Tommy Flanagan (1930–2001) was a pianist who, according to The New York Times, set “a high standard for elegance in mainstream postwar jazz… His touch at the keyboard was clear and illuminating; his art was urbane and refined.” Born in 1930, Flanagan was raised in Detroit, one of America’s great jazz towns in the mid-20th century. He grew up under the spell of such Swing Era pianists as Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, and his Motor City peers included guitarist Kenny Burrell, pianist Barry Harris, trumpeter Donald Byrd, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, vocalist Betty Carter and saxophonists Lucky Thompson and Pepper Adams, as well as the Jones brothers — drummer Elvin, trumpeter Thad and pianist Hank, the latter with whom Flanagan shared certain stylistic virtues at the keyboard. By the time he arrived in New York City in the mid–1950s, Flanagan had become influenced by the bebop pianism of Bud Powell, buttressing his own natural poise and rhythmic grace with the fleet harmonic modernism of Powell. Flanagan played some of his first New York sessions for Miles Davis, and the pianist would appear on a string of historic albums, from Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus in 1956 to John Coltrane’s Giant Steps and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery in 1960. Flanagan began a long association with Ella Fitzgerald in the early ’60s, eventually serving as her music director from 1968 to 1978. He also worked with the likes of Sweets Edison, Coleman Hawkins, Jim Hall and Tony Bennett.
After leaving the employ of Fitzgerald, Flanagan led his own notable trios, featuring simpatico bassists George Mraz and Peter Washington and drummers Kenny Washington and Lewis Nash. Peter Washington recalled how a single note from Flanagan could “wipe out” flashier pianists. But Flanagan’s unspectacular nature and his veteran status in the 1980s and ’90s, when young lions were the rage, meant that he never quite got the due he deserved from major record labels. Still, he made a series of albums – including the studio set Jazz Poet and multiple discs recorded live at the Village Vanguard – hailed by the likes of pianist–broadcaster Marian McPartland, who featured him on her Piano Jazz radio show, and Village Voice critic Garry Giddins, who in his book Visions of Jazz extolled Flanagan’s vast knowledge of jazz repertoire and his quality of “style beyond style,” adding: “His technique is unassuming, never calling attention to itself… He made a virtue of harmonic variety, preferring the colors of chords to the black and white of scales, and focused on nuance and touch and melodic variation to get to the core” of the music, whether offbeat selections by Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker or songbook standards like “Yesterdays” and “Willow Weep for Me” or the pianist’s own witty originals. In 1990, Flanagan reunited with Burrell to record a soulful highlight of his latter-day discography, Beyond the Blue Bird, the album’s title referencing Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn, the formative venue for both players. Although Flanagan suffered from heart and circulatory problems in his final decades, he played virtually right up to the end, performing in a Coltrane tribute concert the month before his passing in 2001.
— Bradley Bambarger