May 18, 2024

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Jazz Poets: Tommy Flanagan’s fluent, quick-witted and elegant sound: Video

Tommy Flanagan’s fluent, quick-witted and elegant sound graced innumerable sessions of far bigger stars through the classic records of the late 1950s and the 1960s.

He was the sideman who consistently stopped you from going to make the tea when the main attraction wasn’t playing.

His shrewd and fast-moving phrasing counterbalanced Sonny Rollins’ abrasive and fragmented tenor-sax lines on the celebrated Saxophone Colossus session of 1957; it sensed and reflected the mood of a bop-driven music that was relaxed and intense on the late Wes Montgomery’s Incredible Jazz Guitar album of 1960; it kept up with the hurtling John Coltrane on Giant Steps; and constantly – and most famously – it curled around the jubilant vocal lines of Ella Fitzgerald, whose musical director Flanagan eventually became.

Working with Fitzgerald was his most prestigious and demanding job. He kept up with a hectic touring schedule as her regular partner in two stretches, between 1962 and 1965, and for a decade from 1968, until a heart attack occasioned a reassessment. Flanagan was one of a group of formidable jazz pianists to emerge from the postwar Detroit scene.

Elvin Jones’ pianist brother, Hank, was one, Roland Hanna and Barry Harris were significant others – and, with Flanagan, they shared an enthusiasm for a number of late-swing and early-bop keyboard artists, including Teddy Wilson, Nat “King” Cole, Errol Garner and Bud Powell. The wit, lyricism and accessible song-patterns of 1930s jazz thus cohabit in their work with the more irrregular and arrhythmic phrasing of bop.

Flanagan was born on the north-east side of Detroit, the youngest of five boys and a girl. His father was a postman, his mother – who had taught herself to play piano and guided Tommy and his older brother, Jay, on the instrument – was in the garment business. Flanagan first took up the clarinet, then the piano from the age of 11 – listening to Fats Waller and Art Tatum, and later to his contemporary, Hank Jones, to Bud Powell and the graceful Nat Cole. Jay helped Tommy gain a foothold, and he became a regular member of the house band at Detroit’s Blue Bird Inn. He was playing his first club gigs while still in high school, carrying on his homework between sets.

The young Flanagan frequently worked in local bands with the other Jones brothers – drummer Elvin and trumpeter Thad – and vibraharpist Milt Jackson. But in 1956, increasingly fascinated by bebop, he left for New York, where he quickly won attention from the idiom’s most acclaimed practitioners – including Bud Powell himself, for whom Flanagan was sometimes to deputise at the Birdland club. Like many bop-oriented players, he often seemed to phrase in the shapes of saxophone lines.

But, like Sonny Rollins, he never allowed the improvisational possibilities of that approach to distract him totally from the original theme, which would fitfully resurface in varying forms. He liked unfolding a melody in chords, suspending the thematic momentum before a solo with a gleeful, single-line prevarication, then sweeping into a series of choruses full of glossy, tumbling arpeggios, his most explicit references to the inspiration of Tatum. Whatever Flanagan did, it always fitted the moment, and the dispositions of the players around him. He first accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at the 1956 Newport jazz festival. He also worked for Tony Bennett, and on classic recordings by Dexter Gordon, Coleman Hawkins and many others. Following the 1978 heart attack, Flanagan opted to develop the solo career he had always self-deprecatingly concluded he had insufficient technique for. The result was a series of highly regarded trio albums – featuring powerful partners like bassist George Mraz and drummer Elvin Jones – displaying his affectionate insights into standard material, the legacy of bebop as refracted by Bud Powell and Thelonious Monk, and drawing on an encyclo- paedic knowledge of fine songs, from evergreens to the overlooked. Generous and open-minded, Flanagan appreciated many younger pianists. For his contribution to many varieties of jazz, he was awarded the prestigious Danish Jazzpar Prize in 1993. He played extended seasons at New York’s Village Vanguard, and his diary was full for gigs in 2002. He leaves his wife, Diane, a son, two daughters and six grandchildren.

Tommy Flanagan, pianist, born March 16 1930; died November 16 2001.

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