Sonny LaRosa, 74, teaches youngsters to play jazz. To feel the music, not read it. Then they grow up, move on and he starts over with the next generation.
By LANE DeGREGORY
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 27, 2000
CLEARWATER -- It would be easier, the band director reckoned, if his trumpeter hadn't lost his front teeth. That wrecked the guy's sound for a week or two. Just like when the tenor sax player got braces.
It might help, too, if the coronet player could brush her own hair into a ponytail. Or if the musicians could read music. Or if the trombone player didn't keep coming up with kooky schemes.
But then this wouldn't be America's Youngest Jazz Band.
And 74-year-old Sonny LaRosa wouldn't be living out his boyhood dream.
On a recent Friday night, while sound men moved microphones and a stage hand set up spotlights and 300 people assembled in the ballroom at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort, the 10-year-old trombone player launched his latest plan.
"Sonny! Sonny! Can I wear these gloves tonight?" the freckled boy begged. He was dressed in a red tuxedo jacket with tails and black bow tie, waving white linen gloves in his band director's face.
The Suncoast Dixieland Jazz Fest was starting in five minutes. But the third trumpet player had to blow her nose, a saxophonist had to use the bathroom and the tenor sax player hadn't shown.
"Whad are ya, crazy?" Sonny told the boy. "Gloves? Get outta here. Fu-get about it."
"So can I?" the trombonist persisted.
"No. No gloves."
"I just wanna look like Michael Jackson."
"Not on my stage," Sonny said. "Not for this audience. Not now. Not never. Fu-get about it. Go warm up. And don't make a production of it.
"And where's Ryan anyway?" the band director asked. "He's got that big solo, you know. Whad am I gonna do without my lead sax?"
Just then, the chandeliers dimmed. Pink spots spilled across the stage. Twenty-two mini-musicians shuffled into their seats.
"I'm not gonna get upset about it," Sonny said, mostly to himself. "The show's gotta go on, you know. But sometimes, these kids . . ."
When Sonny was their age -- more than six decades ago -- he longed to play music before capacity crowds. He grew up in Queens, N.Y. His dad was an auto mechanic who never made it as a drummer.
He wanted more for his only son.
"When I was 10, he took me to the music store and traded in his drum kit," Sonny said. "Get this boy the best trumpet you got,' he told the man. Then he got me lessons and I just started blowing away."
In high school, Sonny won a scholarship to the world-famous Juilliard School. Learned music theory and composition and classical arrangements. But back in his bedroom, the teenager tired of scales and arpeggios and etudes.
Jazz jammed his head.
He'd sit beside his upstairs window, blowing blue notes toward the city, spewing his heart into his horn.
"I'd pretend I was performing in the Paramount Theater," Sonny said. "And every night, before I fell asleep, I'd pray: "Please, God, let me be the greatest trumpet player that ever lived.' "
The concert started like most kid band concerts: A 10-year-old blew a bad rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb. A 7-year-old trumpet player buzzed through the first bars of Old MacDonald. A 9-year-old trombonist squeaked something that sounded like London Bridge.
After each miserable effort, the other musicians booed. Sonny shook his head. Then he stepped back, crouched down like a catcher and sprung up with arms outstretched.
Bugle Call Rag erupted in the ballroom. Not a grade-school variety of the 1930s song, mind you. A full-on, hot, happening, we-know-what-we're-doing variation with perfect pitch and four-part harmonies. If you closed your eyes, it could have been Duke Ellington or Benny Goodman covering the timeless tune.
But these were little kids, the biggest barely old enough to babysit. And they were blowing, baby. Blowing everybody away. Swinging with back-beats, improvising through solos, swaying their horns side to side.
Elizabeth Kleinfeld, who is 7, played Ain't Misbehavin' on her trumpet. Cameron Creveling, 8, blewSugar Blues on his horn with bravado. And the gloveless trombone player, Colin Meyer, waved and winked through Satin Doll.
The audience had paid $25 each to see Pepper and Fine Thyme and Bill Allred's Classic Jazz Band and The New Reformation Band from Michigan -- some of the best Dixieland groups in the nation. Most had lived through the original jazz era, many were professional musicians.
And they were astounded by these kids.
For a decade after high school, Sonny played all over the country, in roller rinks, grand hotels and on live radio broadcasts. Then he met Elaine and they married and had two children, Laura Lee and Mark.
"I couldn't keep doing one-nighters," Sonny said. "So I took a job as a shipping clerk at the Alcoholics Anonymous headquarters where my sister was working. It hurt me, to have to stuff envelopes all day like that. But I'd practice my horn at lunch, just to keep my lip up. And that, at least, kept me half-sane.
"I don't think in my life, in the last 60-something years, I don't think there have been 40 days -- total -- that I laid off the trumpet," he said.
"Drop out for even a week, and you're dead. Fu-get about it."
Between packing boxes and selling insurance and trying to convince his daughter that the Beatles were only a brief sensation, Sonny taught himself piano and guitar and saxophone. He opened a music store. He hung out a shingle.
He started teaching students the way he taught himself: By listening, he says, you learn to feel music, not just play it.
"What's the purpose of having a kid learn all these scales, then quit?" he said. "Give 'em a style. Teach 'em to swing. That's fun. They get that. Then, they won't give it up."
The sax player showed up halfway through the set.
Sonny pushed up his rose-tinted glasses and turned toward his prodigy.
"Oh look, here's Ryan, my best tenor man," he informed the audience. "This guy, no question, is going to be one of the greatest sax players of all times. And he's 13 years old. So I gotta kick him out next year. Can you imagine?
"I'm broken-hearted when I lose these kids. That's when they start blossoming. I give 'em up just when I get 'em good. But what good would I be if I didn't inspire all the youth of the world that I could?"
Ryan Kendrick stood by the wide, white music stand looking sheepish. He moistened his reed, glanced up. Sonny nodded slightly.
Somewhere Over the Rainbow spilled out low and slow, vibrato reverberating through the long notes.
After his own kids had grown and gone, after his mother died and his dad told him he was disappointed that his only son never made it big, Sonny moved to Florida.
He put ads in the papers. He posted fliers at schools and churches. He made the rounds to local music stores, selling himself -- and the Sonny LaRosa method.
In six weeks, he signed up 80 students. He was bringing in $1,600 a month. He bought the house in Safety Harbor where he and Elaine recently celebrated their golden anniversary.
He scored a part-time position at St. Cecelia School in Clearwater. Told the principal he wanted to start a jazz band. Marching band, the principal corrected him. Jazz band, Sonny insisted. Kids get bored with marching music.
The principal didn't budge. So Sonny started his own jazz band outside the school. "The kids were crummy at first. They all sounded terrible. It's taken me 20 years. Twenty-one years! But now, fu-get about it!"
He has white hair now, and a trim white moustache. He lets his students call him Sonny because "Mr. LaRosa" makes him feel old, even though he is old, older than many of his musicians' grandparents.
He teaches part-time at Lee Academy in Tampa. He recruits band members from throughout the bay area.
Most kids who come to him have never heard jazz, much much less held a horn. Sonny shows them videos of Buddy Rich, Louis Prima, Billie Holiday. "They're dead. Sure. The kids always point that out. But these kids gotta hear those greats to know what I'm getting at. Once they do, fu-get about it.
"They stop tuning their radios to all that rock stuff and start listening to the oldies stations so they can hear our songs."
The secret to getting great sounds out of beginning musicians is in the arrangements. Sonny arranges all the songs himself. He writes each part out 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 fingerings 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 enough to extend a trombone slide and who still needs help counting. He used to teach his students to read music, too. But that took too long. This way, they pick it up while they're playing.
This way, they start making music right away.
The band practices every Saturday morning. Trumpets and trombones rehearse another 90 minutes Monday nights. Sax sectionals are on Tuesdays. Parents pay $25 a month for the lessons. The kids play as many as six gigs a month.
"My friends don't like this music. They're into Korn and Papa Roach," said 13-year-old tenor sax player Joel Kruger. "I mean, they don't mind me playing it. But they won't go out and buy our CD or anything."
The little jazz band has released two videos and a CD. It has played on the Today Show and with the Lawrence Welk Orchestra in Branson, Mo. In 1995, Sonny's group became the youngest band ever to play at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Later, the group won a gold medal at the International Music Festival in New Orleans.
In two decades, more than 400 students have sat behind the flat music stands emblazoned with Sonny's script initials. Two saxophone players have moved on to play with Wynton Marsalis.
Last year, Ashley Talbot, a drummer from St. Petersburg, became the youngest musician to win a scholarship from the Jazz Club of Sarasota. She competed against 150 high school and college students from across the nation. She's 11.
"Sonny is just a cool guy," Ashley said. "He always makes fun of us. He makes us laugh. And we get to really make real music. Not just play The Flintstones theme or things like in school."
"It's unbelievable, what he does with these kids," said Larry Kleinfeld, whose daughter, Elizabeth, plays trumpet and sings. "She doesn't even like Radio Disney now. Her life is filled with all these old, wonderful songs.
"And the collaborative effort, getting together to make something so much larger than herself, with all these other young musicians -- kids this age just don't get that opportunity."
Near the end of the Sheraton show, after the trombone player pranced around proclaiming Lulu's Back in Town, and Ashley's younger sister, Brooke, danced a samba in a rhinestone-studded sombrero and Falon Sweeney slung aside her baritone sax to sing I'm Beginning to See the Light, Sonny side-stepped around the music stands and moved the microphone.
His kids had played 22 songs. America's Youngest Jazz Band should have ended its set 15 minutes ago. But the elderly audience was on their feet, clapping and whistling, snapping photos with throw-away cameras.
Sonny raised his arms. "Okay, kids. Now I want y'all to really cut into it!" he called. One O'clock Jump rocked the house.
Sometimes, Sonny thinks of retiring. He thinks of long, lovely days with no little hands pulling on his sport coat, no saxophones buzzing bad notes in his ears, no one scheming to look like Michael Jackson. He thinks about having all day, every day, with just Elaine, their dachshund, Scout, and a mind full of music.
But as long as there are kids out there who want to swing, Sonny won't be able to sit still.
"It's not that I feel irreplaceable. But if a guy took over this band right now, it might sound the same for a while. But after a few weeks or months, fu-get about it.
"I never had the natural talent. I didn't have great ears. I wasn't a great improviser.
"God doesn't make everyone great. But the reward for all my playing and praying, it's coming now. I wish my dad were around to see.
"This is it."
Sometimes, for the last few songs of a concert, Sonny eases his shiny silver trumpet out of its black case and joins his young jazz band. His cheeks puff up as if they had tennis balls inside. He closes his eyes and is back in his bedroom window, wailing Harry James, pretending he's playing the Paramount Theater.
Only the reality is better.
Sometimes, like tonight, his horn remains silent. He just basks in his students.
Sonny LaRosa's America's Youngest Jazz Band has three more concerts this year:
Dec. 10, 1:30 p.m., Hernando Jazz Society, SNPJ Hall, County Line Road, Spring Hill
Dec. 16, 7:30 p.m., Winter Wonderland, Fort Harrison and Drew Street, Clearwater
Dec. 23, 7 p.m., Royalty Theater, 405 Cleveland St., Clearwater
To join the band or for more information, call (727) 725-1788