SAFETY HARBOR — After 36 years as the founder and director of America's Youngest Jazz Band, Sonny LaRosa has called it quits.
As a devoted trumpet player for 75 years who established his "fat dark tone" and memorized lyrics to the jazz classics, LaRosa, 88, aimed to pass along his passion for big band swing and jazz to children. For more than three decades, he taught and inspired more than 600 children and teens, winning awards, playing music festivals and spreading his love of jazz.
He and his troupe of children ages 7 to 15 played venues and festivals across the country, won a gold medal at the International Music Festival in New Orleans and were the youngest ever to be invited to play at the renowned Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. LaRosa and his band also played the Suncoast Dixieland Jazz Classic Weekend in Clearwater Beach every year since 1990.
The Dixieland Jazz Classic Organization created the Sonny Award in 2011 to recognize a musician or educator who inspires children. LaRosa was the first recipient.
The past few years in LaRosa's music career have been filled with celebrations and honors for his contributions to the jazz community, but the Safety Harbor resident still makes time to keep up with former students and friends. He collects photo albums full of letters, printed emails and other correspondences.
Brandon Little, 21, joined the band when he was 9 and became LaRosa's assistant and band captain when he was 13. Little suffered from serious health problems that kept him out of school, but the band kept him focused and connected.
"It was important mentally," Little said. "It kept me doing something and connected to the world, or else I would just be in bed."
LaRosa saw how much the band helped Little and kept him around despite his age.
"I had faith in him; I gave him a brand-new trombone," LaRosa said. "I felt he deserved it for sticking it out all this time with his illness."
As the assistant, Little was the mediator and a second ear between LaRosa and the kids.
"He was definitely the leader, but I was there to help fill the gaps," Little explained. "It's wonderful to teach them (the children) discipline and focus."
Another jazz band alumnus, Walter Jones, 13, spent two years under LaRosa's direction and overcame his anxiety issues. Jones took inspiration from his great-grandfather and learned to play the saxophone, trumpet and drums. He even battled his nerves by singing alone on stage.
"Music was his therapy. It helped him concentrate and relax his brain," Jones' mother, Maria, said. "I don't know how Sonny got him to get up front and sing. He (LaRosa) is magical."
After so much, what does a lifelong musician and music educator do after retirement?
"I'm 88, but I look 40, I know," LaRosa said. "What do you do at 88? You wait to go to heaven. But I have something to look forward to; I'm looking forward to the documentary."
LaRosa and his manager, Barbara Bickerstaffe, are working on the second segment of a movie detailing LaRosa's life from his musical beginnings in Queens, N.Y., to his years with the children's jazz band. The two are working with Troy Bowman of Apollo Productions and hope to have the film completed by the summer.
LaRosa and Bickerstaffe want the documentary, The Ambassador of Jazz, to show more like a feature movie with professional actors and some interviews with LaRosa and those close to him.
It already has a trailer on YouTube, with LaRosa talking of his introduction to jazz at the Apollo Theater in New York, clips of some of his students playing and thank-you messages from band alumni Eric Darius and Dayve Stewart.
The film is funded by contributions through a GoFundMe account. LaRosa and Bickerstaffe hope to show it at local theaters and take it to festivals.
LaRosa explains his concern for the future of the band and the genre in the trailer. "If nobody continues with young kids, it's going to fade — big band swing and jazz. They should worry about finding someone to take my place."