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.
Tommy Flanagan is an excellent example of the artists honoured by the the JAZZPAR project. Tommy Flanagan has played and recorded with Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, John Coltrane and Ella Fitzgerald – and that’s just for starters. In each of many playing situations he’s found himself in, Tommy has contributed his compatible yet always fresh style, and his understated but dynamic energy.