Tony Crombie

A self-taught and talented musician, he brought vigour to British bebop and modern jazz

At its best the playing of the East End-born jazz drummer, pianist and composer Tony Crombie, who has died aged 74, had a vigour that could lift the spirits of almost any kind of band. In his idiosyncratic musicality, almost indolent casualness and subversive good humour, he also suggested the teenage drummer of the wartime bottle-party clubs, even into late middle-age.

His on-stage relaxation was deceptive, however. On one occasion some years back, Crombie was accompanying the American guitarist Tal Farlow with one leg crossed over the other and the elbow of his gently swinging cymbal-playing hand balanced on his knee. The pose might have suggested he would encore by ticking off the time behind Farlow while perhaps studying the racing pages, but the essence of Crombie's playing was attentive, appropriate and serious.

A self-taught grasp of both modern jazz drumming technique and the harmonic and structural principles of bebop gave Crombie's natural musicality and ear for melody extra dimensions of breadth and depth. He learned piano as quirkily and personally as he had learned the drums, and in the 1950s and 1960s was as much in demand for his arranging and composing as for his playing. Miles Davis, Stephane Grappelli and Annie Ross were among many jazz celebrities who recorded Crombie tunes, including Deb's Delight, Child's Fancy, and Restless Girl. Davis particularly liked So Near So Far.

In the 1960s, Crombie also had a successful career as a TV and movie composer. There was, in addition, that period from 1956 when he stomped around the nation's soon-to-be-retired ballrooms with a raucous rock outfit called Tony Crombie's Rockets. Their We're Going To Teach You To Rock even became the theme to Radio Luxembourg's pioneering Rocking To Dreamland show.

The Rockets' material didn't change pop history much, but if the band symbolised anything it was that last throw of the dance-band classes, trying misguidedly to prove that anything a youth with three chords could do, they could do better. Crombie's later recollections of this period confirmed that the ironies had not been lost on him.

Like Ronnie Scott, his junior by two years, Crombie was born into London's East End Jewish community. His mother played the piano for silent movies; his father was a furrier, and Crombie went into the business. After taking up the drums, he learned fast on the same youth club and barmitzvah circuit that brought on Scott, Flash Winston, and many other young players who comprised the first wave of British bebop.

Crombie's drumming career began at the Bouillabaise, a black club presenting a mixture of swing-based jazz and calypso. He was also influenced by a childhood friend, the pianist Denis Rose, whose dissections of recordings by Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie and Thelonious Monk provided much of the basis for the experiments of the young London players. Crombie absorbed Rose's harmonic insights in teaching himself piano, composition and arrangement.

In 1943 Crombie was playing drums in a drummer's band - the blind percussionist and impresario Carlo Krahmer moved to vibes to make way for the newcomer's fresh breeze. He worked with Tito Burns's dance-band, was in Jack Fallon's support band on the 1948 Duke Ellington tour, accompanied Tony Bennett, Ella Fitzgerald and Lena Horne on 1950s visits, and was a key member of Ronnie Scott's celebrated nine-piece, a 1952 ensemble that played just enough dance music to get into the Mecca Ballrooms, but lived for contemporary jazz.

Crombie and Scott had travelled to America in the late 1940s to visit the music's then heartland. The association continued through musical partnerships, including the organ/sax band Scott shared with Mike Carr, and Crombie's role as the Scott club's house drummer in the early 1960s. Club proprietor Pete King still believes that Scott would rather have played with Crombie than anyone else.

Crombie led his own fine bands, including Jazz Inc with saxophonist Bobby Wellins and pianist Stan Tracey. In 1967 he was in the drum-chair for a Scott Orchestra's tour with the Walker Brothers. He also worked with the late pianist-composer Alan Clare.

His playing was uncategorisable, what his fellow-professionals call a "bastard style" without the slightest personal reference to the character of this modest, funny, erudite and gifted man. In discussions about modern jazz, he would be as likely to refer to Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko as to Charlie Parker. He collected antiques, but he also knew the ways of the contemporary world. When his slow recovery from a broken arm a couple of years ago led to club work drying up, he was hurt but phlegmatic.

The music world perhaps passed Crombie by in later years, without fully appreciating what he had given it. But critic Leonard Feather's assessment - that he was "an outstandingly imaginative drummer, a talented leader, writer and pianist" - is his epitaph, with "very entertaining company" thrown in.

Twice married, he had two sons and a daughter.

• Tony Crombie, musician, born August 27 1925; died October 18 1999


John Fordham

The GuardianTramp

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