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A Tribute to John Cumming: 1948-2020

May 19, 2020

South Hill Park is saddened to share the passing of John Cumming, who died peacefully at home on Sun 17 May.

John was a loving family man, with a passion for jazz and theatre. He began working primarily in theatre as a director, lighting designer and occasional writer in the late 1960s – designing lights for Lindsay Kemp and the Welfare State, as well as co-founding the Pool Theatre in Edinburgh.

John became part of the South Hill Park Arts Centre team in 1973 to run theatre and music programmes, and contributed hugely to its reputation for daring experimentation, enterprise and innovation. It was during his time at South Hill Park that he started the Bracknell Jazz Festival, which became one of the most important jazz festivals in Europe for many years, and the precursor to the London Jazz Festival.

He became freelance in 1977, working as a production and tour manager for Contemporary Music Network in the UK, and internationally for George Russell, Carly Bley and Charlie Haden’s Liberation Orchestra. He also programmed the Camden Jazz Week and continued to work as a lighting designer for the Albany Empire, IOU Theatre Company and Mike Westbrook.

In the mid-80s, John founded Serious Productions with John Ellson, working with Orphy Robinson, Andy Sheppard and John Surman. David Jones joined them to form Serious Speakout in 1992 and they launched what has become one of the world’s great music festivals, the EFG London Jazz Festival.

Despite taking a step back from Serious last year, John stayed connected and just a few weeks ago was working on the European tour of his last international production, Harlem Hellfighters, which featured a new generation of young musicians from Tomorrow’s Warriors working with Jason Moran.

Throughout his impressive career, John pushed the boundaries of jazz, highlighting the radical inspiration of the music and exploring links with hip-hop and dance culture. He received Awards for Service to Jazz at both the BBC Jazz Awards and the Parliamentary Jazz Awards, and in 2014 he was made an OBE for Services to Jazz.

Ron McAllister, Music Officer for South Hill Park 1983-89 and CEO from 2002 – 2017, shared his kind words and memories of John, ‘John Cumming was a key player in establishing South Hill Park Arts Centre as an innovative, enterprising and inclusive centre for the arts. He knew how to involve people from all walks of life in community projects from the very start of his appointment as Theatre Officer in 1976… his contribution to the arts was phenomenal.

My personal favourite moment from my time as Music Officer at SHP in 1986 (or it may have been 1987) was when we worked together to commission Michael Nyman to compose a piece for the Wilde Festival of Music (classical) and the Bracknell Jazz Festival. Over a (hilarious) curry in London, this project escalated into a 55 minute work called “Nothing to Declare” involving renowned saxophonist Jan Garbarek, Sicilian folk musicians, jazz singers and South Hill Park’s resident String Orchestra – the Kreislers.

The piece was expansive and, shall we say, eclectic, and I will never forget the reaction it received at both festivals – confusion at the classical festival, and outrage at the Jazz Festival. Needless to say, John was delighted that the project had produced such a wide range of reactions, and we celebrated with a good quantity of beer, which was expected in those heady days!

Well John, your legacy at South Hill Park and in the jazz world internationally will live on forever. May you rest in peace.’

John Cumming made an impact on so many lives, and South Hill Park is proud to have had such a talented and passionate man as part of our community. We send our deepest condolences to all his family, friends and colleagues.

 

Photo credit: David Sinclair

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