Tribute

John Cumming – a personal tribute by Ros Rigby

The passing of John Cumming on Sunday 17 May is deeply felt in the jazz community. Ros Rigby, a good and loyal friend for over fifty years, remembers him:  

John Cumming onstage at the 2015 Gateshead Jazz Festival. Photo credit Tim Dickeson

I met John Cumming during 1968-1969 my first year at Edinburgh University- where I joined the University Dramatic Society and became part of a whirlwind of acting, directing and finally running the society in my final year (succeeding John). Edinburgh didn’t have a drama course- perhaps an advantage as no one told us what to do -and we embarked on a hugely ambitious programme of commissioning new work from writers such as Howard Brenton and David Edgar, and mounting mega-productions such as Peter Weiss’s Marat/Sade. Initially usually to be found up a ladder doing lighting, John moved on to directing and writing, and somehow also found time to open a lunchtime theatre in Hanover Street – The Pool. John introduced me and others to the Edinburgh jazz scene including musicians such as Gordon Cruickshank (who sadly died back in 2002), John MacNicol and Charles Alexander. John got together with his wife Ginnie Smith during this time, who has been his support for the following 50 years, and my friendship with both of them continued through the decades to follow, and with their daughter Kate.

The late sixties/early seventies were a particular period when anything seemed possible- no one seemed worried about getting a job – we were all just busy with the next project- and I think that confidence in putting on events – some probably awful- some possibly really good- was something both John and I took forward. As well as developing his work in music, he continued to work on theatrical projects, including with Welfare State International, mime artist Lindsay Kemp, and IOU theatre company, as well as with Roger Savage from Edinburgh University English Department on a production of Bartholomew Fair and more.

As my own journey took me down to the Beaford Centre in North Devon, and then up to the North East- first in Peterlee New Town and then in Gateshead, John was always interested, he and Ginnie often came to visit- memorably coming up to see the festival in 1978 at Middlesbrough’s Ayresome Park (with Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Oscar Peterson and more) – not run by me, but a major landmark in jazz in this region. My husband Graeme and I also went down to the Bracknell Jazz Festivals and successor events where we became aware of the growing scope of what John was presenting.

When I started work as Arts Development Officer for Gateshead Council in 1984, John was ready with ideas and artists- including Andy Sheppard who he had started managing, and tap dancer Will Gaines who became a regular. When I moved on to set up Folkworks in 1988 with Alistair Anderson, promoting folk and world music from across the UK and beyond, John and the Serious team were keen to support our work and promoted several of our events in London including the first national ‘Fiddles on Fire’ tour at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and later the Vocal Chords Festival at the Barbican.

Folkworks became involved in plans for a new concert venue on Tyneside from the mid-1990’s, and when funding was secured for what would become Sage Gateshead, discussions started with John about a pre-opening programme at Newcastle City Hall which would set the tone for what was to follow- Wynton Marsalis and the Lincoln Center Jazz Orchestra, Hugh Masekela and Herbie Hancock all appeared. That certainly set the tone!

In my new role at the Sage, which opened in December 2004, I proposed that the first festival we should run would be a Jazz Festival, which we programmed in collaboration with Serious in March 2005 and then every year until 2018. This was an opportunity to work closely with John– and with others from Serious, particularly Amy Pearce who brought the experience she had already gained through working with John to the Sage team. The range of artists we presented over 14 years has been astonishing- McCoy Tyner, Jack DeJohnette, John Surman, Sheila Jordan, Guy Barker, Esperanza Spalding, Henri Texier, Arve Henriksen, Zoe Rahman, Jan Bang, Tony Allan, Richard Bona, Django Bates and many many more not just from the US and the UK but importantly also from across Europe.

John suggested early on in the Sage Gateshead period that we should consider joining the EJN (Europe Jazz Network) of which he was a founder member in the early 1980’s. I was invited by another key figure in UK jazz, Nod Knowles, to attend a EJN General Assembly in Glasgow, joined the Network, and within a few years ended up both on the Board and then (to my surprise) as President from 2014-2018. John had helped grow this important gathering of jazz activists- many initially from Italy – into the powerful organisation it is today, still imbued with the friendly and informal spirit which John himself personified. The tributes that have been pouring in from across Europe bear witness to the strength of his relationships with promoters, agents and musicians built over the past four decades.

A key aspect of John’s work in this period was the Talent Development programme run by Serious, brilliantly managed for many years by Martel Ollerenshaw. Through this UK and European musicians in the early stages of their professional careers gained advice and mentoring from a range of experts and from John Surman as a regular musical director for the Take Five strand of the project. This meant that John had at his fingertips ideas for younger generation musicians for the Gateshead Festival and other events; leading to the involvement of artists like Chris Sharkey (actually from Gateshead), Oene van Geel, Daniel Herskedal and more.

Much has been said of John’s work in establishing what is now the EFG London Jazz Festival, and over the past 25 years this has become an annual highlight of the national jazz calendar- bringing international artists to the UK some of whom have then been available to do other gigs in the country. It should be mentioned that John has always supported promoters right across the country- some via formal arrangements, sometimes just being at the end of the phone to advise. His work in developing music events for the UK City of Culture year in Hull is a prime example, along with work done in Paisley in Scotland and elsewhere.

Bu this doesn’t yet give the flavour of what working with John has been like, and what is meant to have him as a friend for over 50 years. Working with John had a particular character- he accepted that you’d provided an agenda, but he liked to talk and you might or might not get to the end of it. He also liked to meet people on his own terms- often one to one over a drink- and let the conversation just develop- often the best way to get ideas flowing. The word ‘hang’ could have been made for him- that’s how he achieved so much- by hanging out with musicians, agents, managers, promoters- as friends. He could be critical (again after a few drinks) of certain things he felt could have been done better (and he was often right) but in all the time we worked together we never disagreed about the important things, and we seemed to share an inbuilt understanding of what would work and what wouldn’t. He never minded shelving an idea if it wasn’t going anywhere and was never over-protective of ideas he had put forward. The aim was always to get the best result possible- and we often did. He was also an extremely talented writer of copy- it might sometimes be late, but he had a real gift for putting into words why an artist was special and should be seen.

And finally, as a friend, John was absolutely loyal and interested in one’s own life- whether at that point it included things he was also involved with or not. His interest in and knowledge of culture was very broad- in the days when the Arts Council still brought external experts in to sit on panels, he was in demand to discuss theatre, cross-genre work and more. I have only a very few friends I have remained in close contact with from as long ago as the late 1960’s, and John and Ginnie are among those. It was one of my greatest pleasures that I was also able to work regularly and closely with John, particularly in recent years, and like hundreds of others, I will miss him enormously. He contributed a huge amount to the musical life of this country and beyond, but was also a great human being, and he would want us all to go on enjoying life and sharing music together.

John Duncan Cumming OBE.  Born Edinburgh 30 September 1948. Died North London 17 May 2020

7 replies »

  1. Although I didn’t know John, I have appreciated the number and range of jazz artists that Serious brought to the Sage over the years. Long may this work continue and John’s legacy live on.

    Like

  2. Really sad to hear about John. What an inspiration and pillar of knowledge he has been for British musicians and those visiting from around the world. Would we have ever had a London Jazz Festival without him and for that matter Serious. I can think of so many concerts that John has organised and will have happy memories of seeing him – whether announcing or chatting at the event.

    Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s