How does one review the debut album by Sonny LaRosa and America's Youngest Jazz Band (which, by the way, is no exaggeration)? It's not enough merely for the reviewer to observe that it leaves him grinning from ear to ear. He must also describe the music. But would that be fair to the musicians or their audience? What standard should be applied to performers whose average age is less than eleven with an "upper limit" of twelve? This ain't Basie, or even your average junior high school band.
On the other hand, LaRosa has somehow managed to instill a love for big-band jazz in these twenty-five preteens from Florida that brings them together to play the music to the best of their ability, and for that alone he deserves a standing ovation and the gratitude of everyone who cares about the future of big-band jazz. LaRosa, who started playing trumpet at age ten, organized his kids' band after moving to Florida twenty-four years ago, establishing a strict upper age limit of twelve. "I believe in putting kids in the band as soon as possible," he says. "If they wait too long they start to lose interest. Hearing the arrangements (which he writes especially for them) over and over helps to get them going." LaRosa has "got them going" as young as four years of age.
One of the soloists on The March of Jazz, eleven-year-old trumpeter / vocalist Julia Main, has been with the band since she was six. The oldest soloists (at age twelve) are altos Cameron Decker and Santi Alexis, trumpeter Megan Kelly, tenor Randy Yandek and trumpeter / vocalist Kevin Sanford, the youngest nine-year-old trumpeter / vocalist Elizabeth Kleinfeld. Eleven-year-old drummer Madison Byers is featured on "I'll See You in My Dreams" (listed on the album as "I Want to Be Happy").
Please bear in mind that these kids are rather new to the music, so don't expect them to play or sing on key. That they are playing big-band jazz at all is remarkable enough, and their enthusiasm is contagious. LaRosa is understandably proud of the present band and those that have gone before it. "Many [of those] who have graduated are working their way through college playing music," he says. "Several have become outstanding Jazz artists, [while] others are living with the fondest memories of [having played with] the best band of its kind in the world." Not to mention perhaps the only band of its kind in the world. Sonny's ensemble is the youngest ever to perform at New Orleans' fabled Preservation Hall, has received well-deserved praise and applause at the Montreux, Syracuse, New Orleans and Bell Atlantic Jazz Festivals, and was a gold medal winner last year at the International Jazz Festival in New Orleans.
LaRosa has introduced these kids to jazz and given them a foundation on which to build; the rest, if they choose to continue playing, will come later. For now, we can be thankful that there are people like Sonny who focus their time and energy on the younger generation, making music fun and in so doing helping to make the world a better place in which to live. As well-known author and journalist Nat Hentoff, one of the Youngest Jazz Band's staunchest admirers, writes in the album's liner notes: "Sonny LaRosa has shown how to instill in so many youngsters life-long self-confidence . . .He should be a model to many educators throughout the world."
Bravo, Sonny and bravo, kids, for tackling big-band jazz head-on and giving it the best you have.
Track Listing: Introduction; Bugle Call Rag; Sugar Blues; Stormy Weather; Satin Doll; Harlem
Nocturne; Memories of You; Ain?t Misbehavin?; Stompin? at the Savoy; Don?t Know
Why; Do Nothin? Till You Hear from Me; Them There Eyes; Over the Rainbow; I?ve
Got a Crush on You; Swingin? the Blues; Stardust; I?m a Big Girl Now; Sophisticated
Lady; Lullaby of Broadway; I Want to Be Happy; Let?s Get Away; Bye Bye Blues;
Witchcraft; Exit comments. Bonus tracks -- Angel Eyes; Imagination; Everything
Happens to Me; I Should Care; Close to You (64:26).
Personnel: Santi Alexis, Andy Freeman, Michael Rumore, Erik Dolores, alto sax; Cameron
Decker, alto, tenor sax; Randy Yandek, tenor sax; Devin Collins, baritone sax;
Megan Kelly, Cameron Creveling, Julia Main, Lara Bradbury, Elizabeth Kleinfeld,
Kevin Sanford, Trey Moore, Maya Bastille, trumpet; Colin Meyer, Raul Alexis, Kayla
Flannery, Philip Karpowich, Nathaniel Smith, trombone; Michael Palmer, bass;
Madison Byers, drums.