[Ed. note: This post was originally published on March 16, 2015]
I had the pleasure of seeing Tommy Flanagan several times in the 1980s and ’90s at clubs in Hartford, Cambridge, and at the Village Vanguard, his home base in New York. When I introduced him at the Litchfield Jazz Festival in 1998, I mentioned that he’d played on landmark recordings by Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane, Ella Fitzgerald, and Wes Montgomery. Tommy took the mic and said, “That’s true, but they made all the money!”
Flanagan didn’t exactly warm to a request that pianist Tom McClung and I made of him when we saw him at Lloyd’s, a now-defunct Hartford venue, in 1987. Impressed by the pianist’s recently recorded performance of “Elusive,” a challenging composition by his old friend Thad Jones, we asked if he’d perform it in his next set. Flanagan replied, “Do you have any idea how hard that is to play?” But bless him, after a gruff, tongue-in-cheek reference to us from the stage, he played it. And magnificently, of course.
By the mid-80s, after more than 20 years as a sideman with Ella, Coleman Hawkins, and Tony Bennett, Flanagan had become an icon in his own right, and for the last two decades of his career, he led what was widely hailed as the state of the art piano trio. He died in 2001.