Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Longo, Mike

Pianist Mike Longo may be best known as one of Dizzy Gillespie’s closest musical collaborators. But since he began his career fifty years ago as a South Florida teenager, Longo has worked closely with Cannonball Adderley, Oscar Peterson, James Moody and virtually every other jazz great.

Born on March 19, 1939 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Longo was born into a musical family and began to play piano at age three, At age four, he began formal lessons at the Cincinnati Conservatory. The family then moved to Ft. Lauderdale, where he learned to play boogie woogie and spent his youth.

At age twelve, Longo won a local talent contest. At age fifteen, he began his professional career, playing around Miami and Fort Lauderdale with the club band run by his father, a bassist. By sixteen, Longo had won a scholarship from the Fort Lauderdale Symphony Orchestra.

In the ninth grade, Longo went to a Jazz at the Philharmonic concert and heard Oscar Peterson, who immediately became his idol. Saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, at that time a band director in a Florida high school, heard Longo at a jam session and took an interest in the young pianist.

The two became friends, and Longo’s father hired Cannonball to work some gigs with his band. Cannonball, in turn, began to coach the younger musician, and got him a gig with his R&B band. Together, they played black clubs up and down Florida’s east coast, on what was known at the time as "the chitlin' circuit." Adderley also hired Longo to play with his quartet at Porky's, the nightclub that inspired a hit comedy film in 1982.

After graduation from high school, Longo attended college at Western Kentucky State University, where he earned a Bachelor of Music degree in classical piano. While there, he toured one summer with the Hal McIntyre orchestra, and played with guitarist Hank Garland in clubs on Nashville's famous Printers Alley.

During his senior year of college, Longo won the Downbeat Magazine Hall of Fame Scholarship to Boston’s Berklee School of Music, after a fellow student submitted a tape recording of his playing to the magazine. Longo however declined the scholarship, and after graduation hit the road as a full-time jazz musician, spending two years on tour with The Salt City Six.

The Salt City Six were booked at New York's Metropole café, and when the band left, Longo stayed on as the club’s house pianist. It was there that he worked with such jazz notables as Henry Red Allen, Coleman Hawkins, George Wettling, Gene Krupa and many others.

At this time Austin High Gang trumpeter Jimmy McPartland hired Longo for a two week stint at a Chicago club called Bourbon Street. While there, Longo met his idol Oscar Peterson, who was playing at the nearby London House. Peterson invited Longo to his hotel suite, where Longo played for him.

After this meeting, Peterson arranged for Longo to study with him at the Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto, a school for jazz musicians Peterson ran with bassist Ray Brown. Longo’s would later call his six months at Peterson’s knee as "the most intense period of study in my life."

Longo then returned to New York, where he took up residence, and began to work with the era’s best vocalists, including Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynn, Jimmy Witherspoon, Joe Williams, and Jimmy Rushing.

He then worked around New York in a duo with bassist Sam Jones, as well as with his own trio in places like Basin Street East, The Hickory House, and The New York Playboy Club, where he stayed for a whole year.

It was while playing at the Embers Club in New York in 1964 that Dizzy Gillespie first heard Longo play. Dizzy was booked as the club’s featured attraction, and came to listen to Longo during his breaks. Dizzy later said that it was at that time he decided that he wanted Mike to be in his group.

In 1966, Longo was booked into the Embers West on 49th St. in Manhattan. His trio, which at the time included Paul Chambers on bass and Chuck Lampkin on drums, became the club’s house rhythm section, and played with such jazz greats as Frank Foster, Frank Wess, Clark Terry, Zoot Sims and Roy Eldridge.

Roy went around the corner to where Dizzy was playing, and told Dizzy "you got to come by and hear this piano player who is playing with me." Dizzy came by and heard Mike play a set with his trio and the next day hired him to be the new pianist with the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, a post Mike would hold for the next nine years.

During his first year with Dizzy, Mike began to write material for the group and Dizzy eventually appointed him as his musical director. A close bond of friendship and musical collaboration developed between the two, which lasted until Gillespie's death in 1993.

Mike officially left Gillespie’s group in 1975 to venture out on his own, but worked with Dizzy on a part-time basis for the next sixteen years, often writing for him as well as playing with him on several occasions. In 1986, Longo was commissioned by Gillespie to compose a piece for full symphony orchestra, which Gillespie debuted in 1993 with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.

As a composer and arranger, Longo has also worked closely with James Moody, another longtime Gillespie associate. He is featured as composer/arranger on three of his recordings as well as a commission from the San Diego Symphony Orchestra for music Moody performed in July of 2002.

Longo has recorded 19 solo albums, and many times over the years as a sideman with Gillespie, James Moody and others. For five years, Longo hosted a local cable TV show in Manhattan called Jazz Perspectives. His trio appears regularly in festivals and clubs around the world.

In 1998, Longo recruited some of New York’s top musicians to form the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, an 18-piece big band. The group was featured in 1998 and 1999 at the Jersey Jazz Festival, and made their New York debut at Birdland on June 23, 1999.

The group’s first CD, "Explosion" was released in the fall of 2000, followed by a 2001 CD, Aftermath, made the Yellow Dog Jazz Charts, where it was listed as first of the top 10 CDs of 2001 in the Brazilian jazz poll. Mike was also voted number two, behind Dave Brubeck, in the same poll for Composer of the Year. The Mike Longo Trio released a CD in 2002, Still Swingin’, and The Mike Longo Trio – Live, recorded at the 2002 Detroit International Jazz Festival, was released on February 1st, 2003.

In 2004, Mike created a concert series at New York’s Baha'i Center, which prompted the center to rename its 140-seat theater The John Birks Gillespie Auditorium, in honor of Longo’s mentor, a Baha’i. This theater became the home base for Longo’s big band, and he began to book other jazz events there, with concerts every Tuesday night.

Longo’s big band released a third CD, Oasis, in 2004. The Mike Longo Trio released its third CD, Float Like A Butterfly, in August of 2007.

Contributor: Tim Wilkins, based on information supplied by the artist