48 at the time that he recorded his Harold Arlen tribute album in 1978, Tommy Flanagan had a successfully emerged from relative obscurity. Although an important graduate of the Detroit jazz scene of the 1950s and the leader of several rewarding record dates during 1957-61 after moving to New York, Flanagan worked as Ella Fitzgerald's pianist and music director during 1963-65 and 1968-78. While that association gave him the opportunity to work steadily and travel the world, it contributed to him not leading any record dates during 1962-74 and being in danger of being forgotten or, at the least, being taken for granted. While Flanagan headed a few sessions during 1975-77, it was not until he began leading his own trio in 1978 that his recording career blossomed.
Tommy is a product of Detroit, a city that produced so many jazzmen who would play a vital role in the new developments of the bebop era. His first instrument was the clarinet, but he began studying the piano at the age of 11, and it was not long before he acquired enough professionalism to enable him to play his first gigs.
Among his early associates were such destined-for-greatness Detroiters as Milt Jackson and Lucky Thompson. Another colleague who played a major part in his career was the tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell. Born in Kansas City but later a student a Detroit's Cass Tech., Mitchell led the combo in which Tommy played both before and after his 1951-3 Army service.
Pianists with Tommy's harmonic sensitivity have often been attracted to guitar players; there was evidence of this when in 1954 Flanagan joined Kenny Burrell, and later formed a similarly felicitous partnership with Jim Hall. Early in 1956 Tommy moved permanently to New York, where he became a part of the bustling scene of which Birdland was the epicenter. The jobs were plentiful: with Oscar Pettiford's group; subbing for an intermittent relationship with Ella Fitzgerald that would last off and on for better than two decades and would establish him as one of the most intelligent of accompanists.
For a long while, though, his image was that of a bebopper. He toured for a year with J.J. Johnson, worked for three months with Miles Davis, had his own trio for awhile, and i n 1959-60 toured with the Harry Sweets Edison Quintet.
The 1960s found him with Coleman Hawkins, but from '63-5 he was back with Ella, in 1966 served as Tony Bennett's musical director, then went to work for Fitzgerald on a full time basis in '68 until a heart attack sidelined him a year or two ago. Since then he has been back on the Manhattan scene doing his own very personal thing, and making such delightful albums as the one you are now inspecting, taped under the auspices of a singer whose vocal qualities are as sensitive and appealing as Tommy's keyboard characteristics, Helen Merrill.