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James W. Craig, 85, retired Chicago cop and jazz musician

James Craig was gifted musician improviser who accompanied jazz legends who came Chicago.

James Craig was a gifted musician and improviser who accompanied jazz legends who came to Chicago.

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Updated: November 10, 2011 4:46PM

James W. Craig spent decades as a Chicago police officer and struck out on his own as an entrepreneur who owned a detective agency and laundromat, but as he was dying, his fingers were playing scales on the sheets of his bed.

Mr. Craig, a gifted pianist, backed superstar singers such as Billie Holiday and Dinah Washington and saxophonist Gene Ammons and trumpeter King Kolax at Chicago gigs in the 1950s, according to relatives and friends.

He was a classically trained musician who loved to swing out with jazz, and his reputation as an ace improviser meant the musicians’ union often sent him out as an accompanist when jazz legends came to town, said his wife, Jacqueline.

When Count Basie’s band performed in Chicago, it was not unusual for them to end up at the Craigs’ home in Chatham, where they wound down with a little impromptu jam session.

Mr. Craig’s daughter, Carole, said she didn’t realize the caliber of musicianship at her home. She was just a grade-school student trying to get to sleep before classes: “I can remember wanting them to stop playing.”

Mr. Craig, 85, died earlier this month at his home in Beverly.

He grew up in Woodlawn and attended the American Conservatory of Music, his daughter said. He went on to Du Sable High School, where he became a student of the legendary Walter Dyett, whose exacting standards produced a cavalcade of stars, including Nat “King” Cole, Dorothy Donegan and Bo Diddley.

Back when Chicago’s night was lit by neon, Mr. Craig performed at top venues such as the Pershing and Sutherland ballrooms and Roberts Show Lounge.

“He sounded like Oscar Peterson on the piano,” said his longtime friend, Bill Bonner. “He could play.”

At a performance in 1956, he met Jacqueline Butler and asked her to dance.

First, though, he warned her not to expect any smooth turns on the dance floor. “All of my movements are in my fingers,” he told her.

They wed in 1957 and became a blended family with their daughters, Carole and Ruth, from their previous marriages. Music took a back seat as he sought more financial security. “It was no money you could make, playing a piano, a black man,” his wife said. “He had to think of something else.”

He applied to the Chicago Police Department, where he became a detective and a sergeant and did a stint in Internal Affairs. Mr. Craig, who still had a mustache and a full head of hair when he died, looked particularly dashing in uniform as a motorcycle cop, his wife said. His high-profile cases included solving of a child kidnapping. He was an acting lieutenant when he retired in the 1980s, relatives said.

After leaving the police force, he devoted his time to the company he founded, Target Detective Agency. It provided security for construction sites and public buildings. He also opened CIC, a company that trained security guards, and a Super Suds laundromat on 79th Street.

He was so busy and focused on building his businesses that he had largely stopped playing piano, his wife said. But he would always tickle the ivories if she promised to dance for him. Their song was “Unforgettable.”

And at the end, “You could see him doing scales on the bed as he lay dying,” Carole said.

Jacqueline Craig shared one of their secrets for 54 years of a happy marriage. If they argued, they had a little ritual in bed to ensure they would not fall asleep angry. One of them would reach out with a foot and touch the other’s foot.

“When we would do that, it meant that if I started the argument, I would forget about it; and if he started it, he would forget about it. If we touch each other — just with the feet — that meant all was forgiven. That’s what we did. That’s why we stayed married for so long.”

“We had a lot of fun,” she said. “A lot of fun.”

James and Jacqueline Craig enjoyed travel, including trips to Ethiopia and Ghana, where they tried tracing their African roots. They “wanted to see Africa before they were selling Pepsi-Cola and Coca-Cola” there, his wife said.

Mr. Craig enjoyed science-fiction shows, including “Star Trek,’’ and the “Law and Order” franchise, and black walnut ice cream.

His daughter Ruth died before him. Other survivors include his sisters Inez, Shirley and Marie. Services were held last week.

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