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?
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.
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…?
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.
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!
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.
[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.
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.
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)…]