New York's Best-Kept Jazz Secretby William S. Niederkorn
Walk by the Bahá’í Center at 53 East 11th Street in Manhattan on a Tuesday evening and you might not even notice a small wooden billboard with black letters painted on a white background, announcing “Jazz Live Tonight.”
That sign is all there is on the scene to steer you to the best-kept jazz secret in New York. Jazz lives at the center’s concert hall, the John Birks Gillespie Memorial Auditorium. The concerts there hardly ever get as large an audience as they deserve, so a small coterie of initiates have had some of the most personally electrifying musical experiences imaginable week after week for over seven years now in a program called Jazz Tuesdays.
These events are produced by Mike Longo, whose contributions to jazz as a piano player, composer, arranger, educator, and concert and record producer are almost inconceivably extensive and varied. He is the leader of a big band and various smaller groups, writing or arranging almost all the tunes for them, and he is the heart of the music with his piano or electric piano and his warmth, humor, and geniality. The last three months have been typical, with consistently excellent, exciting performances by his big band, his funk band, and his trio, and new compositions and arrangements on every date.
And if that weren’t enough, Longo recently led a recording session, in trio and quintet settings, soon to be released on his CAP (Consolidated Artists Productions) label, which has released over a hundred CDs by over 70 artists. Longo, who started it as a publisher of his books on how to play jazz, says the enterprise is artist-owned, meaning the rights to all works are owned by the artists who created them.
Longo’s musical education started with his parents, who were both musicians, his father a bass player and band leader and his mother a church organist. He played with his high school teacher Cannonball Adderley in Fort Lauderdale before Adderley became famous. He later studied with the great jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. But his association with Dizzy Gillespie, for whom he worked as piano player, arranger, and music director, in big band as well as smaller aggregations, was the crucible of his development, musically as well as spiritually.
Gillespie was central to the evolution of bebop and the infusion of Afro-Latin rhythms into jazz, sharing in the invention of the most advanced jazz harmony and rhythm conceptions to date, and synthesizing and mastering those achievements. His influence on jazz is comparable to Bach’s or Beethoven’s on classical music.
Longo, who joined Gillespie in the mid-60s, absorbed and contributed ideas and music, and their close musical association and friendship endured for the last quarter century of Gillespie’s life. “Primarily I’m coming from what I’ve digested from my relationship with Dizzy, and Dizzy was certainly the highest state of the art of jazz,” Longo told me. “I’m evolving that tradition by evolving myself within it.”
Longo has done a lot of evolving in the 18 years since he lost his great friend and mentor, as anyone who listens chronologically to the work he has recorded in both big band and small groups over those years can attest. Start with the tribute to Gillespie he recorded in 1995, I Miss You John, on which Longo led sessions with James Moody, Jimmy Owens, Cecil Bridgewater, Frank Wess, David Sanchez, Paul West, and Ray Mosca. Then check out his trio’s Dawn of a New Day (1998), his big band’s CDs Explosion (1999) and Aftermath (2001), his trio dates Still Swingin’ (2002) and Live: The Detroit International Jazz Festival (2003), his big band’s Oasis (2004), and his trio’s latest CDs Float Like a Butterfly (2007, with West and Jimmy Wormworth) and Sting Like a Bee (2009, with Bob Cranshaw and Lewis Nash), all on CAP and available at www.jazzbeat.com/Artists.html.
The musicians and bands Longo selects for Jazz Tuesdays are all “world class,” as audiences are reminded at every event. Groups that have recently played at the auditorium include, to name a few, the Chip White Ensemble, Charli Persip’s big band Supersound, Gary Morgan’s big band PanAmericana!, Warren Smith and the Composer’s Workshop Ensemble, Daoud-David Williams and the Spirit of Life Ensemble, and the Cecilia Coleman Big Band.
Suppose that just before eight o’clock on the summery evening of Tuesday, June 7, 2011, you pull open the heavy glass door of the Bahá’í Center and go in. At a table in the lobby you pay $15 and receive a ticket and a program for Longo’s big band, the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble. (The band’s name “is a play on words,” he told me. “New York is the jazz capital of the world, and New York State is the state of the art of jazz.”)
The scene in the Bahá’í Center lobby is unpretentious. You and the handful of other audience members can check out the band’s CDs for sale, or help yourself to free lemonade and cookies, or you can browse the jazz magazines and fliers displayed below a large framed photograph of Gillespie.
Then the house opens, and you file in with the other ticketholders. You take one of the 140 cushioned theater seats and get comfortable. Most of the musicians are already in place with their instruments: on the left an electric piano in front of drums and double bass; right and center, a front line of five saxophones, two tenors, two altos, and a baritone, some doubling on flute; a middle row of three trombones and a bass trombone; and a back row of four trumpets. The bandstand is just big enough to hold the 16 musicians, with a little space for a person to stand at a microphone in front of the piano.
Right there, now, Dorothy Longo, who does much of the work to make these evenings happen, is saying a few words of welcome, telling you why the Bahá’í Center’s Gillespie Auditorium is the appropriate place for jazz: Gillespie was a Bahá’í. She mentions the music groups that will be featured in the weeks ahead, and presents the band.
She has barely left the stage when her husband sets the beat, and the band rips into the opener, Longo’s brand-new arrangement of the Benny Carter tune “Doozy”—the latest of 127 charts in the band’s book. It’s a jewel of an uptempo blues, with reeds playing off brass in call and response, followed by four choruses of mellow tenor sax solo by Frank Perowsky, five choruses of growling mute trombone by Isrea Butler, and four more of vibrant trumpet work by Nabaté Isles. Each of the soloists is backed in the late choruses by scored sections for the full band. Then come two fully orchestrated shout choruses and finally the theme again, with instrumentation switched.
You might wonder who these soloists are. Perowsky, who worked in the big bands of Jimmy Dorsey and Woody Herman and performed with Peggy Lee and Sarah Vaughn before he had a long run in Liza Minnelli’s band from 1981 to 2009, is an arranger and composer, too, and has his own big band. Isrea Butler, who graduated from the Eastman School of Music in 2004, has played with more than a dozen big bands and orchestras, among them the Mingus and Roy Hargrove bands. Isles, who also graduated from Eastman, has worked with Mos Def, James Newton, and Charli Persip, and has led his own band at the Gillespie Auditorium as well.
The range of Longo’s composition skills is on display in the band’s next piece. As he explains: “This is an attempt at a study in jazz counterpoint, which is a little bit different than classical counterpoint because of the rhythm. But the principles are the same harmonically. In this particular piece, towards the middle you will hear the first section played upside-down.” He turns to the band and teases, “Either that or you’ve got the music upside-down.”
“Bones,” as the piece is called, was Longo’s nickname for the legendary bassist Sam Jones, with whom Longo played when he first came to New York. The big-band arrangement has a vigorous, complex blues theme played by Joe Randazzo on bass trombone in unison with piano and bass, repeated with a new contrapuntal part played by the reeds on the second chorus, all repeated in a third chorus with more counterpoint by the brass on top of all that, and then a shout chorus for the whole band. Next come four superb solo bass choruses by Christian Fabian, and four solo keyboard choruses by Longo full of subtle lines, with a couple of clever suggestions of standard tunes. Then there is the promised upside-down theme in the same instrumentation as the right-side-up one, sections entering with their upside-down contrapuntal lines in turn, and then the whole right-side-up version again, followed by the theme played just by the trio of trombone, keyboard, and bass, and ending with a tag and the whole band joining on the jubilant last phrase.
Randazzo has been a powerhouse bass trombone player for over 40 years in New York and has played with many bands including those of Stan Getz, Ray Charles, Gerry Mulligan, and Bill Watrous. Fabian, who was born in Sweden and grew up in Germany, is the longtime bassist of the Lionel Hampton Big Band and has played with many major jazz artists. He also leads his own groups, which have recorded four CDs on CAP.
After rounds of applause for the band and soloists, Longo says: “We’re going to do a tune now that was an attempt to capture the sounds and colors of New York City, where I have resided for many years. This is called ‘Inner City Hues.’”
It’s a big, bold work Longo composed early this year, with a series of richly orchestrated sections evoking the lush harmonies of one of those sultry Duke Ellington or George Gershwin compositions, but reaching even further into modern jazz harmonies. “I have both the raised nine and the flat nine in the voicing—it’s got all those tensions,” Longo told me. “Dark, like late at night, New York City, two o’clock in the morning, three o’clock in the morning.”
James Smith adds some hues of his own in a trumpet solo that bends notes impressively, and Isrea Butler follows with another wild mute trombone solo. Then another big shout chorus, contrasted with light, improvised keyboard excursions, leads to restatements of the theme with more of that darkly resonant mute breaking out in the last chorus.
“We’re going to do something now that has a deep spiritual significance,” Longo says. “This is called ‘Ding-A-Ling.’” The band members are chortling, but there is actually spiritual significance that the title doesn’t suggest. Longo composed the piece for Gillespie around 1967-68, in an idiom that used to be called boogaloo, and the Gillespie spirit is all over it. There is a great version of this tune on YouTube, from 1968 in Copenhagen, with Gillespie introducing it as “by our brilliant young pianist here, Mike Longo.”
What makes this composition brilliant, besides a delightful up-tempo tune with infectious swing, is that it starts off sounding as if it’s going to be a 12-bar blues with call and response between piano and horns, but at the last possible moment a striking second theme emerges, re-energizes the piece, and rounds it off most satisfyingly into a 16-bar composition.
The theme is played twice, after which a little tag leads to an exquisite two-chorus solo on flugelhorn by Shawn Edmonds, then two melodious choruses by Todd Anderson on tenor, two more by Longo, then more fine energetic soloing by Fabian and the return of the full band, which now divides up the two halves of the theme. Then the theme is restated by the original piano-brass arrangement, followed by a full-band chorus and a rousing tag finale.
“Now we’re ready for the highlight of the evening,” Longo says, and he introduces the band’s vocalist, Hilary Gardner. Gardner has been away from the band in recent months, working as the featured vocalist on Broadway in Come Fly Away, Twyla Tharp’s Frank Sinatra show, singing duets with Sinatra’s recorded voice, as well as solos, with a live orchestra. She has been the vocalist of State of the Art for the last nine years and recorded with them on their CD Oasis. Over the years, Longo has written about 16 charts for Gardner with the band, mostly standards. Another chart for her is by Sam Burtis, lead trombonist and a major force in the band, who was with Tito Puente for seven years, played with Deodato and Machito, has been with the Chico O’Farrill Band for the last 15 years, and plays with the Mambo Legends, Jeff Fairbanks’s Project Hansori, and the Cecilia Coleman Big Band.
“Someone to Watch Over Me” begins sparely, with woodwinds setting up a harmonic coloration for Gardner’s slow ad lib opening phrase, which gradually attracts rhythmic definition, and then more rich harmonies and subtly scored obbligatos for the reeds and brass. Gardner’s phrasing is precise and poignant, bringing to mind big band vocalists like Helen Forrest and Ivie Anderson. In the solo spot, Isles plays a sweet line that picks up energy and intensity on the bridge when Longo infuses some syncopated comp-chord accents, and then Edmonds has a short melodic improvisation. A brief transitional passage brings Gardner back in at the bridge, which she varies with an improvised turn, ending with a scat over a dreamy tag Longo conducts.
Besides her work with State of the Art, Gardner has a regular Tuesday night gig at Swing 46 with the George Gee Swing Orchestra; recently, she has also returned to the music she sang growing up in Alaska and joined a country music band. “It’s called Shotgun Wedding, and we just did our debut performance at the Bitter End,” she told me. “There are five of us in that band and the other four are arena rock guys. They all played and toured with pretty big rock stars for a long time, so we all come from really different backgrounds and that’s just been a blast.”
Gardner’s second song tonight is a blast, too. “Don’t blink or you’ll miss it,” she says. “It goes by pretty fast.” It’s “Lover,” which Longo has orchestrated at as torrid a tempo as any arrangement of it ever done for Peggy Lee or Frank Sinatra. “I remember Richard Rogers wanted to sue them, because he wrote it as a waltz,” Longo told me in an interview the next day. “But he lost.”
Unlike the Lee and Sinatra arrangements, however, Longo’s chart does not restrain the band to feature the star, so both are in full flight. One hundred percent scored—not a single solo to be had, with jolts of pure velocity from all the sections—the tune’s two and a half choruses blaze by in as many minutes. The applause for Gardner is effusive as she relinquishes the microphone.
“We’re going to play a tune now that has a special significance to me,” Longo says. “It’s one of the first tunes I wrote for the Dizzy Gillespie Quintet, and it was inspired by the hippie movement.”
Indeed, there is a residue of Haight-Ashbury rhythms in the tune, “Frisco.” It’s the only tune of the night that Longo didn’t arrange, though he composed it. He got the brilliant Dick Cohen to arrange it back in the day, for a European tour of Dizzy Gillespie’s Reunion Band.
The tempo of “Frisco” is even more blistering than that of “Lover,” and with a deeper groove. It bends the blues in another exciting way, not breaking the familiar form but with lots of punchy horn phrases and with the last of the three blues lines turned into a melodic escalator that lifts the mood further up into the stratosphere every time it recurs.
Availing himself of Gardner’s microphone, Todd Anderson blows a genuine hippie flute solo, bringing the tune back to its roots, ending with a lick from Scheherazade. Jeff Newell, who is playing the Gillespie Auditorium for the first time (subbing for the band’s lead alto player and straw boss, Bob Magnuson, who organized the band for Longo in 1999), follows suit, and free jazz reigns, while everything is held together by Longo’s comping, Fabian’s bass, and the drums of Mike Campenni, the unsung hero of the evening, who is subbing for Ray Marchica. The horn sections return in a klezmer vamp, with Newell not only hanging in all the way but gaining intensity. Then suddenly everyone pulls back and takes a breath, before the horns join forces and play a tight little shout passage that sets up expectations of the out chorus.
Instead we are propelled into a third solo, by Andy Gravish on trumpet, who blasts us into the heights of bebop blues, with every phrase right on target and propelled by a rhythm section now in high gear, pumping out a South Florida pulse that Joe Zawinul and the Adderley brothers would have been proud of. After Gravish’s third chorus, the horn sections join in for two more, followed by more big choruses for the full band, and then a recapitulation of the opening theme with a tag that culminates in a triumphant musical exclamation point.
And that’s just the first set.
That early-June big-band date was the prelude to an astounding summer of performances for Longo. On July 19 at the Gillespie Auditorium, he presented “A Salute to the Great Jazz Pianists,” with Longo’s longtime trio mates Paul West on bass and Ray Mosca on drums.
In the first set the tributes were to Randy Weston, McCoy Tyner, Thelonious Monk, Duke Pearson, Chick Corea, Mal Waldron, Oscar Peterson, Bill Evans, and Monk again. The two Monk tunes were a study in contrasts, with “Bye-Ya” played like a ballad and “Rhythm-a-ning” played very much Monk’s way.
The second set honored Herbie Hancock, John Lewis, Horace Silver, Fats Waller, Erroll Garner, George Shearing, Tyner again, Peterson again, and Bud Powell.
Two weeks later, Longo was in the studio to record a new CD, half in trio settings with Bob Cranshaw on bass and Lewis Nash on drums, and half in quintet arrangements with the addition of Jimmy Owens on trumpet and flugelhorn, and a soulful young tenor saxophone player, Lance Bryant. I attended both the rehearsal and the recording session and can give the advance word on the CD, which is due out this month: It’s phenomenal. After a three-hour rehearsal at Carroll Studios in Manhattan, the players convened the next day at 7 p.m. at Bennett Studios in Englewood, N.J., and delivered a complete masterwork in six hours. The level of musicianship throughout was breathtaking.
The trio plays standards that Longo has thoroughly made over with new arrangements. The theme of “I Hadn’t Anyone Till You” is recast as a pointillist conversation between piano and drums, and Cranshaw plays a sublime solo. In “You’ve Changed,” Longo takes only the descending figure of the opening theme and the song’s form and turns it into a crisp, modern tune. On “Old Devil Moon,” Cranshaw suggested that Nash take the first solo, which adds to the tune’s energetic kick. “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning” opens with a florid Longo solo that is clever and melodic, and when the drums and bass join, the interplay is delicate and subtle. The classic Wayne Shorter tune “Limbo” is recomposed as a scintillating, unsentimental waltz. Longo makes Herbie Hancock’s “Eye of the Hurricane” a Category 5, laid down in one incredible take.
The quintet tunes are all new Longo compositions.
Coming up at Jazz Tuesdays, you can hear the Russ Kassoff Big Band on Sept. 13, Gary Morgan’s big band PanAmericana! on Sept. 20, and the Mike Longo trio in a tribute to Oscar Peterson on Sept. 27.
The date to save for the next New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble concert is Oct. 18, in a program celebrating the birthday anniversary of Dizzy Gillespie, who was born Oct. 21, 1917.
If there’s any justice, Longo, who is 72, will get a MacArthur grant and will play at the White House well before Diz hits 100.