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TRIBUTE: Debbie Dickinson by John Cumming

Debbie Dickinson
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Gordon

John Cumming writes: 

Jazz lost a hugely important advocate and activist with the passing of Debbie Dickinson on 1 March. But the loss is by no means confined to jazz – Debbie’s career was multi-faceted and influential. She played as important a role in training for the creative industries as she did supporting the work of creative artists, and developing audiences. Educator, programmer, sound engineer, production and tour manager, artist manager, record producer. I believe she also played baritone saxophone…

I first met Debbie back in the ’80s, as the forthright and dynamic manager of the Guest Stars, and the organisational brain behind the success of a pioneering female band who went on to tour internationally, including a ground-breaking tour of the Middle East under the aegis of the British Council. It’s worth marking that the Guest Stars were game-changers during a decade of real shift in the British jazz scene, alongside ensembles like the Jazz Warriors and Loose Tubes. Specifically, they were trailblazers in raising awareness of gender issues in jazz and music generally; the memory of working with Debbie at that time reminded me just how pivotal her role was – a crucial presence as manager, producer and articulate spokesperson for the band, and for the generation of artists and spin-off projects that the Guest Stars were part of. That legacy is evident, as the scene responds actively to issues of gender and diversity, and not just through the positive action of today’s generation. Amongst many others, Alison Rayner and Deirdre Cartwright – both original Guest Stars – have kept the energy flowing since, and of course, Debbie’s own journey since then is distinguished by a history of achievements that lead into the long overdue changes in balance that we’re now seeing.

A personal recollection. A couple of years ago, research into the deep background of the London Jazz Festival and its Camden Jazz predecessor produced a photocopied programme sheet from the 1986 Camden Jazz week at the Shaw Theatre – Gale Force 17, a big band project that celebrated the presence of women musicians in jazz across multiple decades, and packed the Shaw Theatre. I well remember Debbie bringing this idea to me, with a plan to bring over the iconic composer and trombonist Melba Liston as musical director. I also remember, above all, just how enjoyable the process of working with Debbie to realise the whole enterprise became. In the end, Melba was too frail to travel; we lucked out with another fine composer from the States, Sharon Freeman, and a terrific band that exuded passion and commitment, and set role models from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s – Kathy Stobart, Joan Cunningham and the Ivy Benson band’s Gracie Cole – alongside emerging artists such as Annie Whitehead and Gail Thompson, and fired by the Guest Stars themselves, whose appetite for powerful grooves and an exuberant stage presence was the driving force. I think the concert was recorded for Radio 3 – wonder what happened to this!

Debbie Dickinson (centre) with Jack and Lydia DeJohnette
Photo courtesy of Lorraine Jordan

Over the ensuing years, Debbie’s work took many twists and turns. After working together on a Contemporary Music Network tour with Jack DeJohnette, she became Jack’s long-term tour manager and sound engineer, including, memorably, the epic tour with Jack, Dave Holland and Geri Allen creating fireworks with Betty Carter (check out the album Feed the Fire, recorded live at the Festival Hall in 1993). Her work with her own development agency, Jazz Moves, included the creation of the annual Women Take Centre Stage festivals, which she developed produced and promoted, bringing women musicians to the forefront at a time when that was rare. Remember that these took place between 1993 and 2003 – over a decade before events such as Women of the World took root.

Debbie also became a key partner in the first half dozen years of the London Jazz Festival, helping to define its original vision and programming style, and working with us to develop a strategy for learning and community activity within the context of a major Festival.

Over the past 20 years, much of Debbie’s work focused on her role (finally as Professor) within the Culture and Creative Studies Centre at City University, devising and delivering new academic initiatives in the teaching of creative practice and Creative Industries in Higher Education, and establishing a course in Major Event Management in collaboration with the Roundhouse. As always, the care and support she gave to her leadership drew affection from fellow staff and students alike. In the words of one studen: “Debbie provided me with inspiring direction for my event management course as well as solid support throughout – and always with a laugh… turning out the best in what is the next generation of event and creative entrepreneurs.” Debbie’s wealth of knowledge and hands-on practicality was of immense importance as her academic career evolved, a rare resource for the students who passed through her course. She never lost her connection to the creative process – she was back in the recording studio last year with her partner, singer-songwriter Lorraine Jordan, co-producing Lorraine’s luminous and nuanced new album, Send My Soul.

Even those of us who knew her well never ceased to be surprised by the range of her activity, both professional and voluntary – and her voluntary work reveals a lot about Debbie’s generosity of spirit, as well as her deeply-felt personal concerns. The British jazz scene will remember her as a long-standing board member of Jazz Services and her own activity with the afore-mentioned Jazz Moves – but she was also a trustee of WOMA (World of Music and Art Assists), set up to provide training grants to women adversely affected by AIDS/HIV and war in Africa; and was the organiser of fundraising events for the RAW in WAR charity’s annual Anna Politkovskaya Award ceremony to support women human rights defenders working in countries in war and conflict.

Most of all, many of us will miss a massively valued friend, who exuded warmth, generosity of spirit and love for life – and we all thought she was somehow invincible. But Debbie had been contending with a series of health issues for years, though you’d never have known this from appearances. She occasionally let slip, with a lightness that belied the reality, that she thought she might make it to a seventh decade. And so she did, through a combination of sheer determination and resilience – but her death has nevertheless been both unexpected and untimely – Debbie’s integrity and single-minded commitment to making things change for the better remain as essential today as they were back in the 80s. An inspiration…..

John Cumming, March 2019

LINKS: An abridged version of this tribute is on the Serious website
“An outstanding educator.” A tribute from City University

Categories: News

4 replies »

  1. This is a beautiful tribute. I totally agree with everything that John has said about Debbie. Back in the 1980s Birmingham Jazz put on The Guest Stars a number of times, each time drawing a large and enthusiastic crowd and Debbie was a delight to work with in seting up those gigs. We also arranged a Guest Stars reunion at Cheltenham Jazz Festival some years ago; again Debbie was key to that.

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  2. So very sad to read the news of Debbie's passing. Have followed the Guest Stars since first seeing them in the Bulls Head in Coventry circa 1986,in person and from a distance ever since. She was an integral part of the band, indeed the seventh star, seventh sister, shining down on them still…. She'll be mixing it good, wherever she may be.

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  3. Thank you John for the lovely words. We are all devastated at her passing. She was indeed our 'Seventh Sister' and with her ideas, hard work, enthusiasm and strong measure of humour, she enabled the Guest Stars to play in countries and venues the we only would have dreamed about. She remained very supportive of our work in Blow the Fuse. We miss her very much and yes, she will be mixing it in so many ways wherever she is. What a woman! Deirdre Cartwright

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  4. Great tribute John – Debbie commissioned the music that was to becone my 'Naked' album, and I, along with Carol Grimes and Janette Mason were the women taking centre stage round about 94/95ish….
    She also hired me at the City University to put together a world music & jazz module which became in later years the AW world music workshop band – still running after all these years….
    She gave opportunities to and supported so many of us – the London Jazz scene would be so different and much diminished if it wasn't for Debbie's drive, passion and devotion to the cause of 'Women in Music'.
    And she was such great fun to be with too ����♥️

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