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The Fabulous Mike Longo...Still Swingin'

Mike Longo Mike Longo
A famous trumpeter once said, "The first thing we must keep in mind about a musician is that the music he plays is a reflection of his true self." His music may not be what you, the listener, think he is, but truly, he can no more escape himself through his playing than we can escape the contingent world in which we are placed.

A good example is Mike Longo; His music reflects his true character. Listening to his music tells you he is uninhibited, outgoing, gregarious, funny, and at the same time, reflective and lyrical.

I had a long conversation with Mike Longo, who is still working to bridge the gap from be-bop into the contemporary era, still creating something new as he brings the best traditions forward.

JazzReview: What does "Still Swingin" mean? Are you talking about swing, big band?

Mike Longo: "Swing with the big band, that’s a noun. Like Benny Goodman, the King of Swing; that’s a noun. Swing the verb, is what I’m talking about. That’s like Count Basie. Swing is energy. It actually comes from, well, it originated in Africa. It comes from touch and time conception. It’s the tone on an instrument that produces energy similar to someone’s juggling. They have everything coordinated in order and so forth. That’s different than someone trying emotionally to produce swing.

Still Swingin’ means I’m still approaching the music from an analogical standpoint. Analogical means the science of existence. But in music, Stravinsky used the term to suggest that there’s natural music out there that you tap into. Dizzy use to say, ‘This music is out here just waiting for someone to come and get it.’ He would say, ‘If the music says come get it, go where the music is telling you to go.’ Music produced that way from that kind of swing; I would suggest that we’re Still Swingin’."

JazzReview: You started performing at an early age. Are you from a musical family?

Mike Longo: "My mom was an organist in the church and my dad was a bass player. He wasn’t a professional musician full-time. He had a produce business. They grew up in the Depression, and my dad earned extra income playing the bass to feed his family. My sister was a tap dancer."

JazzReview: You’re from a very talented and musical family.

Mike Longo: "Yes, I’m the only professional full-time."

JazzReview: You started and recorded with Cannonball Adderly, studied under Oscar Peterson, and played with Dizzy Gillespie for 22 years. Did this prepare you for a lead role in your career?

Mike Longo: "Cannonball wasn’t famous at that time. He was a band director in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where I grew up. What happened was there was a sanctifying church, and old wooden church, and you know how hot it gets in Florida with no air conditioner; and at that time. Fort Lauderdale was rural. There was a naval air station there. It was a navy town. It wasn’t the metropolis it is now. So, there was a lady who played an upright piano in that church and she died. So, Cannonball called the band director at my high school and said, ‘Do you have anybody over there that can play the church service?’ My director told them about a kid there who had a feel for that kind of thing. I remember distinctly going to that church and a guy giving me a hymnbook. So I’m reading and he said, ‘No, no, jazz it up a bit. Don’t play as it’s written in the book.’

I hadn’t met Cannonball, but he was the cause for me to play in that church. About two months later I get a call from this DJ asking can I play for a jam session at a youth center. When I got there, Cannonball was the sax player (he didn’t have a name then), We hit the first tune and I said, ‘Damn!’ My jaw hit the floor.

I later told my dad about this saxophone player. He contacted Cannonball, (who at the time wasn’t making a lot of money,) and he started working with my dad’s band. After that, he got me on an R&B band playing what was called the Chitlin Circuit, up and down the state of Florida, but it wasn’t his band it was Harold Ferguson’s band. We had this gig at Porky’s in a jazz quartet. The one that is in the movie ‘Porky’s,’ but that’s not the way it went down. No, it had Porky in the movie as this big redneck, but Porky was a gangster that loved jazz, Porky Pineco. He was like a mob guy. So, Cannonball had a piano player named Pick Gordon. He was called Pick because he kept a toothpick in his mouth. Pick got busted for something. He was in jail. I got a call in the middle of the night, so I went down and played the rest of the gig at Porky's with Cannonball. It was a learning experience. It wasn’t that I played so well, there was no piano player (laughter). Then Cannonball went to New York that summer and he never came back. He took off from there."

JazzReview: Did this prepare you to be a leader in your band?

Mike Longo: "It prepared me to be the jazz musician that I eventually became at that young age. That was an impressionable age and so I got to feel what it was like to swing with Cannonball Adderly to feel that kind of groove. I can remember when we were playing the Chitlin' Circuit. We used to have plywood bandstands, like in the risers made out of plywood. We’d be swinging so hard, when I was sitting on the piano seat, my seat was bouncing (laughter). To have the opportunity to feel that, and make an impression on you at an early age, was absolutely instrumental and why I became a jazz musician."

JazzReview: On the album you have a tribute to the late, great bassist, Sam Jones, entitled "Bones." Tell me what were your feelings when you composed this track? What role has Sam played in your career?

Mike Longo: "Sam is also from Florida. I remember people talking about Sam Jones. He played at the two clubs in Florida. I was too young (15) to go to the clubs to see him. He became Cannonball’s bass player.

When I came to New York, there was a musician’s union on 52nd Street where Roseland is. The musician’s union was upstairs. Right next to it was a place called Jim & Andy’s, a musician’s hangout. Jim and Andy’s would cash your checks for you. Further up the street was a place called Junior & Charlie’s where they started playing duo gigs. Sam met me and heard me play. That was my first encounter playing duo gigs with Sam. I had studied with Oscar Peterson, and Sam became Oscar Peterson’s bass player. When I came back to New York I formed a trio. Sometimes when Sam was off, he would sit in with us. Over the years we’d play at Bradley’s together. Sam was this tall skinny guy, so I’d call him Sam ‘Bones,’ but Sam, he would march on you, he wasn’t kidding around. I just loved playing with Sam. I would tease him and say, ‘What’s happening Bones?’ He would call me ‘Homes.’ You see, Sam was from Jacksonville, Florida. He loved Florida and we had camaraderie about being gators. To this day, anytime I drive (because I like to drive down there) as soon as I go across that bridge in Jacksonville, I roll down the window and yell out the window ‘BONES’ and I can feel his spirit. I see him grinning at me. Sam’s soul is out there."

JazzReview: You have been quoted as saying the idea for this album is "To take music to new places." What exactly were you talking about?

Mike Longo: "It’s a couple of things some of those old standards the way we play them. The arrangements are in like a different approach to the tune. Some of the tunes that were not mode were played as if they were in a mode. But, they’re also in the sense of swing; something can be swinging, but in a different pocket than another kind of swing. It was sort of a different pocket than a lot of that stuff the kind of grooves we were hitting as a trio. And so, it might be in a different place than someone else who played the same tune. As a matter of fact, its in a different place from the last album I made in a sense where we’re hitting the pocket and the way we approach the tune. Some of the arrangements are in switching meters."

JazzReview: Where do you think jazz is going, what direction ? That’s a loaded question.

Mike Longo: "To be honest with you, there’s so much coming under the heading of jazz now, which is not something I particularly agree with. It’s gotten very popular to assume that any kind of music that is not improvised is jazz. Consequently, that’s another reason that I made the record Still Swingin’ because what really inspired that record was I saw the Ken Burns special. I think they showed the first out door jazz festival with Count Basie, Billie Holiday, and Ole’ Joe Jones. Jones was playing drums and the band was swinging so hard. They panned the audience and you saw every kind of ethnic group, people dancing in ecstasy, and I said, ‘Look man, it’s like the people’s spirit is free.’ To me, free jazz is what makes the people feel free, not make the players feel free. That’s why I said it’s got to be a contemporary equivalent to this. Jazz uplifts the human spirit in that way. I feel the purpose of being a jazz musician is to provide people with that. So, it’s not a self-centered idea to play. I hope that jazz musicians will turn back in that direction."

JazzReview: Do you think they’ve drifted away?

Mike Longo: "Yes, especially in the sense that I know jazz education is an important thing and I know that field means well, but there seems to be a trend in that field to teach jazz where people are actually copying licks off recordings instead of actually learning to play jazz. The apprenticeship aspect of jazz, has always been the way it has evolved. You see what I said about playing with Cannonball. You can’t learn that in school. You have to do that on the bandstand. I remember Oscar Peterson when I studied with him asking all of us, "What kind of environment produces a jazz musician?’ And he’d follow it up with, ‘I don’t want to hear any thing about any ethnic group.’ And then he’d say, ‘The environment that produces jazz musicians is called a bandstand!’ I’ve been on the bandstand with Cannonball and I know what that feels like. All the people I’ve played with, you can’t learn that in school. You’ve got to live that and so now, you have people coming out of those schools and there’s no apprenticeship, because with that young lion movement, they skipped a whole generation of players. You have people playing with their own age group. It’s not their fault. Something, in my generation failed them, I guess."

"It’s also the acceptance of music being called jazz, in the term of what jazz really is, not having the same natural laws that swing. You have a flooded market now because as soon as you take the swing and blues out of jazz a whole lot of people can do that and you have ten gigs and eight million musicians. Then you have a situation where people are making money from the musicians. Where I came up the industry of jazz was based on selling jazz that musicians made to the public."

"Now it’s become fashionable to make the money from the musicians, cause you have all the yuppie wannabe kids from the yuppie families. They teach them to play licks off of the recordings and a lot of kids and their families never heard those recordings. So they sound good, the parents are proud and think he’s got something, (laughs) but he’s playing some of Miles’ stuff."

JazzReview: What do you recall about playing with Dizzy Gillespie? What role did he play in your career growth?

Mike Longo: "Oh, man! Well, what I learned from Dizzy I could have practiced with anybody, practiced until you’re blue in the face and you would have never got that. Dizzy was not just a genius, he was beyond a genius. He was a master and a messenger in terms of music. There were two sides to Dizzy, one where he put his horn up and you’d see this deep place come out. As soon as he put his horn down, you’d see this screwball. That’s why they called him Dizzy. He wasn’t always connected to those two things. I fortunately had a relationship with both sides of him. We use to have a hell of a good time, we had some fun. I also had a verbal and musical relationship with the deep musical genius and some of what I learned from Dizzy is so complex it’s several layers of you have to understand this and you have to understand this to get to this. It took all those years for me to go through those stages myself with him."

"There’s a funny story about why they called him Dizzy. Yamaha had given him an electric grand. Frequently, I use to practice with him at his house. He asked me why I didn’t I play on the grand; I couldn’t because the action was so stiff. I said, ‘No man, I can’t play on it." About five years later, we discovered he put the pedals in wrong. (Laughter) Dizzy would do stuff like that." I recall one incident (he had a funny way of teaching) where you wouldn’t know he had taught you something until like twenty years later, and you’d say, ‘oh, that’s what he meant!’ Moody says that too. He said he’d be walking down the street and remember something Dizzy said 30 years ago and think, ‘that’s what Dizzy meant!’"

"He (Dizzy) might come up to me during my solo and whisper a different rhythm in my ear that affected my playing right then. Or another time, he would put on a tape of African rhythm instruments and asked me where I would put ‘one.’ I put it where everyone would. He told me, ‘try putting it over here.’ By moving it, a whole new world of rhythmic possibilities opened up to me. I would get this tickle feeling, the most joyous concept. I realized he was hearing music in a different way. We began jamming and I started to incorporate that new rhythm. All of a sudden this marvelous four-part contrapuntal texture just jumped out of the piano like magic. Diz had this sly grin because he knew exactly what had happened."

"So, somehow I got in those places from playing behind him. When I’d go home, it was still in my touch. So, I recorded myself, and the next day I was able to figure how to get there. It always reminded me of when you look out there at the universe. You see Mars and Jupiter and there’s nothing there, but this one place earth, with this atmosphere around it and the clouds and everything. You say, ‘Wait a minute man, there’s all kinds of places,’ but that place where Dizzy went has some kind of spiritual vibe to it."

JazzReview: This is a touch challenging time for Americans. Does jazz have the power to make people feel better?

Mike Longo: "I think it has always done that. First of all, the part of jazz that comes from Africa has a very deep spiritual significance in the sense that it’s a poly-rhythmic basis. So essentially, this is what is eluding a lot of jazz players, especially Europeans. They are trying to play with a time conception that comes from their music. They are not aware of this and their playing jazz influence ideas that is not jazz at all."

"In a poly-rhythmic time concept that evolves from African music, you’re in more than one meter at one time. And so, you play with a kind of beat that’s in ¾ time and 4/4 time, and 6/8 and 5/8 time, all at the same time. When thinking about all of this at the same time, you then play in twos and threes in a deeply spiritual sense."

"When you listen to jazz that swings, it puts the human spirit in balance. There’s an internal harmony and internal agreement. I think people who love jazz, love it for that reason because it stabilizes them internally. When that stability is felt, it creates feelings of joy and happiness. So, the question you ask is the purpose of jazz. That’s why it exists. It’s been a bridge between cultures. It takes people way pass race. It takes you to a place that is human soul. In that place there’s nothing, but joy and happiness. I think this kind of music when its played is a vehicle for people to go to that place. If those people who hi-jacked that plane had been listening to jazz, they would have never done that."

JazzReview: Explain what you have called the three stages of development for a musician.

Mike Longo: "What I’ve found is that there are basically three stages of development for a musician. The first is the Imitative Stage where a player is simply trying to mimic jazz he has heard. Next is what I call the Realized Stage where a player starts to realize the swing in the music and understands something about improvisation. Usually this is learned through the apprenticeship of playing onstage with musicians with more knowledge who are pulling the newer player in with their playing. Finally there is the Mature Stage when a player no longer needs to be led, but can hold his own and initiate the swing himself."

"I have tried to pass along some of the knowledge I learned from Cannonball, Oscar and Dizzy, and from studying some of my early influences like Errol Garner, Earl "Fatha" Hines, Red Garland, Bill Evans, Thelonious Monk, Horace Silver, Bud Powell, Hank Jones, and Tommy Flanagan, and later inspirations like McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock."

JazzReview: Where is Mike Longo going? Where is he going from here?

Mike Longo: "If someone were to listen to every recording I’ve made, (they’d hear) the next one is a little bit hipper than the last one. I say, ‘Hey man, I’ve grown to a new level, it’s time to make a new record.’ Hopefully I’m on a path of developing, wherever my full potential is. A lot of that is spiritually based. Even in a sense that there were things I learned after Dizzy passed from Dizzy. It’s like you get these little visitations sometimes. It is almost like things are revealed to you. I use to think, ‘Oh, man, I penetrated this mystery.’ Then I got a little hipper, more mature and said, ‘No man, that’s the mystery penetrating you.’" (laughs)

Even since I made Still Swingin’, I’ve gone to a new level of understanding. What happens is, you’re having another realization and then things you’re playing start to shift around. You begin to come up with another level of playing, or another direction. Hopefully I’ll keep going down the same track that I’m on."

The message of jazz, direct and immediate, speaks straight to the heart, across cultural, linguistic, and political barriers. Mike Longo, a master himself, has pinpointed the universality of this music in his inimitable way. Mike is living proof of the continuity and strength of the jazz tradition. The Mike Longo Trio, also featuring bassist Ben Brown and drummer Ray Mosca, demonstrates this on the appropriately titled Still Swingin’ album.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Mike Longo
  • Subtitle: A Treasury of Wisdom and Recollections of Diz
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