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America's Youngest Jazz Band will play Montreal Jazz Festival in July

With a microphone in one hand, Noah Myers brushes away shaggy red hair with the other, belts outs a song's chorus and discovers, in part, what it means to be growing up.

"I can't sing today," he tells director Sonny LaRosa when the song is finished.

It's Noah's 12th birthday and the showcased singer brings a cracking voice to a Saturday morning rehearsal.

"Your voice is changing," responds LaRosa, 83, as Noah takes his normal spot among the trumpet players.

LaRosa projects assertively as he calls out instructions to band members. A New Yorker's accent is the hint to youthful years spent on Long Island.

For three decades, he has led what is dubbed America's Youngest Jazz Band.

It's a mishmash of aspiring young musicians and those who can hardly play a note. Under LaRosa's tutelage, the 20 or so band members — none older than 14 and most from Clearwater and other North Pinellas cities — have wowed audiences across the country and abroad.

Next month brings a chance for band members to play on the main stage at Montreal's Jazz Festival. They'll play alongside the world's best, including Wynton Marsalis, Chris Botti and Stevie Wonder.

It will be a special day for LaRosa, who says, at his age, he never knows which concert will be his last. But he's got no plans to retire.

"I may be very lonely if I didn't do it," he says. "I wouldn't be a very happy person."

After all, music has been his life. He won a scholarship to study at New York's Juilliard School and spent years performing throughout the country.

In his Safety Harbor home, LaRosa's office is filled with photos of famous musicians, former students and awards. His trumpet rests on a stand nearby.

No one can re-create the band's successes, he worries. He has introduced and nurtured jazz to a digital generation, and hopes his legacy will help bring the genre's resurgence.

At a time when music education in public schools is perpetually on the chopping block, LaRosa says he teaches band members that jazz is about more than notes on a page. It's about emotion, he says.

While that might seem like a tall order for preteens, in rehearsal they taper notes, swing rhythms and crescendo together in a thunder.

The band strides through jazz standards with businesslike momentum. Dressed in matching black pants and shirts, they whisper quietly as LaRosa calls out songs in succession.

"Twelve-A," LaRosa tells the kids. Band members giggle and whisper, rifling through their sheet music. They know the songs by heart, they say, and usually don't even need to look at the pages.

For Noah, whatever self-consciousness comes as part of being 12, performance is liberation.

He sings of seductive milkmen and sways to the rhythm. Drummer Cole Hazlitt, 12, splashes a cymbal, taps a snare and keeps the band on pace. For trumpeter Monica Dinh, 14, among the band's oldest members, the genre is distinct.

"Jazz is really classy and really refined," she says.

Band members and LaRosa all agree. Some shrug off rock or rap. They prefer faces from golden eras past — Benny Goodman, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald, among them.

At home, Noah's father, Dan, fills part of the garage with his instrument repair business. Noah's bandmates stop by on occasion, seeking help for a broken horn.

"Because of Sonny LaRosa's band, my son sings jazz standards in the shower," says Dan Myers, who played with the Classics IV during the 1970s and still performs locally.

He sees his passion for performance reflected in his son's eyes.

Noah will watch his father at the gigs. Opportunities to perform are shrinking, Myers says. That's what makes LaRosa's band so special.

"These guys are going to teach the next generation," he says. For that reason, he adds, jazz will never die.

Brian Spegele can be reached at or (727) 445-4154.

Live in action

What: America's Youngest Jazz Band will perform its final fundraising concert in preparation to play at the Montreal Jazz Festival.

When: 7 p.m. Saturday.

Where: Clearwater's North Bay Community Church.

Cost: $10. Children admitted free.

America's Youngest Jazz Band will play Montreal Jazz Festival in July 06/08/09 [Last modified: Monday, June 8, 2009 8:42pm]
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