Thomas Lee Flanagan (16 March 1930, – 16 November 2001, New York City) was an American jazz pianist born in Detroit, Michigan, particularly remembered as an accompanist of Ella Fitzgerald and player on Giant Steps by John Coltrane.
Born in the Detroit neighbourhood 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.
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.
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.
He shared the busy Detroit scene with musicians like saxophonist Lucky Thompson, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianist Barry Harris, guitarist Kenny Burrell, singer Betty Carter, trumpeter Thad Jones, and drummer Elvin Jones (the third Jones brother, pianist Hank Jones, later cut piano duet albums with Flanagan, and they shared a common musical approach).
He accompanied many visiting musicians to the city, notably at the Blue Bird Inn, and absorbed the bebop innovations of Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, both at first hand and on record.
His style remained an amalgam of the swing and bebop eras, and he was equally comfortable recording or performing with a swing era titan like Coleman Hawkins or more modernist players like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins (with whom he recorded the classic Saxophone Colossus album in 1956) or John Coltrane (he is heard on the epochal Giant Steps in 1959).
He served in the armed forces in Korea, then 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.
He was an exemplary accompanist, complementing and supporting the singer at every turn, but eventually grew tired of the continuous touring, and decided to set up his own trio. He left the singer’s trio in 1978, following a mild heart attack, and largely concentrated on his own piano trio, recording a succession of acclaimed albums, and confirming his status as a major creative artist in his own right. He was never a flashy pianist, but preferred a more measured and always very sophisticated approach to his material, which consisted mainly of jazz standards. That restraint was also evident in the subtle way in which his trios interacted, both onstage and on record.
Here's "Django" from above 1980 album.
He was awarded the prestigious Jazzpar Prize in 1993. 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.