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Turn it Down: Viva Jazz performs ‘A Family Christmas’ concert at UrbanBeat

Lauren Rongo looks back on decades of jazz

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UrbanBeat, a budding hot spot for live jazz music, hosts Viva Jazz. The group comprises Lauren Rongo (flute), her son Adam Rongo (sax), Terry Newman (bass), Arlene McDaniel (piano) and Ian Levine (drums).

At the Sunday event, the band will play a traditional concert, including some holiday songs, for the first hour followed by an open-jam session.   Viva Jazz will close out the evening with a 15-minute set. The event is free, but the band accepts tips and donations. 

Lauren Rongo, Viva Jazz cofounder and veteran of Michigan’s jazz scene, has performed everywhere from the Brooklyn Philharmonic to Jazz Tuesdays at Moriarty’s Pub. Flute in hand, she’s also been a part of many groups and orchestras over the years, including stints in Midland Symphony, Bay City Players and plenty of gigging with outfits like Nova Jazz and Shenanigans. 

On top of that, she also earned a music degree from Michigan State University and later studied under an acclaimed flutist, the late Harold Bennett of the New York Metropolitan Opera. 

“Although I already had a degree from MSU, Mr. Bennett practically started me all over,” she said. “He changed my tone, my hand position, my technique and my overall playing. He was the greatest flute teacher for me.”

Her latest project, Viva Jazz, offers up traditional jazz, played with a roster of her long-time collaborators.   

“The band was put together because we have known each other for many moons,” she said. “The mission was that I want a chance to perform with my son, and this band is like family. My bandmates Arlene and Ian used to come and hear my late husband, Tony Rongo, and I play at the Stonehouse years ago in East Lansing. 

“Our bassist Terry played with Nova Jazz, our group back then, on many gigs back in the early 1980s,” she added. “But I let go of the name Nova Jazz after Tony passed in 2007. I did not play jazz for many years after he passed.”

After a few years of mourning, she moved back to Lansing and formed Shenanigans, an Irish-folk duo she fronted with her second husband, David Gander.  Sadly, over the summer, she also lost Gander.

“David passed away this summer in June,” Rongo said. “I will not be playing Irish for a long time—just like when I let go of jazz. I just cannot play it right now.”

Even with another tragic loss, Lauren Rongo is keeping busy with music, and performing with family and friends has been therapeutic. Not to mention, they’re all seasoned players. 

Her son Adam Rongo, who has a master’s in jazz studies from Michigan State University, is traveling from his current residence in Chicago to play sax this holiday show in Old Town, Lansing. While he’s gigged all across New York City at prestigious clubs, as both a sideman and bandleader, he is now a second-year law student at Northwestern Law School.

“We play together when we can,” she said. “It’s tough to get jazz gigs that pay. Arlene, Terry, Ian, and my son were all willing to do this for tips because we really love to play together.”   

Looking back to what first encouraged her to put down the violin and accordion and pick up a flute, Lauren Rongo said it was a chance occurrence during junior high in the early ’60s that set her path in life. 

“In seventh grade there was a talent show. I won it playing ‘The Clarinet Polka’ on the piano-accordion,” she recalled. “But the person all the kids liked best was Fran Farley. She was a cheerleader and played the flute.  I thought, ‘Maybe if I play the flute, I’ll be pretty and popular like Fran. That is why I chose the flute! Yeesh —  it’s such a dumb reason. But then I fell in love with the flute. It’s like extension of my arm.”

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