Goodbye White Haired Sage - My tribute to John Critchinson at his funeral

I am very honoured to have been asked to speak on this occasion. I am at the same time slightly embarrassed by the feeling that many people here knew Critch better than I did and probably played with him more than I did.

Anyway, here goes. I can certainly pay my tribute to his musical talent. I first heard him back in the old days at Ronnie’s in the eighties when he was a member of Ronnie’s own band and accompanied many visiting Americans.

I was bowled over immediately by the fluency, enthusiasm and sheer joy of his playing. He had perfected – goodness knows where, because he seemed to arrive overnight – a busy, powerful, New-York-authentic kind of hard bop style (think Walter Bishop, Ronnie Matthews, Cedar Walton). His time was flawless, his melodic lines and his punchy chords produced great solos and his comping, although full-on, was never intrusive.

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What he did was obviously just what Ronnie  wanted to complement his own gritty style. And I can confidently say on behalf of all drummers that Critch plus a hip bass player were a dream rhythm-section to be part of.

I was lucky enough to play fairly regularly with him over the last 10 or 12 years in quartets led by Art Themen and Simon Spillett. Our musical relationship can be defined by a single word: fun.

We greeted each other respectively as O white-haired sage  and O percussionist extraordinaire.

As the years took their toll, he developed a kind of tremor in the hands which meant that carrying a cup of coffee from the bar to the table in the Coach and Horses could be a bit of an ordeal but , although there may have been a rattling of cups and saucers, this condition miraculously did not appear to affect his playing at all.

I did however note, with some wry amusement, the stratagems of phrasing he devised to cope with Simon Spillett’s breakneck tempos and solo convincingly without semiquaver runs.

So much for Critch the pianist. I’d like to finish by just saying something about Critch the man.

Two years ago, when he was already 80, he drove down to Brighton for my 70th birthday party at the Verdict Café. He generously spent most of the evening at the piano accompanying all and sundry. There were quite a few people there – for example from my church – who knew nothing about jazz and yet were captivated by the white haired sage at the keyboard. The fact is they picked up on such humour, warmth and goodwill from his demeanour on and off stage.  

I wish I had a pound for every time I was asked “Who is that lovely old man at the piano?”

About a week before he died, Ellie and I drove up to see Critch in his flat. I’m so glad we did because he was still strong enough to sit in an armchair and engage in reminiscences, banter and jokes.

He demonstrated his hilarious mechanical singing fish to me which thumped its tail and swung the microphone around with its flipper while crooning.

Dear Dave Green, who was caring so tenderly for Critch, was present and he slipped out and came back with some essential shopping. When the time came to head home, I realised that I would almost certainly not see Critch again so I offered, and he readily accepted, the one little thing I could do for him as a priest.

I laid my hands on his bald pate and gave him a blessing. It was a moment I shall never forget.

May he rest in peace. Peace from all those gruelling long-distance one nighters, up and down the motorways, often schlepping an electric piano.

Instead, I invite you to imagine him reunited with his old boss Ronnie as a celestial duo in a cushy permanent residency with a magnificent grand piano thrown in……

Goodbye, O white haired sage.

Elaine Crouch