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Tommy Flanagan Dies at 71

Tommy Flanagan, a pianist who set new standards for taste, virtuosity and creativity in mainstream postwar jazz, died Nov. 16 at a hospital in Manhattan from an arterial aneurysm. He was 71.

Flanagan was born on Mar. 16, 1930, the youngest of six children in the beautiful and musically fertile city of Detroit, Mich. His parents loved jazz, and encouraged young Tommy’s efforts in the area; he began taking clarinet lessons at age 6, and moved to the piano at age 11. Hearing Art Tatum perform live in 1945 reinforced his desire to become a jazz pianist, and he made his professional debut the same year, at the tender age of 15.

It was an auspicious time to be a young jazz player in Detroit. Musicians such as Paul Chambers, Milt Jackson, Thad Jones, Kenny Burrell and Elvin Jones were making their presences felt, and the Blue Bird Inn, whose house band Flanagan eventually joined, hosted all the greats of the period and had achieved legendary status among jazz clubs. Flanagan absorbed all the lessons he could at the Inn, eventually paying tribute to it with the composition “Beyond the Blue Bird.”

Beyond the Blue Bird is precisely where Flanagan went in 1956. Specifically, he went to New York City, where his first gig was as a substitute for an ailing Bud Powell. His playing impressed Miles Davis enough that he invited Flanagan to record with him, marking his first recording date. Over the next two decades, Flanagan went on to participate in many recordings now considered essential classics; John Coltrane’s seminal Giant Steps of 1959 and Sonny Rollins’ Saxophone Colossus in 1956 are the two best-known out of a discography that included sessions with Freddie Hubbard, Dexter Gordon, Wes Montgomery, Gene Ammons and Coleman Hawkins.

1956 also marked the first time Flanagan accompanied Ella Fitzgerald; it took place at the Newport Jazz Festival. Flanagan went on to accompany Fitzgerald from 1962 to 1965 and again from 1968 to 1978. (He took a break in 1966 to accompany Tony Bennett.) Recalling their association in 1983, Fitzgerald said, “He really started getting me singing what I heard inside and what I wanted to get out.”

In 1978, Flanagan had a heart attack and quit working for Fitzgerald. As he recovered, he began to concentrate on his work with his own piano trio. The trio did not gain much prominence in the beginning, but later records such as 1989’s Jazz Poet and 1993’s Let’s were widely acclaimed, and Flanagan’s initial trio records have become collector’s items. Flanagan’s trio was respected for its taste and restraint; each musician had a way of simultaneously keeping the melodic line in the listener’s consciousness while subtly expanding and commenting on its possibilities.

Flanagan is survived by his wife, Diane; a son, Tommy, Jr.; two daughters, Rachel and Jennifer; and six grandchildren.

Originally Published