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Mike Longo 1937–2020

The much-admired pianist, composer, and educator worked with Cannonball Adderley, Coleman Hawkins, Nancy Wilson, and—most importantly—Dizzy Gillespie

Mike Longo

Mike Longo, a pianist, composer, and educator who established himself in Dizzy Gillespie’s bands at the dawn of a 50-plus-year career in jazz, died March 22 at Mt. Sinai Hospital in Manhattan. He was three days past his 83rd birthday.

His death was confirmed by his wife of 32 years, the former Dorothy Davis. The cause of death was COVID-19.

Longo’s list of musical mentors also included Julian “Cannonball” Adderley and Oscar Peterson, as well as his own father, a bassist in whose bands the younger Longo had his first gigs. It was Gillespie, however, who was the formative influence, setting Longo on the bebop path for the rest of his long career. “Bebop is what you would say is the foundation of our music,” he told JazzTimes in a 2013 interview.

It was not, however, the only aesthetic he mined. Longo maintained a longtime trio with bassist Paul West and drummer Ray Mosca; a 17-piece big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble; and a funk sextet. All three bands played regularly at New York’s Baha’i Center, where Longo booked Tuesday-night jazz concerts for decades.

“He really had an impact on my playing and the way I felt the music internally,” said bassist Christian Fabian, who played in Longo’s funk band. “He [was] a great inspiration.”

Michael Josef Longo was born March 19, 1937 in Cincinnati, Ohio. In addition to his bassist father, his mother played organ and his sister tap-danced. As a three-year-old, he heard boogie-woogie pianist Sugar Chile Robinson on the radio and began picking out riffs on the piano. His parents reacted by enrolling him in lessons at the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music.

When he was nine, Longo’s family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where he continued his studies. At 12, he won a talent contest; by the time he was 15, he was playing gigs in his father’s band, where he met saxophonist Adderley—who hired teenage Michael to join his band at the nightclub Porky’s (the real-life inspiration for the 1981 film, although the real Porky was an Italian gangster).

After high school, Longo earned a degree in music from Western Kentucky University, spending his summers earning money for school by gigging in Nashville. In 1960 he moved to New York and became one of the house pianists at the midtown Metropole Café, working behind Coleman Hawkins and Henry “Red” Allen. Oscar Peterson heard Longo playing in 1961 and invited the young pianist to study with him in Toronto, where Longo moved for six months.

Returning to New York in 1962, he found work as Nancy Wilson’s accompanist, moonlighting with several other vocalists and as the intermission pianist at The Embers nightclub—where Gillespie heard and hired him in 1966. He remained with the bebop legend for the next nine years (and sporadically thereafter), becoming his musical director and writing or arranging much of Gillespie’s music of the period—including his classic 1967 album Swing Low, Sweet Cadillac.

While still working with Gillespie in the early 1970s, Longo signed a recording contract with Mainstream Records. Although he had previously recorded as a leader (on 1962’s A Jazz Portrait of “Funny Girl”), this started his solo career in earnest—and led to a commercial breakthrough with his 1974 album 900 Shares of the Blues. He formed his own label, Consolidated Artists Productions (CAP), in 1979. He also began a teaching career around that time, which culminated in his joining the faculty of Sarah Lawrence College.

Gillespie remained a major force in Longo’s life and career. The trumpeter rehired Longo for his Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band, and in 1986 commissioned a symphonic piece from the pianist. Longo was with Dizzy on the night of his death in 1993.

Gillespie also introduced Longo to the Baha’i faith, which the pianist embraced; he successfully lobbied for the Baha’i Center of New York City to name its performance hall the John Birks Gillespie Auditorium, and in 2004 began hosting and booking a weekly jazz series there. His own projects performed about once a month, including a performance by the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble less than two weeks before Longo passed.

Longo is survived by his wife Dorothy, whom he married in 1968 and who at last report was in self-quarantine (a prior marriage, to Arlene Golonka, ended in divorce); his sister, Ellen Cohen; and a large extended family.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.