Jazz Roots producer Larry Rosen on mission to preserve art form
BY STEVE ROTHAUS
Jazz Roots producer Larry Rosen (in black jacket) with UM music dean Shelly Berg (in orange tie) strike a pose with the Mancini Orchestra at the University of Miami School of Music. South Miami High Shool student Kevin Garcia, (in red shirt) stands with the group. Larry Rosen’s mother and father didn’t want him to go into the music business. “A nice Jewish boy, you’ve got to stay in school,” he says they told him. “You’ve got to be doctor, dentist or lawyer.”
Like most kids, Rosen didn’t listen to his folks. Instead, he went on to become one of the most influential producers in modern jazz, a wealthy pioneer in the digital recording industry and creator of Jazz Roots, a popular concert series that begins its fourth season Friday at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center for Performing Arts.
“I’ve not come across anybody like that,” said Rosen’s longtime business partner, Grammy- and Oscar-winning composer-pianist Dave Grusin, who headlines Jazz Meets Gershwin Friday at the Arsht along with famed cabaret artist Michael Feinstein. “There are some brilliant people historically in the business,” Grusin says. “Larry is always looking for the next thing.” Rosen, who with wife, Hazel, lives part-time on Fisher Island, was born May 25, 1940, in New York City. A high-school drummer, he performed with the Newport Youth Band in 1959. A mutual friend introduced him to Grusin, then a pianist for singer Andy Williams. Grusin hired Rosen to be Williams’ drummer, and he stayed for six years, touring and playing on records with stars including Henry Mancini, Steve Lawrence and Maynard Ferguson.
In 1972, Rosen and Grusin produced RCA recordings for vocalist Jon Lucien and soon formed Grusin/Rosen Productions. Together, they discovered and produced artists including Earl Klugh, Patti Austin and Lee Ritenour. By the end of the decade, GRP signed with Arista Records to develop new talent. GRP also pioneered digital recordings and in 1979 Rosen engineered and co-produced Grusin’s album Mountain Dance, the first non-classical digitally recorded album. After the Arista/GRP deal ended, Rosen and Grusin launched their own label. GRP became known as “The Digital Master Company” and among the first to release all titles on compact disc. The GRP roster soon featured the brightest stars in jazz: Grusin, Austin, Gary Burton, Chick Corea, Spyro Gyra, Ramsey Lewis, Rippingtons, Arturo Sandoval, Diane Schuur, Dave Valentin, Yellowjackets and many others. GRP’s 1980 recording of Funkin’ for Jamaica by trumpeter Tom Browne “sold 500,000 units in a minute,” Rosen said, becoming a No. 1 R&B hit. “These records were just exploding,” said Rosen, who did the recording and engineering while Grusin wrote most of the arrangements. GRP launched just as compact discs were making their way to the United States. “There was no CD manufacturing in America, only in Japan,” Rosen said.
To promote the new label and its all-digital recordings, Rosen gave $1,000 CD players and a full catalog of GRP discs to several jazz radio stations. “They’d say, ‘Tonight is CD night,’ and play all our stuff,” Rosen said. MCA Music Entertainment (now Universal Music Group) bought GRP in 1990. “I ended up selling the company to Universal for an incredible price,” Rosen said. “It ended up being somewhere about $60 million. That’s something for a drummer from the Bronx whose mother didn’t want him to be a musician.” In the mid-’90s, Rosen launched N2K, an early online music site. “We saw that digital downloads would be the future. ... I figured I would make a billion dollars. But the record companies said we’d never let this happen, this wouldn’t be good for the music business. They resisted it like crazy. Then Napster came along and you could get the music for nothing.” Singer David Bowie approached Rosen after writing the song Telling Lies. “I would like to release this single, but my record company won’t because there isn’t an album,” Bowie told Rosen. “I said, ‘Let’s put it out for free and see if anybody wants to do this thing,’ ” Rosen recalls. Back in the days of dial-up modems, it took listeners eight hours to download the song. “The servers crashed,” Rosen said. “People were not concerned about waiting a long time to get better sound quality. They wanted to get it quickly. If it sounded a little bit compressed, they didn’t care.” Today most people listen to compressed audio, on their iPods, smartphones and satellite radio. “The general public are not audiophiles,” Rosen said. “For the general population that listens to pop music, they’re satisfied with mediocre sound. When it comes to jazz or classical music, you get people who are more interested in the sound.” Rosen has spent his life bringing quality jazz to the masses. At 71, he hasn’t slowed down and continues producing jazz DVDs, Blu-rays and iPad apps, including titles recorded in high definition at the Arsht Center. He also created and produced Legends of Jazz, a PBS series that debuted in 2005.
In 2007, interim Arsht CEO Lawrence Wilker proposed to Rosen that he develop a live jazz series for Miami’s new performing arts center. “Jazz never did well in Miami,” said Rosen, pointing to a string of failed South Florida jazz clubs. Jazz Roots debuted in 2008. In its first season, Rosen presented stars including Dave Brubeck, Paquito D’Rivera, Fourplay, Sandoval, Austin, Corea and Sonny Rollins. The series quickly became among the Arsht’s most popular. “Each and every concert is different,” Arsht CEO John Richard says. “It’s the art form that delivers the most diverse audiences to the concert hall and any performing arts center in the country.” Richard says Rosen is key to the series’ success. “I love working with Larry. I know exactly what’s in his DNA. Larry is as much about jazz as jazz itself. He breathes, every day, improvisational oxygen.”
Last year, Rosen began taking Jazz Roots on the road, to the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas and The Palladium Center for the Performing Arts in Carmel, Ind., where Feinstein, keeper of the Great American Songbook, is artistic director. “The series Jazz Roots is such a great idea. It’s a combination of clever perception of what jazz is about and how to present it to a diverse audience,” says Feinstein, who will emcee Jazz Meets Gershwin Friday. “Larry Rosen has long experience in the world of jazz and a unique perspective,” says Feinstein, who got his start as archivist for George Gershwin’s brother and writing partner, Ira. “It stems from a great personal love of jazz, knowledge of jazz and understanding of how to interest audiences in jazz that keeps it fresh and vibrant.”
Rosen, who just signed a deal to take Jazz Roots to the soon-to-open Smith Center for the Performing Arts in Las Vegas, says he’s on a mission to preserve jazz history. “I want to make sure this gets passed on. I love to bring this music to Miami, but I want people to understand what this music stands for and how important it is.” A core component to the Jazz Roots series, in Miami and elsewhere: High school music students are brought to the concert halls, where they interact with Rosen and the artists. “I’m thrilled over it as an educator,” says University of Miami Frost School of Music Dean Shelly Berg, who will also perform Friday along with singer Denyce Graves, fiddler Mark O’Connor, trumpeter Terence Blanchard, singer Monica Mancini (daughter of composer Henry) and UM’s Mancini Institute Orchestra.
“For students who are contemplating what they’re going to do with their lives, it helps make them realize that it’s real — a real profession, something they can aspire to.” About 150 Miami-Dade Schools students attend each Miami concert. “We get a bus to pick them up and take them to the Arsht Center,” Rosen said. “They watch a sound check; have a Q&A with the artists. ... They have a box dinner, see the show, we put them on a bus and we take them home.” When Rosen brought students to the first Jazz Roots concert in 2008, he figured they’d be most impressed with Fourplay, a contemporary jazz quartet playing the second act. Instead, they were mesmerized by the opener — the legendary Brubeck, then age 87. “This guy Dave Brubeck, he was amazing. He’s old enough to be their great-grandfather,” Rosen said. “This was a complete turn-on for me. I was blown away.”
Kevin Garcia, an 18-year-old senior at South Miami High, is a frequent Jazz Roots attendee. “I’ve been to many concerts. I’ve actually saved every ticket stub from every concert I’ve attended in my wallet. The experience was so amazing, every time I open my wallet, I am reminded.” Last season, he briefly joined the pros onstage and played tenor saxophone during a Miles Davis tribute. “For the little time I was there, I felt like I was one of them. A great, great, great feeling,” said Garcia, who aspires to be a professional sax player and mentor like Rosen “I want to teach kids and do what these guys are doing,” Garcia said. “I want to be somebody in their eyes who they can look up to.”