News & Views » Columns

Tough farewell



He’d just finished a set with a flourish, and as he rose from the piano bench, he fanned his hands as if they had overheated. The applause swelled, and somebody nearby yelled, “Tough,” then turned to explain it was a nickname from the old days, a play on the initials T.F. — Tommy Flanagan.

The venue and other details have faded over 20 or so years. Seems it was the Detroit Institute of Arts. Could have been Baker’s. But since then, Tommy Flanagan has always been, for me, Sir Tough. And Sir Tender, too. He struck an almost courtly balance of energy and elegance.

He had been part of the great Detroit bebop exodus. His generation had reacted to the music of Bird and Diz as they might have to electrodes to their brains (so the late Harold McKinney described his experience). More than a few followed the bop pipers to New York: Kenny Burrell, Milt Jackson, Paul Chambers, Pepper Adams, Billy Mitchell, Elvin Jones … and Flanagan among them.

Once there, Flanagan took part in some of the grand records of his time, including sessions with Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane that he’d later describe with nonchalance. There were a couple of long stints with Ella Fitzgerald where he honed the accompanist’s art, then the final decades as leader of his own luminous trios.

His heart problems were no secret. “Might be the last time we hear Brother Flanagan,” a friend commented some years back at the close of a Detroit set. Flanagan proved my friend premature — but not wrong.

To state the obvious, the music lives on, though Flanagan finally succumbed last week at age 71. And though he may have been more a performer than a composer, here’s hoping that what he penned won’t be lost, especially “Beyond the Bluebird.” It’s pure Flanagan, honoring the incendiary music of his youth with a low flame, fringed by blue.

W. Kim Heron contributed to The Hot & the Bothered, which is edited by George Tysh. E-mail him at

We welcome readers to submit letters regarding articles and content in Detroit Metro Times. Letters should be a minimum of 150 words, refer to content that has appeared on Detroit Metro Times, and must include the writer's full name, address, and phone number for verification purposes. No attachments will be considered. Writers of letters selected for publication will be notified via email. Letters may be edited and shortened for space.

Email us at

Support Local Journalism.
Join the Detroit Metro Times Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.

Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.

Join the Metro Times Press Club for as little as $5 a month.