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An Important Contributor to British JazzCopyright © 1999The Scotsman, 1999
Crombie, TonyTony Crombie was not only one of the finest jazz drummers and bandleaders (and a more occasional but very capable pianist and vibraphonist) to emerge on the British jazz scene, but also a composer of international standing. Miles Davis and Stephane Grappelli were among those who recorded his material, while his working associations as a drummer included playing with a host of visiting American stars, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Tony Bennett and Coleman Hawkins.
Crombie was an energising influence on the British jazz scene across six decades, and collaborated with many of the most significant British jazz artists in that time, including Ronnie Scott, Tubby Hayes and Victor Feldman. He led his own bands throughout his career, and wrote music for stage shows and television, sometimes as co-composer with another of his regular collaborators, pianist and bandleader Alan Clare.
He was born Anthony John Crombie in London, where his father was a furrier. His mother played piano accompaniments for silent films in a local cinema, and encouraged his interest in music, but he began his working life in the fur trade in his mid-teens before taking up drums.
He played locally with saxophonist Harry Robbins, then began to work regularly in London venues like the Mazurka Club (1941) and the Number One Rhythm Club (1942). He joined vibes player Carlo Krahmer's band in 1943, and worked for a number of established bandleaders, including trumpeter Johnny Claes and accordionist Tito Burns, and formed his own band for an Irish tour in 1947. In 1948, Crombie was part of the trio led by bassist Jack Fallon which accompanied Duke Ellington and violinist Ray Nance on the first official post-war tour of Britain by an American jazz artist.
Krahmer, and later Dennis Rose, steered a number of young musicians toward the emerging bebop style, including Ronnie Scott, guitarist Pete Chilver, and Crombie, a development which was to have far-reaching consequences. In December of 1948, the drummer joined with a number of other players to found the short-lived but legendary Club Eleven, initially in a dingy basement in Great Windmill Street and later in Carnaby Street.
The club became a crucial focal point for the emerging bebop scene in the capital, and regularly featured the drummer in a band with Ronnie Scott. A second 'house band' was led by Johnny Dankworth, and a considerable amount of interchanging of personnel as well as musical ideas went on. Crombie also formed his own Septet at the club, one which the English jazz critic Brian Davis recalled sending him "into my usual state of euphoria" as a young acolyte.
Crombie was equally at home with both swing and bop styles, and put his multi-faceted talents to good use in the ensuing decade. He was sympathetically attuned to the particular requirements of accompanying singers, and toured with visiting artists like Annie Ross, Lena Horne and Carmen McRae.
He was the drummer in the Victor Feldman Trio in 1954-5, prior to Feldman's move to the USA, and led his own bands at various points in the decade, including a rock and roll band he called The Rockets in 1956, a jazz version of that band with Scott and Tubby Hayes in 1958, and Jazz, Inc. in 1959, featuring Scottish saxophonist Bobby Wellins and pianist Stan Tracey.
He also worked with Ronnie Scott at various times in the 1950s, and became the house drummer at Scott's club in the early 60s, where he accompanied visiting American stars like Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster and Jimmy Witherspoon.
Miles Davis recorded his composition 'So Near, So Far' in 1963, as did saxophonist Joe Henderson in his 1993 tribute album to Miles which also took its name from that tune. Davis praised Crombie's use of space in the composition, and several more of his tunes were taken up by major jazz artists, including versions of 'Deb's Delight' by saxophonist Paul Gonsalves, and 'That Tune' and 'Restless Girl' by Stephane Grappelli.
Crombie continued to lead his own bands throughout the 1960s and 1970s, while also working with artists like Ronnie Scott (in several settings, including trio, sextet and big band), organists Alan Haven (1964-7) and Mike Carr (in a duo 1968 and again in 1970-1), singer and organist Georgie Fame (he was a member of the Blue Flames for several years from the early 70s), and pianist Stan Tracey.
He was part of pianist Alan Clare's trio at various times, and often worked in that context with Stephane Grappelli. He continued that pattern throughout the 1980s and 1990s, both playing as a successful freelance and leading his own bands. Trumpeter and writer Ian Carr has observed that "Crombie's protean abilites have always been rather overlooked in his own country", but he was never short of admirers within the jazz community, and will be remembered as an important contributor to the evolution of British jazz.