Tommy Flanagan is the pianist most likely to be named a personal idol by other jazz pianists, whether they be swing veterans or avant-gardists.
At 61, the Detroit native has a track record that explains both his artistic success and his belated rise to world-class fame. He is certainly deserving of the appellation that is also the title of his 1989 album: “Jazz Poet.”
The elements of the style of the pianist, who on Tuesday will pass through town just long enough to offer a solo recital at the Jazz Bakery in Culver City, were drawn essentially from be-bop.
“That was the sound I grew up with,” he said recently by phone from his home in New York, where he has lived since 1956. “My heroes and the most knowledgeable guys I’ve known in this music were Charlie Parker, Bud Powell and Dizzy Gillespie. I first heard Bud when he came through Detroit, playing piano with Cootie Williams’ band, and I heard the early records by Bird and Diz. Those three were my idols.”
After moving to New York, Flanagan was sometimes called to substitute for Powell at Birdland. He also played with such pioneer be-boppers as Miles Davis, J. J. Johnson and Oscar Pettiford.
Central to Flanagan’s evolution was the fact that he owed his allegiance not to any one pianist but rather to a group of musicians representing a new and a challenging idiom. He became a master of bop, but along with this accomplishment came a melodic sensitivity drawn from another source, Duke Ellington.
“I had a chance to hear Duke’s band when I was about 10 years old, and through the years I was always an admirer of his music and of Billy Strayhorn’s,” Flanagan said.
The confluence of these two diverse driving forces--Powell and Ellington--may explain why Flanagan developed into one of the jazz community’s most elegant and eloquent interpreters of ballads and rhythm tunes alike. He can bring his own gracefully swinging personality to a standard song by Ellington, Kern or Rodgers with the same honesty and authenticity that he can apply to updating a piece by Parker or one of his other bop mentors.
If Flanagan has been slow in earning the universal admiration in jazz circles that he now enjoys, it could be simply because he spent many of his formative years in the background as an accompanist. He was Ella Fitzgerald’s off-and-on musical director and pianist in 1956, again in 1963-65 and then for a full decade from 1968 until 1978, when a heart attack forced him to quit. There was also a spell backing Tony Bennett in 1966.
Leaving accompanying behind in the 1980s, Flanagan began working solo and with a trio. For the past 15 years he has been backed most often by the virtuoso Czech bassist George Mraz and by a drummer--most recently Lewis Nash. “Beyond the Blue Bird,” an album by these three with guitarist Kenny Burrell, is the most recent and most rewarding example of Flanagan’s keyboard poetry. Next week he will head north to tape a solo album for Concord Jazz Records at Maybeck Hall in Berkeley.
In recent years, Flanagan has been heavily in demand, perhaps too heavily, since he collapsed last summer and underwent quadruple-bypass heart surgery, followed not long after by an aortal aneurysm. Nursed back to health by his wife and manager, Diana, he now says he feels fine and will soon be heading for one of his several second homelands, Japan.
Asked whether he ever felt frustrated by the years of virtually marking time before he went out on his own, he offered: “No, it was all valuable experience. That’s the kind of work that prepares you for whatever you feel like doing after it.”