By Lane DeGregory, ST. PETERSBURG TIMES - published October 10, 2002
The concert started like every other: Some kid with a saxophone honked a barely recognizable version of Mary Had a Little Lamb. A girl tried to blow Old MacDonald on her trumpet. The kids booed each other. The band director shook his head. Then he sprung up, arms raised. Bugle Call Rag filled the ballroom.- Just like it always does.
For more than two decades, Sonny LaRosa has been starting every show of America's Youngest Jazz Band that way. He has conducted more than 500 child musicians, none of them older than 12. That night, at the 2002 March of Jazz at the Sheraton Sand Key Resort in Clearwater, Sonny did everything the same way.
Only everything was different.
Sonny didn't see the man stroll into the back of the ballroom, turn to leave, then change his mind. He didn't know that man would leave an answering machine message that would make him cry.
Sonny LaRosa is a 76-year-old trumpet player who lives in Safety Harbor. For more than six decades, he prayed to become a famous trumpet player. He wanted his music to make him immortal.
But he never had enough talent, he says. So he took to teaching.
He shows children as young as 5 how to play an instrument, read music and count time. He teaches them about Tommy Dorsey and Duke Ellington. He shows them how to swing.
He has taken his band to the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland, Preservation Hall in New Orleans, on the Today show. In June, they shared the stage with Roberta Flack and Al Jarreau at the Syracuse Jazz Festival. The band has released two videos and a CD, which came out four years ago.
Last week, Sonny released the band's second CD.
It was recorded that night, at the Sheraton in Clearwater. It includes 24 songs (Satin Doll, Stompin' at the Savoy, Stardust). Plus five bonus tracks.
But the most important part, Sonny insists, are the liner notes.
Nat Hentoff was in Clearwater that night covering the 2002 March of Jazz. He's a renowned columnist for the Village Voice, the Washington Post and Jazz Times. He's a civil libertarian and an expert on First Amendment rights. That Saturday, he had gotten up early, planning to walk along the beach before the big bands started.
As he headed through the hotel lobby, he saw 22 children dressed in red tuxedo jackets and heard the first few bad bars of Sonny's band. "I figured, what do players that young have to say -- and what could they know about swinging?" Hentoff wrote later in the Wall Street Journal. "Then Bugle Call Rag jolted me out of my misconceptions. They had the impact of the 1950s Basie Band."
Hentoff stayed through all 22 songs and introduced himself to Sonny afterward.
Later, a producer who had recorded the show suggested that Sonny make a CD out of it. A live CD.
Sonny said no.
"Some kid dropped a mute right in the middle of I've Got a Crush on You. You can't edit that stuff out," Sonny says. "Fu-get about it."
But the producer kept insisting. And some of the kids' parents started clamoring for a CD. So Sonny helped produce one. When it was done, the producer told Sonny, "You should play on it yourself."
Again, Sonny said no. Again, the producer and parents kept insisting. So Sonny complained to his son. Instead of sympathizing, Sonny's son dug up some reel-to-reel recordings he had made several years ago and sent them to the producer.
So the last five tracks are all Sonny, just his silver trumpet and an adult rhythm section, blowing 60 years of longing through such standards as Imagination.
Sonny has never played on his band's tapes or CDs. This is the first time his music has been released.
"I'm getting tired," the aging band leader says. "But hearing that CD, hearing me on that CD, it gave me the feeling that I'm not just hanging around getting old and doing nothing. It made me feel anew in the world."
He spent $6,000 from the band fund to produce 2,000 CDs. He is selling them for $15, at concerts and over the phone. He sent an early version to his new fan, Nat Hentoff.
Hentoff agreed to write the liner notes. At last, Sonny says, his kids are being recognized by one of the country's greatest jazz aficionados. "I mean, Hentoff was in Ken Burns' jazz documentary," Sonny says. "And here he is, writing our liner notes!"
Even better, though, was the answering machine message. One morning, while Sonny was out, Hentoff called his house. He had heard the final version of the CD, he said, the one that included Sonny's solo tracks.
Sonny saved that message. He plays it whenever he's feeling down, whenever he's having doubts. "It makes me cry every time I hear it," Sonny says.
He stops for a minute. Lets the silence soak in. "Here," he says. "Listen."
A click, then an electronic beep. Then Hentoff's deep voice says five words that made Sonny's life:
"You played beautifully. My goodness."