A trumpeter that has, at various times throughout his career, backed the likes of Rosemary Clooney, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, and Tony Bennett should need no introduction. Alas, that is the nature of the business. Without speaking with him, you would never suspect that David Rosen, the owner and operator of Rosen Music Company, had rubbed elbows with the greats, and done some great playing himself. I visited Mr. Rosen in his shop earlier this week to talk the music business and his septet’s performance at the Oxford American’s Local Live stage this evening.
How long have you had the shop here?
This is our fifth year back downtown. The store was started in 1955 by my father at 716 Main. I came in with him in ‘72, and we were out on Kavanaugh, then west Little Rock, for about forty years. Then I just moved back down.
I got a really good offer on that [Kavanaugh] property five years ago . . . so I decided to sell it. I was thinking about maybe slowing down or stopping, and then I found this place which reminded me a lot of my dad’s first store.
I saw some custom amps and stuff. Do you do those?
It’s a full range music store—all wind, strings, and percussion. Everything we sell, we offer instruction on, and of course service. That was one of the basic elements of the first store when my dad started it. He said, “if you’re going to sell something, you got to make sure the customer can play it and it can be fixed if they break it—at one place.” That’s the way it’s always been.
I miss that, because they don’t do that anymore.
It’s a different element. It’s just an old face-time music retail store. A person can come in, and as I often tell them, we’ll sell it to you, teach you to play it, and fix it if you break it. So it all ties together nicely there. It’s kind of generational. I think in some cases we’ve had third generation kids start on stuff.
Growing up in a musical household, you probably decided really young that you were going to be a musician . . . right?
Not really, it was kind of decided for me. Any time you are in atmosphere where it seems reasonable, there’s an innate resistance. I actually wanted to be a baseball player.
Baseball player? How did you fare at that?
I was born in ’41, and I was ten in ’51, and one of the high points in my young baseball career as a ten year old was one of the Little Rock Travelers’ pitcher’s rented a house across the street from us. In Little Rock the Traveler’s, that’s the same as NYC. The real Dodgers, the real Giants, not those pretend ones. The guy’s name was Vern Williamson and he got hurt somehow and he stayed home from a road trip. [Being] a catcher, I worked out with him every day and we went out to the ballpark.
So, then how did you end up getting into running the store and getting good enough at the trumpet to play gigs?
I had a great freshman year at the University of Colorado. [Then] my dad brought me home and said, “Son, you’ve had four years of fun, now you’re going to have to go to school.” So it was Henderson State Teacher’s College in Arkadelphia, and the band director, my second year down there was a guy named Wendell Levinson who was really, really good. And it was a small program and he built it around a jazz band, a stage band. And it was a good band. We went to Notre Dame Jazz Festival twice while I was there. First year we were selected into the finals with North Texas and Michigan State.
Playing was fun. It was kind of interesting time I got to play with some really good players, older ones and younger ones. I kept noticing the older ones were grumpy. It was almost like they had awakened one day and found themselves trapped in this existence. It made me feel uneasy about maybe getting the same attitude. I just decided that I didn’t mind playing. We contracted shows here when I got back [from school]. My father contracted most of the pit calls for the Broadway shows … rodeos, ice capades, Disney, etc.
So you didn’t really play much as a kid?
I was in school bands and the all state and all that stuff. The stuff you do. I wasn’t obsessed with it. Looking back, if I had the slightest bit of obsession I could have been quite a good player.
You guys are playing on Wednesday?
The small group. It’s . . . six pieces: trumpet, horn, trombone, bass, drums, guitar. I wanted to be a drummer, but my father was a drummer, percussionist, and early on, he said, “No, son, one studio drummer in the family is enough.” Many times at the end of a show or something I would you know put my trumpet in the case, and the drummer was just starting to pack. So there was wisdom in that statement.
So, can you describe the sound of the septet?
We’re (Craig Grubbs-trombone, Kaleb Knight-tenor saxophone, Bryan Withers-drums, Perry Israel-guitar, David Higginbotham-bass) just kind of a standards band . . . we play tunes from yesterday [with] updated presentations and even some adaptations. Theolonius Monk and that. The standards are the real tunes, they’re the ones that stand the test of time and can be massaged in so many different ways. We can play hard bop, hard-core jazz stuff, we can play standards. I’m of an age or generation . . . that likes tunes. They’re fun. There’s a form, there’s substance, and it’s not free-form. You have to be disciplined enough to play within the structure of the tune. [It’s] just a whole lot of fun. I get the chance to front the band and play a little bit.
Last one. Have you played the South on Main stage before?
Oh yeah, we’ve been there a couple of times before. When it was Juanita’s, [the stage was] in the southeast corner. The stage is centered now, but it was moved there. [My jazz big band] rehearses on Monday night, and when I moved down here, I talked to them and we moved one of our Monday rehearsals once a month to Juanita’s and played in that room. And it was amazing and it was a great sounding room. It’s [South on Main] turning into a really successful room, it has to do totally with Ryan [Harris]. He’s fun.