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IJS Remembers Michael Longo, Ellis Marsalis, and Bucky Pizzarelli
The deadly coronavirus is beginning to take its toll among the jazz community both in the greater New York, the national epicenter for the virus, and the music itself.
Pianist, educator, composer, and bandleader Mike Longo was best known for his years with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie when he died on March 22 in Manhattan at age 83. In addition to founding the New York State of the Art Jazz Ensemble, Longo also formed Consolidated Artists Productions, a music publishing company, a record label, a concert promotion company, and to promote his and other artists’ work.
Michael Joseph Longo was born on March 19, 1937, in Cincinnati. He began learning the rudiments of the piano from his mother, as well as from his father, a bass player in local bands when the family lived in Fort Lauderdale, FL. One of Longo’s father’s bands included alto saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. Adderley returned the favor when he hired the young pianist while still in high school.
Longo ventured to New York in 1960 and soon found himself working with trumpeter Red Allen and tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawking as well as studying for six months with Oscar Peterson in Canada. Other early associations in New York included accompanying singers Nancy Wilson, Gloria Lynne, and Joe Williams as well as arranging for and conducting the band at the nightclub Embers West. In 1966, Gillespie asked Longo to serve as his musical director and arranger, which would last until 1975 and more informally until Gillespie’s death in 1993. Longo is survived by his wife of 32 years, Dorothy, and a sister.
Patriarchs of two visible jazz families—the Marsalises of New Orleans and the Pizzarellis of Northern New Jersey—also died last week.
Bucky Pizzarelli, one of the masters of rhythm guitar as well as a gifted soloist, died in Saddle River, N.J. at the age of 94. Pizzarelli took his time getting into the limelight. John Paul Pizzarelli was born on January 9, 1926, in Paterson, N.J., where his parents, John and Amelia (DiDomenico) Pizzarelli, owned a grocery store. Two uncles were professional strings players (guitar and banjo) and showed him the ropes.
He began his professional career in his teens touring with the singer Vaughan Monroe He rejoined Monroe between 1946 and 1953 after serving two years in the army in World War II. Pizzarelli was a much sought-after session guitarist in the 1950s and 1960s when he was also a member of The Tonight Show Orchestra before Johnny Carson moved the show to California in 1972. In addition to recording with the likes of singers like Frank Sinatra and Sarah Vaughan, Pizzarelli played on commercial jingles and numerous pop records. He also worked with Benny Goodman consistently between 1966 and Goodman’s death in 1986.
His prominence was aided by that of his musical children, notably his son, guitarist, and singer, John Pizzarelli, his wife singer Jessica Molasky, and bassist Martin Pizzarelli. (John once described them as “the von Trapp family on martinis.”) He was one of the few guitarists preferring to play a seven-stringed guitar versus six-stringed instruments. The additional string enabled him to provide his bass line. Pizzarelli played into his nineties, recovering from a stroke and pneumonia in 2015 and 2016 that knocked him out of commission until the end of 2016.
Ellis Marsalis, a longtime New Orleans jazz educator and mainstay of modern jazz in the city cast an indelible influence on jazz history through his musical sons. Most notably, Wynton Marsalis, trumpeter and co-founder of Jazz at Lincoln Center and arguably the most famous jazz musician in the world, and saxophonist Branford Marsalis led jazz back toward solid mainstream music in the late 20th century.
Marsalis’s two other musician sons, Delfeayo, a trombonist, and Jason, a drummer and vibraphonist have also made their mark as bandleaders. He died April 1 in New Orleans at the age of 85.
Even before his sons rose to fame, the elder Marsalis was already a respected bop-oriented pianist in a city known for jazz steeped in a far more distant past. In addition to his sons, he was known for mentoring a pride of musicians sometimes referred to as the Young Lions, including trumpeters Terence Blanchard, Nicholas Payton, tenor saxophonist Donald Harrison Jr., and singer and pianist Harry Connick.
Marsalis had a teaching career over decades, including stints at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, the University of New Orleans, Xavier University of New Orleans. He recorded some 20 albums under his name between 1985 and 2018, as well as recording with his sons and other figures such as Nat Adderley, David “Fathead” Newman, and Marcus Roberts. He shared a group NEA Jazz Master Award, the highest award bestowed to jazz musicians, with his sons in 2011.
Ellis Louis Marsalis Jr. was born in New Orleans on November 14, 1934, to a homemaker and the owner of a small motel in suburban New Orleans. His parents were also active in the civil rights movement. He is survived by two non-musician sons Mboya and Ellis III, 13 grandchildren, and a sister.
In late January, trumpeter Wallace Roney had a prominent role in the PBS American Masters documentary on Miles Davis as the only young trumpet player the jazz icon ever mentored. Davis first heard Roney at a 1983 tribute at Radio City Music Hall and invited the 23-year-old to his home the following day. This week the jazz world mourned Roney, 59, who died March 31 in Paterson, N.J. from complications of the coronavirus.
By the time Davis first heard him, Roney was already a member in good standing of a group of musicians called the Young Lions for advocating by the example for jazz to hold on to roots evident in the mid-to-late 20th century. Although steeped in and identified with the Davis sound and tradition, Roney’s virtuosity allowed him to soar. “Most of the ideas in Mr. Roney’s compositions began at the center of jazz’s mainstream language and cut a path outward, often by way of funk, hip-hop, pop, Brazilian or Afro-Caribbean music,” said a New York Times obituary published April 1.
Roney appeared on around 20 albums as a leader, receiving a 1994 Grammy for his Tribute to Miles, which featured alumni from the second great 1960s quintet: drummer Tony Williams, composer and tenor saxophonist Wayne Shorter, pianist Herbie Hancock, and bassist Ron Carter. Roney was onstage at the 1991 Montreux Jazz when Davis, who died a few months later, revisited some of his classical pre-electronic music as part of a concert arranged and conducted by Quincy Jones.
By Roney’s mid-teens, he was already making trips to New York to perform. In his city debut, in 1976, he played at Ali’s Alley, a loft space in SoHo.He attended both Howard University and Berklee College of Music before moving to New York City to pursue a career. His career got a boost when he was asked to join the band of drummers Tony Williams and Art Blakey. In 1979 and again in 1980. DownBeat magazine named Roney young jazzman of the year for his skill and the attention his playing was already drawing.
Roney is survived by his fiancé, singer and educator Dawn Jones; a son, trumpeter Wallace Vernell Roney; a daughter Barbara Roney, as well as a sister Crystal Roney; and a brother, saxophonist Antoine Roney.
Remembrance by Tad Hershorn.