The Future Is Now
“ 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'. ”
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.”