Born Tommy Lee Flanagan on March 16, 1930, in Detroit, MI; son of Johnson, Sr. (a postal worker) and Ida Mae Flanagan; married, 1960; wife's name, Ann (divorced, early 1970s); married, 1976; wife's name, Diana; children (first marriage): Tommy, Jr., Rachel, Jennifer, Ann (deceased, 1980). Addresses: Record company--Verve Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019.

One of the consummate members of Detroit's post-World War II jazz scene, pianist Tommy Flanagan career has taken him from gifted sideman to critically acclaimed solo artist. A reticent man who reserves few words concerning his own art, Flanagan expresses instead through his music depth and articulation unequaled by most contemporary jazz pianists. As Stuart Nicholson observed in Jazz: The Modern Resurgence, "Flanagan is one of the few artists in jazz able to make a convincing statement every time he recorded." With over forty years of experience accompanying gifted singers and instrumentalists, Flanagan has helped elevate modern jazz into high musical art form.

Born in the Detroit neighborhood of Conant Gardens on March 16, 1930, Tommy Lee Flanagan grew up the youngest child of Johnson Sr., a postman, and Ida Mae Flanagan. Both admirers of music, Flanagan's father sang in a quartet and his mother taught herself to read music. A strict disciplinarian, Flanagan's father instilled in his children the importance of character and personal values. "He kept us in check," recalled Flanagan in Whitney Balliet's American Musicians: Fifty-Six Portraits in Jazz. "He had a way of sending us to the basement, of taking privileges away. But he showed us all the things of how to be a good person." At age six Flanagan was given a clarinet as a Christmas present; after learning to read music on the instrument, he performed in a family band. Failing to develop an affinity for the woodwind, he sat down at the family piano, and by age ten began to imitate the playing of his older brother, Johnson Jr., a professional pianist. Around this time, he also began taking formal piano lesson from Gladys Dillard. Flanagan spoke with David Rosenthal for the book Hard Bop: Jazz and Black Music 1955-1965 about this first musical instructor, who, he recalled, taught him "correct pianist attack--how to finger correctly and use the tips of my fingers."

Though Mrs. Dillard taught him the music of Bach and Chopin, the young Flanagan remained drawn to the sound of jazz. From recordings his brothers brought home, he heard the piano styles of Fats Waller, Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Bud Powell. Without the knowledge of his parents, he accompanied his brother on nightclub dates, performing on clarinet and saxophone, and spent evenings listening to jazz outside local nightspots. By invitation of bebop pianist Phil Hill, he entered Detroit's legendary Blue Bird Inn at age sixteen, sitting in with Hills' house band on piano--until being chased out of the club by owner Robert Du Bois.

In the 1940s Flanagan benefitted from the excellent music programs of the Detroit public schools. At Northern High School, his peers included such noted area musicians as alto saxophonist Sonny Red and pianist Roland Hanna. In an interview with author Michael Ullman for Jazz Lives: Portraits in Words and Pictures, Flanagan recalled the impact of his school music instructors: "They took an interest in kids who showed talent. They pushed them on. They would teach you basics. There were even good teachers in the intermediate schools."

After graduating from high school, Flanagan ended his formal training with Gladys Dillard and turned to performing as a regular member of Detroit's vibrant jazz scene. He played dates with the band of Rudy Rutherford at the Parrot Lounge, and accompanied his first singer, Bobby Caston, through whom he met pianist Art Tatum. Around 1947, Flanagan formed a Nat King Cole-style trio with guitarist Kenny Burrell and bassist Alvin Jackson. With Burrell doubling on vocals, the trio performed at dances and parties. When not playing parties or clubs, Flanagan practiced at the family homes of Burrell, Hugh Lawson, and fellow pianist Barry Harris.

Though he listened to various styles of jazz piano, Flanagan's primary musical influence emerged from the modernist sounds of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie. "We were crazy about Charlie Parker and Dizzy at that time," explained Flanagan in Jazz Spoken Here: Conversations with Twenty-Two Musicians. "They came to Detroit quite a bit. It was like we religiously went to see them." "Parker and Gillespie," he added, in Jazz Times, "opened our ears to what was new." Years earlier he had stood outside the screen door of the El Sino Club to hear the sound of Parker's horn. Influenced by Parker's innovative single lines, Flanagan later developed what he termed a Parker horn style of piano. A fervent follower of the Parker school, Flanagan, unlike many other aspiring jazzmen, refused to play side jobs which required the performance of commercial music. Because of the popularity of barrelhouse blues and other forms of stage entertainment, many clubs did not cater to the more obscure sounds of bebop. In 1949, the Michigan Chronicle announced "Tommy is laid off...How can a man with his ability not find work." Detroit saxophonist George Benson described Flanagan, in a private interview, as a "brilliant musician, an extremist, who opposed any form of entertainment which demeaned his modernist artistry."

In 1953 Flanagan performed with numerous Detroit jazzmen including trumpeter Thad Jones and saxophonist Billy Mitchell at the Blue Bird Inn. Describing his experience at the Blue Bird in the Detroit News, Flanagan stated that "it was a great time. Thad was writing all these original things. The music was played such a high caliber of musicianship. The people that used to visit there were important people." That same year, his musical career was interrupted by his induction into the U.S. Army. After training at Fort Leonard, Missouri, he received instruction as a motion-picture operator, and was sent to the Korean port city of Kunsan. With no desire to join the military, he described the experience in Balliet's American Musicians as a "nightmare time."

Returning to Detroit, Flanagan resumed his career playing in local clubs like Klien's Showbar, the Crystal Show Bar, and the Rouge Lounge. He also attended Tuesday night concerts held by a private musician's collective, the New World Music Society. The society's rented Woodward Avenue location, the New World Stage, was an upstairs room which featured the finest musicians in the city such as Kenny Burrell (the organization's president), Yusef Lateef, Donald Byrd, and Barry Harris.

By the mid-Fifties, Flanagan sought to further his career outside the local scene. As he explained in Down Beat, "Most of the opportunities had been exhausted in Detroit and it was time for a change." Invited to travel to New York City by Burrell, who had made a number of connections with prominent New York-based musicians, Flanagan left for the East Coast in 1956. In a live interview with Detroit radio host Ed Love, Burrell recalled the occasion: "I called my friend Tommy Flanagan one day and said, 'Look, I'm going to move to New York in a couple of weeks and if you want to go let me know.' He called me back in a few days. He said, 'ok.' So we drove to New York together."

Arriving in New York in the spring of 1956, Flanagan began attending jam sessions held at renowned jazz spots Club 125, Count Basie's, and Small's. After a few weeks, he sat in on his first recording session, which produced the Blue Note LP Detroit--New York Junction with Burrell, Oscar Pettiford, and Shadow Wilson. On Flanagan's twenty-sixth birthday, he, along with saxophonist Sonny Rollins and bassist Paul Chambers, appeared on Miles Davis' Miles Davis All Stars. Two months later, he backed Rollins on the saxophonist's landmark solo recording Saxophone Colossus. In the LP's liner notes, Ira Gitler observed that "the impeccable Tommy Flanagan is as fluid as ever and fiery in a more overt manner than usual." By the end of July, he performed his first date with Ella Fitzgerald, replacing the group's ailing pianist, Don Abney. Landing the job through the recommendation of Ella's cousin E.V. Perry and Detroit saxophonist Billy Mitchell of Dizzy Gillespie's big band, Flanagan joined Fitzgerald's group in Cleveland. Quoted in Stuart Nicholson's biography Ella Fitzgerald, Flanagan recalled the occasion: "[Ella] had charts for everything, a lot of stuff, she had a large book there. Not only did she have a trio book but she had a book for band arrangements...To begin with I don't think she had much confidence in me, I was recommended, I just tried to do my job."

After his brief stint with Fitzgerald, Flanagan went on to perform with several of the era's most influential modern jazz artists. Between 1957 and 1959, he toured Europe with trombonist J.J. Johnson's band, a group that included trumpeter Nat Adderly and drummer Elvin Jones. During a 1957 European tour, Flanagan recorded his first album as a leader: The Tommy Flanagan Trio Overseas. "The record contains," wrote Rosenthal in Hard Bop, "at least one example of Flanagan's silky, caressing approach to ballads: 'Chelsea Bridge,' the beginning of a long love affair on wax with Billy Strayhorn tunes. But in general it is a rocking, kicking session booted along by Jones's busily interweaving, loose-jointed brushwork." In May of 1959, he appeared on John Coltrane's first Atlantic recording, Giant Steps (a year earlier he performed on the outstanding collaborative effort Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane). On "Giant Steps" and "Cousin Mary," Flanagan provided a refined backdrop to the arrangement's complex chord changes and vertical improvisatory patterns.

In early 1960, Flanagan attended a session that produced guitarist's Wes Montgomery's critically acclaimed second album, Wes Montgomery: The Incredible Jazz Guitar. "Well, we had heard a lot about Wes, even before we started to record," stated Flanagan in Jazz Spoken Here, "He'd chord just chorus after chorus and not repeat himself...He was that incredible." A day following Montgomery's session, he stepped into the studio again to perform on tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins's album, At Ease With Coleman Hawkins. A set of ballads, the recording is a timeless showcase of lyricism. "Tommy has a flowing style that rolls along," wrote Ron Eyre in the liner notes. "He does not pound or abuse, in fact he does none of the the things that are of the 'hardsell' variety."

After a stint with Coleman Hawkins' band, Flanagan was approached by promoter Norman Granz in the summer of 1963 to take over the piano chair in Ella Fitzgerald's group. As Flanagan admitted in Ella, "I guess I had a better reputation the second time I worked with her...I was available. I had been working with Coleman Hawkins and he wasn't doing all that much and it was a chance for some steady work." With the addition of Flanagan, the group comprised guitarist Les Spann, bassist Jimmy Hughart, and drummer Gus Johnson. Upon the departure of Spann, Granz often featured trumpeter Roy Eldridge with Fitzgerald's trio. In November 1965, Flanagan left Fitzgerald's group; after moving to California he performed a year with singer Tony Bennett.

Upon her return from touring Europe in 1968, Fitzgerald re-hired Flanagan, who remained her music director for the next decade. "We worked forty to forty-five weeks a year," related Flanagan in Ella, "There wasn't much time for anything else. She would take a few weeks at Christmas and a month in summer." With Fitzgerald's trio, he performed jazz festivals and appearances throughout Europe, and backed the famous singer for a performance at Louis Armstrong's funeral in 1971. His accompaniment on Fitzgerald's live Montreux 1975 has been critically recognized for its superb musical approach and inventive wit.

In the fall of 1978, years of a demanding schedule and ill health prompted Flanagan to leave Fitzgerald's trio. "I finally left Ella," explained Flanagan in American Musicians, "because the traveling got to be too much for me and because in 1978 I had a heart attack." By the early 1980s, Flanagan was back on track His 1982 tribute to the music of Thelonious Monk, Thelonica, was voted by the Village Voice as one the best albums of the year. In 1990, Billboard selected his album Jazz Poet as one of the ten best records of the year; both Down Beat and Jazz Times awarded him first place in their readers' poll categories that year as well. Flanagan's 1991 release, Beyond the Blue Bird brought him together once again with Kenny Burrell in a tribute to the two artists' early musical roots. Unlike so many recent collaborations, it seems less an article of nostalgia, more a reaffirmation of artistry. In the album's liner notes, jazz scholar Dan Morganstern described Flanagan's ability to maintain a level of vibrant creative expression: "There are certain artists--a blessed few--who, having already reached the pinnacle, continue to surpass themselves. Tommy Flanagan is such an artist."

Flanagan died on November 16, 2001, in New York, New York, of complications from an aneurysm. He was 71.

by John Cohassey

Tommy Flanagan's Career

At age six learned to read music on the clarinet; age ten began formal keyboard training; six years later performed dates and sat in at local clubs in Detroit; became a professional musician after graduating from high school; performed with the band of Rudy Rutherford and subsequently backed singer Bobby Caston; around 1947, co-founded a trio with guitarist Kenny Burrell and bassist Alvin Jackson; 1953 performed in Billy Mitchell's house band at Blue Bird Inn; drafted into the U.S. Army and served overseas in Korea; returned to Detroit and played local clubs until leaving for New York City in 1956; recorded first date under own name 1956; performed trombonist J.J. Johnson's band 1956-1957; recorded with John Coltrane 1959, and Coleman Hawkins and Wes Montgomery in 1960; pianist with Ella Fitzgerald's band, 1963-1965; performed a year with Tony Bennett, mid-1960s; rejoined Fitzgerald as pianist and music director, 1968-1978; pursued solo career, 1980--.

Tommy Flanagan's Awards

Thelonica was voted by the Village Voice as one the best albums of 1982; Billboard selected Jazz Poet as one of the ten best records of 1990; Flanagan also won first place in the readers' polls of Down Beat and Jazz Times in 1990; American Jazz Master fellowship from the National Endowment of the Arts, 1996.

Famous Works

Further Reading


Visitor Comments Add a comment…

about 15 years ago

Tommy Flanagan was a great pianist! All my life i have heard stories of this great man,who i might add is my great uncle. He has played a big role in our families history.Music has been a big part of our family and im just blessed to know he is my uncle.RIP GREAT UNCLE TOMMY(JOHNSON A Flanagan IV)

over 16 years ago

Tommy Flanagan was my great uncle. I was adopted at birth by Willie and Emma Jackson, of Detroit, both of which were educators. My biological mother however, is Monica Flanagan-Lewis, daughter of Idella Flanagan and my grandfather, who was Uncle Tommy's brother. I found it quite interesting that as a youth, although I was unaware of my heritage of music, I still gravitated to music. I am a percussionist, and vocalist and an actor, and my three sons are also active in the performing arts. Genetics are real! Hats off to you uncle Tommy, and may you rest in peace knowing that your legacy lives on!