Profile by Flash Winstone
The Man from Interpol
Tony died in October, 1999, aged 74. Known as The Baron by his colleagues, he will be remembered by most people as an outstanding drummer, mainly through his long association with Ronnie Scott, but there was much more to the man than that.
His mother used to play piano for silent films, so I suppose that was where his piano playing came from. He took up drums and at the age of 16 was already playing at the Mazurka Club in Denman Street. Within a couple of years he was playing regularly with Carlo Krahmer’s band at Feldman’s Club. Carlo, no mean drummer himself, must have been pretty impressed by Tony’s playing, for he gave over the drum chair to him at once and started playing vibes in the band. Tony moved on after a while and worked briefly with, among others, Johnny Claes, Jack Jackson, Woolf Phillips and Tito Burns.
In 1948 he toured the UK with Duke Ellington and Ray Nance as part of bassist Jack Fallon's Trio. When he returned he became a founder-member of Club Eleven. There Tony was in right at the start of bebop in Britain, along with Dennis Rose, Ronnie Scott, Lennie Bush, Jackie Fisher, Tommy Pollard, John Dankworth, Laurie Morgan, Freddy Syer, Henry Shaw and many others. Their introduction was, reputedly, by way of a suddenly obtained copy of the Parker/Gillespie 78 Groovin’ High, probably recorded about February, 1945. They are reported to have played the record continually in the band room, presumably all crammed in on top of one another, and, by all reports, the effect was astounding. They had never heard Parker, or Gillespie, or bebop before, but that was the turning point in their playing. Here were finally the sounds, and the harmonic structures they had been searching for.
Tony quickly teamed up with Ronnie Scott and Victor Feldman. When the three of them worked together Vic and Tony often swapped the piano and drum chairs. He played with Ronnie’s band and later with Vic Feldman’s trio. For a short while Tony even led his own band, called the Rockets, but had little financial success with it.
In 1960 he took a group to the Metropole Hotel in Monte Carlo, with Gordon Beck on piano. At that time Tony had a contract with the Danziger Brothers, the film producers, making a series called The Man From Interpol. Tony wanted a holiday, so they made him work for it by playing three hours every evening to the diners of Monaco. The job was for two months, with the season going at full pace. This was exhilarating enough—then Don Byas came down from Copenhagen to play at a club just below the Metropole and the job took a new, exciting, turn with the musicians running back and forward between the two hotels, sitting in with each other on a regular basis.
When he returned from Monaco Tony began working as house drummer at Ronnie Scott's Club, accompanying many visiting American musicians. In 1963 he took his own group to Israel for eight months, then returned to play for three years with organist Alan Haven, visiting Las Vegas with Alan during that period.
He toured Britain with Coleman Hawkins and later worked a lot with Stan Tracey and Georgie Fame. He began writing for films and television; one critic said he was “a composer and writer to stand alongside Stan Tracey and Kenny Graham.” He wrote the incidental music and led his quartet for the London show Why the Chicken? in 1961.
He became Alan Clare’s favourite drummer and worked for a while with bassist Lennie Bush in Alan’s trio, playing many engagements with Stephane Grappelli.
Tony enjoyed enormous success as a composer. Miles Davis, Stephane Grappelli, Paul Gonsalves, Tubby Hayes, Joe Henderson, Victor Feldman, Ronnie Scott, Blossom Dearie, Annie Ross and many others recorded his work. He played piano on the Annie Ross album Skylark, prompting Peter Lund, its reviewer, to remark “Although mainly known as a drummer, this is a timely reminder of just how effective a pianist Tony Crombie can be, particularly when backing a singer of this calibre.”
As a drummer Tony was totally relaxed. Of his playing one critic wrote: “Tony Crombie…was so cool he often appeared to be totally detached from the music, even in up-tempo numbers. In this respect he greatly resembled Mel Lewis. He even hit the cymbals from underneath sometimes, probably to save energy.”
Tony spoke at length on the BBC Omnibus programme celebrating 30 years of Ronnie Scott’s Club. He had been closely associated with the club for all of that time. Ronnie’s untimely death was a great blow to him. One often has the feeling that great musicians will live forever; when they die the shock of the news is usually accompanied by disbelief. Gone they may be, but their memory, and their works, will remain with us.