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Tommy Flanagan: 1930-2001
Tommy Flanagan

Born: March 16, 1930 in Detroit, Michigan
Died: November 16, 2001 in New York City, New York



Lucid and Sophisticated Jazz Pianist

Copyright © 2001 

The Scotsman


Tommy Flanagan was as lucid, refined and swinging a pianist as any in the history of jazz. Influenced initially by the light touch and fluent execution of Teddy Wilson and the relentless virtuosity of Art Tatum, he added the harmonic and rhythmic punch of bebop musicians like Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk to his armoury, and emerged as one of the most elegant and fully rounded interpreters in jazz.

He spent a large part of his career working as an accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald, a distinction in itself, but one which perhaps served to obscure his own qualities. As he said himself, no one watched the pianist when Ella commanded the stage, but he went on to establish himself as a leader in his own right after leaving the singer in 1978.

He was born Tommy Lee Flanagan in Detroit, a city which became a jazz hot spot in his formative years. He was the youngest of six children, and was encouraged to learn music by his jazz-loving parents, initially playing clarinet, then switching to piano, a conversion which was completed when he heard Art Tatum in concert in 1945.

He shared the busy Detroit scene with musicians like saxophonist Lucky Thompson, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianist Barry Harris, guitarist Kenny Burrell, singer Betty Carter, trumpeter Thad Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones (the third Jones brother, pianist Hank Jones, later cut piano duet albums with Flanagan, and they shared a common musical approach).

He accompanied many visiting musicians to the city, notably at the Blue Bird Inn, and absorbed the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both at first hand and on record.

His style remained an amalgam of the swing and bebop eras, and he was equally comfortable recording or performing with a swing era titan like Coleman Hawkins or more modernist players like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins (with whom he recorded the classic Saxophone Colossus album in 1956) or John Coltrane (he is heard on the epochal Giant Steps in 1959).

He served in the armed forces in Korea, then moved to New York in 1956, where his first job was standing in for an absent Bud Powell at Birdland. It brought an immediate invitation to record with Miles Davis, his first recording session. He played with Ella Fitzgerald that year for the first time, but worked more regularly with the singer in 1963-65, then in an extended spell from 1968-78 (he was accompanist to Tony Bennett in 1966).

He was an exemplary accompanist, complementing and supporting the singer at every turn, but eventually grew tired of the continuous touring, and decided to set up his own trio. He left the singer’s trio in 1978, following a mild heart attack, and largely concentrated on his own piano trio, recording a succession of acclaimed albums, and confirming his status as a major creative artist in his own right. He was awarded the prestigious Jazzpar Prize in 1993.

He was never a flashy pianist, but preferred a more measured and always very sophisticated approach to his material, which consisted mainly of jazz standards. That restraint was also evident in the subtle way in which his trios interacted, both onstage and on record.

Despite suffering from a heart condition, Flanagan continued to perform until shortly before his death from an arterial aneurysm. In an echo of his arrival in New York in 1956, one of his last performances was in a tribute to Bud Powell at Birdland in New York in September. He also played in a John Coltrane 75th Anniversary concert at the San Francisco Jazz Festival in October.

He is survived by his wife, Diane; a son, Tommy, Jr.; two daughters, Rachel and Jennifer; and six grandchildren.

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Sunset & Tommy Flanagan

by Ashley Kahn
Copyright © 2001 Ashley Kahn

It's 2:30 a.m., Saturday morning November 17, and I've just returned home after taking in an earful of postbop jazz artfully delivered by a young, trumpet-led quintet at Kavehaz. "Ahhh, bed," is all I'm thinking and fall to routine: I flick on the lights and the computer and click online for a quick e-mail check. There's sad, sad news.

Tommy Flanagan -- the Detroit-born pianist renowned for his accurate and tasteful technique, for accompanying legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Coleman Hawkins and John Coltrane and for eventually becoming one himself -- has moved on. From the Upper West Side to an upper plane. In the short time I had come to know him, he was warm and funny and very approachable and wore his stature and legacy with ease and no pretension. Like drummer Art Blakey and vocalist Betty Carter, he visibly enjoyed his craft and loved to explain it. He would play with intense clarity and elegance, then pick up the microphone and humorously comment on where or when or how he came to know that tune.

There had been evidence Tommy was not doing well. Jazz enthusiast Lars Bjorn wrote in another email: "This past Labor Day Weekend when he last visited his hometown for the annual Ford International Jazz Festival, his concert (with bassist Peter Washington and drummer Albert 'Tootie0' Heath) was cut short at two points by his heart condition. He brushed off the first incident in his typical wry fashion: 'It's my heart trying to tell me, leave that salt alone.' But the second pause led him to stop playing in the middle of a song and the premature ending of the concert."

In his last few months, I was honored that chance and circumstance brought us together not once or twice, but repeatedly. At a jazz festival upstate in August I saw him perform a soft and tender take of Duke Ellington's "Sunset and the Mockingbird," eliciting communal catharsis and bringing down the house. A week later, we met to discuss his experiences for a book I am currently writing; with fond and clear recollection he described Coltrane and the day the saxophonist brought Tommy to the studio to record the groundbreaking, chordal slalom of "Giant Steps". At Birdland in September, he participated in a three-night Bud Powell tribute, offering thoughtful readings from the bebop giant's songbook: "The Dance of the Infidels," "Un Poco Loco." And just two weeks ago at a small downtown party, Tommy, his wife Diana and I sat together as jazz arranger Sy Johnson played piano and sang a bawdy number from 1945. "I wasn't expecting to hear any 'Cleanhead' tonight," he laughed, referring to bald r&b star Eddie Vinson who first recorded "Cherry Red Blues."

That night I drove Tommy (whose condition did not seem to get in the way of a lively evening out) and his wife Diana home to their apartment on West 82nd. Our conversation drifted from the late-night jazz on the radio to our relative ages to that which keeps us young. "Music -- making good music," Tommy offered. "Growing old with someone you love," said Diana. "That will keep you young forever."

Where Tommy now is, I trust the rhythm section is always in the pocket, the piano never needs tuning and the whiskey has aged to just the right bite. For the timeless music he gave us and has left behind, he deserves it.

Ashley Kahn
Ashley Kahn, author of Kind of Blue, is hot on his book about John Coltrane's Love Supreme.

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With 5 reader comments, latest January 25, 2006