Encyclopedia of Jazz Musicians

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Flanagan, Tommy (Thomas Lee)

Pianist Tommy Flanagan’s sophisticated use of melody, sincere lyricism and bright articulations made him a superb accompanist, which can be heard in his work with guitarist Kenny Burrell, saxophonists Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane, singer Ella Fitzgerald and many others. As a leader, he pushed and pulled the rhythmic and harmonic functions of the piano in a contemporary jazz ensemble.

 Tommy Flanagan

Thomas Lee Flanagan was born on March 16, 1930 in Detroit, Michigan. Growing up in the Conant Gardens neighborhood of Detroit, Tommy was the youngest of six children. Tommy’s father Johnson was an employee of the United States Postal Service and his mother Ida Mae was a housewife. Tommy came from a musical household; his father sang in a quartet and his mother taught herself to read music.

At the age of six, Flanagan received his first instrument, a clarinet, which he received as a Christmas present. After showing moderate proficiency, Tommy began to perform with a band comprised of several family members. After realizing that he did not have a natural gift for the clarinet, he began to play on his family’s piano. By the age of ten, he was able to imitate his older brother Johnson Jr., himself a professional pianist.

During this time, Flanagan began to take piano lessons from a teacher named Gladys Dillard. Dillard instilled in the young student proper articulation, form and technique. She also taught him the music of composers Johann Sebastian Bach and Frederic Chopin, though his tastes lied in the sounds of jazz.

Through the records that his brothers brought home, Flanagan began to listen to the preeminent pianists of jazz including Bud Powell, Art Tatum, Fats Waller and Teddy Wilson. Tommy would often accompany his brother to nightclub engagements where he would perform on the clarinet and saxophone. Through these engagements, he was able to listen to the stars of Detroit’s vibrant jazz scene.

At the age of sixteen, Flanagan was invited to perform at the Blue Bird Inn club by pianist Phil Hill. Tommy sat in with the Hill group, until the owner, Robert Du Bois chased him out of the club for an unspecified reason. As a teenager, Tommy was a student at Northern High School, which he attended with alto saxophonist Sonny Red and pianist Roland Hanna.

Upon graduating from high school, Flanagan began to perform throughout the Detroit area. Tommy performed with bandleader Rudy Rutherford at the Parrot Lounge and accompanied singer Bobby Caston on numerous occasions. A highlight of his time with Caston was getting to meet one of his idols, Art Tatum.

About 1947, Tommy formed a trio with Kenny Burrell and bassist Alvin Jackson. The trio performed at local dances and parties and gained significant performing experience. The same year, he performed with Burrell and vibraphonist Milt Jackson in saxophonist Lucky Thompson’s septet.

Though he enjoyed listening to other contemporary pianists, Flanagan found a great deal of inspiration from alto saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie. Tommy found their modern sounds deeply influential to his playing, often employing their innovative melodic devices in his performances. One could attribute Tommy’s use of legato phrasing to Parker and Gillespie.

Showing his absolute devotion to the bebop, Flanagan refused to play commercial music in order to keep his focus on the movement. Tommy’s enthusiasm for bebop was perhaps best stated by Detroit tenor saxophonist George Benson, who said that Flanagan is a “brilliant musician, an extremist, who opposed any form of entertainment which demeaned his modernist artistry.”

By the early 1950s, Flanagan was performing with several luminaries of the Detroit jazz scene including trumpeter Thad Jones and saxophonist Billy Mitchell. In 1951, Tommy was inducted into the United States Army and trained at Fort Leonard, Missouri. During his time in the army, he was stationed in the Korean city of Kunsan, where he worked as an operator for motion pictures.

Upon his discharge from the Army, Flanagan returned to Detroit where he performed at local clubs such as Klein’s Showbar, the Crystal Show Bar and the Rouge Lounge. In addition to this, Tommy began to attend private Tuesday night concerts held by the New World Music Society, a collective that featured Burrell, who was also the collective’s president, saxophonist Yusef Lateef, trumpeter Donald Byrd and pianist Barry Harris.

By the mid 1950s, Flanagan was looking to expand his career outside of the Detroit area. In 1956, Flanagan and Burrell moved to New York City in order to develop their careers. After arriving in New York, he began to attend jam sessions at several clubs including Club 125 and Small’s. His first professional job in New York was as a sub for pianist Bud Powell at the Birdland club.

Despite only being in New York but a few weeks, Flanagan booked his first recording session where he recorded with Burrell, bassist Oscar Pettiford and Shadow Wilson on the Blue Note release Detroit-New York Junction.

A mere two months later, Flanagan recorded with tenor saxophonist Sonny Rollins on his groundbreaking album Saxophone Colossus. At the end of July 1956, Tommy first performed with singer Ella Fitzgerald, replacing pianist Don Abney at the Newport Jazz Festival in Rhode Island. Though his period with Fitzgerald lasted for only a month, his work with her got him noticed in the jazz community.

Throughout the late 1950s, Flanagan began to perform with trombonist J.J. Johnson alongside fellow Detroit native drummer Elvin Jones and trumpeter Nat Adderley. During a European tour in 1957, Tommy recorded The Tommy Flanagan Trio Overseas, his first album as a leader with Elvin Jones and bassist Wilbur Little. In May of 1959, Tommy performed on tenor saxophonist John Coltrane’s first Atlantic recording Giant Steps.

Giant Steps proved to be a major accomplishment for Coltrane and a new benchmark in jazz composition and improvisation. The album’s title track set a new standard by which instrumentalists' improvisational skills are measured. Joined by bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Art Taylor, Flanagan firmly establishes the etude-like frequency of the harmony by voicing the chords close to the melody. Throughout Coltrane’s solo, Tommy starts by playing short phrases to counteract the lightning fast melodic devices that Coltrane utilizes. During his solo Flanaganuses parts of the melody as well as his own ideas to shape an idea that mirrors that of Coltrane’s.

In January 1960, Flanagan recorded with guitarist Wes Montgomery on his album Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar. A highlight of the album is the song “Four On Six,” an original song that is also an interpretation of composer George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” With Montgomery, bassist Percy Heathand drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath,the ensemble crafts a relaxed, yet forceful composition that displays the talent of these seasoned artists.

After the introduction from Montgomery and the rhythm section, Flanagan plays short phrases on the “and” of the beats to break the rhythmic pattern created by the bass and drums. During his solo, Flanagan employs several melodic expressions from short, power bursts to smooth, legato lines. What’s most noticeable is how effortlessly Tommy and Wes blend their timbres, with the two men playing intensely yet never getting in each other’s way.

Around this time, Tommy recorded with tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins on his album At Ease With Coleman Hawkins, an album of ballads. Around this time, Tommy performed in a trio with Percy Heath and guitarist Jim Hall at the Five Spot club in New York.

Following a stint with Hawkins’s band, Flanagan was hired by producer Norman Granz in the February of 1963 to perform with Ella Fitzgerald. Included in her group at this time was guitarist Les Spann, bassist Jimmy Hughart and drummer Gus Johnson. After the departure of Spann, Granz often featured the trio with trumpeter Roy Eldridge. In November 1965, he left the Fitzgerald group and moved to California.

Upon moving to California, Flanagan performed with singer Tony Bennett where he served as his musical director. When Fitzgerald returned from a tour of Europe in 1968, she re-hired Flanagan, not only as her pianist but also as her musical director. Over the next decade, Tommy accompanied Fitzgerald at jazz festivals and international appearances.

After well over a decade since his last solo effort, Flanagan released the album The Tokyo Recital in 1975. The album features bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham on renditions of songs written by composers Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn including “Take the ‘A’ Train" and “Something to Live For.”

In the fall on 1978, Flanagan decided to leave the Fitzgerald group due to the difficult schedule, her failing health and a heart attack that he had during this time. In the early 1980s, Tommy began to record and perform after taking some time off. In 1982, he released the album Thelonica, a tribute to pianist Thelonious Monk.

In 1990, Flanagan’s album Jazz Poet was selected by Billboard magazine as one of the ten best records of the year. The same year, Tommy recorded with Kenny Burrell, resulting in the album Beyond the Blue Bird. In 1993, Tommy received the Danish Jazzpar Prize, a prize given to recognize jazz performers. For the years 1992, 1994, and 1995, Down Beat Magazine’s Critic’s Poll named Tommy their “Best Pianist.”

On March 16, 1997, Flanagan capped off his sixty-seventh birthday by recording the album Sunset and the Mockingbird: The Birthday Concert, a live album recorded at the Village Vanguard. On the album, Tommy is joined by bassist Peter Washington and drummer Lewis Nash on several standards including “Bird Song” by Thad Jones and ‘With Malice Towards None” by composer Tom McIntosh.

The group is in fine form on the Duke Ellington composed song “Sunset and the Mockingbird.” Flanagan begins the song by playing light ornamentations that include soft trills and lush voicings. Upon the band entering at 1:36, Tommy continues to utilize a refined approach before augmenting his performance with quick melodic bursts and brief harmonic lines. Tommy ends the song just the way he started, blissfully concluding the sentimental feeling of the composition.

During his late career, Flanagan continued to record and perform, often performing two-week engagements at the Village Vanguard twice a year. On November 16, 2001, Tommy passed away from complications stemming from an arterial aneurism in New York, he was seventy-one years old. Tommy in survived by his wife Diane, two daughters, a son, and six grandchildren.

Select Discography

As a leader

Tommy Flanagan Trio Overseas (1957)

Jazz…It’s Magic (1957)

Lonely Town (1959)

The Tokyo Recital (1975)

Eclypso (1977)

Something Borrowed, Something Blue (1978)

Super-Session (1980)

Thelonica (1982)

Jazz Poet (1989)

Master Trio (1994)

Sunset and the Mockingbird: The Birthday Concert (1998)

with Kenny Burrell

Introducing Kenny Burrell (1956)

Beyond the Blue Bird (1990)

with John Coltrane

Giant Steps (1960)

with Coleman Hawkins

At Ease With Coleman Hawkins (1960)

Night Hawk (1960)

Desafinado (1962)

with Hank Jones

Our Delights (1978)

with Thad Jones

Detroit-New York Junction (1956)

The Magnificent Thad Jones (1956)

Motor City Scene (1959)

with Wes Montgomery

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960)

with Art Pepper

Straight Life (1979)

with Sonny Rollins

Saxophone Colossus (1956)

Contributor: Eric Wendell