Apr 15, 2020 9:06 PM
Pianist Mike Longo, best known for his long tenure with Dizzy Gillespie’s band, died on March 22 at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. His health was compromised by COVID-19, according to an article posted by WBGO. Longo also suffered from pre-existing medical conditions. He was 81.
As recently as 2017, Longo was leading three bands: the Mike Longo Trio, the 17-piece New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble and a sextet called the Mike Longo Funk Band. In addition to many recordings he put out as a bandleader, Longo’s discography included work with Astrud Gilberto, Lee Konitz, James Moody and Buddy Rich.
Born March 19, 1939, in Cincinnati, Ohio, Longo began formal piano lessons at age 4 at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music. After his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he continued his piano studies, later winning a local talent contest at age 12.
In a 2017 press release, Longo described his vivid memory of hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie for the first time on radio station WFTL. “I wanted to wake up my parents and tell ’em,” he said. “It changed my whole life around.”
In 10th grade, Longo began performing club dates around the Miami/Fort Lauderdale area in his bass-playing father’s band, which included a then-unknown alto saxophone player named Cannonball Adderley, who at the time was band director at Dillard High School in Fort Lauderdale.
It was the younger Longo who recommended that his father hire Adderley. “My dad had a gig playing for the Gateway Shopping Center,” Longo recalled in the press release. “Cannonball walked up on the bandstand, and a hush came over the audience ’cause they had never seen a mixed band. Cannonball started playing ‘Stars Fell On Alabama,’ and he just melted everybody’s hearts.”
Longo soon became a protégé of Adderley, who recruited the teenager for jazz and r&b gigs in Florida.
After earning a bachelor of music degree from Western Kentucky University, Longo embarked on a two-year stint on the road with a band called the Salt City Six. He later became the house pianist at the Metropole Cafe in New York, where he backed such jazz luminaries as Henry “Red” Allen, Cozy Cole, Coleman Hawkins, Gene Krupa and George Wettling.
In 1961, at age 24, Longo studied for six months with the legendary pianist Oscar Peterson at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. In 1962, he released Jazz Portrait Of Funny Girl, a trio session on his own Clamike Records label that featured bassist Herman Wright and drummer Roy Brooks.
Longo subsequently did a stint of roadwork with host of singers, including Nancy Wilson, Jimmy Witherspoon, Gloria Lynn, Joe Williams and Jimmy Rushing before joining bassist Sam Jones for duets at The Hickory House.
By 1966, Longo’s trio with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Chuck Lampkin had become the house band at The Embers West in New York, where they backed the likes of Clark Terry, Frank Wess, Frank Foster, Zoot Sims and Roy Eldridge. It was at The Embers that Longo was spotted by Gillespie. “Dizzy called me the next day and hired me,” he told Jazz Central in an interview posted on his website. “I worked with him nine years straight, full-time, and for the rest of his life on a part-time basis.”
From 1966 to 1975, Longo was musical director for Gillespie, appearing on the 1967 Impulse! classic, Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac, 1968’s Reunion Big Band and Portrait Of Jenny and The Real Thing, both from 1970.
Reflecting on how he was Gillespie’s close collaborator, Longo said in the press release, “I had to do the hiring sometimes and the firing sometimes, and calling rehearsals and writing the music and that kind of thing.”
Longo later played piano in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and in 1986 he was commissioned by Gillespie to compose a piece for full symphony orchestra, which the trumpeter performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra in 1991. Longo was with Gillespie on the night he died, Jan. 6, 1993, and later delivered a eulogy at his funeral.
Longo led sessions for the Mainstream, P-Vine and Pablo labels through the 1970s before forming his own label, Consolidated Artists Productions. His leader dates on CAP include 1981’s Solo Recital, 1990’s The Earth Is But One Country, I Miss You John (a 1997 Gillespie tribute album), 1998’s Dawn Of A New Day and 2000’s Explosion by the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble.
The label has released more than 150 titles, including works by Beegie Adair, Bill Anschell, John Di Martino, Falkner Evans, Rob Garcia, Annie Ross and Rich Willey.
Longo recorded two other big band projects—2001’s Aftermath and 2004’s Oasis—before recording 2007’s Float Like A Butterfly with bassist Paul West and drummer Jimmy Wormworth and 2009’s Sting Like A Bee with bassist Bob Cranshaw and drummer Lewis Nash.
The 2012 release A Celebration Of Diz And Miles was recorded live with West and drummer Ray Mosca at the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium in the New York City Baha’i Center, where he had hosted a weekly jazz series beginning in 2004.
In 2017, Longo recorded the trio album Only Time Will Tell with West and drummer Lewis Nash. The program’s original composition “Stepping Up” was inspired by the terraces on Mount Carmel in Haifa, Israel, close to the world headquarters of the Baha’i Faith, of which Longo was a member.
Survivors include his wife, Dorothy Longo, who reportedly is in self-quarantine after testing positive for the coronavirus.
Saxophonist Bob Magnuson, who co-founded the New York State of the Arts Jazz Ensemble with Longo, posted a tribute to his friend on Facebook: “For 25 years he allowed me into his wonderful world and let me produce six CDs with his best friends James Moody, Jimmy Owens, Bob Cranshaw, Paul West, Ray Mosca and Lewis Nash. He then included me in a sextet with Randy Brecker, Ron Carter and Joe Farrell, playing music he had recorded in the ’60s. I went fishing with him for years and loved to hear his endless stories of being Dizzy’s closest friend. I realized early on that he understood, digested, taught and lived by all the concepts of time, depth of groove, swing, harmony and all the metaphysical aspects that embodied Dizzy. Nobody knew Dizzy’s stuff the way Longo did.”
Guitarist Adam Rafferty—who studied with Longo and recorded with him on his own CAP leader dates First Impressions (1997) and Blood, Sweat & Bebop (1999)—posted this entry on Facebook: “This man was my beloved guru and second father. To say he was a music teacher doesn’t do it justice. He was the one I called several times a day for personal and spiritual guidance. He took me under his wing and mentored me. He was a beacon of truth and light, and a best friend.” DB
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