Tony Lee

Zestful and exuberant jazz pianist
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The Independent Online

Anthony Leedham (Tony Lee), pianist: born London 23 July 1934; married (one stepson); died Esher, Surrey 2 March 2004.

Tony Lee was one of Britain's best-loved and most popular jazz pianists, who played with some of the world's top musicians during a career spanning 40 years.

Modest and self-effacing, he was happy to be accepted as part of the tight-knit London jazz scene. Yet he also played with such stars as Tom Jones and Dusty Springfield and his reputation spread to the United States, where he was greatly admired. A zestful and exuberant player, he worked with many visiting American jazzmen, including the guitarist Barney Kessel and the sax men Sonny Stitt and Eddie "Lockjaw" Davis.

Born in the East End of London, Tony Lee was a self-taught pianist who grew up listening to records by Errol Garner, Oscar Peterson and Art Tatum. Although known for his ability to absorb Garner's left-handed rhythmic style, Lee developed his own melodic approach. Tasteful, swinging, he never ventured much beyond the mainstream and preferred to interpret jazz standards, ballads and pop tunes. He blended well with singers and other instrumentalists and his rhythmic "feel" ensured he worked especially well with drummers. Among those who enjoyed playing with him were Jack Parnell, Phil Seamen, Ronnie Verrell and Martin Drew.

Tony Lee spent his working life as a professional pianist, although he spent three years doing National Service in the RAF during the 1950s. He was based in Germany where he often played in the Officers' Mess and on the Forces radio network. Returning to live in Braintree, Essex, he got his first "break" at the Ship, a popular jazz pub in Bermondsey in 1965. He met his future wife while playing there and, says Olga Lee:

Tony was entirely self-taught. He never learned to read "the dots", although he could read chord sequences. He could play any tune in any key. He really was a "one-off". His father used to be a singer and his older brother Arthur played vibraphone and piano. Tony would sit

beside his brother on the stool and practise. He listened to all the latest records by Erroll Garner and learned to play in that style. It was a gift.

While at the Ship, Lee met the guitarist Terry Smith and the bass player Tony Archer. The latter had been playing with another piano virtuoso, Roy Budd. When Budd went to America to write film scores, Lee took over his spot. Archer sat in with him and the pair began a long musical association. The bassist took his "discovery" to another jazz club, the Bull's Head, Barnes, and asked the landlord Albert Tolley if Lee could play. The audience cheered and Lee became a permanent fixture.

As word spread about the fast-fingered pianist, Lee was called on to play with all the top musicians of the day, including the tenor sax men Dick Morrissey, Tubby Hayes and Tommy Whittle. Lee was often booked to play residencies at Ronnie Scott's Club. He was especially honoured when the American singer Carmen McRae dropped in at the club, walked up to Tony and said, "I wouldn't mind singing with you." On a trip to America in the Seventies, Lee was given a standing ovation when he played at Bradley's jazz club in New York.

Back in England Lee made several television and film appearances and he and Tony Archer both appeared as extras in the Peter Sellers's movie The Magic Christian (1969).

Some of Lee's best recorded work was with the legendary Phil Seamen. Although Seamen was known as a big-band drummer, he was most relaxed in a trio setting with Lee and Archer. They recorded a superb "live" album produced called Phil Seamen Now! . . . Live! on Verve in 1968 which featured such tunes as "Who's Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf". Lee also played with Seamen on the 1968 album Phil Seamen Meets Eddie Gomez.

In recent years Lee had worked extensively with the singer Rio Roberts. They performed regularly at the Bull's Head for the last two years with Terry Smith, Tony Archer and Ronnie Verrell. Roberts found Lee a great teacher. He says:

I first met Tony at a gig at L'Escargot restaurant in the West End. As soon as we played "Embraceable You" I realised he was a naturally gifted piano player. When he took a chorus it was so beautiful I almost forgot to come back in. If you suggested a new tune and sang it to him on the way to a gig, he'd know it by the time you arrived.

We both loved melody and I found my own personal style through working with him. He could play any style, but he was a bit of a purist and never had much time for synthesisers. However, he used an electric keyboard at the recording session for my album Shades of Jazz released in 2002. When he played "When Your Lover Has Gone" he added brass parts on the keyboard and he sounded like a big band.

The Tony Lee Trio Live at the Station (2002) was the pianist's last album and features such standards as "All the Things You Are", "Laura", "Stomping at the Savoy" and a solo piano treatment of "Cry Me a River". Tony Archer, who plays on the album, says:

We worked together for 40 years and he had a fantastic musical ear. Tony never played like Errol Garner just for effect. He just loved that style and he was one of the few who could do it properly. In fact he was so good you could hardly tell the difference. When Tony played, you never lost sight of the melody.

Chris Welch