NJA Fundraiser / Loughton Feb 2017
Photo credit: Brian O’Connor/ Images of Jazz
CRITCH: A TRIBUTE BY SIMON SPILLETT
“Ronnie would say ‘We get in the car and drive 200 miles, turn up, play the gig, they look at us like we’re effin’ mad, we get in the car and drive 200 miles home. That’s what we do.’” – John Critchinson
Over the past decade I’ve written many obituary pieces for British jazz musicians who began their careers back in what we now regard as the “golden age” for the music.
Some of them were figures I’d admired from afar (Don Rendell, Gordon Beck); others those who I knew a little better (Ian Hamer, Michael Garrick); a few were musicians I considered not only as heroes but also as friends and colleagues (Vic Ash, Bobby Wellins). It’s also no secret that, writing retrospectively about some of these performers, certain aspects of their individual lives sometimes blend into one – all of the above names lived through the era when Britain’s jazzmen emerged from dance band apprenticeships into careers as soloists their own right – and that, in a journalistic sense at least, each conforms to a certain template, that of the largely self-taught, self-determined idealist who felt the pull of jazz during a time when the music still had a firm grip on youth culture.
You might think therefore that writing about John Critchinson, who was of the same generation as those named above, and who likewise made the inevitable transition from semi-pro palais bands to out-and-out jazz, would be easy – a cut-and-paste job pulling together his many and varied musical achievements, a few choice quotes and a quick run down of his stylistic traits. Only it’s not that simple, because in John’s case I can’t write anything that isn’t in some way informed by the huge, binding affection that I felt – feel – for him, a bond formed through a 13-year playing association that has, it is no exaggeration to say, shaped my life in ways that, had it not happened, would have been unimaginable. John Critchinson was very far from “just another musician” to me. Accordingly this cannot be “just another” obituary.
|Art Themen and John Critchinson|
Photo credit : Jerry Storer
But, let’s be clear here, this is not going to be of those tribute pieces that end up saying more about the writer than the subject. I feel strongly that there are others – Dave Green, Jim Mullen, Art Themen, Mornington Lockett, Dick Pearce – who all knew John longer, and perhaps deeper than I, and who could better pen a memorial to him. That said, I count it both a signal honour and a mark of the depth of our understanding that my musical association with John lasted almost as long as that he’d enjoyed with Ronnie Scott, without doubt the biggest shaping force in his life, as he’d tell anyone who cared to listen.
I make no claims that the time Critch and I spent together in any way affected him as deeply as his time with Ronnie, but I do know that, in terms of my overall development as a musician (and in certain respects as a man) it was of equal profundity to me. Indeed, as I remarked to several musicians I spoke to on the day of his death, it’s as if a familiar and well-loved part of our musical landscape is no longer there. Negotiating the path ahead, for those of us who were used to Critch being there, will be a tough call. For my own part, he’d been there almost from day one.
Although I’d already seen him play with both Ronnie’s band and with his own groups, my first meeting with John occurred in early December 2004, when I was booked to play as the guest soloist at Merlin’s Cave, a Sunday lunchtime pub gig in Chalfont St. Giles, Buckinghamshire that was a mainstay of the home counties jazz scene for well over two decades. It was a bitterly cold day (every musician who played Merlins can attest to the fact that the venue – an unconverted barn – had its own just-above-freezing micro-climate, whatever the time of year) and my introduction to him was in the bar, where still clad in coat and gloves, he was ordering a coffee. He took his glove off to shake my hand, greeting me with the words “Dear chap, lovely to meet you.” It was typical of his upper-crust and yet warm and affable, manner, which I’d soon learn was the combined result of several key influences – a father in the Admiralty, top-class schooling, early ambitions to be an actor, as well as the intrinsic sensibilities of the quintessential English gentleman.
The ensuing gig was a hoot and at the end, after I’d rather cautiously asked if he’d consider repeating the exercise some time, he gave me his card. As he handed it to me, I saw that it read “Frank Stanley Management”. “Oh, ignore all that bollocks,” he said, clocking my confused look. “It’s a part of trying to build an image. Frank Stanley was my father and I thought it might make a good ruse to appear to have a personal manager.”
“Has it?” I asked.
“Well, I’m working places like this, aren’t I?” he shot back, quick as a flash.
|John Critchinson with Simon Spillett’s Quartet in a tribute to Tubby Hayes in Lichfield, Staffordshire.|
Photo credit: John Watson / jazzcamera.co.uk
Critch had not long arrived back in the London area from Devon, following the death of his brother, who’d he’d helped nurse through the terrible agonies of cancer. A few years earlier, hearing of his relocation to Seaton, I had foolishly thought he’d retired. So had other people. I was surprised to learn that, on his return, he wasn’t exactly inundated with work – solo gigs at Kettners and the Pizza Express were keeping him afloat, but only just – and so, not long into the New Year, I called to ask if he’d consider a few gigs with my recently-formed quartet. To my delight he said yes. And that’s when it really started – the on-the-stand jazz education that I consider my finishing school as a musician.
It’s difficult for me to order my thoughts and feelings about this initial time together with any kind of formality at the best of times, but now he’s gone, they’ve become even more interconnected – there are so many memories, so many moments of enlightenment, so much laughter, that I can’t seem to separate them out into something truly explicable. For starters, having Critch in the quartet was close to unbelievable for me – many were the nights when I’d look over and mentally pinch myself, realising he was there on the same stand, a thought compounded by the fact that this band had effectively reunited what was the rhythm section of Ronnie Scott’s last quartet with Andrew Cleyndert on bass and Martin Drew on drums.
They were like jazz royalty, players who I had barely a few months before regarded with a mix of awe and dumbstruck deference. I was hanging on by the skin of my teeth, both professionally and personally, so I sat back and tried to learn the old-fashioned way, by watching closely and keeping my mouth shut. Never once did John ever make me feel in any way inferior, despite my lack of experience, or as if he were doing me a favour taking gigs with me, or give me any “big time” vibes whatsoever. Instead, he delighted me with a hands-on apprenticeship in what it means to be a jazz musician. Sometimes though it was all a bit esoteric, with the dialogue between Martin and him, in particular, as impenetrable as it was entertaining. “Hello, 47”, Martin would greet Critch. “Good Evening, 93”, he’d reply, a cryptic cypher that it took me years to work out dated back to some long-forgotten sit-com that had once regaled the Scott band.
But when they came to swapping Ronnie Scott stories proper, I was entranced. Indeed, it was this aspect of my relationship with Critch that made me realise that playing is merely one part of an up-and-coming musician’s learning; imbibing the wisdom, wit and experience of older players is as much a social exercise as it is a practical, performing one.
|Alec Dankworth and John Critchinson|
Photo at 2012 recording session with Simon Spillet Quartet
Photo credit: Jerry Storer
The long car journey’s to and from these appearances provided a golden opportunity to get to know him a little better. Beginning either at his flat or, latterly, at our designated meeting place just off the A40, we criss-cross the nation, and straight-away I learned a lot about his way of doing things. The first trip together was to Cardiff and we left for a gig scheduled to start at 8pm at two in the afternoon. “Isn’t that a bit early?” I asked. “Not at all,” he replied. “If it is, I’ll teach you how to lig about in Woolworths,”. And so he did. Over ensuing the years we ligged about in all sorts of places – service stations, coffee shops, diners, fine Italian restaurants – killing time but making a friendship come alive. I soon gathered that this was a vital part of what John referred to as “an education in all things Schatt”, referring of course to Ronnie Scott, whose birth name was Schatt, and a figure who continued to loom large in Critch’s life, even after his death in 1996, some eight years before we began to play together. Indeed, right from the off, it felt as if Ronnie was with us wherever we went, something about which I was intensely curious.
I’d remembered hearing a Jazz FM radio tribute to Ronnie broadcast just after his death in which Critch observed that the saxophonist’s passing had affected him more deeply than those of his own parents. At the time I had thought this a little dramatic, but as I got to know John I learned how his relationship with Ronnie – complex, loyal yet sometimes stretched breaking point due to exasperation over Scott’s whims – had marked him forever. “If it weren’t for Ronnie Scott,” he’d tell me with unconcealed gratitude, “I’d still be tuning car engines” – this just one of the many day jobs (he once estimated they numbered over 50 from agricultural labourer to delivering Hammond Organs) he’d done up until turning fully professional, aged 44.
“I saw the world with Ronnie,” he’d say, “which I wouldn’t have done otherwise.” And so he did, although in between the glamour of international travel he visited plenty of places that were positive jazz deserts (he often talked of an early gig at an upstairs room in Blackpool, where after being obliged to carry a Fender Rhodes piano up several flights of stairs in order to replace an unplayable acoustic upright, he was amused to witness the promoter proceeding to pay the band in small change accrued from his slot-machine empire).
The beginnings of Critch’s association with Ronnie also revealed something that deeply affected me – his genuine modesty. Indeed, this had even gone so far as to think that the initial phone-call about his availability for the job (made in 1978 by Brian Theobald) was a wind-up. Even on the stand, the horrors at first gripped him – there were loads of new themes to learn, he had to get used to Scott’s askance looks if a chord wasn’t just so, and it all seemed too much.
Despite never being one to show much comprehension of the chronology of British jazz, John also knew full well whose shoes he was stepping into. Those who’d occupied the piano chair in Ronnie’s band before him made a hugely intimidating litany, among them Stan Tracey, Gordon Beck, Mick Pyne and John Taylor, and, quite simply, he wasn’t sure he was in the same class. During his first week at the club, he agonised about the situation, getting up the next day, striding to the phone, calling Scott, ready to admit he wasn’t up to the job and willing to offer his resignation, but somehow unable to do so. As was his way, Ronnie himself showed no real alarm over the situation, and, as John remembered, his support tended to come in more oblique ways. Heading out on the road soon after he’d joined the band, he and Ronnie had gone to the cinema to see Close Encounters Of The Third Kind. Walking to the the gig afterwards, and still a little dazed by the visual spectacle he’d just witnessed, Critch heard Scott declare “no music on the stand tonight – no more parts”. That was it: he’d proven himself in every way.
Photo credit: Jerry Storer
Rich wasn’t alone in his enthusiasms. In fact, almost as soon as Critch joined Ronnie Scott’s band, he was afforded the opportunity to play at the club (and tour) with many visiting American artists including James Moody, Michael Brecker, Johnny Griffin, Chet Baker, Joe Henderson, Pepper Adams and George Coleman. Although in the hottest of hot seats, there were rarely any complaints. Indeed, he built up close relationships (both on and off the stand) with Moody and Coleman, who both considered him their pianist of choice when in the UK.
And, as was his way, Critch’s natural good humour found him making light of any “big time” attitude he’d fitfully encounter from these American guests. Joe Henderson famously said nothing to him all week, only opening his mouth on the final night of the run to say “you’re getting the introduction to Recorda Me wrong”, while a grumpy Kenny Davern openly chastised him one night on a provincial gig for playing “all them Rannie Scatt coyds”. Critch paid them no heed, instead delighting in the mutual admiration he’d become party to with players as formidable as Cedar Walton, Cyrus Chestnut, Dave Kikoski and Kenny Barron, all of whom loved him. Perhaps his fondest memory of these Scott-facilitated meetings was the night Sarah Vaughan embraced him and told him “I heard ya’ honey”, a glowing endorsement from the vocalist he’d for so long been half in love with.
That fellow pianists saw Critch as the real-deal was no surprise. Yet, in his own uniquely autodidactic way, he had almost totally (one could even say innocently – in the nicest way, of course) avoided the usual routes that pianists of his generation took. Although he rarely gave jazz critics any truck (he was fond of quoting Ronnie on this subject too – “these people – what do they know?”) he would have found little issue in how The Penguin Guide To Jazz Recordings described his playing in 2010, Brian Morton observing that it was “hard to pin down his keyboard style, which now has more of him than any obvious ‘influence.’”
|John Critchinson at a recording session with Simon Spillett in 2012|
Photo credit Jerry Storer
This, of course, is not the time nor the place to do a top-to-bottom analysis of what comprised Critch’s style (drummer Spike Wells, one of his steadfast colleagues, once called it “New York-style piano”, a term loaded with implication of the most flattering kind) but, if simply to convey what this writer heard within his music, I’ll quote a few lines from a profile I wrote on him for Jazz Journal in 2012, wherein I described his playing as “unique. Harmonically solid as a rock, rhythmically daring and ceaselessly swinging, his comping is the most joyous sort of prompt a soloist could wish for, whilst his right hand lines have a logic that is his alone. Sometimes spare and deliberate, at other times hard and percussive, it’s impossible to pin them to a particular school.” Despite having his own way of doing things, he remained open to the work of new, younger players, especially those within the UK, in particular Robin Aspland, Kate Williams and Gwylim Simcock, about all of whom he talked of enthusiastically to me over the years.
The overall pattern of Critch’s career was equally hard to codify. Although he was to wait until his 44th year to turn fully professional, there had been several other, earlier, attempts at being a full-time musician. In the late 1950s, he abandoned his native Bath for a dance-hall residency in London, which lasted barely a few months before being ended by a moonlight flit. The Smoke, it seems, wasn’t quite ready for John Critchinson yet. Then, in 1961, he joined the Avon Cities Jazz Band, an unlikely appointment for a player regarded as one of the most modern in the South-West, but which, coming at the height of the Trad Boom provided work-aplenty. Then, as was often his way in those early years, one night driving to a gig in London, he suddenly got second thoughts, turned the car around and went home. Some might see this decision as flaky; those who knew John will probably think of it as just another example of his deep-seated artistic conscience. Critch was hip through and through – plunking out Trad tunes simply wasn’t his thing, that’s all.
He was far better suited to acting as the musical end of a partnership with promoter (and cartoonist) Jack Pennington, with whom he ran a series of modern jazz clubs in and around Bath from the 1950s to the 1970s, often under the heading of Jazz at The Icebox. He was still only in his early 20s, but the list of guests who featured with the then “Johnny” Critchinson’s trio is impressive: among them, Don Rendell, Kathy Stobart, Harry Klein, Joe Harriott, Vic Ash, Tubby Hayes, Ronnie Ross, Derek Humble, Keith Christie and Ronnie Scott. Some offered a little practical criticism (Harriott didn’t like Critch’s sharp-five chords; Rendell thought he listened to “too much Brubeck”) but on the whole they were encouraging, with Ross and Hayes insisting he try his luck in London. The results, he later confessed, were a damp-squib. The scene was tied-up, too closed and seemingly impenetrable. He was also bedevilled with a nagging desire to stay within the security of a nine-to-five job. Even then, though, the music was ineluctable. He’d delight in the story of blowing his weeks’ expenses – provided for a heating engineering company junket to Liverpool – on Miles Davis’ LP Seven Steps To Heaven, from which he assiduously digested the playing of Victor Feldman.
All this, however, isn’t included merely to document the itinerant meanderings of a young would-be jazzman back in the day – no, it provides what I feel is a valuable reminder of something that may well be in danger of expiring fully in today’s climate of formal jazz education. John Critchinson’s maverick, self-driven, self-taught musical persona can still serve as an example to musicians in 2017 and beyond. I know it certainly does for me. Indeed, when I started working with John in 2004, I was 30 years of age, already a decade into a career that was going nowhere fast. Having (rather foolishly) avoided any of the conventional avenues of jazz-apprenticeship typical of my generation – NYJO, The Guildhall and so on – I felt rather like a square peg. Meeting John, a musician whose playing had been assembled patch-work-quilt fashion over years of practical gigging, was like finding a kindred spirit. I am in no way inferring that we were musical equals, only that his example, that of someone who never thought it was “too late” to dig in and try was something that moved me profoundly, and continues to do so.
There are undoubtedly fewer and fewer of those kinds of players around these days, and so I think it’s hugely important that we don’t simply consign their way of – as Critch would have said – “doing it” to the dustbin of history as they expire. I think someone like John Critchinson can still be seen as an exemplar, even in today’s sound-bite-obsessed, faster-than-fashion, jazz world. In fact, I’ve often said that had he been born an American, John Critchinson might well be regarded with the same sense of elevated veteran status accorded someone like, say, Barry Harris. He was certainly worthy of such. But in Britain, things just don’t work like that.
This brings me, of course, to the other side of John Critchinson, that of the man whose very arrival at a UK jazz venue engendered a wave of warmth from both fellow players and audience alike, all before he’d even played a note. First off, there was his appearance, that of a dapper, goatee-bearded artisan who, had he not have played the piano might have been mistaken for a painter or a philosopher or, when wearing one of his peaked caps, even a latterday Lenin! (Like Thelonious Monk, the hats were a big part of the image and they’d vary depending on the time of year). Then there was his inherent charm, the beautifully enunciated greetings that made you think you were being engaged by an upper-class don and not someone about to elaborately demonstrate the down-home art of jazz piano. “My dear fellow”, “My dear chap” or simply – if astounded by what confronted him – “I say” – these were all grist to his conversational mill. At times, he didn’t resemble a jazz musician at all. A friend of mine once observed that she thought he was like “a piano playing Richard Attenborough”; another punter at a gig made me smile by saying he had a touch of the “lovey” about him. My own fantasy was that, in another incarnation, he’d have made a cracking Father Christmas – Father Critchmas, maybe? – an appropriate enough role for a man born of December 24th.
And, of course there was the humour, which, I’m pleased to say, was with him until the very end. Over the years, it’s become extremely hard to extricate Critch from the legacy of Ronnie Scott – he’d get as many requests to retell Ronnie’s joke routine (which he did with spot-on accuracy) as he would reassemble Ronnie’s band – but it would be a crying shame if his own delivery of gags were to not be recognised as just that – his and nobody else’s. Certainly nobody could tell them better.
There was always a new one floating about – some of which were so off-kilter in their denouement that you could see the wind rustling the hair of the audiences he’d tell them to – but, like Ronnie, Critch had the most elusive quality within comedy – timing – the very thing that could make even the shaggiest of parrot stories emerge as if in fresh-plumage. It wasn’t just the gags that made people laugh; he was a master of spontaneous on-stage banter too, as any bandleader announcing while he was at the piano will tell you. There was nothing quite like having a moment of concentrated jazz trivia blown wide-open by one of his well-timed ripostes. Even Ronnie Scott himself had recognised the coup in having another comedian in the band. During the early 1980s, Critch told me he and Scott had started cooking up a little musical hall-based routine with which to entertain audiences between tunes.
It was all going well until Scott fielded the line “I say, I say, I say, my dog’s got no nose.”
Flustered, Critch replied “How does he feel?”
“Ah, fuck it,” said Scott, realising it was all a step too far.
Photo credit: John Watson/ jazzcamera.co.uk
He certainly had a knack for this sort of thing; back a few years ago I’d booked him for a busy day’s work – a BBC broadcast from Maida Vale, to be taped in the morning, then a provincial jazz club gig that evening. The night before, just about to start another gig, my phone rang.
“Simon, dear chap, it’s John Critch.”
“Hi, Critch, how are you?”
“Well, listen, I’m not sure I’ll be able to make the broadcast but I should be OK for the evening gig.”
“Why, what’s up?”
“Ah…I’m lying on the floor of the living room waiting for an ambulance…” It was a heart attack. As it turned out he made neither the broadcast or the gig but did make the most important thing of all – a remarkable recovery – although from this point on it was clear his health would never truly steady again.
It was almost a year ago that he called to say that the symptoms of the bladder cancer that he’d beaten so valiantly back in the early 1980s had returned. He played a gig with Clark Tracey, Alec Dankworth and me at the National Jazz Archives in Loughton in February, a couple of days after the diagnosis, looking weak but playing as strongly as ever. We played again in March, April and May, a handful of gigs, each of which found him looking frailer and thinner. The news that filtered through from here on in wasn’t good: cancelled gigs, periods of rest, more scans. Just occasionally, he’d pull a rabbit out the hat: a trio gig at Ronnie Scott’s in August astonished both musicians and punters alike, so robust was the music coming from a man so clearly fading, and barely a few weeks before his death, he sounded in good humour on a BBC Radio 4 interview recorded at the club.
It was, however, a last burst of light. The final time we met, in November, Dave Green and I took him for lunch not far from where he lived. As Dave’s car pulled up, I could scarcely conceal my shock at his appearance: wreathed in a layer of coats and – as ever – a natty hat, he looked stick-thin and blanched, his skin parchment-fragile and his hair a wispy, ice-white. “Dear chap,” he half-whispered as I helped him from the car. He took my arm, and we walked inside. Animated by a cup of tea, the conversation was as if nothing was troubling him: we laughed, we talked shop, we looked back, we embraced. But, he revealed, he was awaiting the results of another scan before a course of radiotherapy could begin. When they came, they confirmed the worst: cancer had invaded his other organs with rampant aggression. I was driving back from the a gig in the Midlands when he called, around a week later. It was bad news, he said. Six months, on the outside. He lasted barely a month, passing away at home, with Dave Green at his side, just nine days shy of what would have been his 84th birthday.
In the weeks and months ahead, there will doubtless be many tributes to John, both personal and professional, from those who knew him as a colleague and those who knew him from afar. He was, and will remain, a figure for whom there is a huge affection across the entire spectrum of UK jazz. As such, he leaves a gap that is even more significant and conspicuous than that he would have left had he only been a “musicians’ musician” or a rapaciously self-proclaimed, self-promoting “innovator” (“these days, it’s all Facebook and public profiles”, he said wearily in 2012). Indeed, as my on-the-stand introduction to him would often note, very few musicians can claim to have both James Moody and George Melly on their CV’s. This isn’t to imply that Critch was ever a faceless sideman, or a musical presence so bland he’d fit anywhere: quite the opposite. Players of all schools loved what he brought to their bandstands – his playing primarily, but also that outlook, the wit, the sheer, unconcealed delight with which he took to the job at hand.
There was nothing po-faced about John Critchinson. He never took himself too seriously, and almost certainly never regarded what he did as an “art” of any kind. He was, in sum, an “old school” jazzman, the same sort of musical operator as the man who, up until the end, he held in the highest possible regard: Ronnie Scott. There was nothing overtly sentimental to him and he wasn’t a man to gush (“Oh dear, how sad, never mind” was his hair-trigger response to any news aimed to impress) but he was singularly warm, humane and kind. Many were the hours that he help me wrestle through my latest personal crisis, often over cups of tea, late into the night at some godforsaken motorway services. I’d always thank him for listening. To my lasting regret, I never really thanked him for all he’d done for me in every other regard; as a player who was – always – my first call, around whom I built virtually every band I’ve ever fronted and from whom I learned constantly and consistently; as a friend, who I’d trust with the innermost workings of my life; and as a man who, as I’d never really known my grandfathers, became something of a surrogate of that role.
I have deliberated about how best to close this tribute. At first, I thought that this last memory was something I shouldn’t share in the public domain but, having tried to write all of the above from the heart and not the head, I suppose that it is inevitable that I conclude with it.
The last time John and I played together was on May 29th at the Red Lion, Isleworth, drummer Trevor Tomkins’ regular Monday night gig. At the end of the evening, as I usually did, I helped him load his electric piano and all its accoutrements into the back of his car. There was a method to all this, and, having done so literally hundreds of times, I knew the drill (I could also set it all up, to which he’d quip “All I need to do now is teach you how to play the bloody thing”). As ever, Critch made the final adjustments, and I bid him farewell. He was still rooting around in the boot when I drove past a few minutes later. I tooted my horn. He waved back. And, then, quite suddenly, something hit me: this melancholy tableau of this elderly, be-hatted man in the half-light, deliberately packing away the instrument of his lifetime’s work. I’d seen him do this many, many times and it was, by dint of repetition, nothing unusual, but that night as we waved goodbye I instinctively knew that would be the last time we would ever play together.
I told no-one these thoughts until it was clear that John was too unwell to perform again, harbouring terrible feelings that I was writing him off ahead of his time. And yet, today, after a day in which the news of his death has prompted tears, smiles and laughter, the memory that stands foremost is this – that of watching him, alone, closing the boot of his car, heading home, after yet another night’s work. In a way, as romantic as this imagery is, it’s almost as if it’s being played out over and over again somewhere out there in the wider jazz world – in fact, that’s how I’d like to think of John Critchinson in the months ahead. Not that he’s gone, the frail body stilled and exhausted, but that he’s out there some place, doing what he always did, rolling up at a gig in his latest hat, setting up his piano, making music and laughter happen as only he could.
|Clark Tracey, Simon Spillett, John Critchinson, Alec Dankworth|
Loughton Febriary 2017
Photo credit Brian O’Connor/ Images of Jazz
Thank you for sharing so much with us all.
Much love always.
John William Frederick Critchinson “Critch”
Born 24 December 1934, London
Died 15 December 2017, Ruislip