ST. PETERSBURG — The Manhattan Casino, once a musical nerve center of the African-American community, had sat idle for more than 40 years.
In recent years, jazz aficionados wanted to revive the venue that had once brought the likes of B.B. King, Duke Ellington and Louis Armstrong to 642 22nd St. S. The casino reopened in October 2011, headlined by the Dizzy Gillespie All Stars quintet, featuring trumpeter and two-time Grammy winner Roy Hargrove.
Pulling together that three-day event took a village, backed by the support of then-Mayor Bill Foster and the muscle of local volunteers. Yet the signature coup — getting the Dizzy Gillespie quintet — only moved from a vague hope to a booking because a retiree from Newark, N.J., happened to know the right people.
Since moving to St. Petersburg in 2003, Rick Gee had thrown himself into the local music scene — determined, as he often put it, to "keep jazz alive."
" 'Keep jazz alive,' that was kind of his byword," said Dr. Robert Rehnke, 52, a plastic surgeon who also served on the committee to open the Manhattan Casino, and who described Mr. Gee as a "really cool guy who just knew people."
Always well-groomed and nattily dressed, Mr. Gee used his background as a corporate finance manager to get things done. As the story goes, the Manhattan planning committee members were floating names for possible headliners when someone brought up New York-based Dizzy Gillespie All Stars.
On the face of it, luring the group to 22nd Street was a pipe dream. As the prospect dangled, about to evaporate, Mr. Gee spoke up.
"Let me see what I can do," he said. Mr. Gee contacted John Lee, Gillespie's former bassist and an old friend now playing with the All Stars.
Everything fell into place from there.
Mr. Gee, an energetic man who advanced jazz in St. Petersburg, Tampa and Sarasota, died March 1 of heart failure. He was 79.
"I think he was a major influence, not just on the African-American community but every cultural avenue," said Alex Harris, 33, who directs the Arts Conservatory for Teens at the University of South Florida St. Petersburg and planned part of the Manhattan opening weekend.
"One of the many things he will be remembered for is using music to bring the community together," Harris said.
Mr. Gee brought generations together, putting former Duke Ellington bassist John Lamb and jazz pianist Kenny Drew Jr., both local products, in the same room with a rotating crop of rising jazz stars — flute player Jose Valentino Ruiz and saxophonists Eric Darius and BK Jackson among them.
About 10 years ago, Mr. Gee began putting on Rick Gee's JazzJamm, an eclectic monthly event at several venues, most often the Mahaffey Theater.
"You hear jazz musicians say blues has three chords and 1,000 people in the audience," Rehnke said. "Jazz has 1,000 chords and three people in the audience. They need a stage. Rick made that happen."
Though he played a passable jazz flute himself, Mr. Gee had spent most of his career reading spreadsheets, not music. Born in 1934 in Newark, he graduated from Howard University, where he was a swimming star. Teammates called him "Boy Porpoise."
He was working as a legislative aide for U.S. Sen. Clifford Case, R-N.J., when the Army called. Mr. Gee would later marry and have two daughters, leading a 9-to-5 life as a credit manager for the pharmaceutical company Ciba-Geigny (now Novartis).
He lived for weekends, when jazz musician friends would gather in his basement after their gigs and continue playing.
Mr. Gee had been looking forward to an outdoor jazz event he had been organizing at the Carrollwood Cultural Center, said Yvonne Alsup, Mr. Gee's girlfriend. Due to his passing, that event might not take place, she said.
Andrew Meacham can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2248.