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Known for his flawless and tasteful playing, Tommy Flanagan received long overdue recognition for his talents in the 1980s. He played clarinet when he was six and switched to piano five years later. Flanagan was an important part of the fertile Detroit jazz scene (other than 1951-1953 when he was in the Army) until he moved to New York in 1956. He was used for many recordings after his arrival during that era; cut sessions as a leader for New Jazz, Prestige, Savoy, and Moodsville; and worked regularly with Oscar Pettiford, J.J. Johnson (1956-1958), Harry "Sweets" Edison (1959-1960), and Coleman Hawkins (1961). Flanagan was Ella Fitzgerald's regular accompanist during 1963-1965 and 1968-1978, which resulted in him being underrated as a soloist. However, starting in 1975, he began leading a series of superior record sessions and since leaving Fitzgerald, Flanagan has been in demand as the head of his own trio, consistently admired for his swinging and creative bop-based style. Among the many labels he has recorded for since 1975 are Pablo, Enja, Denon, Galaxy, Progressive, Uptown, Timeless, and several European and Japanese companies. For Blue Note, he cut Sunset and Mockingbird in 1998, followed a year later by Samba for Felix. Despite a heart condition, Flanagan continued performing until the end of his life, performing two-week stints at the Village Vanguard twice a year, recording and touring. He died on November 16, 2001, in Manhattan from an arterial aneurysm.
Thomas Lee Flanagan (March 16, 1930 – November 16, 2001, New York City) was an American jazz pianist born in Detroit, Michigan, particularly remembered for his work with Ella Fitzgerald. Flanagan played on a number of critically acclaimed recordings, such as John Coltrane's Giant Steps, Sonny Rollins' Saxophone Colossus, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, and Art Pepper's Straight Life.
As a small boy he received a clarinet as a gift for Christmas but could only think about one instrument, the piano. According to Flanagan "we always had a piano in our house" and he began playing it at the age of five.
The Tommy Flanagan Trio (with bassist Wilbur Little and drummer Elvin Jones) released their first album, Tommy Flanagan Trio Overseas, in 1957. As an accompanist, Flanagan worked with Ella Fitzgerald from 1963 to 1965 and 1968 to 1978. Beginning in 1975, Flanagan began once again to perform and record as a leader. He continued to work with other players, however, forming a trio with Tal Farlow and Red Mitchell, among other projects.
Flanagan's style was both modest and exceptionally musical. He embodied many of the most important qualities associated with jazz: swing, harmonic sophistication, melodic invention, bluesy feel and humour. Interestingly, he appeared on a number of highly innovative albums. (His controversial solo on the fast and harmonically complex title-track of Giant Steps is a rare [if famous] instance on record of the usually unflappable pianist being caught off-guard.)
Tommy Flanagan is mentioned by Japanese Author Haruki Murakami in the short story, Chance Traveller, in which he describes his experiences at a Tommy Flanagan performance.
During his career, Flanagan was nominated for four Grammy Awards — two for Best Jazz Performance (Group) and two for Best Jazz Performance (Soloist).
He died on November 16, 2001, of an arterial aneurysm.