IMPROVIJAZZATION Nation - Issue # 98
INTERVIEW with Mike Longo
I'm very happy to have had the chance to do an interview with legendary jazz pianist Mike Longo... we've been reviewing his works for many years now, & when it was suggested that he might be willing to do an interview with us, I jumped at the chance... the promoter who suggested this told me that this interview "brought out historical stuff in this interview that I had never heard before"... cool! Thanks very much for taking the time, Mike!!!
Zzaj: Hi, Mike... though we've never met, we seem to have been in some similar places (Cincinnati, Kentucky, etc.). One of the bios I read indicated that you moved around a fair amount when you were younger. Can you expand on that just a bit for our readers? Where you grew up (most), where you live now & what your fondest memories may be?
Mike Longo: Although I was born in Cincinnati, Ohio, I actually grew up in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. My family moved there right after World War II came to an end. My father was in the Navy and hadn’t been discharged yet, and since my grandparents had moved there they helped my mother get a small house there. My sister, who was an infant at the time, and my mother and I went down and moved into the house. My father joined us there after his release from the Navy. Some of my fondest memories from that period come from the fact that my actual musical career started there as a result of being on a little league baseball team. I needed a baseball glove and I fell in love with this first baseman’s mitt in a sporting goods store but it cost $13.00. We were “dirt poor” back then and it was simply beyond reach for me. My best friend at the time and I went to the movies at the Sunset Theater which would let kids in for 9 cents, and I saw a movie called “Little Toot.” It was a cartoon movie about this tug boat whose name was “Little Toot.” At one point in the movie the sound track featured Freddie Martin’s band with a piano soloist named Jack Fina playing a tune called “Bumble Boogie.” It was a take off on “The Flight of the Bumble Bee” by Rimsky Korsakov. Since I had been enamored by Boogie Woogie early on in life, I became intrigued by what I was hearing and totally lost track of what the movie was about. I recall memorizing the left hand bass part and the basic idea of what the right hand was doing during the movie. When I went home I went to the piano and constructed a “kid like” version for myself and began playing it. A few weeks later, my friend and I were walking past a movie house called “The Florida Theater.” It was the main movie theater in that town and they had a sign out front that read, “Talent Contest- 1st prize $15.00.” Thoughts of the $13.00 baseball glove popped in my head, and since we didn’t have the price of admission my friend and I waited for the early show to break. When all of the people started to empty out of the theater we mingled into the crowd and walked in backwards. I went over to the desk and registered to be in the contest and won it playing the version of “Bumble Boogie” I had concocted. When I arrived home with the fifteen crisp one dollar bills, my mother didn’t believe me at first. After my friend and I convinced her that I had actually won them, she checked and found out that there were actually thirteen weeks of these contests and at the end they were to have a grand finale in which all of the winners would compete for a grand prize of a Philco radio and phonograph console. The next day I went immediately to the sporting goods store and bought the baseball glove I cherished, but my mother went out and bought the sheet music to “Bumble Boogie” and insisted I learn the “real way” to play it and compete in the finals. I tried to explain to her that I didn’t care about that because all I wanted was a baseball glove, but she wouldn’t hear of it and proclaimed I would “thank her later in life.” To make a long story short, I learned the “real version” and won the final contest. That was the good news. The bad news was that I missed the baseball season because I spent the whole summer practicing the music because it was harder than a bitch. When I went back to school in the fall I walked into the 7th grade classroom and all the kids started to applaud. They elected me the class president and all of the girls started trying to get next to me. That made me start to think that maybe a career in music might be the path I should take. I began playing professionally in high school and eventually played with Cannonball Adderley who was a school teacher there. After graduation I enrolled as a music major at Western Kentucky University where I earned a bachelor of music degree. During that period I played in Nashville with the legendary Hank Garland as well as others. After college graduation I didn’t have the funds to come to New York so I went on the road with a trad band called the Salt City Six. After two years they finally were booked into New York’s Metropole Café. At the end of that engagement the band left and I stayed on at the Metropole as one of the house pianists. I left New York briefly to go to Toronto to study with Oscar Peterson and returned to New York and made that my home for the past 40 or so years. This is where I reside now.
Zzaj: Your keyboards are always refreshing & invigorating for me. I read somewhere that you grew up on boogie-woogie (which was my forte at around 10 years old). Is that true? If so, how did it come about, & how did it transition to jazz?
Mike Longo: During my very early years in Cincinnati there were two theaters in the downtown area that were similar to New York’s Radio City Music Hall. One was the Shubert and the other was called the Albee. Every week these theaters would have what they called a “stage show” following the feature film. Since this was during the height of the big band era there would always be a band like Tommy Dorsey or Benny Goodman’s band along with a comedian or other acts from the vaudeville era. My parents would attend these shows every week and take me with them to avoid the cost of a baby sitter. On one occasion the show was Blackstone the magician and the Count Basie Orchestra. The Basie segment had this little kid named Sugar Chile Robinson who played boogie woogie up a storm and Basie featured him as a soloist. Although I was only three years old, I became enthralled by what I heard and when we got back home I started to try to plunk out something similar on our piano. My parents, at that time, were playing Fats Waller and Count Basie records at our house all of the time and so I was being exposed to that kind of music anyway. When my parents heard me trying to play boogie woogie, my father, who was a bass player, got this woman named Catherine Rank who played in the pit of one of those theaters, to show me the basic boogie pattern for the left hand and so I started to play boogie woogie not too badly for a three year old. My family then took me to the Cincinnati Conservatory to play for the head of the department there and they decided I should begin lessons with a teacher and so I began studying formally at the age of four. This early boogie woogie experience is what ultimately paved the way to my eventually becoming a jazz musician, as there were two ways to play boogie woogie back then. One was an even eighth note feel that they used to refer to as “eight to the bar” as in the Andrews Sister’s big hit called “The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy from Company B” and the other was a 6/8 type swing feel. I just naturally migrated towards the swing style at that age which proved to be the foundation for the jazz I would later embrace.
Zzaj: How (if at all) were your family members involved in music? Did they encourage you, or find it odd that you wanted to be a player?
Mike Longo: My mother was an organist in the church and sometimes would lead the choir and my father was a part time bass player in the club date field. They recognized early on that I had some sort of talent or gift for music and encouraged me to develop as a musician. After I won the talent contest in Florida I went on to finish the eighth grade in the Catholic School I had been attending, but my father wanted me to go to high school at the public school where they had a band and chorus and regular music program. I began the ninth grade at Ft. Lauderdale High, which was the big high school in the town at that time. I became a member of the chorus and was elected into a special choral group called the “Choresters” made up of “gifted” music students who could read well and sing in tune, etc. This group would tour the country during the summers and on one occasion I got to go to New York to be on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour show. By this time I had already acquired an interest in jazz as I had been playing it as a result of becoming a member of the dance band at Ft. Lauderdale High. I met a trumpet player there who could really play a “hot” trumpet by the name of Ron Champion, who to this day remains a life long friend, and we formed a band called the “Swingsters” with other like-minded young musicians. When the Choresters played the Ted Mack show we went back to the hotel to sleep and leave early the next morning on a bus back to Ft. Lauderdale. After the curfew that night, while everyone was asleep, I snuck out of the hotel by going down the fire escape outside of my room, and went to Birdland to hear the music I had fallen in love with. I also fell in love with New York at that time too because they had a radio in the hotel room and when I turned it on the first thing I heard was the Dizzy Gillespie Band live at Birdland. This was the start of something big in my life that later grew into fruition with the career I have now.
Zzaj: Who have you had the most pleasure playing with? I realize that's always a hard one to answer for someone who has played as long as you have, but see if you can narrow it down to (just) two or three players, if possible.
Mike Longo: First and foremost I would say Dizzy. I would also have to include James Moody on this list. Paul Chambers would, of course, be included as well as Cannonball Adderley.
Zzaj: You & I grew up in a "different time" for music... at least in the sense that music & its tools are much easier for young folks to access (Internet, digital technology, etc.). Is today's musical environment easier (or harder) to cope with than the "good old days"?
Mike Longo: That is a loaded question actually. I have observed a lot of young musicians of late who play much better than I did at their age. I have also noted that there is a certain ingredient, which I feel is essential in terms of jazz music, that is missing in most of their playing. This is due to the breakdown of the apprenticeship aspect that was so valuable during my time coming up. Oscar Peterson once posed the question to students studying with him. He asked, “What is the environment that produces jazz musicians called?” He then pointed out that he didn’t want to hear about ethnic backgrounds or anything of that sort. After many feeble attempts on the part of the students he answered the question for us by saying, “The environment that produces a jazz musician is called the bandstand! Who you have been on the bandstand with has everything to do with how you develop as a jazz musician.” Today’s musicians are learning to play, pretty much, through copying what they hear on recordings. There are two major things wrong with that approach. One is that there is no way to know the concept that made the artist play what he played on the recording simply by listening to the music. Jazz requires “experiential knowledge” rather than “intellectual knowledge.” The second problem exists because of the lack of appreciation for the role that “touch” plays in being able to swing and play jazz properly. One can copy a solo from a recording and totally miss the touch that was responsible for creating the solo. Through apprenticeship, musicians were able to pick up the touch from playing with the masters who had it. In my case, playing and comping behind Dizzy Gillespie affected my touch profoundly. I could not have gotten that from simply listening to his recordings.
Zzaj: How (if at all) has your classical training influenced your jazz playing? Do you view it as a "solid foundation" for your jazz experience today, or did you have to kind of "break away" from (some of) the things you learned in the classics?
Mike Longo: Well, in my case, when I went to college you could not major in jazz so I had to major in classical piano and I played on at least one recital a semester. I also had to play a senior recital by myself in which I played a Hindemith Sonata, a Chopin Ballade and the Bach French Suite. There is no question whatsoever that this was a tremendous help in enabling me to get around the instrument. However, it was not until I studied with Oscar Peterson that I really got a hold on the piano in any really significant way in terms of touch and technique. The principles of piano playing that I learned from him required 13 hours a day practice sessions on my part before I could get a grasp what he was teaching me. There came a point where I had to make a choice between classical music and jazz. This was due to the difference in the time and rhythmic conceptions as well as the accentuation differences. There is a different set of physics involved in the kind of jazz that I play from classical playing. I do find it very rewarding, however, to listen to classical music in terms of influencing me from a harmonic standpoint as well as a compositional one. I recall Dizzy saying that he once told Wynton Marsalis that there will come a time where he will have to choose between classical music and jazz. I will say that classical music had a strong influence on my ability to play jazz from a linear standpoint and also the way I move my harmonies as well. I also studied counterpoint extensively as well as classical composition which of course has influenced my jazz concept immensely from a craft concept.
Zzaj: You've played with some high-end folk in the jazz world over your long career. If you don't mind, drop a few names for us & give us an "insider perspective" of the musical life with so many greats.
Mike Longo: Well, the most profound of these would have been my relationship with Dizzy Gillespie. Although many people knew Dizzy as sort of the “clown prince” of jazz he also had a very serious side to him that many people are not aware of. I, fortunately, had a relationship with both of those sides in that we had a hell of a lot of fun together in rather frivolous pursuits, but we also had a very deep musical relationship including many profound discussions about music. During the years I was close with him he would frequently ask me over to his pad to play with him so he could keep his chops up. These were times when we would just play with the piano and trumpet. These were, for me, profound learning experiences. We also would hang out a lot and discuss serious matters. There was also a very spiritual side to him that I was deeply involved with as a result of both of us being followers of the Bahá'í Faith. Most musicians called him “Diz” or “Birks” but I always addressed him as “John” because that is the person I knew. I am also very close with James Moody and we refer to each other as “brothers.” We became close confidants during the years with Dizzy and we have remained so to this day. Milt Jackson was also one whom I had a warm friendship with through Dizzy. We frequently played poker together with Diz and towards the end of Milt’s life I actually went on a tour with him called the “Vibe Summit Tour”. This also proved to be a profound learning experience for me as well.
Zzaj: Since you're also a teacher, give us any words of wisdom you may have for the younger folks in our readership... what makes a player successful? What makes them fall by the wayside?
Mike Longo: I would think that the best advice I could give in terms of being “successful” would be perseverance and dedication. There is an extreme bounty that comes to an individual who strives with his whole being at an art form. One of the biggest challenges facing musicians is winning the battle with their ego. One must give up one’s self to a higher force when it comes to music. Our music has an ontological foundation to it that musicians must strive to achieve. The Greeks coined the Latin terms…Music Majorus and Music Minorus. Music Majorus was music that obeyed natural laws. The “Music of the Spheres” as they would refer to it. Music Minorus was simply music of the ego or imagination. As far as “falling by the wayside” as you put it, there are many things that can cause that and they are not always the fault of the musicians themselves such as unavoidable circumstances, etc. There are also “self inflicted” causes that musicians need to avoid in order to protect themselves in life. A narcissistic inclination is one thing that needs to be avoided and overcome in the sense that I have often seen musicians trying to “politic” their way to success, causing them to leave matters unfinished in terms of the development of their music. I once told a student that he seemed to want to be a “famous jazz musician” more than he wanted to play jazz.
Zzaj: Do you "plan ahead" a great deal for your next recordings, or do they just "come together" somehow? Once again, give us a bit of "insider scoop" on what your next recording adventure may be, please.
Mike Longo: On this last recording, “Sting Like A Bee”, that I did with Bob Cranshaw and Lewis Nash, the session was going so smoothly that we played enough material for two recordings so I already have a second recording ready to be released next year. I also have a big band called The New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble with a marvelous vocalist named Hilary Gardner that I am looking to record as my next project. I have composed and arranged several pieces that have not been recorded by that band as yet. Another project I am considering is the re-recording of some of the funk/jazz charts I did in the 70s for the various labels I was recording for back then. It seems that today’s youth are just discovering that music and getting turned on by it, and so to bring it up to date with today’s playing would be of interest to me.
Zzaj: If you had it all to do over again, would you choose the professional musician's life (which can at times be hard), or would you do something else? On that note, and as a lead-out for our readers, what would you say to those who are thinking of pursuing a career in music? Is it worth all the hard work and sacrifice that's often a part of it?
Mike Longo: Of course it is worth it! I feel it is an honor and privilege to play this kind of music. One of the truths about music that people haven’t realized, in my humble opinion, is that music is not something you choose. It chooses you! When somebody becomes a lawyer or dentist, let’s say, they choose to do that. Musicians do not have that choice. They are born musicians. The only choice involved is to pursue the calling or end up as a frustrated musician. You don’t choose jazz…jazz chooses you. In answer to your question as to what I would say to those who are thinking of pursuing a career in music, I would say “Go For It!” It is better to try and fail than to never try at all. Even if one fails at it the fact that they tried makes them a success as a person and that in itself is very rewarding. This will enable one to GIVE to other people on some level and capacity that comes as a gift from being one who tried. God Bless!