Mike Longo (1937–2020) was the consummate jazz man — a pianist, composer, and educator whose career spanned almost seven decades. He is best known for his long association with Dizzy Gillespie, the legendary bebop trumpeter, who appointed Longo to be the bandleader of the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet from 1966 through 1975, and later as the pianist in the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Band. This musical relationship forever shaped Longo’s approach to jazz and life. In an interview with Jazzbeat, he credited Gillespie being a “messenger” who uncovered an organic change in music.

Longo had a fertile solo career, as the leader of a trio, a funky sextet, and the 18-piece New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble. He was a subtle player, grounded in deep harmonic knowledge, and a solid rhythmic sense that meant he could swing hard. In more recent years, Longo gained a reputation as a great jazz piano teacher in New York City, imparting the wisdom of his years on the bandstand with Dizzy and other greats.

Born in 1937 in Cincinnati, Ohio, Mike Longo showed early promise as a pianist. His father was a businessman who also played the bass, and his mother played piano and organ in the church. He was first smitten with the jazz bug (around the age of four) after seeing a show in downtown Cincinnati starring the Count Basie band, which also featured a child prodigy jazz pianist called Sugar Chile Robinson who played boogie-woogie piano. When Longo played what he heard on the piano at home, his parents recognized his talent and got him a teacher. After the family moved to Fort Lauderdale in Florida, Longo had a fortuitous encounter with the not-yet-famous Cannonball Adderley, the jazz alto saxophonist who at the time was the band director at the black high school. At the age of 15, he played behind Adderley in a jam session and was stunned by beauty of the playing. It was the first of many formative experiences that shaped Longo’s belief that jazz music is best learned through apprenticeship, what he called “osmosis on the bandstand.”

Although Longo studied classical music formally — he graduated from Western Kentucky University in 1959 with a B.A. in music — it was his associations with jazz musicians that would continue to shape him. He refined his chops on the road with a small combo, the Salt City Six, and then in New York. Significantly, in 1961, he spent six months at Oscar Peterson’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music in Toronto. In a 2006 interview with the website All About Jazz, Longo recalled it as the most intense period of his musical life where he learned “how to be a jazz pianist — textures, voicings, touch, time conception, tone on the instrument.”

Soon after, he started gigging in New York City, first at the Metropole, where he first encountered Dizzy Gillespie. It didn’t take long for Gillespie to recognize his talent and he quickly hired him. Over the years, Longo flexed his musical muscles not only as pianist, but arranger and composer, including an orchestral work in 1980 called A World of Gillespie, a composition that was performed by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra with Gillespie as soloist.

Longo kept the spirit of Dizzy Gillespie’s legacy alive as the leader of his New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble. The band released several critically-acclaimed studio albums that showcased his talents as arranger and pianist. Remarkably the band kept performing in New York City, with its last performance on March 10, just twelve days before Longo’s death on March 22 from complications caused by COVID-19. An important part of Longo’s legacy was his pedagogical belief that younger musicians learn the secret of the art from the veterans. His ensemble reflected this belief, employing musicians of all different jazz backgrounds, ranging in age from 20 to 70. In an interview with All About Jazz, Longo summed up his life lesson for aspiring musicians: “Swing hard and get to the people.”

—Damian Fowler

A Video Tribute

As we celebrate the life of Mike Longo, friends and colleagues pay their respects to his musicianship and character from the corners of their own quarantine. Whether it be through their own teaching; through story-telling; through musical tradition; or through song, these artists honor his legacy in video tribute below.

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