Jazz has given me many unexpected startling pleasures. Years ago, at Basin Street East in New York, Sonny Stitt suddenly broke into a stop-time chorus, without the rhythm section, and all conversation stopped. It was as if time itself had stopped, but was still swinging.
Five years ago, at Arbors Records’ March of Jazz in Clearwater, Fla.-a tribute to Ruby Braff on his 74th birthday-Sonny LaRosa’s “America’s Youngest Jazz Band, featuring Musicians Ages 6 to 12” was scheduled first on one of the mornings. Remembering what Charlie Parker famously said, “Music is your own experience…If you don’t live it, it won’t come out of your horn,” I wondered how much these kids could have experienced.
I’d listen to a couple of numbers, I thought, and then take a walk on the beach. But the band hit with a “Bugle Call Rag” that almost knocked me out of my seat. I stayed for the whole swinging set, which included real lyricism in the ballads. Only a very young girl trying to sing of romantic love broke the spell until the return of the instrumentals. I’ve been following the odyssey of this band ever since. It won a gold medal at an international jazz festival in New Orleans, was convincing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, and was the youngest band to have ever played at Preservation Hall in New Orleans, where it fit right into the jubiliation.
During this year’s Labor Day weekend, the world’s youngest road band worked the Sweet & Hot Musical Festival at Los Angeles Airport’s Marriott Hotel. In the audience was Rosemary Soladar, the longtime companion of one of the most joyous of jazzmen, the late trombonist Al Grey. (I’m eagerly looking forward to her book about him. He is-not only just was-in the jazz pantheon.) “The band,” she told me, “had one of the few standing ovations for these merely astonishing youngsters, led by the 80-year-old Sonny LaRosa-now in his 28th year as the arranger-conductor-mentor, and a model to these kids of how meaningful an educator can be to their lives.”
As Jalon King, an alumnus of the band, wrote Sonny three years ago: “You have taught me the heart of passion and communicating through my music…You are a true tower of inspiration to anything in my life that I do.” Sonny, who played trumpet with the underrated band of Sam Donahue, among others-and for years after, taught trumpet, piano and guitar in New York, moved to Florida in 1978, still teaching, and then started the nucleus of a band “with five or six kids who could play with good conceptions.”
Duke Ellington once told me how he wrote individually for his musicians because, he said, “I know their strengths-and their weaknesses.” In the Nov. 7, 2000 issue of “The Floridian,” a section of the St. Petersburg Times, Lane DeGregory described the LaRosa method: “Most kids who come to him have never heard jazz…Sonny shows them videos of Buddy Rich, Louis Prima, Billie Holiday…He arranges all the songs himself. He writes out each part by hand, for every instrument, individualizing the approach to fit each musician’s ability (or lack thereof). He draws the notes in black marker. The fingertips beneath in red. And he pencils the chord names in on top. He knows which kids can hold a long low C and who can hit a high F. He knows whose arms have grown long enough to extend a trombone slide and who still needs help counting.”
Listening to the band at its various gigs, jazz musicians of renown have told Sonny, “Boy, I wish I had that when I was a kid!” As a failed musician able to read any piece of music but unable to speak jazz on my clarinet, I sure wish there had been a Sonny LaRosa when I was a kid. Maybe I could have eventually fulfilled my dream of subbing for Barney Bigard in the Ellington Orchestra.
Sonny is so eager to have his youngsters be heard that he’ll split the expenses-and sometimes raise enough to pay them all-to fulfill a gig. It is utterly inexplicable to me that America’s Youngest Jazz Band has never been invited to play at George Wein’s JVC Jazz Festival in New York, at the annual International Association for Jazz Education events, or even in their home area at the Clearwater Jazz Holiday. But for IAJE especially to overlook this band is what I call educational malpractice.
In Sonny’s current band of 20 musicians, the age range begins at 7 years and there are two 14-year-old players (“to inspire the other kids,” Sonny says). But that’s the cut-off age. There are always openings in the band, and parents in the Tampa Bay area are invited to come hear the band with their kids who have shown an interest in music. Sonny LaRosa’s contact information: 1129 Pelican Place, Safety Harbor, FL 34695; phone 727-725-1788; www.sonnylarosa.com; e-mail: [email protected] At those addresses, you can get the band’s most recent CD-Sonny LaRosa & America’s Youngest Jazz Band 2006: Sonny’s 80th Birthday Edition, 28th Anniversary CD (Keeping Swing and Big Band Jazz Alive!).
Sonny sometimes thinks of retiring, but as he told Lane DeGregory: “I never had the natural talent. I didn’t have great ears. I wasn’t a great improviser. God doesn’t make everybody great. But the reward, for all my playing and praying, it’s coming now.” I’ve heard Sonny play his horn. He tells a story, his own story. Like every jazz player who’s made it. And he’s also made it as a teacher with big ears.