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Big Band Report

The Future Is Now

By Published: March 1, 2003
Like Meredith Willson’s fictional Professor Harold Hill, Sonny LaRosa is a “music man,” a modern-day pied piper who takes untrained kids and molds them into a community band. Unlike the smooth-talking Professor Hill, however, LaRosa actually knows something about music, having played trumpet since age ten and mastered several other instruments including piano, guitar, trombone, saxophones, flute and clarinet while preparing for his “second career” as a bandleader, which began after he moved to west-central Florida twenty-four years ago.

Since that time Sonny has led ”America’s Youngest Jazz Band” (whose album, Live at the March of Jazz 2002 is reviewed elsewhere at this site). It may be the world’s youngest band as well, with an upper age limit of twelve years and most of its members between the ages of nine and eleven. “I believe in putting kids in the band as soon as possible,” says the seventy-six-year-old human dynamo. “If they wait too long they start to lose interest. Hearing the arrangements (which LaRosa writes especially for them) over and over helps to get them going.” There is no lower age limit, he notes, adding, “I once had a four-year-old trumpet player who was very talented so I had him playing and singing ‘Bye Bye Blues’ and ‘The Saints’ with incredible conception. It helped inspire many other youngsters.”

To further inspire them, LaRosa has his own unique way of teaching, one that emphasizes awareness and enthusiasm and de-emphasizes notes and scales. “If I were to teach [the kids] the way I was taught,” he says, “it would take years before they could be a part of [the band]. I don’t start them with tedious chores such as counting, running up and down scales, learning the names of notes, etc. I realize the necessity of this, but just about all my kids are nine, ten or eleven years old. They’ll [learn] this in due time. I want them to learn how to play a ballad with feeling and emotion. . . .Practice becomes less of a burden because they’re doing what they enjoy.”

That sense of enjoyment is palpable on The March of Jazz, counterbalancing the lapes in intonation, dynamics and rhythm that are bound to occur when musicians as young as these come to grips with the nuances of big-band Jazz. The important thing is that they are learning, and as they grow older they continue to learn. “Many who have graduated are working their way through college playing music,” LaRosa notes. “Several have become outstanding Jazz artists; others are living with the fondest memories of [having been with] ‘the best band of its kind in the world’.” LaRosa played with some pretty good bands too, starting as a teenager in New York City and continuing for a number of years before he was married. “When I got married,” he recalls, “I decided never to go on the road again. It was a rough decision but a worthy one. I started to get into teaching but found that teaching only trumpet wouldn’t bring in enough income so I was forced to take day jobs as a shipping salesman, insurance clerk, whatever would help me support my family. But I never stopped practicing my horn.”

Later, when LaRosa decided to move to Clearwater, Florida, he says he noticed that “there were many marching bands but no big swing bands for the younger kids.” He decided to do something about that, and before long “America’s Youngest Jazz Band” was born, with Sonny setting a strict upper age limit of twelve. “It hasn’t been and is not an easy job,” he says of his role as leader. “It’s kind of like a Little League coach with parents bugging him to feature their kids.” But LaRosa has persevered, not only supervising the band but writing all of the arrangements, varying the approach according to each musician’s ability. He draws the notes with a black marker, adding the fingerings beneath, in red, and penciling in the chord names on top. “The younger kids,” he says, “look forward to the older ones graduating so they can take over their solos. I play for them and put the concepts on tape so they can study while they practice. The vocalists are trained the same way, and everyone is asked to listen to the great [Jazz] artists.”

It’s a system that seems to be paying dividends, as the band has earned standing ovations at the Montreux, Syracuse and Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals, the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, the Swing ’n Dixie Jazz Jamboree in Sun Valley, Idaho, and the International Music Festival, also in New Orleans, where it was a gold medal winner. It has also caught the ear of prominent author and journalist Nat Hentoff, who has written the sleevenotes for The March of Jazz, and renowned musician / educator David Liebman, who writes: “Sonny LaRosa should be given a Medal of Freedom for the work he is doing with what must be the youngest Jazz musicians in the world. Not only has he taught them each on their own instruments, he has molded them into a truly remarkable unit. When you see the pride that is reflected in these youngsters’ faces, and the way they stand tall to strut their stuff, you will know why I give Sonny so much credit for what he has done for these budding Jazz musicians. This gives you hope for the future of culture and the arts in this country.” Adds Hentoff, “[Sonny] should be a model to many educators throughout the world.”

And at age seventy-six, LaRosa has no plans to slow down. “Why do I do it?” he says. “Well, first of all, I love kids, and to get them to perform with such professionalism and receive adulation not only from the audience but from the greatest musicians in the world makes me a happy man.” Almost as happy, one should point out, as those who are lucky enough to hear and appreciate America’s Youngest Jazz Band.

The Grammies Get It Right
The Grammy Awards, which I usually dismiss as vacuous rubbish, made at least one respectable choice this year in presenting the 2003 Grammy for Best Album by a Large Jazz Ensemble to bassist Dave Holland’s What Goes Around. While it’s far from the best big-band album I heard last year, it does have a lot to recommend it, and since the voters remain blissfully unaware of almost every working big band both here and abroad, they made the best decision they could under the circumstances.

And Speaking of Awards . . .
Composer / arranger Wally Dunbar, whose splendid big-band album Everything in Time (Consolidated Artists) was released last year, has been named Best Jazz Composer in the annual poll conducted by the newspaper BIS in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and placed fourth among arrangers behind Claus Ogerman, Lalo Schifrin and Don Sebesky. Everything in Time was fourth on the paper’s list of the top ten albums, with another album on Consolidated Artists, pianist Mike Longo’s Still Swinging, ranked first. Holland, who won the Down Beat readers and critics polls as top acoustic bassist, didn’t fare as well in Rio, placing fourth behind (the late) Ray Brown, Ron Carter and Richard Davis. Charlie Haden rounded out the top five. Other Brazilian favorites included pianist Roland Hanna, organist Tony Monaco, drummer Dennis Chambers, percussionist Airto Moreira, vibraphonist Joe Locke, guitarist Anthony Wilson, violinist Jean-Luc Ponty, flutist Hubert Laws, clarinetist Kenny Davern, trumpeter Till Brönner, flugel Kenny Wheeler, trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, soprano saxophonist Dave Liebman, alto Phil Woods, tenor Wayne Shorter, baritone (the late) Nick Brignola, singers Tony Bennett and Diana Krall, the vocal group Take 6, instrumental group Manhattan Jazz Quintet and big band, the Manhattan Jazz Orchestra (followed by the Danish Radio Jazz Orchestra, the Mingus Big Band, the Dave Holland Big Band and Carla Bley’s orchestra).

A Warm Farewell
To bass trumpeter Cy Touff, who made that uncommon instrument dance and sing during his four-year tour of duty with Woody Herman’s thundering Third Herd in the early ’50s. A native Chicagoan, Cy returned home after touring with the Herd and became an important part of the city’s studio scene. For about a decade during the ’70s and ’80s he co-led with trumpeter Bobby Lewis the small band, Ears. Touff was seventy-five years old.

And that’s it for now. Until next time, keep swingin’!

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