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All About Sonny

All About Sonny
Dom Minasi By

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I bet you thought I meant Sonny Rollins When you hear the name Sonny, it's usually synonymous with Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt, Sonny Fortune or even Sonny Sharrock; all of them jazz heroes. But there is a Sonny you probably have never heard of before who is a super hero.

Who is he? His name is Sonny LaRosa. He is an 87 year-old retired jazz trumpeter who lives in Florida and has done more for jazz than anyone I know. He goes beyond Miles Davis, Charlie Parker or Sonny Rollins and a whole slew of others—yes, more than all of them.

How is this possible?

All of the jazz greats helped create as well as perform, compose, and inspire others to be jazz musicians and fans; but unless you grew up in a household that had jazz playing on the radio or stereo, or were introduced to jazz by a friend or relative, like most kids today, you don't have any idea what jazz is or sounds like.

Sonny LaRosa changed that. He teaches youngsters up to twelve years old to play and perform in a big band setting. And in doing so he has helped to bring new audiences and fans to a music that is in dire need of promotion in the USA and he does it out of the goodness of his own heart and the love of jazz. It does not make him rich or famous. It just makes him happy. The craft that he grew up loving and playing has reached generations of kids and in turn has taught them to love an art form that is America's classical music.

Inspiration is a wonderful thing. You may be inspired, but someone has to teach you to use that inspiration. A great teacher not only teaches what you need, but inspires and instills an appreciation for the music which you can pass along whether you become a professional, amateur or fan.

Sonny LaRosa was born on May 29th 1926. He began studying trumpet at the age of ten in Queens, New York. While attending Bryant High School he led the swing band and won a scholarship to the New York Philharmonic and began studying with the principal trumpet player William Vacchiano at the Julliard School of Music. "I always practiced very hard, three to four hours daily, gaining a very fluent technique and control of my horn," he says.

The scholarship was intended for Sonny to make a career of symphonic music, but his heart was set on playing in a big band. "When I was ten years old my father would take me to the Apollo theater to hear Louis Armstrong Duke Ellington, Lucky Millinder, Buddy Rich, Count Basie and just about every great living jazz artist. "We would go down to Nick's in the Village to converse with Bobby Hackett and Pee Wee Russell." Miff Mole befriended Sonny with advice and encouragement, but by the time he was eighteen, World War II interrupted his dream. He had hoped to play in the Army band but his Captain said absolutely not: "You're a foot soldier so forget it.

After the war, Sonny pursued his dream. He began working with his first big band, The Rolling Styles of Reggie Child's Orchestra. Leaving that band, Sonny became the featured soloist with the Bobby Meeker Big Band. Unfortunately, he was not happy with Bobby's band and so he auditioned for Chuck Foster's band at the New Yorker Hotel in 1947. Getting the job, Sonny was placed in the lead trumpet chair. The band traveled a lot. The experience was invaluable, especially performing on the radio, broadcasting coast to coast. Foster was a hard leader and he did not appreciate some of Sonny's humorous antics. He fired Sonny at least five times and, with each firing, within two weeks he would rehire him. With Foster's band Sonny recorded many records for the Mercury Label.

Sonny ended his big band career in 1951 when he married Elaine Tomei. This coming November 3rd the happy couple will celebrate their 62nd anniversary.

After Sonny decided to stop traveling, teaching became his main source of income, but in order to do so he had to learn other instruments like the guitar, which didn't work out too well for him. Frustrated, he sold it. Fortunately, pianist Irwin Cohen opened a music studio in Forest Hills, New York and asked Sonny to teach trumpet and guitar. Sonny told him he hadn't played guitar for over a year. "You mean you played before?" Guitar was such a popular instrument that Irwin thought that any musician could teach it by staying a few lessons ahead of a student (believe me that doesn't work). But Sonny knew differently. He bought another guitar and practiced two hours a day in order to be proficient enough to teach it. He also studied piano with Matty Bonelli. Bonelli had a studio in Belrose, New York. I started teaching at his studio in 1963. This is where I met Sonny. I was really flattered to discover that Sonny wanted my help. "After I watched Dom teach a lesson I asked him to help me and my son Mark," he recalls.

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