Early one evening in the mid-1980’s, jazz pianist Walter Bishop, Jr., who in 1951-52 had performed and recorded with star bebop alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, was having a bad first set at Bradley’s, New York City’s premier jazz piano bar.  Bishop’s sense of time was off, he was missing notes, and he even seemed disoriented playing his best-known composition, “Coral Keys.”  Owner Bradley Cunningham had spoken briefly with Bishop between numbers, and, when the following two tunes didn’t turn out any better, he again approached Bishop at the piano and asked him to leave.  The hulking Cunningham, a talented amateur who had played piano since his teenaged years and later studied with first-rate pianists Cedar Walton and Jimmy Rowles, finished that first set himself, playing a flawless medium-tempo version of “Out of Nowhere” and finally Thelonious Monk’s ballad, “Ruby, My Dear.”

Sensing trouble earlier, Cunningham had gone to his office in the back and to his phone book.  When the time came for the second set to begin just before midnight, Tommy Flanagan was at the piano and sailed into a medium-tempo rendition of Charlie Parker’s 1948 composition “Barbados,” recorded as a feature for Flanagan’s trio while appearing at the 1977 Montreux Jazz Festival with Ella Fitzgerald.  To see Flanagan there at Bradley’s piano, brought in to right a difficult situation and soothe a restless clientele, shouldn’t have surprised anyone at the club, for Flanagan was generally everyone’s first choice.  And so in November 2001, when the good-natured pianist passed away at age 71 in New York’s Mount Sinai Hospital from the heart condition that had bothered him for years, a chorus of praise was heard: “poet of the piano”; “sincerest lyricism”; “urbane and refined”; “style beyond style.”

He was a swinging but not an overbearing soloist, with a flowing bebop style lighter than those of other bop pianists, a style which sometimes more readily brought to mind his early influences, the swing pianists Teddy Wilson, Art Tatum, and Nat “King” Cole, with solo lines and chording that always hinted at the melody and never left the listener puzzled, and with a melodic and harmonic elegance especially suited to such subtle ballads as “Star-Crossed Lovers” and “I Fall in Love Too Easily.”  A native of Detroit and resident pianist at that city’s famed Blue Bird Inn in the early 1950’s, he had first accompanied Ella Fitzgerald at the 1956 Newport Jazz Festival and stayed with her for three months, and by the time producer and concert impresario Norman Granz, now also serving as Fitzgerald’s personal manager, invited him back in 1962 to serve as her full-time accompanist and (eventually) musical director, Flanagan, still only 32, had already performed and recorded with an astonishing number of top jazzmen, including Miles Davis, Coleman Hawkins, Sonny Rollins, J.J. Johnson, Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Lionel Hampton, and John Coltrane.

That first extended period with Ella Fitzgerald lasted until late 1965, and, except for a short spell with Tony Bennett in 1966, Flanagan’s activities were mainly as a player until 1968, when he signed up with Ella again.  This time he would stay with her for ten years and, all in all, appear with her on more than a dozen LPs, including live recordings in Montreux (1969, 1975, and 1977), and in London, Nice, Budapest, Juan-les-Pins, Hamburg, Santa Monica, and Carnegie Hall.  Fitzgerald had benefited from sensitive piano accompanists before, including Ellis Larkins, Lou Levy, and Paul Smith, but as she reminisced about Flanagan in 1983, “he really started getting me singing what I heard inside and what I wanted to get out.”

As both player and accompanist, Flanagan had an ear and a nose for many of the more obscure tunes from the Great American Songbook, which contains thousands of seldom-heard beauties by composers famous and otherwise.  For this reason alone he would have been an ideal accompanist to Fitzgerald, who in 1956 had embarked on a series of composer-themed “songbooks” suggested and produced by Norman Granz, well-arranged tributes to Duke Ellington, Irving Berlin, the Gershwins, Harold Arlen, Johnny Mercer, and Jerome Kern.  Far beyond her early 1938 nursery-rhyme hit, “A-Tisket A-Tasket,” with Chick Webb’s Orchestra, and an earlier hit with Webb, “(If You Can’t Sing It) You’ll Have to Swing It (Mr. Paganini)”—originally written for singer-comedienne Martha Raye—which introduced Fitzgerald to white listeners, and her lifelong association with the Kurt Weill composition popularly known as “Mack the Knife,” she was curious about lesser-known songs.  Cole Porter’s “So Near and Yet So Far,” introduced by Fred Astaire in the 1941 film You’ll Never Get Rich, is not among Porter’s best-known melodies, yet there it is on Fitzgerald’s 1971 Ella Loves Cole LP, with Flanagan behind her.  Composer Hugh Martin was much better known for “The Trolley Song” and “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” both sung by Judy Garland in the 1944 musical Meet Me in St. Louis, but there, on Ella in Budapest in 1970, is his lesser-known standard “You’d Better Love Me,” with Flanagan’s crisp chords backing her up.  The Russian émigré composer Josef Myrow, who wrote for Hollywood in the 1940’s and 50’s, was well known in musical circles for his delicate ballads “Autumn Nocturne” and “If I’m Lucky,” and for the sprightly “You Make Me Feel So Young,” but not so much for the moody “Somewhere in the Night,” yet there it is on Ella’s live 1964 LP from Juan-les-Pins, and again, Flanagan is there with her, along with trumpet master Roy Eldridge.

Yet Fitzgerald seemed to have no hesitation about reaching out to concert audiences by drawing on current hits, and her albums of this period include “Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head,” “I’ll Never Fall in Love Again,” “This Guy’s (Girl’s) in Love With You,” and “A House Is Not a Home,” all by the team of Burt Bacharach and Hal David, so Flanagan had to work with this somewhat less elegant material as well.  Her Ella in Budapest live album includes David Clayton-Thomas’s hit for Blood, Sweat & Tears, “Spinning Wheel.”  On Ella à Nice, recorded live in the French town in 1972, the two slip in George Harrison’s melancholy ballad “Something” to excellent effect.  Thanks to Flanagan’s impeccable backing, Fitzgerald sounds wonderful on these and others.

Flanagan was also in top form on the more than three-dozen albums he recorded under his own name and the more than 200 on which he appeared as a sideman to numerous other jazz performers, many of them top headliners, through the years.  He was so fluent, so adaptable, and so dependable that he fit in comfortably with swing musicians like tenor saxophonist Coleman Hawkins and trumpeter Joe Thomas, with beboppers like trumpeters Kenny Dorham and Red Rodney, vibraphonists Milt Jackson and Bobby Hutcherson, trombonists J.J. Johnson and Curtis Fuller, and guitarist Kenny Burrell, and with modernists like trumpeters Miles Davis and Booker Little, bassist and composer Charles Mingus, and tenor saxophonists Booker Ervin and John Coltrane.  His solo lines were so fluid and logical and swung so perfectly that, although often called a bebop player, he was more of a hybrid, without the heavier, punchier urgency of Bud Powell before him or the somewhat more formal bop lines of Barry Harris, Flanagan’s contemporary and a Powell disciple.  To hear his solos on “Darbin and the Redd Fox” (there are several different spellings of this title) with Milt Jackson, or on Mingus’s “Reincarnation of a Love Bird” (both from 1960), is to hear piano so elegant that it could fit anywhere.  He was swing and bebop and modern all at once, and this made him as versatile as he was excellent.  He recorded solo, in duos, trios, quartets, quintets, sextets, and big bands, in piano duos with the likes of Hank Jones, Marian McPartland, and Fred Hersch, and in other unusual duo pairings—Flanagan playing “Never Let Me Go” in a duo with tenor saxophonist J.R. Monterose or Duke Ellington’s standard “In a Sentimental Mood” in a duo with jazz-funk tenor man Grover Washington, Jr., or the nearly forgotten “Something Borrowed, Something Blue” with alto saxophonist Frank Morgan.  His experience with Ella Fitzgerald served him well in recordings with other first-rate vocalists such as Lorez Alexandria, Jon Hendricks, and Annie Ross.

Flanagan was never exactly a “star” in our peculiar era in which the term has become so degraded that 19-year-old empty-heads playing at being “performance artists” are accorded international acclaim for doing nothing more than behaving like fools in public.  He avoided self-promotion and created no dramatic new styles as Bud Powell before him and Cecil Taylor after him had done.  Yet he was so universally admired that, although his modesty might not have allowed him to claim stardom, he was that and more to insiders and to those with whom he worked.  One especially perceptive evaluation of Flanagan’s stature was eminent jazz critic Gary Giddins’s comment that “the only appropriate comparisons are between his inspired performances and those that are merely characteristic.”

Splendidly put.