also “dabbles a bit with the piano.” Oh, and he also arranges and composes his own music.

Sweet, who lives in Edina, started playing in grade school and continued through high school band. During World War II, he played in Army bands, and later Army Air Corps dance bands in this country and in the 8th Army Air Corps in England. 

“I played with some very good Air Corps dance bands, including the 2nd Air Division band aboard the Queen Elizabeth. Some of the bands I played with also had members who had played in big-name dance bands such as Benny Goodman and Les Brown. I learned a lot from them,” says Sweet.

Sweet started his professional career as a high school band director in Aitkin, Minn., and later taught band in Grand Rapids, St. Paul Park, Duluth and Minneapolis Marshall High School.

However, during World War II, Sweet suffered ear damage, and after 12 years working with bands, he experienced such ear pain that doctors told him he would have to stop working with bands full time.

After the war, he returned to the University of Minnesota and earned a degree in music education and a master’s degree in education, along with certification in counseling; he eventually became a counselor at Edison High School in Minneapolis. Eight years later he was hired as a supervisor of the New Careers Program for the Minneapolis Public Schools, finally finishing his 40-year career as a counselor at the Work Opportunity Center for Minneapolis Public Schools.

Throughout his years teaching, Sweet never lost the will to learn. As long as it had to do with music, his ear and mind remained at attention.

In the early 1990s, when Sweet was the director of the Northern Winds Community Band in Bloomington, John Klinger (the director of the St. Louis Park community band at the time) offered to loan Sweet some music.

“When I went to pick it up, he invited me to join [the community band],” recalls Sweet of his beginnings in St. Louis Park. “That was in September 1994, and I have been with the band ever since; it’s a good band and full of talented, interesting and wonderful people. I’m grateful for their friendship.”

His years spent learning music propelled Sweet’s interest to create music on his own; he just had to find his niche.

“I started arranging music when I was in the Army for an Air Corps dance band. As a result, I was detached from my duties to write the arrangements for a musical program celebrating the end of the war in Europe,” says Sweet.

“But the motivation for composing rather than arranging came from wanting to feature the trombone section of the St. Louis Park Band. The director had been featuring various groups during concerts, and I thought it was time to feature trombones. Since I didn't know of a ‘suitable’ piece to do it, I decided to try to write one. After that, the request was made for me to continue composing, and I just felt like writing more.”

Those who know Sweet aren’t amazed at what he does in light of his age; they’re amazed at what he does, period.

“I have learned from Al that age is just a number. I am 72 and have to keep up my skill level with many fine young musicians,” says Jim Rhodes, an alto sax player for the St. Louis Park Community Band since 1975. “Al is an inspiration for me (and others) as an example of music being an ageless hobby.”

Rhodes has known Sweet since they first met in 1994. “Al’s talents are his musicianship in playing his trombone, and just as important is his outlook on life,” Rhodes adds. “He is always thinking of doing something to stretch his talents.” In addition to his role with the St. Louis Park Community Band, Sweet is also involved in the Classic Big Band (a 17-piece dance band plus vocal quartet) and another band, The Somewhat Dixieland Band, which focuses on playing in senior residences and church groups.

Steve Lyons, who has been the director of the St. Louis Park Community band for three years, also sees Sweet as someone who brings multiple attributes to his bands.

“Al is a man of many talents. He is humble, ethical, kind to others and has a great respect for all people. He has life experience that is difficult for most of us ‘younger’ folks to truly understand,” Lyons says. “He has great musical talent, but his real talent is appreciating and validating others. Al has an uncanny ability to make others feel welcome and valued.

“That means composing music to express himself, and leaving a legacy while being a role model for others by living a life of goodness,” Lyons continues. “I don’t think he does that to set an example, I think it’s just who he is.”