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America's Youngest Jazz Band swings on, even as its members grow up

Sonny LaRosa, 85, has taken the band all over the world in his 34 years, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
Sonny LaRosa, 85, has taken the band all over the world in his 34 years, including the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.
Published Mar. 1, 2012

SAFETY HARBOR

At the microphone, "Louis Armstrong" is blowing When the Saints Go Marching In.

Out rolls the rocky road voice, "Oh when the saints…"

Out comes the handkerchief to wipe the sweat away.

"Go marching in…"

Out springs the smile. And those steely braces.

At Bayside Community Church in Safety Harbor, the members of America's Youngest Jazz Band, led by the indomitable Sonny LaRosa, are practicing for their concert Saturday night.

Mop top Parker Adams tried out for the ensemble when he was 10.

"I cried because I was so nervous," he said. "But I found Sonny and he gave me the dream."

After Adams got his braces, it took six months to grow calluses in his mouth so it didn't hurt to play the trumpet — and imitate Armstrong.

But come June when the band's season ends, the 14-year-old and nine other members of the 16-piece band will have to move on, since they've hit the cutoff age. Otherwise, it wouldn't be America's Youngest Jazz Band anymore.

And this has director Sonny LaRosa, 85, singing the blues.

"I'm losing the entire saxophone section," he lamented.

On Saturday, the youngsters will don their red tuxedo jackets and take the audience on a trip to the days of Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Benny Goodman with songs like Goody Goody, Lulu's Back in Town and Stardust.

LaRosa hopes some preteens in the audience will want to give the old sounds a new try. General admission tickets for the 7 p.m. show at the church are $10, but it's free for kids younger than 12.

"It's getting harder and harder to find kids who are interested in this kind of music," LaRosa said. "But I always find them.

"When we came back from performing at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland in 1995, I lost 12. Then I found some new stars. I will again. I hope. This is the only band like this in the world. We've got to keep this music alive."

• • •

On Saturday, Jonathan Kenney, 13, of Seminole will play a soulful Stormy Weather on the trumpet.

"I just get a tingling feeling when I play jazz," he said.

Sisters Ruby and Melody Toscano, 16 and 13, will impersonate the Andrew sisters with Bei Mir Bistu Schein (sung in Yiddish) and other classics. Ruby plays the sax and Melody is fierce on the drums.

Why, given her great age, is Ruby still in the band?

"I can't break up a sister act," LaRosa said. "And Ruby's the best saxophone player you'll ever hear."

Then there's 18-year-old Brandon Little, a trombonist he can't let go either. Brandon started with LaRosa at 9. He wanted to be a saxophonist but so did everyone else. LaRosa needed a trombone player; Brandon was game — despite serious health problems. At one point, Brandon was having about 50 seizures a day. He says the music, the band and LaRosa were key to his recovery.

"This keeps my mind together," Brandon said.

Now he's LaRosa's assistant.

LaRosa has taught his students that music is much more than notes on a page.

"It's phrasing, breath control, feeling. I teach these players to perform like a singer would."

He teases them, too, with his New York-inflected tough talk. Calls them brats. Says he's going to fire them all.

"This isn't easy, you know, it's much harder than it looks," he said. "They say I'm a genius —and I think I must be to put up with these guys."

• • •

LaRosa doesn't want to retire.

"Maybe," he says, "when I'm 95."

He began playing the trumpet at 10 in Queens, N.Y. He'd practice three hours a day. At 15, he won a New York Philharmonic scholarship to study at Juilliard. By 18, he was on the road with swing bands that played in famous hotels.

"I prayed every night, 'Please God, help me be the greatest trumpet player in the world.'

"I wasn't. I was second."

But as one dream fades, another takes its place.

In 1978, he and his wife Elaine left Long Island for Florida. For 34 years, he's been living his dream, taking his young charges to perform all over the world. They've swung at the prestigious New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, Montreaux, the Sun Valley Jazz Jamboree in Idaho, the Lawrence Welk Theater in Missouri, the Syracuse Jazz Festival in New York, the Montreal Jazz Fest and at Preservation Hall in New Orleans.

In 1999, they played at a jazz festival in the shadow of the World Trade Center.

Later, they would raise money for the children who had lost parents on 9/11, and for musicians who lost their instruments in Hurricane Katrina.

LaRosa has worked with saxophonist Eric Darius and R&B singer Ryan Kendrick. Some band members have gone on to play with notables such as Al Green. Others have won music scholarships.

Former President Bill Clinton and noted jazz journalist Nat Hentoff have sung LaRosa's praises.

And after 61 years of marriage is Elaine proud of his accomplishments?

"Are you kidding? Who wouldn't be proud of a guy like me?"

Ba-dum-bum-CHING.

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