Tommy Flanagan, a jazz pianist of considerable elegance and grace thought by many critics to be among the finest in the business, has died. He was 71.
He died Friday night at Mt. Sinai Medical Center in New York City of complications from an aneurysm that he had suffered more than a decade ago. Flanagan, who also experienced a series of heart problems over the years, had been admitted to the hospital early last week in declining health.
Despite his health woes, he was an active and highly accomplished performer until the last few weeks of his life. In late October, he participated in a 75th anniversary tribute to saxophone great John Coltrane at the San Francisco Jazz Festival.
Flanagan was perhaps best known as an accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, but he was also an excellent bebop player. An active session musician, he played on Coltrane’s seminal recording “Giant Steps.”
“Although his fingers didn’t quite possess the fleetness of former years, Flanagan played with his familiar amalgam of musical elegance and rhythmic swing,” Don Heckman, a jazz critic who contributes frequently to The Times, wrote in reviewing Flanagan’s performance at the Coltrane tribute.
The youngest of six children, Flanagan was born in Conant Gardens, one of the oldest black communities in Detroit. His father and mother both admired music, and he was given a clarinet as a Christmas present at age 6. Although he failed to develop an affinity for that instrument, by age 10 he was emulating his brother, a professional musician, on the piano.
Flanagan studied piano formally, learning Bach and Chopin, but switched to jazz after hearing the great pianists Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum and Bud Powell on recordings around the house.
“I was first influenced by Teddy Wilson,” Flanagan told a reporter for the Detroit Free Press last year. “He was a firm player, but he also had a beautiful touch. If that’s your first inspiration, you really want to improve on it.”
After graduating from high school, Flanagan formed a Nat King Cole-style trio, which included guitarist Kenny Burrell, who doubled on vocals, and bassist Alvin Jackson.
An eager student of the emerging sounds in jazz in the 1940s and ‘50s, Flanagan was drawn to the bebop movement.
In New York City, He Found Sideman Work
"[Charlie] Parker and [Dizzy] Gillespie opened our ears to what was new,” he told a jazz magazine some years ago. “They came to Detroit quite a bit. It was like we religiously went to see them.”
For many years, Flanagan stayed focused exclusively on bebop playing to the exclusion of all other work. One colleague said of him that he was “an extremist who opposed any form of entertainment that would demean his modernist artistry.”
His musical focus was interrupted when he was drafted into military service in Korea during the 1950s. After his discharge, Flanagan returned to Detroit and continued to play with some of the better jazz musicians of the day, including Burrell, Yusef Lateef, Barry Harris and Donald Byrd.
Ready to expand his musical opportunities, Flanagan moved in 1956 to New York City, where he found sideman work on recordings by several top players, including Miles Davis. (He later would back saxophonist Sonny Rollins on his landmark Saxophone Colossus recording.)
A few months later, Flanagan worked his first engagement as an accompanist for Fitzgerald. That would mark the start of a relationship that lasted off and on until the late 1970s, the longest stretch being from 1968 to 1978, when he acted as her musical director.
He later told Whitney Balliett of the New Yorker that working with Fitzgerald was demanding because she had such high standards.
“I was [initially] insecure, and when I’d make a mistake, she would say something like, ‘If it’s going to be like this, I’m getting out of this business.’ So I’d say to myself, ‘I’ve got to tighten up my act. After all, I’m the musical director, and I don’t want to be responsible for her quitting.’ ”
Of her singing, Flanagan said, “Her intonation was perfect. Jim Hall [the great jazz guitarist] once said that he could tune up to her voice.”
Flanagan also said Fitzgerald was very considerate and never forgot things like birthdays.
He left Fitzgerald in 1978, when he grew weary of extensive traveling through the United States, Europe and Asia. He also suffered a mild heart attack that year.
After leaving accompanying--he also backed Tony Bennett for a spell in 1966--Flanagan turned to the piano trio format, working for many years with the great Czech bassist George Mraz.
As a recording artist, Flanagan had considerable success with the album “Thelonica,” a tribute to Thelonious Monk in 1982. The album was voted one of the best of the year by the Village Voice.
In 1990, Billboard selected his “Jazz Poet” as one of the best albums of the year. That same year, the jazz magazines Down Beat and Jazz Times awarded him first place in their readers’ poll categories.
Over the last few years, Flanagan was content to work actively in the trio form.
Reviewing a performance at the Jazz Standard in New York City last year, critic Heckman observed that Flanagan brought “great harmonic clarity and a focused musical line to everything he plays.”
Ever the tasteful leader, he performed a set that ranged from standards such as “Alone Together,” “Lady Be Good” and “Dancing in the Dark” to several blues tunes and the relatively obscure Ellington-Strayhorn ballad “Sunset and the Mocking Bird.”
Flanagan is survived by his wife, Diana; three children from a previous marriage, Tommy Flanagan Jr., Rachel Flanagan Jackson and Jennifer Flanagan; and six grandchildren.
Funeral arrangements are pending.