"Tommy Flanagan swings so deeply, and he’s so compassionate. You can always hear the lyrics when he plays. The only pianist I could compare him with is my brother Hank.”
"Here is a pianist who has played with Hawk, Roy, Pres, Dizzy, Bird, Rollins, to cite just a few, and yet has accompanied Ella for more than 15 years. It is probably because of this long stretch with her that people have forgotten just how brilliant a soloist he is.”
Though Tommy Flanagan (born March 16, 1930) is 12 years younger than Hank Jones, the two Detroit natives have much in common: the rare and precious ability to be the right pianist in a wide variety of settings; a history of having played with a phenomenal number of jazz giants over the past 30 years; a special gift for accompanying vocalists (Hank occupied Tommy’s current chair with Ella from ’48 through ’53, and Tommy has been musical director for both Ella and Tony Bennett); and, perhaps above all, an impeccable, imperturbable, and unerringly elegant sense of swing. Tommy Flanagan, in fact, can’t not swing.
Before he moved from Detroit to New York, Flanagan worked with Dexter Gordon, Lucky Thompson, and Billy Mitchell’s house band at the famous Bluebird Inn, where he played behind Miles Davis, Sonny Stitt, and, among others, Ben Webster. As a teenager, Tommy even got to play a couple of times with Charlie Parker. He modestly relates the story:
"It was the late Forties, when Bird was in his prime. The first time was a surprise—a disc jockey brought him into the theater where we were playing—Billy Mitchell's band. Bird came out and did ‘How High the Moon' or 'Ornithology.' Knocked everyone out. I was afraid to take a solo after him. I don't know what I played. Probably played nothin'."
After he got out of the U.S. Army in 1953, and moved to New York two years later, musicians thought highly enough of Flanagan that he quickly found himself thrust into every jazz situation imaginable. He worked with Ella Fitzgerald briefly, spent the fall of ’57 with Miles Davis, toured with J.J. Johnson several times, played on John Coltrane's watershed Giant Steps album, and recorded with Kenny Burrell, Miles, Sonny Rollins, Milt Jackson, Wes Montgomery, Roy Haynes, Art Farmer, and several others.
After early-Sixties gigs with the likes of Coleman Hawkins and guitarist Jim Hall, Flanagan worked with Ella from ’63 through ’65; was musical director for Tony Bennett in ’66; and rejoined Ella in September 1968.
Over the past ten years, Flanagan has toured steadily with Ella in dozens of countries. Recently, he has additionally recorded several trio albums with bassist Keter Betts and drummer Bobby Durham for Pablo Records, and other special projects such as a fine trio date, Eclypso, with George Mraz and Elvin Jones, a close friend and musical associate since Detroit days.
Flanagan's first album for Galaxy, Something Borrowed, Something Blue, was recorded in January at Fantasy's Berkeley, California studios. Tommy played mostly acoustic and a little electric piano in the company of Keter Betts and drummer Jimmie Smith. Aside from the title tune, written by Flanagan, the pianist exercised his usual high standards, choosing challenging material written by jazz greats Tadd Dameron, Count Basie, Thad Jones, Horace Silver, Thelonious Monk, Wes Montgomery, and Dizzy Gillespie. Needless to say, these are tunes that allow for plenty of pianistic swinging, which Flanagan does, and mightily.
Tommy Flanagan died November 16, 2001.