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Tommy Flanagan - Jazz Poet
The first thing I do after I wake up is check my email and Sunday morning, I was greeted by sad news. The ubiquitous Cobi Narita, revealed that Tommy Flanagan died on Friday at a hospital in New York. Tommy had been sick with a heart condition for several years, although he been working regularly, including an annual two week gig at the Village Vanguard. So the news of his death from an arterial aneurysm wasn’t a great surprise, but another reminder of just how temporary this life really can be.

Of course Tommy Flanagan, like so many of his Jazz brothers and sisters, will live forever because as long as there are listeners, people will be digging his recorded legacy. He appeared on literally hundreds of recordings, including two that were particularly influential: John Coltrane’s “Giant Steps,” and Sonny Rollins’ “Saxophone Colossus.” Several of my personal favorites also have Mr. Flanagan in the piano chair: Kenny Dorham’s “Trumpet Toccata,” Booker Ervin’s “Songbook,” Coleman Hawkins “Today and Now,” Freddie Hubbard’s “Caravan,” and Philly Joe Jones “Blues for Dracula.”

Tommy Flanagan’s credits as a sideman could fill several chapters of a book about comping, that’s for sure. Just ask Ella Fitzgerald. He spent nearly two decades backing Ella, who said about Tommy that “"he really started getting me singing what I heard inside and what I wanted to get out.”

It was only after his tenure with Ella that Tommy Flanagan emerged as a leader, although he had recorded a number of CDs on his own. His urbane and refined trio was the essence of elegance in closing years of the 20th century. The group had a unique synergy, and the sense of self-restraint that permeated all their performances was highlighted by the compact solos each member took, chock-full of tastefully wrapped ideas never strayed too far from the melody. Tommy Flanagan's piano voice, with a distinct touch and rhythmic bounce, defined the spontaneity of Jazz.

As for Tommy Flanagan the man, I have two distinctive memories.

In 1978, I was writing for what was then Contemporary Keyboard magazine, (now just Keyboard), and I decided to write a story about the Detroit School of Pianists. Before our culture became totally homogenized, each major city’s musicians had very distinctive approaches. Accordingly, there was a thriving Jazz scene in Detroit in the 30s, 40s and 50s, centered around a club called The Blue Bird Inn, before urban decay set in. Such players as the brothers Elvin, Hank and Thad Jones, Milt Jackson, Barry Harris, Paul Chambers, Kenny Burrell and Betty Carter made their reputations in Detroit before migrating to New York.

So one fall day twenty three years ago, I interviewed Barry Harris and Tommy Flanagan in my upper westside penthouse apartment, about Detroit. Although at that time, both men were in their forties, when they got together, it was as if they had returned to the glorious days of their youth. They remembered when Charlie Parker first came to Detroit and how the musicians were totally enraptured by his then revolutionary creativity. They started to laugh, remembering some of the characters around the scene, telling stories, talking about gigs, and each other. The love between these men, and their love of the music was so joyful, so real, so inspiring.

In the late 90s, I interviewed Tommy again, this time for JazzTimes magazine. We did the interview at Tommy’s apartment, with his doting wife Diana joining us. A serene man with a fringe of white hair, Tommy carefully approached each question with a great deal of thought, but when he spoke, his intelligence was evident. This was a somewhat different Tommy Flanagan than our previous encounter. His Buddha-like nature gave no indication of the way the way he could handle Bebop’s labyrinthine progressions of chords like a painter with a fine brush. I heard his trio a few nights later at the Village Vanguard, and the title of one of his CDs perfectly described him, “Jazz Poet.”

Bret Primack

Mon Nov 19 2001 (10:40:08 PM)