Tommy Flanagan's unique elegance gone forever

When Tommy Flanagan died in mid-November at the age of 71, the jazz world lost one of its most elegant and sophisticated voices. A natural bundle of musical emotion, Flanagan never touched a tune that he did not improve.

Like his contemporary, Joe Henderson, Flanagan's career fell into that netherworld in jazz history where it was decreed that gigantic talents labor unsung until they finally were able to achieve the recognition as they peaked in middle age.

Historically, that's a tragedy, of course, but, musically, the circumstances have enriched jazz with mature voices whose journeyman years have paid off to the benefit of their own musicianliness and to the delight of jazz fans all over the world.

Tommy Flanagan took his class to New York City in 1956 after a long run on the scene in his native Detroit, Michigan, a city with a long and respected jazz history in its own right. Having taken up the piano at age 11 in 1941 after five years of training on the clarinet, Flanagan already had a lengthy period of dues-paying under his belt, and he was equipped and ready for the more frantic pace in the Big Apple.
Another trait he shared with Joe Henderson was the immediate respect he gained in deference to his talent and taste, and he played regularly on sessions led by others for such labels as Savoy and Prestige. In addition, he found regular gigs with Oscar Pettiford, J.J. Johnson, Harry "Sweets" Edison and Coleman Hawkins. From 1963 to 1965, he served as a regular accompanist for Ella Fitzgerald, to whom he returned for a more extended engagement 1968-1978. Some believe that it was during these years when Flanagan's career stalled, his role as an accompanist overshadowing his considerable talents as a soloist.

But this begs the question. Any experience is valuable experience and advances maturity. And if we consider that stalled-career notion in its true light, it seems to require believing that his time with Ella was a bad gig, somehow retarding his progress. Prima facie, it's a laughable idea. Ella didn't suffer fools, and Tommy Flanagan was no fool. In fact, he was as elegant as Ella and his years in her service were showcases for his elegant side. Think of Mal Waldron's role in Billie Holiday's final years and listen to those recordings. If Lady Day was on the decline, Waldron was ascendant. Similarly, Flanagan's taste and style perfectly complemented the incomparable Ella, because Flanagan knew how to bring out the best in a tune. His chops, honed on those Michigan bandstands and in those New York recording studios, took away the breath without smothering the singer. That is a hard-won type of elegance, and Flanagan had it. And he demonstrated how to accompany without losing his own unique identity at the keys.

In the mid-1970s, Flanagan's class behind Ella demanded that he lead some sessions, and he rose to the occasion, giving free rein to his considerable talents. He, again like Joe Henderson, brought something of swing, something of bop, something of the newer jazz forms to the studio, and the results were stunning.

Here are some of them, all still in print in the United States:
-- "Montreux 1977" [Pablo/OJC, 1977]
-- "Our Delights" [Galaxy/OJC, 1978]
-- "Something Borrowed, Something Blue" [Original Jazz, 1978]
-- "A Little Pleasure" [Reservoir, 1990]
-- "Let's Play the Music Of Thad Jones" [Enja, 1993]
-- "Lady Be Good...For Ella" [Verve, 1994]
-- "Overseas" [Prestige/OJC 1999]

Of this crop, my personal favorites are "Let's Play the Music Of Thad Jones" and "Lady Be Good...For Ella," but Flanagan's career was long and varied enough that something for just about anybody can be found there. Don't neglect to search the liner notes of other artists for Flanagan's contributions, either. He turns up everywhere.