Monthly Archives: March 2013

An Uncut Blindfold Test With Andrew Cyrille from The End Of The ’90s

I don’t recall exactly when master drummer Andrew Cyrille joined me to do a DownBeat Blindfold Test—maybe 1998 or 1999. In any event, his responses were incisive, on-point, and thought-provoking. Here’s the uncut transcript of the proceedings.

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1.  Steve Coleman & Council of Balance, “Day One,”  Genesis, RCA, 1997. “Day One” (1997), with Miguel “Anga” Diaz and George Lewis. (four stars)

The thing that struck me the most were the lush harmonies.  It sounded like some kind of electric piano using some kind of synthesized accordion-sounding timbres sometimes.  The piece reminds me in some ways of Stanley Cowell’s Piano Choir, Handscapes; I know it’s not that, but it kind of reminded me of that.  It’s hard to tell who the drummer is because he or she is playing so much within the context of the accompaniment to the arrangement, and with all those polytonalities which dominate it’s kind of hard to hear anything that would identify him distinctly.  There is good interplay with the horns; it’s really good.  I’m going to take a guess.  It sounds like it could be something that Andrew Hill has done.  I’ve never heard this piece, but it kind of sounds like him.  I was trying to figure it out.  I said, “Gee, I’ve heard that sound before,” the way the piano player is playing — and as I listen to it more, it kind of does sound like Andrew.  So I’ll take a guess.  Could it be Billy Drummond on drums. [“There’s a large percussion choir and a trapset drummer.”] That’s kind of what I thought, too.  But see, sometimes… Well, it didn’t sound like it there, but you can also do percussion nowadays with synthesizers, but perhaps not on this.  It sounds a little too organic; I agree with you.  It sounds like they’ve been playing in 6/8 for a good portion of the time.  I’d give it four stars.  I can’t tell you exactly who the drummer is. [That’s a Steve Coleman thing for a 30-piece big band with Cuban drummers; the drummer is Sean Rickman and the pianist is Andy Milne.] I thought of Steve Coleman also.

2.  Milford Graves, “Ultimate High Priest”, Real Deal, DIW, 1991. (Graves, solo percussion)

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s my man.  That’s Milford.  The recording is very good.  You can tell the sound of his various pitch…the sliding of tonality that Milford gets from the way he tunes the drums and the way he strikes them with the sticks, etc.  It’s almost like a rubber sound.  A lot of it comes out of the sound of the tabla also, which he hears a lot of what he does coming out of that.  Fantastic polyrhythms, energy, creativity, clarity.  Good chops.  Yeah, only Milford does this kind of thing like that.  I don’t think you can find an original like him.  Five stars.

3.  Billy Higgins, “Shoulders”,  Mosaic, Music Masters, 1990.
Rashied Ali. [No.] This is a person to me who if it’s not Max Roach, has been listening to Max Roach.  It sounds like some of the constructs Max would play.  He’s playing very good antiphonal phrasings, got a good control over dynamics, techniques.  Knows what he wants to play.  Strong.  Good use of space.  Could be Billy Higgins. [You got it.] Four-and-a-half stars.

4.  Tommy Flanagan Trio, “Verdandi,”  Sea Changes, Evidence, 1996. (Flanagan, piano, composer; Lewis Nash, drums; Peter Washington, bass.

I’ll take a guess on that one, and I think that might be Lewis Nash playing drums, with Tommy Flanagan, and maybe Peter Washington on bass.  Lewis is dotting all the i’s, and strong.  He’s up on the one!  He’s doing what he’s supposed to do in relationship to that music, and you know where he is all the time.  And of course, he’s coming up with some great inventions in the traditional style of jazz.  I would say all of the great brush players like Kenny Clarke and Ed Thigpen and Philly Joe would have to give kudos to that playing.  In honor and with dedication… Because I could hear it, that Lewis is working very hard on the drums to make sure that we all remember from whence we came and what’s happening on the contemporary scene, I’d have to give him five stars for that.

5. Tony Williams, “Sister Cheryl” (#1), Live In Tokyo, Blue Note, 1992. (four stars) (Williams, drums; Wallace Roney, trumpet; Bill Pierce, saxophone; Mulgrew Miller, piano; Ira Coleman, bass)

Whoever that was, it sounds like…there was something in the sound of the drums… By that I mean that he had tuned the drums a certain way, and he was playing with the tones that he tuned the drums to.  And he was playing his song from within.  It was a very spiritual-sounding solo.  Melody drums.  It was very easy listening.  It sounded very smooth.  He had very good dynamic shapes, the highs and the lows, the space.  There was not a lot of flash and technical splash.  And the playing was in 4/4, but it sounded like he was playing from a triplet matrix.  You could count something like that in a 12/8.  It was very good control. It reminded me in some ways of something Michael Carvin would do, except that Michael’s touch is a little heavier.  But it sounds like something that might come out of Michael Carvin.  Or maybe even Idris Muhammad.  It was like an Ahmad Jamal kind of piece; it reminded me of the piece “Poinciana” with Vernell Fournier playing the rhythm where he’d play on the bell of the cymbal the “and” of the count, like the one-AND-two-AND-ting-ting, and then he would play that other rhythm in the left hand off of one of the toms, like the small tom on the left side, and then of course with mallets.  It was a very good introduction to the horns.

Now, I’ll just take a guess and say it was Idris Muhammad maybe with some kind of arrangement by John Hicks on piano.  I’m not sure. [AFTER] Really.  Ooh.  I’m surprised, because Tony usually plays with a lot more rhythmical complexity.  But now that you say it, I could understand why it is Tony.  That was very good.  In this case, I think Tony wanted to reach some people in another way, not in his usual way of playing the drums.  I’d give that four stars.

6. Evan Parker-Barry Guy-Paul Lytton, “The Echoing Border Zones”, 50th Birthday Concert, Leo, 1994.

That was very interesting.  They got great phonics, and very creative saxophone playing.  It started off in such a brooding-like manner, and the players were really listening to each very closely, I can tell, coming in and out of each other in terms of who was playing what sound, and one would add or lay out… In other words, they were extrapolating very well together, editing, giving-and-taking with each other.  It reminded me of some kind of organic mass which was percolating over some kind of heat, maybe like before a volcano erupts.  It sounds like these guys have been playing with each other for a while.  I think the bass was aiming more for the kinds of harmonics that he could get out of the instrument, things that normally people wouldn’t try to get in the more traditional mainstream way, and out of his aim for harmonics that kind of projected his sense of rhythm, and consequently, melody.  In other words, it’s kind of reversed.  It would seem as though he would get the rhythm first… Well, maybe, too, that’s part of it, but then you would get your melody and then you would aim for your harmonics. But it sounded as though he was going for the harmonics out of which he got his rhythm. But one could say, too, that you can’t have any kind of motion without rhythm being first, because in a sense, that’s what rhythm is — it’s movement. 5 stars.

Now, it kind of sounds like it could be somebody like Evan Parker, and of course the bass playing could be somebody like Barry Guy, and I think the drummer’s name is Paul Lytton.  I can tell these cats have been listening to each other for a while.  It kind of comes out of that Peter Kowald direction of bass playing, but Kowald is heavier.  I was going to say, it’s that kind of European style of total improvisation.  I’d give that five stars.  Because those cats were intense, and they were dedicated, and they were thinking.  It’s very interesting, the kind of sounds that they were getting.  I liked that.

7.  Charles Moffett, w/ Kenny Garrett, Geri Allen, Charnett Moffett, “Sunbeam” , General Music Project, Evidence, 1997/1994.

That was a very interesting, like Middle-Eastern theme.  They started off with a nice three-quarter melody, and the drums came through very clear.  There’s a good strong and clear saxophone solo; the phrasing was strong.  The piano did a lot of long-metered playing against the up tempo of the drums.  Of course, you can play fast, but you can play fast in what they call long-metered or an augmented style, which means that you play it twice as slow, and in that way the sound of the drums came through.  It kind of reminded me of the drums being the clothesline on which the laundry of the other voices were being hung.

I can’t exactly tell you who the drummer was.  His solo didn’t knock me out that much.  I don’t know.  The piano playing sounded to me a little like Geri Allen.  I couldn’t tell you who the other musicians were. [Charles Moffett, Charnett and Kenny Garrett] Kenny Garrett came to mind, and I can hear the strength of the playing.  It sounds like the kind of strength that Kenny Garrett plays.  But I didn’t hear some of the familiar kind of things I’ve heard Kenny Garrett play.  Now, I haven’t listened to Kenny Garrett a great deal, but I’ve heard him some, so I have some feeling for the weight of his sound.  It came to mind, but I just didn’t say that was him.  Geri I’ve been listening to for a while, and there are some licks she plays that are identifiable — I’ve played with her on a number of occasions.  I’d give that one 3½ stars.

8.  Idris Muhammad-George Coleman, “Night and Day”, Right Now, Cannonball, 1997.

Sounds like Blackwell. [LATER] Now, whoever that drummer was with the saxophone player… Certainly most of these guys have a command of the Bebop language.  At first I said it was Blackwell because of the high tuning of the drums, and in a sense that kind of playing comes out of the Max Roach playing of songs, melody drums that remind you of what the song is, even though Max plays more patterns that he’s developed over the years and they’re weighted in certain ways.  It sounds like this guy was a little more flexible, but thinking with those kinds of constructs as far as drums playing a song.  The thing about this guy — as I listened to it more — and Blackwell, was that Blackwell’s rhythmic inflections are different.  How he assigns his rhythms, the weight… Of course, Blackwell plays a lot of different kinds of polyrhythms, especially in the solos.  This guy played polyrhythms, but they weren’t as independently coordinated or as complex as Blackwell would play the rhythms.  Of course, Blackwell invented those rhythms and he played them to a T, his way.  I mean, they were there when he wanted them, and any time he decided to issue them, they were there.  But this fellow didn’t sound like Blackwell, even though the way you think about tunes like this is more or less the same.  I mean, there’s a pattern to the tunes, so you just improvise according to what you hear and what you think on the instrument that you have.  This duet also reminded me what Philly Joe Jones and Sonny Rollins did some years ago on “Surrey With the Fringe On Top.”

I’m going to take a guess.  It could be Phil Woods and Bill Goodwin.  No?  Then I’m off on that.  But I will say that the drummer was interpreting “Night and Day with the language of the drums, and it was very clear that the tune was right on the money. [AFTER] Very good.  I’d give that four stars.  Right on.

9.  Max Roach & Anthony Braxton, “Spirit Possession” (#5), Birth & Rebirth, Black Saint, 1978.

[IMMEDIATELY] That’s Max Roach! [LATER] I think it was with Braxton.  Max’s quality has always been of the highest order.  You kind of know that it’s Max becaue of the weight of his sound and, of course, how he tunes the drums also.  Max tunes his drums high, let’s say in comparison to Art Blakey; Blackwell listened to Max a lot, and he tuned his drums high also.  Max plays a lot of stuff.  In this particular piece I heard him playing in several different meters.  The opening number, of course, sounded to me like it was in 6/4.  But the outstanding thing about it was where he was laying his bass drum and sock cymbal, where he was placing those beats, and it was almost like a 5/4 rhythm, but he just added the extra beat which made it 6.  If you listened to it again and had to take one of those beats out and have it repeated, it would be like a 5/4.  Max plays a lot of those different kinds of rhythms.  Then he went on to something that had the classic bebop drummer’s pattern of SPANGALANG, SPANGALANG; a lot of us say that is dotted 8 and 16th in the written nomenclature.  Some people would like to think of it as the quarter-note triplet with the middle triplet missing followed by the quarter note.  It’s just a matter of interpretation.  The feeling is just about the same.  I guess one could think about it in 6… Most of Max’s rhythms are very clear.  They’re distinct and they’re anchored.  How he thinks of some of those original rhythms if amazing.  There’s a definite thought process that he puts in.  I know he has to work on it.  He thinks of something, he comes up with a rhythm, and then he executes it on the drums.  And I know he has to practice that.  He has to work on it.  That’s why it comes out with such clarity and such weight.  His independent coordination has always been excellent.  He is a motif and a theme constructionist, and doing that on the drums, he usually lays down some kind of musical melodic rhythmical bed for the players — in this case Braxton, the soloist — to feed off of or play from.  Much of his thought process reminds me of traditional African drumming in terms of repetitive ostinato.  The only thing is, with him it’s that it’s being done from the African-American perspective as far as the trap set — or, as he calls it, the multi-percussion set — is concerned.  He is a consummate theme-and-variation improviser.  Braxton was playing typically Braxton, but playing off of the rhythms that Max was laying down as a foundation.  For the person that Max Roach is and my great admiration for his enduring ability and for the contribution that he has made to the jazz scene and to jazz drumming, I’d have to give him five stars plus on that one.

10.  Cecil Taylor-Tony Oxley, “Stylobate 2,” Leaf Palm Hand, FMP, 1988.

You know, I don’t even want to say the guy’s name! [LAUGHS] Because he means so much to me.  He’s part of what my life has been for many years.  Cecil Taylor, of course, on the piano.  The drummer sounded as though he was matching color textures with Cecil’s panorama of sound colors and textures and dynamics rather than playing his own contrasting rhythm as, say, a Max Roach would.  So there wasn’t very much push-and-pull there, give-and-take.  There wasn’t a lot of the polarity which sometimes causes electricity, which brings forth another kind of magic, and generates another kind of feeling also.  I think usually in improvisation a lot of the invention comes from people playing their own rhythms, motifs, themes in keeping with whatever their concept of the music is.  I can’t say there was anything wrong with the way this drummer was playing, which says that he was listening very closely to what Cecil was doing, and there was a certain kind of synthesis that was coming together, a certain kind of unison.  Sometimes unisons are good, but sometimes they don’t make for the most interesting of listening, like when you have, again, these contrasting poles.  Like, for instance, the way Coltrane and Elvin used to play with each other, which made for some fantastic magic.  Could the drummer be Tony Oxley?  For the drummer, I would say 3½-4 stars.

11.  Jeff Watts, “Wry Koln” Citizen Tain, Columbia, 1998.  W/ Branford Marsalis, Kenny Kirkland.

The way it started out was very interesting, the contrast of fast and slow themes moving to swing.  At first, because of the construct of the drummer’s rhythm, I thought maybe it could be Blackwell and Joe Lovano.  But as it moved into the piece, it’s probably somebody else.  A lot of the time it seemed the drummer was leading the rhythmical changes between the swing sections, the Latin sections and the tempo changes.  It sounded as though the drummer is a studied and educated musician in both the traditional and contemporary ways of drumming, with a good feel, and he has an excellent knowledge of how to augment the melodic sound of the instruments with the sound placement from the drums.  Because you can hit the instrument in so many different places to get various I would have to say drum melodies or drum pitches, drum variations.  Obviously, this person has been playing the instrument for a long time, because he knows where those sounds are and he knows where to go get them.  It’s almost like his thinking and technique in terms of knowhow to get those sounds are simultaneous.  So that takes some time being with the instrument to know how to do that, and to really make music and not just noise… We can talk about that, too, but I’ll just leave it right there for now.  There were elements of free playing.  It was like bebop and beyond.  And to me, in a sense, the concept, though different from the kinds of rhythms, melodies and harmonies that Evan Parker, Barry Guy and Paul Lytton played, the interplay kind of reminded me of them — though this music was not avant garde in that sense.  It sounded like these guys had been playing together for a while, too.  I don’t know if they had been playing together as long as Parker, Lytton and Guy have been together.  I say that because maybe the level of improvisatory interaction among the players could have been — I don’t know — a little more intimate.  But sometimes, when certain things are being played in a certain way, there’s not a whole lot you can do that’s outside the parameters of the given.  I’Which doesn’t take away from the excellence of what they were doing, because I think they knew what they were doing and they knew what they wanted to do, and they pulled it off.

I’ll take a guess.  It could be Jeff Watts with Branford Marsalis or maybe with Joe Lovano, or maybe it could be Billy Hart with Joe Lovano. [AFTER] For the acknowledgements of these fine gentlemen of jazz, who are carrying the information forward, I’d say four stars.

12. Kenny Barron-Roy Haynes, “Madman”, Wanton Spirit, Verve, 1994.

Here the piano was the lead voice in terms of the direction and description of the music, and the drummer was playing what he heard in relationship to that.  In this case, in some ways, the piano sounded like it had a McCoy Tyner perspective, with the left hand playing that heavy bass-like accompaniment and the right hand playing the melodic lead.  Sometimes I heard the left hand and the right hand being played in unison.  I don’t know the name of the drummer with McCoy.  I haven’t heard them for a while.  But they have quite an integration together with the sound.  I’ll take a guess.  Was that Horace Tapscott and Billy Hart? [AFTER] I was way off on that one.  I could hear that now.  I’d give that 3½ stars.

13. James Emery, Gerry Hemingway-Kevin Norton-Mark Feldman “Standing On A Whale Fishing For Minnows” (#7), Spectral Domains, Enja, 1998

That sounded as though it had an Asian flavored melodic theme.  But as the piece moved forward, it lost that flavor to some degree.  In this case, I thought the drummer played the music very intelligently.  It was an extended form, and I thnk there had to be a lot of reading done in many parts of the arrangement.  I think as the piece went from section to section, the drummer gave very good support and he played on parts of the instrument that made the sound that was on top come out very clearly.  In other words, there was no obfuscation in terms of what he was playing with his accompaniment.  I thought, too, that it was very good writing biy the composer.  It sounded like it could have been almost a through-composed piece.  But it did sound, too, like there was a lot of improvisation interspersed, so it wasn’t a through-composed piece, but there was a lot of composition that you had to have your head on and your eyes clear in order to know what was happening.  I’m sure they rehearsed this a number of times, and it came off very-very well.

The composer could be Henry Threadgill, that ensemble, with maybe Reggie Nicholson or Pheeroan akLaff or J.T. Lewis.  Or maybe, it could be somebody like Dave Holland.  No?  Well, I thought of Muhal, but it didn’t have any piano. [AFTER] Very good.  See, I’m not familiar with too much of their work.  But for the work and the effort and the music put forth, five stars.

14. Lovano-Holland-Elvin Jones, “Cymbalism” (#6), Trio Fascination, Blue Note, 1998. (3 stars)

The saxophone player sounded like somebody who came out of the Sonny Rollins tradition.  I’ll take a guess.  It was Joe Lovano.  This recording reminded me somewhat of the dates that Rollins did with Oscar Pettiford and Max Roach.  The bass player sounded like…it could have come out of the walking bass lines of somebody like Mark Dresser or Mark Helias.  I don’t think it was Mark Dresser; the way he plays his pizzicatos is a little heavier.  Helias is not as percussive-sounding, let’s say, as Dresser is, but they kind of think similarly of that approach to walking bass in free playing.  This is what I guess you’d call freebop.  It could be somebody like Dave Holland, too.  I’m not sure.  As far as the drummer is concerned, I had a feeling that it could have been Jack de Johnette, but Jack plays fuller than that, playing more around the drums and getting different kinds of rhythms and shapes out of the drum set, with the bass drum accentuating beats in different places.  As I continued to listen, I really couldn’t tell who the drummer was because he sounded rather generic.  There was no solo for me to say, “Okay, this was so-and-so who I’ve heard before.”  I can’t tell you who that was.  What I could say, though, on a positive note is that the drummer played his role well.  He didn’t take anything away from the music.  But I don’t feel he added a lot to the music either to give it, in a sense, that other polarity I was talking about, to make you want to listen how both people were dialoguing with each other or how the group was dialoguing with each other.  Three stars. [AFTER]

15. David Murray/Sunny Murray, “A Sanctuary Within, Parts 1 & 2”, A Sanctuary Within, Black Saint, 1991.

David Murray is the saxophonist, which is obvious from the characteristics.  I’ll take a guess in this case, and say who the drummer is.  In this particular piece moreso than the duet in the first part, I think I can identify the drummer because of the way he accompanies and how he places the beats, assigns his rhythms, and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is kind of there.  Sometimes you find the meter, and by that I mean count.  I’d like to say that was Sunny Murray. [Why was it harder on the duo?] Because it seems as though Sunny usually accompanies more space, and his sound variety is wider.  His highs and lows are more definitive.  And to me, it sounded as though playing in that context, he plays with more space, as I heard him.  What was very interesting, too, is that the way the piece started out sounded as though it came out of a rhythmical shuffle, or shuffle rhythm, out of which the drummer got his perspective to play freely.  So in that sense, one could say there was a certain kind of meter.  But more so than that, because meter to me simply infers that you have a certain number of counts per bar.  You count to 5 or you count to 3 or you count to 12 or you count to 12 or you count to 16 or you count to 2 — etcetera.  There’s always an upbeat and a downbeat, and however long the phrase is with that kind of concept of playing in terms of meter, as far as composition is concerned… But in this case I got the information of the shuffle, but it wasn’t any particular placement as far as the number of counts were concerned.  I’d have to say it was more of a rhythmical thrust, which had a beginning, it had its conclusion when Sunny decided that he wanted to stop or he wanted to start again.  Of course, there was the attack, which is like the one.  But there was also a resolution which came where he decided he was going to stop it and do something else.  Then eventually out of that I heard the feeling of the shuffle, of his free playing.  But I couldn’t really tell you that was Sunny from the duet part.  But as far as the ensemble accompaniment, it was definitely his characteristics.

[David Murray obviously is the saxophonist.  I think the drummer is Sunny Murray because how he places the beats and assigns his rhythms — and of course, how he plays to a large degree ametrically, even though the pulse is there.  I couldn’t really identify Sunny from the duet in the first part, but with the ensemble in the second half he played with more space, with a wider sound variety, more definitive highs and lows — definitely his characteristics.]

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I would have to say the music that you offered me was challenging.  It was a variety.  Most of these compositions I never heard before, but I’ve heard almost all the players… I know Formanek a little bit and I know Hemingway quite a bit.  Even though I know Gerry in another way also, as far as the kind of sounds he gets from his drums.  Because he tunes his drums a little differently also, and a lot of the music that he composes, or that I’ve heard him compose in the past comes out of the sounds that he gets on the drums and how he integrates that with the sounds he wants from the instruments.

Also, I didn’t realize that there were as many duet recordings in existence as you offered here.  Really!  Of course, a lot of them were in context of larger ensembles, but still there were a number which, if you didn’t edit, sounded as though they were just duets with a rhythmical voice, the drums, and the melodic (and perhaps harmonic, if you want to use the piano) voice of the horns.  I didnt hear was trumpet-and-drum duets or maybe even flute-and-drum duets, or a lot of string duets.  Well, there aren’t too many recordings with drummers and bass players and drummers and violins playing together… You covered the broad palette of perspective of the music, with the tradition coming out of Swing, Bop, Neo-Bop to the combination of the “Avant Garde” unto itself.

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Filed under Andrew Cyrille, Blindfold Test, DownBeat, Drummer

For Tommy Flanagan’s 83rd Birthday Anniversary, A 1994 Interview on WKCR

On the 83rd birthday anniversary of Tommy Flanagan, justly nicknamed the “Jazz Poet” in his lifetime, here’s the full transcript of an interview that I had the honor to conduct with him during a Sunday Jazz Profiles show on WKCR in November 1994.  At the time, Flanagan was in his third year leading a trio with bassist Peter Washington  and drummer Lewis Nash, one of the most creative and virtuosic groups of the ’90s; Flanagan never played anything the same way twice, often didn’t decide on set lists until the first note of the set. He was soft-spoken and witty, and is very much missed.

The text includes the selections played during the show, with dates — for further detail/info, check the Tommy Flanagan Discography Project (http://www.jazzdisco.org/tommy-flanagan/discography/)

Tommy Flanagan Profile (WKCR), 11-20-94:

[MUSIC: “Minor Perhaps” (1980); “Love You Madly” (1994); “Come Sunday” (1957); “Mainstem” (1975); “Star-Crossed Lovers/Jump For Joy” (1977); “Caravan” (1989); (w/ Hank Jones) “Rockin’ in Rhythm” (1983); “Thelonica” (solo) (1983); “Friday The Thirteenth” (1978); “Ruby My Dear” (solo) (1975); “Off Minor” (1983); “52nd Street Theme” (1975)]

TP:    I’d like to start by asking you about your beginnings in music in Detroit, which was such a fertile musical community at the time you came up.  Was there a piano in  your household?  Were you always around the piano?

TF:    Yes, I was.  There was a piano in the house, and I had an older brother, Johnson Flanagan, who I took lessons from.  He was a teacher, and he taught in a school.  The woman that he studied with first, and who I studied with also, Gladys Wade Dillard, opened a school, and he was a teacher in that school.  She just passed away last year at the age of 84 or something like that.  She was wonderful.  She was active until her death, and she taught a lot of students all over Detroit.

TP:    Did she teach privately or through the public schools?

TF:    She taught privately.  She had four children of her own, and they all studied a little bit, but they never became known.  They didn’t take it seriously like we did.

TP:    What made her a special instructor to you?

TF:    Well, she took a lot of time with me, and I guess she didn’t discourage me.  I had small hands when I was young, and a lot of people thought I wouldn’t be able to do certain things.  She never discouraged that.  She said, “Just practice, and you’ll be all right, and you’re at a growing stage anyway, so don’t worry about that.”  But she was wonderful.  She took her time with me, and gave me a nice curriculum to go by.

TP:    What sort of curriculum did she give you?

TF:    She just gave me the roots.  But she frowned on Jazz.  No, she wasn’t into Jazz.  She loved it, but she didn’t want to encourage me to go that way, because I guess she knew that there was more to playing Jazz than people give credit for.  And she knew that I had heard Art Tatum, so I guess that kind of ruins everybody.  Well, that’s Classical Music, and it’s Jazz at the same time.

TP:    Did you hear Art Tatum or other pianists on record or around the area?

TF:    I heard him on record first.  But he played in the Detroit area a lot.  He lived in Toledo, which is almost next door to Detroit.

TP:    He was in residence a number of times in Midwest cities, in Toledo, Cleveland, Chicago, Detroit at various stages.

TF:    Right.  I guess he loved being in the area.  I guess his sight was a handicap for him, so he didn’t do extensive traveling.  But the man was a genius from a very young age.  He did a lot of his work in Detroit playing on radio, I guess when he was in his early twenties or maybe before.  But there are recordings of him at that time, and it seems like on Art Tatum’s first recordings he sounded just like he did at the end of his life.  He possessed that incredible, phenomenal technique and range of musicality.

TP:    Who are some of the other pianists, Jazz pianists, stylists you heard when you were young and who impressed you?

TF:    Well, first of all, it was local musicians.  We had a lot of people that could inspire you.  We had a gentleman named Willie Anderson, who was a self-taught musician, but he played with impeccable technique and taste.  He styled himself after Tatum and Nat Cole.  He had a trio kind of based on Nat Cole’s trio, with guitar and bass.  Kenny Burrell’s brother was the guitarist in that group.  He was a fine guitarist himself, Billy Burrell.

TP:    Was this in the early Forties, let’s say?

TF:    Yeah, you could say that.

TP:    You were 12, 13 years old?

TF:    Right.  When I first met Kenny, hearing Willie Anderson’s trio, we as kids had this inspiration we could hear them live, you know, hear them practice.  We had the Nat Cole recordings, and they were very close to that style.  Willie Anderson could certainly cover most of the things that Nat Cole played.  He was very original, too, even though he needed to get that inspiration of how to get through these technical things through listening to Tatum and Nat Cole.  But a beautiful musician.

Another musician who lived close by to where I lived, Earl Van Riper, is a wonderful pianist, very clean and more in the school of Teddy Wilson — clean-cut pianists.  He went on to play with Cootie Williams’ band and Cleanhead’s orchestra.  It was a good band.  He finally settled in Indianapolis.  I guess he wrote out some of the first things that Wes Montgomery did; Wes didn’t read himself, but he had someone that could write his music down and send the charts to his musicians.  When he first came to New York, he had his music, and I was fortunate enough to be on that date.  But this music being such a small circle that it is, that music came through Earl Van Riper, who I was inspired by at an early age.  He was the first kind of a professional pianist that I saw up close.

TP:    One thing that’s interesting in Jazz is how specific areas seem to engender particular styles.  In Chicago, a lot of the pianists were influenced by Earl Hines and went in that direction.  Is there anything that would characterize the pianists who came out of Detroit, some common strain that marks the way they developed musically?

TF:    I suppose from Tatum being in the area so much, a lot of the pianists were inspired…you know, the ones that could attain that, could grasp it, they were more influenced  by Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson.  Teddy spent a lot of time around Detroit, too.

TP:    When he first came north, before he moved to Toledo where he met Art Tatum, and then went on to Chicago.

TF:    Right.  When I got to know Teddy years later, here in New York, he used to tell me about the early days in Detroit, things I didn’t even know about.  He used to call streets, you know, that I knew as St. Antoine, he used to just say Antoine Street.  This man had been around!  But Teddy was a lot of fun to know, and he was just a master musician, as we all know.  There’s a lot of inspiration there.  Teddy inspired me a lot through records; my first meeting with him was through records.

TP:    In the biographies of you it says that your first gig was with Dexter Gordon.  How old were you when that happened?

TF:    That’s not true.  I think somebody got that mixed up.  I always think they get that mixed up with Lucky Thompson, because I played with Lucky.

TP:    Was that a teenage band?
TF:    Yes.

TP:    Describe that.  And describe the community of like-minded young musicians.  Because so many great stylists of Jazz came up out of Detroit around the same time.  Milt Jackson, Lucky Thompson, Billy Mitchell, Barry Harris, you, and the list goes on.

TF:    Yes.  Well, as a young musician, Lucky left Detroit early.  So we didn’t know him until he came back to settle in Detroit for a while.  I think he’d even been to Europe, and he did the West Coast scene with those bands out there.  When he came to Detroit, I guess I was like 17 or so.  Lucky formed a band with Pepper Adams, Kenny Burrell and myself — I can’t remember all the other players.  He was a wonderful writer.  It was a seven-piece band, a septet, and he wrote some beautiful arrangements, and really got me interested in how to voice music, and got me interested in trying to arrange — although I never did get that far into it.  But he was a big inspiration, and he helped us a lot in learning how to play music on a professional level.  He certainly was in a class with Coleman Hawkins and Ben Webster and Don Byas, just a notch under them, and he certainly was cut from the same cloth.

TP:    Did you and the young musicians meet each other through school, or through hanging out, practicing and rehearsing?  Were you able to go to clubs when you were underage at all and hear music, or go in the back and hear it?

TF:    Well, a lot of us met in school, through early school, and going… All the great big bands came through Detroit on the circuit, and when they would come to town, we all would go to see them.  So we kept seeing the same people at these engagements, and it happened to turn out to be some of the guys you went to school with and from other schools, and we got to know each other.  Soon we had heard that there was a thing like jamming, jam sessions, so we used to meet in certain people’s houses, homes, in certain neighborhoods.

TP:    Whose house was a center?

TF:    It depended what side of town you were living in.  I mean, there are so many sections in Detroit.  On the West Side, Barry Harris used to have them.  In the area I was, Hugh Lawson; we used to gather there.  There was a big group of musicians who lived in that area.  We had the cream of the crop in bass players.  We had Paul Chambers and Doug Watkins right there in the neighborhood.  Not that there weren’t more, but I mean, they come to mind because they were so exceptional.  And at that time, Hugh was a young tenor player himself; he loved the tenor.  People don’t know that.  There were so many, they don’t come immediately to mind.

TF:    Right.

TP:    Did you go see all the big bands?

TF:    I saw them all.  If I was too young to go somewhere alone, my older brother would take me.

TP:    What did your brother play like?

TF:    He liked Teddy and Tatum.  He was in that school.  He had good taste, but he didn’t really develop it in… He didn’t really carry it through.  I guess he was maybe more of a teacher than a practitioner.

But as far as seeing all the big bands, he took me to see them, and I was always impressed.  I even saw Fats Waller live when I was about ten years old.  He came to the Paradise Theater, which was the main theater in Detroit, which everybody in the circuit came through.  Anybody that was anybody came to the Paradise Theater.  I saw Bird there with strings.  I saw Louis Armstrong’s big band there.  I mean, these shows were star-studded.  They’d always have a comedian, a dance act and a headliner, a big band with a powerful singer.

TP:    Would the comedian be local…?

TF:    No.

TP:    They’d be coming in on the circuit.

TF:    They’d be on the circuit.  People like Redd Foxx.  Before Redd Foxx was really a big star, he was in a team with Foxx and White, Slappy White and Redd Foxx…

TP:    Out of Chicago originally.

TF:    I guess so, or St. Louis.  There was a lot of Midwest action going on.  So all these people, the comedians and the dancers, they all knew each other and they depended on each other for support.  Oh, it was just a wonderful time.  I saw Ellington…oh, through the years.  I saw Ellington when he had two bass players; he had Oscar Pettiford and Al Lucas at one time.  I saw Jimmie Lunceford’s orchestra there, which I only saw once, but it was a wonderful orchestra.

TP:    Well, there was no television, so I guess it was very special to go see these great musicians whose records you were hearing.

TF:    Right.  I even long for it now, that it could still happen.  There’s just a few big bands left that are… Well, the names are not there any more.  But it’s just great to see that there are still a few big bands left.

TP:    Well, the time when you were beginning to organize your music is when the new trends in music were being heard, Charlie Parker’s and Dizzy Gillespie’s records.  Were you onto that right away?

TF:    Yes, I was.

TP:    Did you get “Woody ‘n You” in 1944, or Bird’s first records?

TF:    Yeah, I had that.  I was just waiting for something new to happen.  I mean, it was in the air.  You knew something had to happen.  Then when we first heard Charlie Parker, even some of the records before he was really known in small groups, you could hear that sound in the Jay McShann band, like “Hootie Blues.”  Well, goodness, there was an alto solo in there that wasn’t like Johnny Hodges.  It was really different.  It wasn’t like something from our age or something.  We could spot someone that was a shining light to follow, which Bird was certainly, and Dizzy.

TP:    Well, when did you first hear Bud Powell?

TF:    I think I heard Bud… I wasn’t even sure it was him, but I assumed it was.  I saw Cootie Williams’ band, and the pianist played in the style that was more like what I heard coming from Charlie Parker and Dizzy.  Later on I just said, “That had to be Bud Powell” — and it was.  But that’s the first time I heard Bud, with Cootie Williams.

TP:    I know he had a big impact on the way you think about music and improvise.

TF:    He did.

TP:    Talk about that a bit.

TF:    Well, like I say, he did for the piano what Bird did for the alto saxophone and what Dizzy did for trumpet.  Our spokesman for piano was Bud Powell right there.  I loved Art Tatum and Teddy Wilson, but we were favoring the style of music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy, and Bud was right there in the forefront, playing the role of the piano, the figure that you should follow.

TP:    Did you hear Monk at this time also, in the late Forties, or was that a little later?

TF:    I didn’t hear Monk.  I just heard his compositions.  I didn’t know much about him until I went to New York.  The first time I really saw Monk live was in New York.

TP:    I’m sure you were listening to Tadd Dameron’s compositions and arrangement style as well at that time.

TF:    Well, I heard him on recordings, too.  Another man out of the Midwest!  There was a lot of rich music at the time.

TP:    And tremendous creative energy that seemed to go into everything that was happening then.

TF:    Oh, fertile minds were just… It was a great time to be alive, and to be there while it was in its growing stages.

TP:    We haven’t really talked about Thad Jones in this conversation, but he’s very important to you.  You’ve just recorded a whole CD of eleven Thad Jones compositions, and his compositions mark just about every record you’ve made for the last number of years.  I thought we’d put together a set of Tommy Flanagan’s performances of Thad Jones’ music over recent years.  Before we do that, I’d like a few words about Thad Jones, your first meetings with him and his brother Elvin, and your relationship over the years.

TF:    Well, that was happening early…when I first started playing gigs around Detroit.

TP:    He was about seven years older than you.

TF:    Yes, probably seven.  Elvin’s a little older than me, too, maybe a couple of years.  Thad was really an advanced musician for his age.  The way he wrote compositions was just extraordinary, his gift for melody and ideas for orchestration.  Oh, what a trumpet player he was — and cornet player.  His talent was so apparent in writing and composing that they forget what a great trumpet player he was.  He was very individual; I mean, he had a voice that was just as distinct as any of the top trumpet players I know.  I can tell Thad immediately when I hear him, just as I can Dizzy or Roy or Clark Terry.  He’s just in the forefront of those trumpet players.

Anyway, one of my first gigs in Detroit was at the Bluebird with Thad.  It’s where I first met him.  This was like 19…late…

TP:    1949 is the date I’ve read.

TF:    Yes, I think so.

TP:    You were all of 19 years old.
TF:    Yes, I shouldn’t have been there.  Anyway, this moustache helped me out.

TP:    It got you through a lot of difficult situations!

TF:    And my receding hairline helped me, too.

TP:    Well, that’s the way to turn a disadvantage into a positive.

TF:    Anyway, I met Thad about that time.  And some of the music that we played on the collection we recorded, called Let’s, on Enja, like “Elusive” and “Zec” and “Scratch,” we were playing then.  It takes a lot of playing to play these songs the way they should be, to capture everything that’s in there, to capture all the notes!

TP:    What are the characteristics of Thad Jones’ writing that are so distinctive?

TF:    Well, it’s so rhythmic.  The melodies are kind of like Monk’s things.  They have so much syncopation in the melody.  If you play that, you’re well on your way to being able to construct your own style.  The music is so strong that it just comes through.  I mean, if you play one chorus of “Lush Life,” that’s all you actually need to play.  You don’t need to improvise on that.  It’s all in the composition.  It’s the same with Thad’s pieces, except for his more rhythmic things.  It just calls for you to play more, get into that rhythm.

[MUSIC: “Let’s” (1993); “Zec” (1956); “Like Old Times” (1986); “Elusive” (1993); “50-21” (1990)]

TP:    When we left off, Tommy was in his first residence at the Bluebird in 1949-50-51.  That was one of the main clubs in Detroit then.  Describe the ambiance in the Bluebird.   Who went through there?  How was the place configured?  Who was the house band?

TF:    Actually, it was a very small club.

TP:    Evidenced by the photograph on Beyond The Bluebird.

TF:    Yeah, there it is.  That’s the front of it, and it looked kind of like a candy store.  It was right next to a grocery store and a supermarket.

TP:    There’s a big supermarket, and on the other side of it is a collision service, an auto repair shop.

TF:    Right.  So we had our collisions inside.  There was a good kitchen in there.

TP:    What kind of food?

TF:    Soul food.

TP:    What was the specialty of the house?

TF:    Mmm… Goodness, I don’t know.  I didn’t eat there that much, because I was living at home.  Anyway, speaking of the Bluebird, there was an interesting call.  A man called and asked about Terry Pollard, and was she as good as they say she was.  I’m here to tell you that she was better than what maybe you’ve heard on records.  In fact, Terry had the gig at the Bluebird before I did.  Oddly enough, she’s a little younger than me, so I guess women can get away with it!

TP:    They mature earlier.

TF:    [LAUGHS] I’ve heard.  Yes.  But she was always a fine pianist, and advanced for her age.  She held her own.  In the last ten years or so she had a stroke that took her out of commission, it paralyzed her, both arms… She got the use of one of them back.  But the therapy was very costly, she couldn’t keep it up, so she hasn’t been back to working since then.  But she was a wonderful pianist.  The last time I heard her working with her group, she was working with Sonny Stitt, and I think once with Milt Jackson.  She played great vibes herself.  Well, she did work with Terry Gibbs for a while, and they used to do some two-vibe things together.  She held her own there on the vibes, too.  She was a masterful musician.

TP:    Was the Bluebird the place where musicians would come to play for musicians, the place where people would come to jam and so forth?

TF:    That, too.  Yes.  And a lot of people came through there after they got off their gigs.  It was kind of a forerunner of Bradley’s!  For instance, Bird would stop through the Bluebird…

TP:    He even wrote a blues in its honor, which you recorded for Timeless records.

TF:    Right.  Bird came there.  There are some bootleg recordings of Bird at the Bluebird.  Wardell was in residence there for a long time.  Miles Davis was there for about two or three months before he came here and formed that great quintet that he got together.

TP:    Is that where he met Paul Chambers?

TF:    I believe so.

TP:    So through your years at the Bluebird is really where you met the musicians with whom you made your mark on so many great recordings during the last thirty-forty years.

TF:    A lot of them, right.  I met…oh, people like Joe Gordon, Clifford Brown, Richie Powell, Harold Land on times off when they were in the city.

TP:    Where would they play when they were in Detroit?  The Baker Lounge?

TF:    It would either be Baker’s, or there was another club in River Rouge called the Rouge Lounge, where Tatum used to play — a lot of people.  I played there once with Carmen McRae, now that I think about it.  Kenny Burrell and I played there with Carmen as youngsters, before she had a group that she traveled with.

TP:    By the way, that brings up another aspect of the experience of a Jazz pianist, which is that I’m sure you were playing with many singers around the Detroit area as well, when you were 19, 20, 21 and so forth.

TF:    Well, one of my first gigs was working with a singer in Detroit, a steady gig.  I was about 19.  I shouldn’t have been on that gig either, but she used to stand really kind of close to the piano and hide me, if anybody was looking for anybody underage in there.  I was just out of high school.  But it was one of my first gigs.

TP:    Who was she?

TF:    Bobbi Casten(?).  Locally she had a big record in the area, one called “Call Me Darling.”  That’s an old tune that few people know about, “Call Me Darling,” and “God Bless The Child” was the other side — which everybody knows that.  But her big hit was the “Call Me Darling” side.  She was a deep-voiced, kind of contralto voice.  She ended up here in New York, but didn’t work any important gigs.  She ended up working some strange gigs down in the Wall Street area.  There were a couple of clubs down there in the mid-Fifties or late-Fifties.

TP:    That’s how you accumulate a repertoire, I guess, working with singers and so forth.

TF:    Yeah, it helps you.  They all have different songs they like to sing and specialize in doing.  She had hers.  All the singers do.  Of course, Ella had several…hundred.

TP:    I think you mentioned 800 on the liner notes of the recent record.

TF:    Yes, that’s when I was with her.  That was ’78 when I last worked with her.  She kept performing until just a few years ago.  I imagine her arrangement book must be near a thousand or maybe over.  And that’s not to say about the small-group arrangements.

TP:    Well, I’ve certainly noticed that if you hear several of Tommy Flanagan’s sets during a week at a club, you may never hear the same tune twice.

TF:    Yes.

TP:    Unless you’re really interested in it that week.

TF:    Right.  Then you might come there eight times in eight days, and you might hear the same program.  Which disappoints a lot of people, but I don’t look at it that way.  If I’m trying to get some material for an upcoming project, we have to live with that.

TP:    Were the older musicians very supportive of young musicians when you were coming up, when you were doing that first stint at the Bluebird, from 1949 to ’51?

TF:    Oh, yes.  Yes, they were very encouraging.  For instance, Miles would come through, coming from the West Coast, and he would relate what was happening out on the West Coast, people that I hadn’t heard.  I had never heard or seen Carl Perkins, but he described the way Carl Perkins played, like, [MILES’ VOICE] “he played like this,” like with his elbows, playing notes in the bass.  He had a very descriptive style, Miles did.  Well, it’s good to be around people like that, like him.  People have a description of him or they think that they knew him because they saw the side that he wanted to show, which was not too friendly to them.  He showed a lot of his back to people.  But he was really a loving and caring person — I found him to be.  He and Wardell Gray were very encouraging.

TP:    Say a few words about Wardell Gray.  He spent a lot of time in Detroit.

TF:    Yes, he did.  I don’t know if his brother is still alive, but he had a brother that lived there, who was a bass player, Harry Gray.  But Wardell, oh, he was a wonderful tenor player, and I guess he inspired a lot of people.  There was a style of piano playing in Detroit, and I think Wardell inspired a lot of tenor players in that area, Detroit.

TP:    Would you be a little specific about that?

TF:    Well, of course, Wardell’s style was a lot like Dexter Gordon.  When Wardell hit the scene, a lot of musicians were  patterning their style after Dexter.  Rightly so, because I guess he was like the next step between Prez and maybe Trane.  I mean, the sound and the phrasing is in Coltrane, the way I hear it.

TP:    So would you say Wardell Gray was sort of in the Prez line of descent, and let’s say Billy Mitchell and Lucky Thompson were more in the Coleman Hawkins line of descent?

TF:    Well, I think Billy is more like in that Wardell Gray… Although he’s a contemporary of Wardell, so he had his own thing.  But they had similar kind of sounds, and their styles were in the Bird school.

TP:    Well, talk about Bird coming through Detroit?  Did you have the opportunity to play behind him at all at the Bluebird?

TF:    Not at the Bluebird.  But I did play with him.  We used to do Saturdays at the Broadway Capitol theater in Detroit. It was a pretty large-sized theater, and we used to get a nice crowd.  We’d pack it in.  A well-known disk jockey named Bill Randle, who had the distinction of introducing Elvis Presley, of all people, ran these concerts.  They used to have special guests, and this particular Saturday they said, “Our surprise guest this evening is Charlie ‘Yardbird’ Parker.”  And we all looked at each other dumbfounded!  “What, Bird?”  This cat’s got to be kidding!  Sure enough, Bird comes out of the wings, walks by the piano, says, “Give me eight bars of Moon, G,” and I fumbled through an introduction of “How High The Moon” in G!  It was my first time to play with Bird.  He never played long choruses; he played a couple of choruses, and we stood around, like, looking to see who was going to play next.  It was Billy Mitchell’s group, he was the senior member, and of course, he had known Bird, so he played next.  And after that we felt at ease, like we had come of age.  We’d played with Bird!

He was around Detroit quite a bit, too.  He has a son that was born in Detroit, Leon.  I don’t think Leon is a musician.  But I know that Bird had a son in Detroit that looked a lot like him.  He used to come to see Bird when he was… Bird played the Neal(?) Ballroom.  That’s a ballroom where people used to really come to dance to the music.

TP:    And dance to Bebop music.

TF:    Dance to Bebop music, right.  Bird was in Detroit quite a bit with small groups, and he came there with strings also.  He played another ballroom, the Forrest(?) Ballroom, with strings, and also he played the Paradise Theater with strings.  He was a big influence on a lot of Detroiters.  All musicians, not only the pianists or saxophonists, but he was the most influential musician on anybody’s instrument, I think.

TP:    Did you meet Sonny Rollins in Detroit?  He’s someone, of course, you’ve recorded with and performed with recently as well, and the recordings go back to Saxophone Colossus.

TF:    That’s right.  I don’t know what the occasion was, but I know I knew Sonny before I came to New York.

TP:    Now, did you stay mostly in Detroit?  Did you go out on the road, or were you pretty much in Detroit working a lot?

TF:    I mostly stayed in and around Detroit until… I did a few gigs, like over in Toledo, which is really close, and Cleveland and Pittsburgh, Toronto — all these cities are close to Detroit.  But I spent most of my time during the Forties and the Fifties in Detroit, playing between two or three clubs.

TP:    There was more than enough work for you and a couple of other pianists, I take it.

TF:    Oh, yeah, there was a lot of work in Detroit.  There were several clubs, in every part of the city, and a lot of good pianists in every part of the city.  So nobody was lacking work.

TP:    And very hip audiences, I gather, in Detroit.

TF:    Yeah.  Rough, too.

TP:    Real critical?

TF:    Yeah.  When you weren’t up to par, like, they’d say, “hey…”  They’d call on somebody else.  “Why don’t you let so-and-so sit in, then, if you don’t know that tune?”  It’s almost like an audience at the Apollo on Amateur Night.  If you’re not there, man, you can get the hook!  But Detroit was a very musical and aware city.  I mean, in my family I had a lot of critics!  I was one of five brothers and a sister.  So they expect you to come up with something.  I mean, it hasn’t changed.  Last Sunday I played a concert in Detroit.  They’re still like, “Hey, come on!”  I had a niece who said, “Come on, let’s get busy.” [LAUGHS]

TP:    What were the events, then, that brought you to New York?  We’re talking about Tommy Flanagan’s days in Detroit, but he’s a New Yorker!

TF:    Yes.

TP:    You’ve been here for a good chunk of the last forty years, although not all of them.

TF:    Not all of them.  But I came here in ’56, and just except for a few years…

TP:    You were on the West Coast for a while.

TF:    Yes, in Los Angeles and Tucson, Arizona, for a while with my family; we lived there for a couple of years.  I don’t know, I get bogged down in time…

TP:    At any rate, getting to New York.  What I gather from the biographies: You were in the Army for a couple of years, and then you and Kenny Burrell hooked up in a group… But I’m vague on all of the particulars.

TF:    Yeah.  Well, Kenny and I played a lot in Detroit.  Actually, we met as teenagers, and I’ve known Kenny since he was 12 years old.  We’re a year apart.  We’ve been off and on, you know, playing through the years, all that time.  We’ve played in Japan together, and a lot of other places.  The recording that we did, Beyond The Bluebird, was done in a studio in Holland.  Actually, Kenny wasn’t a regular member of the Bluebird band.

TP:    Who formed that band?  Who were the bass and drums?

TF:    The drummer was Elvin Jones, and the bass player was James Richardson, whose brother you might know better, Rodney Richardson, who was one of the Basie people.

TP:    What did Elvin sound like in the early 1950’s?

TF:    He was just a little rawer version of what he is now.  I mean, he’s really a polished drummer now.  He was finding his way then, but still, he had the fire and all the potential to be the drummer that he has become.  He was a joy to play with.  But you had to count, you know, when you were with Elvin.   You take those fours, you know!  He had some complex rhythms that he would play.
TP:    He was exploring them then.

TF:    Yes, he was.  Those were interesting and informative years.  I mean, it was great playing with Thad Jones and Billy Mitchell then.  Everyone seemed to be on the top of their game, or getting there.  After Billy and Thad left to join Basie’s band, I was still a member of the rhythm section.  Yusef Lateef became the tenor player there, and I forget who the trumpeter was — it might have been Donald Byrd.

TP:    In any case, let’s talk about how you got to New York.

TF:    Right.  Well, Kenny was going to New York.  I think he had in mind to settle there.  I wasn’t so sure.  But it was a free ride, so I went along with him.  Little did I know that as soon as I got there, there was work to be had!  Right away I recorded that New York-Detroit Junction album with Thad and Billy and Kenny, and that was the start of some things.  That was in February, I believe.

TP:    Why did you decide to go?  Did you just think, “Well, now I have to try my luck in New York and see what happens”?

TF:    Well, I wanted to see what was happening, because things were kind of getting…not stale, but Detroit, the city was getting tired.  The attitudes and atmosphere was not very conducive to being creative.  So yeah, I thought it was a good time to go to New York, since I knew a lot of people there by now.

TP:    They’d all played with you for the last seven years.

TF:    Yeah.  So it was a good time.  And through them, I learned more… There were a lot of sessions in New York at the time.  If you felt like you really had to play, there was a place to jam every night of the week.  All over the city there was somebody.  Up in Harlem there was a place to play almost every night.  The 125 Club, Small’s, there was Count Basie’s, there was…oh, there was no lack of places to play and people to meet, and you met a lot of young musicians, new people, they found out you were on the scene, you were available.  So a lot of work became available to me.  It was great.

TP:    You started working with Ella Fitzgerald that year, didn’t you?

TF:    The year of ’56?  Yes, in the summer.  She was on a break, and somebody introduced us.  Somebody from Detroit, I believe it was Billy Mitchell, was in Dizzy’s band, and she was working an engagement at the place that’s called…what do they call it… It went from the West Side to the East Side.  A big club.  Ralph Watkins was the manager of that club.  I can’t think of the name of the room!  A big room.  It was right between 52nd and 53rd…

TP:    You’re not talking about Birdland or the Metronome.

TF:    No, not Birdland.  Anyway, she played an engagement there with Dizzy’s big band, and she was just about ready to go on her vacation.  She usually took off for August or something.  But the month before, her pianist became ill or he left or something, and then she needed a pianist.  Billy Mitchell knew I was in town, knew I wasn’t working, so there was an opening for me.  So she called, or the office called me, and I started working with her.  I worked with her just briefly, for about a month, before she went on her break for the summer.  That was the summer of ’56.  The first time I played Newport, that was one of the important things.

TP:    I guess you’d had ample training in Detroit to prepare you for a major gig with a singer like Ella Fitzgerald.

TF:    Yeah.  Well, really, even though I thought I was prepared, it was still scary.  I mean, this was the biggest star I’d ever worked with.  You know, when you’re the pianist with a singer like that, you also become the musical director.  Now, here’s the two veterans here, the bass player and drummer, Gus Johnson, that know the book and everything better than me, and here I am all of a sudden the musical director.

TP:    I guess you had to think that if she wanted you to do it…

TF:    Yeah.  Well, I did it.  It was a good learning experience for me.

TP:    You also hooked up with J.J. Johnson that year, and that was really your first regular touring group.

TF:    Right, right.

TP:    You did several records with J.J. as well.

TF:    Right.

[MUSIC:  “Lady Be Good” (1994); “How High The Moon” (1994); “So Sorry, Please” (1957)]

TP:    We’ve been grilling Tommy about his history, his formative years as a musician, the musicians that he knew and performed with.  I’ll stay on that track for a little bit more, and then we’ll chat about the present.

Around 1959-1960, you started working with some of the older generation of musicians on a regular basis, with Harry Sweets Edison, Roy Eldridge and Coleman Hawkins.  I’d like to know a little bit about your relations with them, how those gigs came about, what you got from them, and things like that.

TF:    Well, I guess I first met Coleman Hawkins in the old Birdland.  As a matter of fact, Miles introduced me to him.  Miles has a way of introducing people.

TP:    How did he do it?

TF:    He says, [MILES] “Coleman, do you know Tommy Flanagan?”  Coleman said right away (like, I had never met him before), “Yeah, of course.”  I didn’t know him, and I was kind of taken aback.  I was glad that he said that.  I don’t know where he heard me.  I know he had an affinity for pianists from Detroit.  He loved working with…

TP:    Barry Harris.

TF:    Yes, Barry, Roland Hanna…

TP:    Maybe he heard that Teddy Wilson influence.

TF:    Whatever it is.  Anyway, you said the older generation of musicians.  Well, Coleman and I had a record date, the first one with Coleman, and he was impressed with me.  I knew his repertoire pretty well, because I’d been listening to it all my life!  He and Roy Eldridge used to play together, they were doing some things at the old Metropole on Seventh Avenue.  We worked there together, and then we went on a tour, one of the early JATP things to England for about six weeks, so we got to be a tight little group there for a while, with Major Holley and Eddie Locke and myself in the rhythm section.

I had so much admiration for Coleman Hawkins’ musicianship.  He was just a world of musical information.  The things that I would see him do!  We used to go on record dates with sheet music, and he’d just read any clef.  He was reading parts from anywhere in the score.  And these are one-take things.  I always found that tenor saxophone players are really prepared when they come to a date; they usually don’t like to play more than one take of whatever they do.  Coleman Hawkins was one of those people.  I’m sure that’s how they got “Body and Soul.”  That was probably one take.  I don’t know how you could do that twice.

TP:    I’m sure he was still playing that when you were with him.

TF:    Yeah, he played “Body and Soul” a lot.

TP:    Now, did he change it every night?  Did he play it differently?

TF:    Yeah, of course.

TP:    Did he play everything differently every night?

TF:    The thing that would be mostly the same would be the end, the coda.  [SINGS IT] I mean, that’s the only thing that would separate it from all the rest of the song.  But what a musician!  He was so open to younger musicians.  I mean, he knew that Monk was somebody to listen to and to learn from, and I guess he was one of the first people to expose Monk to a wider audience.  I love Coleman Hawkins for that; we’d have lost a lot of Thelonious Monk if hadn’t been for him.  Of course, he incorporated Dizzy and Fats Navarro and Miles and a lot of the younger musicians, and gave them a good exposure to the music.

Off the bandstand, he was kind of a model person, too.  He would teach you how to drink, how to dress. He was an impeccable dresser.  He had very good taste in liquor.  He’d show you how to hold your own when you’re holding more than one!   He was really a marvelous person.  I really learned a lot from him musically and on and off the stand.

TP:    You were a ubiquitous presence on many dates, particularly for Prestige and Moodsville during those years as well.

TF:    Yeah, that’s right.  It kind of surprises me sometimes, when I look at that roster, and see that I recorded with Buck Clayton, and also Pee Wee Russell, Coleman and Joe Thomas, some Jimmy Hamilton…

TP:    Well, you were obviously very well versed in what they had done.  I mean, you’d been checking them out since ten years old and earlier.

TF:    Yes, exactly.

TP:    Were you aware of all these musicians as a youngster, as the individual personalities who were involved in music when you were 8-9-10 years old?

TF:    Yeah, I could tell who they were just by the sound.

TP:    So you were really attuned to it from the very beginning.

TF:    I really was.  I tuned into them right away.  I mean, I knew that was the direction that my ears wanted to go.  Then I tried to get my hands to catch up to my ears, what I had remembered all that time.  Well, you never catch up to what you really think you know!  So I’ve still got a lot to learn and to play.

TP:    Staying on that track, Tommy Flanagan has put together an incredible series of recordings over the last years.  I’d like to talk to you about how you organize and select material.  I guess the composers you choose to interpret are self-evident, because they come out of your history.

TF:    Right.

TP:    But what are you looking for in the tunes you play?  I guess it’s a mix of things you’ve done on the bandstand, things that intrigue you?

TF:    Well, that.  I like to pay tribute to people because I can focus better on the material.  For a whole collection of songs, I find that the music is more revealing in terms of what I have to give to it.  Sometimes you go with nothing in mind, but just to play some tunes or something.  But if my real goal is to play the best of Thad Jones, or what I think is some of the best, well, he has so much music and I’ve recorded so much of it in the past that I’ve tried to get to some things that I haven’t done before, and not over-record certain songs.  But I find that I’m doing that more!  Not because I haven’t done my homework, just because I’ve run out of work to do.

TP:    How do arrangements take shape?

TF:    I work on them.  If I play them long enough with the group, we work it out together.  But I usually have an idea of how I want to play a tune.  Of course, with some people’s music you don’t have to go too far.

TP:    It’s self-explanatory.

TF:    Yes.

TP:    Well, you seem to like to work with very dynamic drummers.  In the last few years, Al Foster, Kenny Washington, Lewis Nash.

TF:    Mmm…well, yes.

TP:    Can you talk a bit about working with a drummer, what you’re looking for from the drummer in your bands?

TF:    They’re dynamic, but I’m looking for a person that can listen, too.  I mean, I need those dynamics because the music I play uses a lot of dynamics.  It doesn’t matter who the composer is.  That’s what I want to bring to it anyway, is the dynamic part of it, especially in songs by Ellington.  I mean, there’s the soft side and the romantic side.  And strange as it seems, drummers possess all of these qualities, even though they don’t always show it on the surface.  But they have it in them musically, and I try to bring that out.  And I know it’s there.

TP:    What are you looking for in a bass player?

TF:    Oh, it’s very musical.  It’s good to have good intonation.  Steady rhythmically, and has something to offer as far as solos.  But that’s not really the necessary part.  It’s being able to work close with the drummer, and work as a team.  That’s the important part, to make a good team with the drummer and the bass.  And if I can work with the two of them, we’ve got a lot of accomplished.

TP:    I gather you don’t always tell everybody in the band what the sequence of tunes is going to be on a given night.  You sometimes like to surprise the drummer and bassist with…

TF:    Yeah, I like to surprise myself also.  I don’t know what I’m doing sometimes.  I do know what I’m doing, but I don’t know what I’m going to play at any certain time.  Because a lot of things can run through your mind at once until you weed it out at the last second, to figure out something by some of these off-the-cuff intros that I start.  It takes me different places.  Sometimes I might end up with a ballad or a fast tune from the same introduction.  So I have to be alert myself, and I’m just hoping that they’re listening to me.  And they are.  Because I can see them looking at me!  I guess I got that from hearing a lot of Erroll Garner.

TP:    Talk about that a little bit.

TF:    Well, he was the most surprising pianist I know.  If you just hear an Erroll Garner introduction, you don’t know what’s going to come next.  Not that I try to do that, but I think it’s the same kind of surprise.  He likes to surprise himself, and the music is full of surprises — and Erroll Garner certainly had it.  His teammates used to watch him very closely, because you didn’t know what to expect after those intros.  When I was very young, I heard Erroll Garner when it seemed like he was at his peak in Detroit; I saw him at very close range.  I guess it’s important sometimes to be close to a pianist, although I used to not care about it.  For example, most people play “Cherokee” in B-flat, and to be sitting close and to hear Erroll play it so effortlessly… The way he was playing it, I thought he was in B-flat, but you’re looking, and then you tune your ear, and you say, “That’s not B-Flat; that’s B.”  But he did everything in the key of B that he would play in the key of B-Flat!  Somebody that’s naturally gifted like that, it doesn’t matter what key you play in.  Art Tatum was like that.  If the piano didn’t respond, if there were broken keys, he’d play in a key that he could avoid those things.  Erroll Garner was the same way, except that he would do that on a Steinway Grand that was in perfect condition.  He was amazing that way.

TP:    What were some of the concepts that influenced you in terms of how a piano trio should sound?  You mentioned coming up in the Nat Cole piano-bass-guitar type of thing, and Ahmad Jamal was pretty much a contemporary of yours.

TF:    Ahmad Jamal’s concept is orchestral.  He has a wide knowledge of the keyboard, and he uses all of the keyboard all of the time.  He’s very rhythmic and very dynamic; that’s his trademark.  But he has a well-defined trio style, as did Erroll Garner.  Tatum had another kind of style.  I guess he used his rhythm section just, hmm, to give pause between his notes.  He had so much to play, he never could stop himself.  But there is another style of playing, and Nat Cole certainly had a beautiful soft side to his trio playing.  Bud Powell brought another dynamic into trio style playing.  There are really a lot of models out there to listen to.

TP:    [ETC.] How did you tackle the version of “Cherokee” that we’re about to hear on the latest release on Verve?  You were mentioning Erroll Garner, so you got yourself into it here.

TF:    Well, I played it safe, and played it in B-flat.  I don’t know how safe it is for me to play it.  It’s been explored so many ways and so many times, and so many great people have played it.  It’s a landmark for Bird, you know.  There are some things I can’t get away from — maybe quoting some of Bird.  That’s all I can say about it.  And hope for the best from “Cherokee”.
[MUSIC:  “Cherokee” (1994); w/ L. Thompson, “Happy Days Are Here Again” (1964); Trio, “St. Louis Blues” (1989); (solo) “Bean And The Boys” (1978); “Barbados” (1991); “Eclypso” (1957); TF/Mraz “Blue Twenty” (1978); Trio “Alone Too Long” (1993); (Solo) “The Very Thought of You” (1978); (solo) “Willow Weep For Me” (1989); (trio) “Woody’n You” (1977); “A Blue TIme” (1977); “Naima” (1982); (w/H. Jones) “Afternoon in Paris” (1983); “Three In One” (1993)…]

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Filed under Detroit, Interview, Piano, Tommy Flanagan, WKCR