Tough farewell

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He’d just finished a set with a flourish, and as he rose from the piano bench, he fanned his hands as if they had overheated. The applause swelled, and somebody nearby yelled, “Tough,” then turned to explain it was a nickname from the old days, a play on the initials T.F. — Tommy Flanagan.

The venue and other details have faded over 20 or so years. Seems it was the Detroit Institute of Arts. Could have been Baker’s. But since then, Tommy Flanagan has always been, for me, Sir Tough. And Sir Tender, too. He struck an almost courtly balance of energy and elegance.

He had been part of the great Detroit bebop exodus. His generation had reacted to the music of Bird and Diz as they might have to electrodes to their brains (so the late Harold McKinney described his experience). More than a few followed the bop pipers to New York: Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Paul Chambers, Pepper Adams, Billy Mitchell, Elvin Jones … and Flanagan among them.

Once there, Flanagan took part in some of the grand records of his time, including sessions with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane that he’d later describe with nonchalance. There were a couple of long stints with Ella Fitzgerald where he honed the accompanist’s art, then the final decades as leader of his own luminous trios.

His heart problems were no secret. “Might be the last time we hear Brother Flanagan,” a friend commented some years back at the close of a Detroit set. Flanagan proved my friend premature — but not wrong.

To state the obvious, the music lives on, though Flanagan finally succumbed last week at age 71. And though he may have been more a performer than a composer, here’s hoping that what he penned won’t be lost, especially “Beyond the Bluebird.” It’s pure Flanagan, honoring the incendiary music of his youth with a low flame, fringed by blue.

W. Kim Heron contributed to The Hot & the Bothered, which is edited by George Tysh. E-mail him at [email protected]
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