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The Rhythm of Unity: A Jazz Musician’s Lifelong Journey Beyond Black and White


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The following is an excerpt from Chapter 15 "Angel Of Love," from Mike & Dorothy Longo's The Rhythm of Unity: A Jazz Musician's Lifelong Journey Beyond Black and White (Redwood Publishing, 2023).

It was 1966. Word had gotten out, and it felt as though everyone was complimenting me about my gig at the Embers West. Other musicians started to consider me as "one of the cats," and I started working around town with people like Hank Jones, who would send me to sub for him. Frank Foster, while still with Basie's band, was forming a rehearsal band of his own and asked me to be his pianist. I jumped at the chance. When his band got booked at the Embers West on Sundays, I was working there seven nights a week. Even after Frank left, the club decided to keep the big band thing going and I played with different bands, including those of "Papa" Jo Jones, Joe Farrell, and Lew Soloff, who would come in when he was off the road with Blood, Sweat & Tears.

Then one night, my life changed forever. We were playing when I looked down and there was Dizzy Gillespie sitting in the audience. Roy Eldridge had apparently gone around the corner to where Diz was playing and told him that he had to come by to "hear this pianist." Dizzy caught our whole set, though I was glad I didn't know he was there from the beginning, as the fear of clamming up might have derailed my playing. He seemed very impressed with both Paul Chambers and me. After our set, he came up and asked me to meet him the next day at the Union at 2:00 p.m. He said there was something he wanted to talk to me about.

I arrived at 2:00 p.m. on the dot, just as Dizzy rolled up in the passenger seat of a Lincoln Continental. He asked me to get in and said, "When I get back from Europe, I am going to need a pianist." I almost shouted, "You've got one!" Instead, I played it cool and calmly accepted his offer. Dizzy seemed delighted. He gave me a ride home, left me with some lead sheets from a recent album he had made, and told me he would see me when he got back. Arriving home, I ran inside to call my parents to share the great news. They were overjoyed.

Five weeks out from joining Diz's band in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, on December 11, 1966, I was still playing at the Embers West. On the first of December, I got a postcard from James Moody, who was playing saxophone in Dizzy's band in Europe. It read, "READY, SET, GO! —James Moody." I had only met Moody once during the two-week engagement at the Embers, yet he had taken the time to send this note to me. It boosted my excitement as I headed into my last week as a freelance musician in NYC and readied myself for the "big time."

When I arrived in Milwaukee for my first gig, Dizzy invited me to come to his room for a "rehearsal." He asked me if I knew "Con Alma" and "Manteca," two of his most well-known compositions, which I did. When I joined the band, the group consisted of Dizzy on trumpet, James Moody on saxophone/flute, me on piano, Otis "Candy" Finch on drums, and Frank Shifano on bass. Frank and I were the two White guys in an interracial band, which was quite unusual in the midst of riots in the streets, buildings burning, and civil unrest everywhere. Dizzy was bold enough to have one of the only mixed bands to tour in spite of it all.

At our gig that night, I got so inspired playing with Dizzy that I played my ass off. The audience was going wild! In the heat of battle, Dizzy decided to test me and pulled out this arrangement that was a piano-feature number he had written called "Just a Thought." I sight-read it and hit a groove like I had been playing it for years.

Inspiration and willpower became my allies, and when we finished, Dizzy began yelling, "Hell yes! Hell yes!" At the end of the gig, he said something very strange: "There is going to be more understanding now." I had no idea what he meant except that I would be the one who was going to be doing the learning. Near the end of our night, a woman named Beth McKinty asked to meet with Dizzy. I joined them as they spoke at length about various topics. At one point, Beth mentioned she was a member of the Bahá'í community. It was the first time Dizzy and I had ever heard of the religion.

My second night with Dizzy took a very different turn. Diz and Moody seemed to come up with high-energy playing every night on the gig. I was struggling to match it and fell short. When Dizzy approached me about it, I said, "You mean I have to come up with that kind of energy every night?" Dizzy's response was, "What the hell do you think I'm paying you for?" If I had been Dizzy, I would have fired me. I still had a lot to learn and was fearful of losing my gig. There was no way I could play on that level every night, but Dizzy hung with me and nurtured me by saying, "I know it's coming." Moody later told me that Diz had kept me on after the ups and downs of my initial gigs because he could see I was improving. I felt like I had died and gone to heaven, as being with Dizzy had already proven that it was going to be an incredible learning experience.

As my relationship with Dizzy grew to become that of close friends, our bond expanded to include many discussions about music and life. I began to see why others called him "Dizzy." He seemed to be three different people in one. He was the screwball that the public knew when he was in character. Then he was the dead-serious musician. And then there was John Gillespie, the deeply spiritual man. I, quite fortunately, was developing a close relationship with all three. To me, Dizzy felt like more than just a musical genius; he seemed to be a musical messenger of sorts. With him, I had already experienced another level of playing, as well as an unexplainable love. It was not the kind of love a man might feel for a woman, nor was it like the love between friends or family members. It was the kind of love we believe Jesus and Mohammed had for people. The first time I encountered it was in Los Angeles, where Dizzy had rented a car that I was to drive. I ran it into a ditch, and we got stuck. I expected to get fired. Instead, Dizzy was very calm and said, "That's all right, Mike. I do shit like that all the time myself." I was shocked by his level of understanding because I hadn't been in the group that long and was still wringing out the pains from New York's cutthroat music scene.

When the band arrived in San Francisco for our next gig, a very strange thing happened to me: We were playing a jazz workshop, and it was one of those evenings where everyone in the band was on fire. I went back to the hotel so wound up that I couldn't sleep. I kept hearing the band play, though I noticed that, although I was hearing Dizzy's band, what I was hearing was nothing we had played. I got out a piece of manuscript paper and wrote down what I was hearing.

The next night, I asked Dizzy if I could write something for the band, and he welcomed it. The following day, I brought in a chart of what I had heard the night before. I called it "Florida A1A" after a highway in Fort Lauderdale right along the beach where I had grown up. Dizzy called a rehearsal the next day, the band played it, and it was perfect. We began playing it at the gig that night. It had a boogaloo beat and went over so well with the audience that Dizzy asked me to write something else for the band to play.

Dizzy had already begun sharing many of his musical secrets with me, often coming over to the piano when I was playing a solo and whispering something in my ear. Other times while I was playing, he would come over and bang a tambourine in my ear, and something would open up within me. Before I knew it, I was playing very differently, without knowing just where the music or ability was coming from. I was creating stuff I had never played before, and there was something special about the music. I just didn't yet understand what that was. When I remembered the Detroit cats in New York talking about "peeping the secret," I thought, They were right! There is a secret! I was starting to experience glimpses of it in my own playing whenever Diz would lay one of his gems on me. Over the next several months, I dedicated myself to trying to figure out the secret. In truth, I've spent the rest of my life trying to figure it out.



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