JJ 05/62: In My Opinion – Tommy Flanagan

Sixty years ago pianist Flanagan reckoned Art Tatum the greatest in a field including Evans, Hines and Monk. First published in Jazz Journal May 1962


This is one of a series of taped interviews with musicians, who are asked to give a snap opinion on a set of records played to them. Although no previous information is given as to what they are going to hear, they are, during the actual playing, handed the appropriate record sleeve. Thus in no way is their judgment influenced by being unaware of what they are hearing. As far as possible the records played to them are currently available items procurable from any record shop. Tommy Fianagan has been called the best pianist to come out of Detroit since Hank Jones – a statement which, I trust, was meant as a compliment. A most talented per­former, Tommy has had vast experience, having played with such musicians as Lucky Thompson, Milt Jackson, Kenny Burrell, J. J. Johnson and Miles Davis. And to show that he can turn his hands to any kind of jazz he has also acted as accompanist to Ella Fitzgerald and played with such groups as those led by Harry Edison and Tyree Glenn. A quiet, shy man, he has an engaging sense of humour and a keen insight into the world of jazz today. – Sinclair Traill

“Midnight Jump”. Memphis Slim (Travellin’ With The Blues). Storyville SLP 118
I haven’t been in touch with too many of those blues artists, but I liked that. It had musicianship and he played his instru­ment well. Not my favourite style of piano playing, but in that idiom he was, I would say, exceptional. You know, I sometimes think technique does not matter all that much, in a way. You said you thought that the group backing Ella had something lacking. Well, there is no doubt plenty of technique there, but to my ear most of the rhythm or beat or swing or whatever you want to call it comes from the bass player. And that ain’t right surely?

But that was real honest piano playing. Without knowing who it was I still liked it a lot. I always thought Memphis Slim was a guitarist and singer; I never knew he played the piano like that. I must try and catch him sometime, if he comes to New York.

“Just In Time”. Oscar Peterson (Jazz Portrait of Frank Sinatra). H.M.V. CLP 1355
What’s that got to do with Frank Sinatra, for heaven’s sake? He isn’t even on the record, is he? Oscar has so much tech­nique (there we go again), but to me there is always some­thing missing. You said feeling, well … I don’t quite know. All the warmth there seemed to come from the bass player – but then he’s exceptional – and the drummer. I like Ed’s drumming. His father, Ben, played with Andy Kirk, and he was very good too. I remember hearing Ben Thigpen only once, it was all Jimmie Crawford in those days, the drummer with Jimmie Lunceford. I heard Lunceford and the Andy Kirk bands at the Paradise in Detroit, they were both great bands. I was also lucky enough to catch Fats Waller there, the greatest piano player (outside of Art Tatum) I ever heard. Fats had a lot more than most people imagine. His instrument was his to command and he got a great lift in his playing. I wish I had had a chance to hear him more often. To return to Peterson, I do like listening to him. He plays his instrument so well, and although he’s not my favourite he’s such a great musician you can’t put him down. Of course I don’t think you should judge these men individually. They play as a trio, and as a trio they are fine! None better.

“Hallelujah”. Earl Hines (Paris One Night Stand). Philips BBL 7222
Well, I knew who that was without looking, though I don’t know overmuch about him. He played the Embers in New York not so long ago, but I didn’t think the group he had there suited him – he’s not used to playing with a guitar and doesn’t need one. With that style of his he is certainly most impressive. He originated it and is still way out in front. His playing is a little like that of Teddy Wilson, in fact one might mistake one for the other. I don’t think I ever realised it before, but Teddy Wilson was obviously influenced by Earl Hines. He kind of cleaned up the Hines style to some extent, made it a little more sophisticated, but to my mind he doesn’t swing as much as Earl – he really swings there, doesn’t he?

‘I think Duke plays most interesting piano – a kind of inverted stride. That’s what Major Holley calls it, whatever it means’

“Take The ‘A’ Train”. Duke Ellington (Piano In The Background). Philips SBBL 611

Well, I think Duke plays most interesting piano – a kind of inverted stride. That’s what Major Holley calls it, whatever it means. It’s quite different anyway. Cliff Jackson does it too, but in rather different manner, so too did Fats, but Duke has another way still. His kind of stride came, I think, from James P. Johnson more than from Fats, but Duke still man­ages to make a different sound. It’s difficult to put into words, this difference between James P. Johnson and Fats, but there is a deal of difference in the way they accent their notes. Duke comes from the James P. way of thinking, and yet he’s different again. Sometimes one might confuse James P. and Fats, but can never mistake Duke for anyone. He’s recognisable from the very first note. I love Duke when he takes the trouble to play, but he so often doesn’t. Sounds just like his band, when he does play. And I have also heard him get that Monkish sound sometimes – not to play like Monk, but he gets that same sound if you know what I mean. Probably, though, it was the other way around – Monk manages to sound like Duke, for Duke came first.

“Come Rain”. Bill Evans. Riverside RLP 1162
I knew who that was from the first note, too. Not many people play that way these days. Eddie Washington used to play in that style years ago. Not exactly the same but he used to use some of these same colours. Evans has a nice rhythm and he invents some lovely sequences. He’s a kind of pianists’ musician, in a way. Garner can play that way too, but Erroll is a whole lot of things rolled into one. He is really one of the greatest improvisers. He can do so much! I just love listening to Garner because he always gives me the feeling that he just loves to play the piano – and he does! Get him in your home with a piano and he will play all night and never stop. And he can play stride as good as anyone ever did. As I said, he can do so much.

“Happy Feet”. Art Tatum (The Greatest Piano Of Them All). H.M.V. 7EG 8604
That’s something else now! Anybody that says Art wasn’t the greatest pianist of them all, then they just couldn’t have heard him. There is just no debate about Tatum. I get angry when I hear someone try to say he wasn’t the best, but I’ve seen a lot of people get hot when they heard someone try to decry Tatum. The stupidest thing anyone ever said about Tatum was said by a well known American critic in a Downbeat piano issue. Talking about the three giants – Tatum, Hines and Waller – he went on to describe their styles. The people he named as playing in the Tatum style included George Shearing and Phineas Newborn who, he said, played in style you could hear in cocktail lounges all over the country. Wasn’t that a crazy thing to print! I think that Tatum was just the greatest musician of them all, and that includes anyone on any instrument. All of ’em, Bird, Bean, Bach, the lot!

“Nice Work”. Thelonious Monk (The Genius Of Modern Music). Blue Note BLP 1511
Monk is one of my very favourite personalities, both on or off the stand. I really dig him. Mainly I like him for the feel he gets, not so much for his piano playing. He gets a wonderful jazz feel about everything he does. And he gets that feeling from the word go. He hasn’t got to trouble to warm up, it’s Monk all the way right from the first note. Some of his progressions may sound wrong, but they are all his own, very individual. Randy Weston plays in the same style, but he doesn’t get that feeling. It is extraordinary that Monk never has to warm up; it’s just bang, and he’s away.