M I K E L O N G O
Jazz at the Philharmonic, featuring Lester Young, Flip Phillips, Gene Krupa, Buddy Rich, Oscar Peterson, and Ray Brown, among others, passed through Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when Mike Longo was in the tenth grade, and the budding teenage jazz pianist and a drummer friend went to see the show. The friend was knocked out by Krupa and Rich’s drum battle. For Longo, witnessing Peterson’s intensely swinging piano virtuosity in person was a life-changing experience.
Fast-forwarding some seven or eight years to Chicago in 1961, Longo is introduced to the master. “How’d you like to study with me?” Peterson asked Longo after hearing him play. Bassist Michael Longo Sr. drove his son to Toronto, where Peterson was then running the Advanced School of Contemporary Music, found him an apartment, and paid six months’ rent in advance. Longo Jr. covered the remainder of expenses by doing two gigs nightly—dance music in the evening, jazz after hours—during his six months of private lessons with the Canadian piano great. The teacher wouldn’t see his student again until six years later, at the Town Tavern in Toronto, where Longo was working as the pianist for trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, one of Peterson’s major musical influences.
“He was a stickler for not playing like anyone but yourself,” Longo says about Peterson in the booklet notes for the terrific new The Mike Longo Trio Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live on the CAP (Consolidated Artists Productions) label. Recorded on June 25, 2013, at the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium in the New York City Baha’i Center with onetime Gillespie bassist Paul West and former Peterson drummer Ray Mosca, the disc finds Longo playing very much like himself in a well-chosen set of tunes the prolific Peterson had recorded over the years. Six were composed by jazzmen: Duke Ellington’s “Love You Madly,” Thad Jones’s “A Child Is Born,” Fats Waller’s “Honeysuckle Rose,” Nat Adderley’s “Work Song,” Thelonious Monk’s “52nd Street Theme,” and Clifford Brown’s “Daahoud.” The remainder come from the so-called Great American Songbook: “Sweet Georgia Brown,” “Always,” “Fascinatin’ Rhythm,” “Love for Sale,” “Yesterdays,” “Tenderly,” and “I Remember You.”
The new CD, like Longo’s previous CAP album with West and Mosca—A Celebration of Diz and Miles, recorded a year earlier at the Gillespie Auditorium—was done with no rehearsal whatsoever. None was really needed, considering the three musicians’ familiarity with the repertoire and with each other.
“I just gave ’em a list of tunes, and we played,” the pianist explains. “Some of the tunes I had never played before in public. We just winged it. I prepared myself for the concert, but the bass player and drummer didn’t know what I was gonna play until that night. I gave Paul some lead sheets in case he didn’t know the tunes or the keys I was gonna play them in. It was all spontaneous. Like ‘52nd Street Theme’ and ‘Fascinatin; Rhythm’ are two we had never played together before. We just hit it—counted four and started blowing.”
By 1966, the year he began his 27-year association with Gillespie, Longo pretty much had the entire history of jazz and related idioms at his fingertips. Born in Cincinnati on March 19, 1939, he taught himself to play boogie-woogie at three after seeing child prodigy pianist Sugar Chile Robinson at a Count Basie concert his parents took him to. Pianist Jack Fina’s boogie treatment of Rimsky-Korsakov’s “Flight of the Bumblebee” with the Freddy Martin Orchestra on the soundtrack of the Disney cartoon “Little Toot” further whetted Longo’s appetite for the style. He was soon learning chord progressions from his church-pianist mother and studying European classical music with private instructors.
As a teenager in Fort Lauderdale, where the family had moved when he was in the third grade, he spent a year playing gospel piano at a black Baptist church. On his first Sunday at the church, Longo started out playing the music in the hymn book exactly as written. “‘No, no, no. Jazz it up a little bit,’” he recalls the preacher saying. “I started just improvising and playing the rhythm differently, so I got the gig.”
Cannonball Adderley, then a high school band director in Fort Lauderdale, had an indirect role in getting Longo the church assignment. The saxophonist was soon playing with the young pianist, both in Longo Sr.’s band and at black clubs in a rhythm-and-blues group led by trumpeter Harold Ferguson. (Some sources incorrectly claim that Longo later recorded with Adderley.)
While a student at Western Kentucky University, from which he earned a bachelor’s degree in classical piano in 1959, Longo spent one summer on the road playing ballrooms and county fairs with onetime Glenn Miller saxophonist Hal McIntyre’s swing band and for a period traveled by bus from the campus in Bowling Green to Nashville on weekends to do an after-hours gig with now-legendary country and jazz guitarist Hank Garland. Longo would wait for Garland to get off his regular job at the Grand Ole Opry, then travel in the guitarist’s Cadillac to the Carousel Club on Nashville’s Printers’ Alley.
“He’d have this big 10-gallon hat on, and he’d throw the hat in the back seat, light up a joint, and say, ‘Come on. Let’s go play some bebop,’” Longo recalls.
The night after graduation, the pianist was on a bandstand in Buffalo with the Salt City Six. He spent the next two years traveling constantly with the Dixieland group, with which he made his recording debut on the Roulette label. After appearing with the band at the Metropole Café in New York City, he was hired as one of the popular club’s house pianists, doing two shifts a day. From 2 to 8 p.m. he backed such veterans as Coleman Hawkins, Tony Parennti, Gene Krupa, and others, and from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. he played behind trumpeter Henry “Red” Allen. Gillespie, who was on a break from playing upstairs while Longo was downstairs with Allen, heard the pianist and soon mentioned him as an impressive young musician in the union newspaper International Musician.
It would be another couple of years before Gillespie hired Longo, during which time the pianist kept busy working with such artists as Roy Eldridge, Gloria Lynne, Jimmy Rushing, Zoot Sims, Clark Terry, Joe Williams, and Nancy Wilson. He joined Gillespie’s quintet, then featuring saxophonist-flutist James Moody, in Milwaukee on December 11, 1966, and eventually became the group’s musical director. After studying counterpoint with Frank Gaskin Fields and classical composition with Hall Overton, Longo began writing much of the band’s repertoire. He was with Gillespie the night before he died in 1993 and later delivered a eulogy at the funeral.
Longo made nine albums with Gillespie, beginning with Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac in 1967, and has also recorded with Astrud Gilberto, Lee Konitz, Buddy Rich, and Moody, to name a few. He cut the first album under his own name, A Jazz Portrait of Funny Girl, in 1962, and has since done two dozen more. The last 18 have appeared on CAP, a musicians’ cooperative label managed by Longo and his wife. The catalog now boasts some 150 releases, with four volumes of Gillespie at Ronnie Scott’s London club in 1973 due out shortly.
The pianist was introduced to the Baha’i faith, a religion that emphasizes the spiritual unity of humankind, by Gillespie, but he didn’t join until several years later after the trumpeter collapsed on stage and was hospitalized for six weeks.
“I made a promise that if God would let Diz come through that, I’d become a Baha’i,” he explains. “I became a Baha’i at the Playboy Club in St. Louis, the first gig after he came out of the hospital.”
Since January 6, 2004, the anniversary of Gillespie’s death, Longo has presented concerts every Tuesday evening in the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium of the New York City Baha’i Center. He has booked such jazz greats as Charli Persip, Benny Powell, and Annie Ross and appears regularly with his own three groups: the Mike Longo Trio, the 17-piece New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble (with four CAP CDs to its credit and 160 of his own charts in the band book), and the six-member Mike Longo Funk Band (playing material from the pianist’s three highly collectable fusion albums for the Mainstream, Groove Merchant, and Pablo labels in the ’70s).
“The kids today act like I’m some kinda cult figure,” says Longo, who also appears often with the funk group at Trumpets Jazz Club and Restaurant in Montclair, New Jersey.
Now in his 55th year as a full-time jazz musician, Mike Longo remains at the peak of his pianistic powers. He continues pushing forward with the inspirations of his formative years still burning brightly in his soul. Vibrant proof can be found in each of the 13 selections that comprise The Mike Longo Trio Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live. •
Mike Longo: The Mike Longo Trio Celebrates Oscar Peterson Live
(Consolidated Artists Productions)
Street Date: October 7, 2014