Bringing World-Class Jazz to the Magic City
BY ALIX SHARKEY PORTRAIT BY GARY JAMES
The next musical revolution will start in Miami, says Larry Rosen. Wait, is he serious? Is he daring to make a prophecy? And if so, can he cite history and cultural theory to back it up? "Down the years, new music has been born in New Orleans, Memphis, Chica- go, San Francisco, New York and L.A. And the next place will be Miami. Why? Because right now it has all the elements needed to create something really unique and new, something that's going to move music to a completely other place." Seated at the mixing desk of the legendary Nola recording studios in Manhattan's mid-town a 13-year-old Barbra Streisand made her first recording here he leans back in his chair and nods gravely.
"There's already an amazing cultural mix, a kind of world music culture that's just being born," Rosen says. "Then there's the entrepreneurial spirit needed to bring it all together. And a new kind of technology that is going to send it all over the world. Those are the building blocks. And when all those pieces come together, something very special happens. All that's needed is some kind of focus, something to trigger the explosion. I am 100 percent convinced it's going to happen, and that's why I'm putting so much work into this."
By "this" he means Jazz Roots, the series of world class jazz shows that he has organized and which will run through the next six months at the Adrienne Arsht Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Miami. Featuring a host of legendary jazz performers, including Sonny Rollins, Chick Corea, Arturo Sandoval, Eliane Elias, Ramsey Lewis, Teodulo "Chocolate" Armenteros and Albita, the series of six concerts will not only bring together some of the world's greatest musical talent, but, Rosen believes, be the impetus for something much bigger.
Rosen certainly knows his stuff. While still a teenager he won a tri-state competition to become drummer for the Newport Youth Band, a pre-Ameri- can Idoltalent contest spawned by the famed jazz festival. After studying at Manhattan School of Music he joined crooner Andy Williams' ultra-professional backing band, where he met pianist Dave Grusin. Together they formed Grusin-Rosen Productions, and after working with numerous jazz artists launched GRP Records in 1982. Early adopters of the era's cutting-edge technology, theirs was the first label to adopt an "all digital" philosophy—recording everything digitally and releasing all titles on CD, rather than vinyl.
Under Rosen's leadership, GRP became Billboardmagazine's number-one contemporary-jazz label worldwide for five consecutive years, and its artists were nominated for more than 80 Grammy Awards, with a roster that included B.B. King, Dr. John, Michael and Randy Brecker, Lee Ritenour, Arturo San- doval, Diana Krall, and Patti Austin, among many others. In 1990, Rosen and Grusin sold GRP to Universal Music Group, and for the next five years Rosen ran the label as CEO while working on UMG's international business strategy. About a decade ago Rosen followed the well-trodden path established by well-to-do New Yorkers since the 1920s and bought a second home in Miami. During his winter sojourns Rosen started to wonder why Miami had never developed a flourishing music scene like those found at times in Chicago, New Orleans, Nashville or even Kansas City. "You know, Miami has always had a certain kind of cache; it's a hip place in a lot of ways, with an interesting history. But from the standpoint of jazz and I've been in the business my entire life it seemed Miami was never on the map."
1913 when Over- town was still called Colored Town, the Lyric is still open today. The proximity of this historic site, and its cultural role, came to mind when Rosen was invited to organize a series of jazz concerts at the Adrienne Arsht Center, barely a mile away. "Miami is a melting pot," says Rosen, "like New York at the beginning of the 20th century. But it's still a first- or second-generation thing; the various different cultures, ethnicities and nationalities haven't had time to fully integrate. We realized that the Performing Arts Center should be a cultural focus, an opportunity to bring it together. So I said, 'Look, there's a common denominator to the music of all the people that live here, and that is drums of Africa. For me, that's the common denominator of the music of the Americas - it's not Mozart, it's not Beethoven, it's not European music it's the drums that came from Africa." Those drums, Rosen says, first arrived during slavery. In the Caribbean they were the basis for calypso music; in Brazil, the foundations of samba and bossa nova; in Cuba and Puerto Rico they were the basis for son, mambo, cha-cha and rumba. "And as we know, here in the United States those drums were the nucleus of blues, jazz, gospel music, rock-and-roll and hip-hop music. They all came from the same root." Rosen says this "shared musical DNA" will give the Jazz Rootsseries an educational aspect, reaching out through the school system "to explain to our young kids the origins of their own music and how it connects to other musical cultures, so they can appreciate other types of music, and ultimately, other cultures as well."
Working with Shelly Berg, the recently appointed Dean of the Frost School of Music at University of Miami, the Jazz Rootsseries ties into U.M.'s new musical curriculum for the city's educational system. Due to be introduced to middle schools and high schools this year, the new curriculum will make explicit the links between music and culture. "It's not just for kids who play instruments, but also kids in English and history classes, so they all understand the connection," he says. Similarly, Rosen has put together a free Jazz Roots CD to be distributed to all Miami-Dade schools, featuring 18 tracks that relate directly to the curricular theme. "Teachers will be able to play the CD to the class and connect these dots, show how they work together." Finally, the program will reach out to the 900-plus Miami-Dade pupils who currently play in various school bands and offer them free tickets. Before every concert, 150 young Miami musicians will attend sound checks and rehearsals, meet the artists and take a master class in the Arsht Center's classrooms before being taken to dinner and attending the concert. "I don't know any other city that has done anything this profound to stimulate music in its culture," Rosen says. "This will have far-reaching effects." And the city's musical explosion? "The conditions are right. You already have the different cultures rubbing up against each other, and eventually that fuels something new and vibrant. Out of that cultural clash, artists and musicians put the pieces back together and synthesize something new, something beautiful and relevant to the times," says Rosen. "All it needs is a spark."
Rosen's lineup for JAZZ ROOTS at the Adrienne Arsht Center will include, from left: Arturo Sandoval; Sonny Rollinsl Eliane Elias.