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On and Off the Grid

All About Sonny

By Published: June 24, 2013
Later, Sonny moved from New City to Southold, Long Island and opened The Sonny LaRosa Music Studio where, along with his son, he gave lessons. But starting a new business in a small town isn't easy. In order to sustain, Sonny still taught in Queens, NY for two days a week and had to sleep overnight at a friend's house, because the trip was much too long from Southold to Queens, and as a teacher he would have been exhausted and not in any shape to teach.

There was also the problem of cancellations. Anyone who has ever taught knows what that can be like. On any given day you might expect to teach six hours and due to cancellations you end up with three hours with an hour wait between students. Not only is it a waste of time, you lose money. When Sonny and I were teaching in the early sixties, there was no such thing as being paid for a missed lesson.

Sonny could only endure this regimen for a year. It seems it was a losing proposition. His next-door neighbor was moving to Clearwater Florida. Clearwater sounded like a great place to live. Sonny visited him and while he enjoyed the weather, Sonny checked out all the possibilities of moving and teaching there at private and Parochial schools. He realized he would have to teach many instruments and when he got home he immediately went on a marathon of studying and learning saxophone, clarinet, flute and trombone. Sometimes he spent eight hours a day doing so.

Sonny left his family in Long Island and moved to Clearwater to try to create enough work as a teacher. He put ads in the local papers as a music teacher who came to your house. In Clearwater it seems music teachers taught out of their homes or a studio. Before long Sonny had eighty students. The next thing was to buy a house. In order to do so, he had to prove to the bank that he could afford a home. As resourceful as ever, just a few months later Sonny bought a home and his wife, Elaine, joined him. His son, Mark, stayed in Southold and started his own teaching practice which he still has—and is very successful at it.

After living in Florida for awhile, Sonny noticed the only kind of bands around were marching bands. Sonny had another dream, too—the same dream he had in New York City, but never pursued. He wanted to start and lead a swing/jazz band, but a band of kids up to twelve years old.

He started in St. Cecilia's School and some other schools and, after two years of hard work, America's Youngest Jazz Band came into existence. Since the very first day, more than six- hundred boys and girls have passed through the band and some have become professional musicians.

The band performed at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1995, as well as the Montreal Jazz Festival, the Jazz and Heritage Festival in New Orleans and the Syracuse Jazz Festival...and the list goes on and on. Imagine being a young kid and traveling and playing throughout the country, Canada and Europe. How many kids have that opportunity?

Noted jazz critic, journalist and author Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff
Nat Hentoff
b.1925
, while listening to the band perform at the four-day jazz party in Clearwater for the first time, wrote in the Wall Street Journal, "The band's first number, 'Bugle Call,' jolted me out of my misconceptions. They had the impact of the1950s Basie Band."

How does Sonny do it? First of all he doesn't use stock arrangements. Each part is handwritten. He arranges for each kid at their musical level. In other words, when a young boy/girl joins the band Sonny checks their reading ability. If it is not up to speed, Sonny will write that part to fit the child's level till he/she improves. With each improvement the parts get a little harder. The sad part is that once you've reached the end of the twelfth month of your twelfth birthday, you've graduated and it's time to leave and make room for the next kid.

For over 35 years, Sonny LaRosa has given his heart, soul and time to this music and to hundreds of kids. On November 19th, 2011 the Dixieland Jazz Classic organization introduced a new award, The Sonny. Sonny LaRosa was, of course, the first recipient. If you don't know about him, Google him and the band, it will be worth it. The love of music shines through in everything this man has done.

From me to you, Sonny, thank you for all you have done.

Photo Credit

Courtesy of Sonny LaRosa
Sonny LaRosa
Sonny LaRosa
b.1926
trumpet
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