Mike Longo, Jazz Pianist, Composer and Educator, Dies at 83
By Steve Smith
March 28, 2020
Best known for his long association with Dizzy Gillespie, Mr. Longo, who died of the coronavirus, also led a big band and promoted the work of other musicians.
Mike Longo performing with the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band at the Tivoli Concert Hall in Copenhagen in 1968. Mr. Longo’s association with Gillespie began in 1966 and endured until shortly before Gillespie’s death in 1993.Jan Persson/Getty Images
Mike Longo, a jazz pianist, composer and educator best known for his long association with the trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, died on March 22 in Manhattan. He was 83.
The cause was from the coronavirus, Dorothy Longo, his wife of 32 years, said.
As a musician and a composer, said Matthew Snyder, who had studied composition with Mr. Longo and played baritone saxophone with the big band he led, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, Mr. Longo “was simultaneously very earthy and also had the highest possible level of harmony and melodicism and complexity in his musical conception.”
As an educator, Mr. Longo wrote 10 books and produced four DVDs, espousing concepts he had refined while working with Mr. Gillespie. He also advocated tirelessly for other artists, engaging them for concerts and releasing their recordings on CAP (Consolidated Artists Productions), which he had established as a publishing company in 1970 and a record label in 1981.
“He took on other artists because he wanted them to have a forum to produce their own music and express their creativity,” Ms. Longo said in an email. “CAP is an umbrella organization whereby musicians produced and owned their own product, but if Mike chose to take them on, because of his reputation, he was able to get airplay and distribution.”
Born into a musical household, Mr. Longo played his first nightclub date, with the alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, while still in high school. After arriving in New York in 1960, he found work supporting musicians like the trumpeter Red Allen and the tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins at the Metropole, a Manhattan nightclub. A year later, he moved to Toronto to study with the pianist Oscar Peterson.
Returning to New York in 1962, Mr. Longo became an in-demand accompanist for singers including Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne and Joe Williams. In 1965 he led a house band at the New York nightclub Embers West, where he performed with a wide range of luminaries. A year later, Mr. Gillespie engaged him as his musical director and arranger, an association that would endure until 1975, and informally until shortly before Mr. Gillespie’s death in 1993.
Mr. Longo went on to perform and record solo, in duos and trios, and with the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, which he founded in 1998.
“Mike’s book was roughly split between his arrangements of other tunes and his original tunes,” Mr. Snyder said of Mr. Longo’s repertoire, “and it was obvious it was all the same thing for him; even his arrangements were recompositions.”
Mr. Longo was still with Mr. Gillespie when he released the album “Matrix” in 1972. He would continue to perform and would record prolifically as a bandleader, arranger and composer after leaving Mr. Gillespie’s band in 1975.
Michael Joseph Longo was born on March 19, 1937, in Cincinnati, to Michael Anthony Longo and Elvira Margaret (Vitello) Longo. He began to study piano with his mother, a homemaker who sang and played the piano and the organ, at age 3, starting formal lessons a year later. The family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Mr. Longo’s father established a successful business supplying produce to stores and to restaurants while also leading bands in which he played bass.
Mr. Longo’s father hired Mr. Adderley, who was black, to play in his band at a time when racial mixing was uncommon and potentially perilous. Mr. Adderley in turn took young Mr. Longo under his wing, engaging him for church performances and, on one occasion, an engagement at Porky’s Hideaway, a Fort Lauderdale jazz club.
Mr. Longo studied classical piano at Western Kentucky University, graduating in 1959 with a B.A. in music. Offered a scholarship by the jazz magazine DownBeat, he opted instead to pursue his education on the road with a small combo, the Salt City Six, and then in New York. His studies with Mr. Peterson in Toronto, Mr. Longo recalled in a 2006 interview with the website All About Jazz, taught him “how to play piano and how to be a jazz pianist — textures, voicings, touch, time, conception, tone on the instrument.”
Mr. Longo studied composition privately with Hall Overton from 1970 to 1972 and worked prolifically as a bandleader, arranger and composer after leaving Mr. Gillespie’s employ. But his association with Mr. Gillespie would dominate much of his professional career, even offering him the opportunity to compose an orchestral work, “A World of Gillespie” (1980), which Mr. Gillespie performed with the Detroit Symphony Orchestra.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Longo is survived by a sister, Ellen.
Like Mr. Gillespie, Mr. Longo embraced the Baha’i faith, a religion that espouses the unity of all people and finds truth in multiple faith traditions. In 2004, he began leading weekly concerts at the New York City Baha’i Center in Greenwich Village. The last concert was on March 10.
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