Though he’s an accomplished soloist, composer, arranger, and bandleader, Mike Longo is best known to most jazz fans as Dizzy Gillespie’s favorite pianist. But Longo, who played with Gillespie from 1965 until the legendary trumpeter’s death in 1993, says their relationship extended far beyond the bandstand.
“Dizzy literally adopted my parents,” said Longo, whose trio will be making its Nashville debut on Sunday at the First Church Unity. “The very first time that the band played a long gig in Ft. Lauderdale, he asked me if I knew where there were some hotels. I told him, man, you can come and stay with me. It ended up we had the entire band staying at my house for 11 days; I hadn’t seen my parents at the time for eight years, and everyone just had a wonderful time.
“My mother was a gourmet cook, and Dizzy loved to eat. He ended up adopting my parents and would later always tell me he [Dizzy] was their number-one son. I’d ask him, how’d you move ahead of me?”
In addition to Gillespie, Longo has played with many of jazz’s greatest stars from almost the beginning of his remarkable career. As a high school student in Ft. Lauderdale, he received an early professional education from his father, a bassist whose combo worked regularly throughout the area. While in his father’s group, Longo met another famous name, though few people then were truly aware of his greatness.
“Cannonball Adderly was the band director at Dillard’s,” Longo recalls. “The woman who was playing at his church died, and they needed a new pianist. I wound up doing that for a while, and I told my father when he needed a saxophone player that he should hire Cannonball. He showed up at one of our gigs and just blew everyone away. Later, both of us were sidemen in Harold Ferguson’s band. Then he went to New York, and that was the last anyone in Florida ever saw of Cannon; he took New York and jazz by storm.”
Longo began playing piano at the age of 4, and his talents were immediately evident. After high school, he attended college at Western Kentucky, where his friends and comrades included current Nashville mainstay Beegee Adair. After graduation, Longo moved to New York and became the house pianist at the Metropole in 1960, where he worked with bands led by trumpeter Red Allen, saxophonist Coleman Hawkins, and drummers Gene Krupa, Zutty Singleton, and Cozy Cole. In that setting, Longo learned to adapt his style to any situation. A couple of years later came the fateful encounter that led to his long association with Dizzy Gillespie.
“Dizzy was playing upstairs at the time, and I was working downstairs,” Longo remembers, “and he’d have to walk past where we were playing to leave the club. A couple of months later, some people told me that he had raved about my playing in an international jazz magazine. About six months later, we started playing together.”
Longo’s style, which fluidly amalgamates blues and bop, features stylish rhythmic backing, crisp chords, and rigorous melodic and harmonic expressiveness. His musical signatures were not only developed during the Gillespie years, but also through playing small clubs and at the Metropole. While in various Gillespie organizations, he rose to the position of music director, and he supervised the band repertoire and hiring.
At the same time, he built an equally impressive reputation as a composer and arranger. More than 70 Longo works have been recorded by such artists as Gillespie, James Moody (another longtime friend and cohort who worked alongside him in Gillespie’s band for years), Buddy Rich, and even contemporary players like Branford Marsalis. Longo wrote most of the tunes on the acclaimed 1971 Grammy-nominated LP Portrait of Jenny (now, absurdly, out of print) and is prominently featured on such classic releases as Swing Low Sweet Cadillac, The Dizzy Gillespie Reunion Band, and one of his favorites, 1977’s Bahiana, which nicely blends jazz with samba, bossa nova, and other Brazilian idioms.
Mike Longo’s achievements as a single artist and educator are just as exhaustive. Most of his 15 albums as a leader, including his most recent, Dawn of a New Day, have gotten rave reviews, and the current Longo trio, with drummer Ray Mosca and bassist Paul West, has toured extensively both in America and abroad. As an instructor, his pupils have included esteemed bassist Ron Carter (whom he tutored in piano), violinist Regina Carter, and Moody, who took composition and arranging lessons. He’s written eight books on jazz education and conducted countless master classes and lectures.
Yet Longo’s not completely happy with the state of either jazz education or the music itself in the late ’90s. “There’s a lot of tremendously talented young players out here, and my rhythm section has worked with them, and they sound great with us,” he observes. “Then I hear them in other situations, and it’s like, where’s the soul? I blame some of this on the demise of apprenticeship; there’s so much polarization in this country now, and I truly think much of that has come from the conservative attitudes of the ’80s.
“You get too many players coming from jazz education backgrounds that haven’t had a chance to get out there and work and learn. When I was coming up, you played with people like Cannon, Roy Eldridge, and Dizzy, and they’d say, if you’re going to play that chord that way, then you need to do this, or if you want to play that way, you’ve got to use this pattern. You’d have guys working in bands and there’d be 40 other people who wanted that gig, so if you didn’t produce, you were gone. Jazz education is great, but you can’t learn some things in an isolated environment.”
Since the early ’70s, Longo’s taken on yet another task: that of part-time record label executive. He’s headed the Consolidated Artists Productions (CAP) company, specializing in both reissuing vintage releases and also recording new sessions for artists ignored by the major labels. There are over 20 releases on CAP, among them his own Dawn of a New Day and the mid-’50s sessions by the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band, from one of the earliest State Department-supervised tours of South America.
Besides his current trio dates, next year Longo will headline a new orchestra, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, which will feature Moody as lead saxophonist. He’s now writing a series of symphonic works with a jazz focus. These, he says, “will really show the links between jazz and symphonic works, rather than just somebody trying to fit jazz into a symphony context.”
Anyone who enjoys hearing beautifully played, expressive jazz in a trio setting shouldn’t miss the Longo trio; it’s the type of treat that doesn’t happen all that often.
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