A COMPOSER'S BLOG

Tony Haynes, composer/creative director of the Grand Union Orchestra, tells the inside story of his music for the orchestra, its musicians and colourful history.

73: In Memoriam John Cumming

It’s with great sadness that I learnt of the death of John Cumming, a valued friend from pretty well the beginning of my working life as a musician. Most of the formal obituaries, and many fond memories, will doubtless centre on his later life as a successful entrepreneur and jazz promoter, and the big names and grand institutions he worked with; in this personal memoir, however, I want to pay tribute to John Cumming the theatre worker and creator.

I first met John in the 1970s. I had just started my own career, as a theatre composer and musician. My first job was Musical Director of Nottingham Playhouse (the first and only salaried position I ever held!); I went on to work regularly at the Liverpool Everyman, Newcastle Playhouse, Leicester Phoenix and Haymarket and the RSC, with directors like Alan Dossor. Michael Bogdanov, Stuart Burge and Jonathan Miller. I mostly wrote music for (and often performed in) productions of new plays – by writers like John Arden and Margaretta Darcy, Chris Bond, Adrian Mitchell, John McGrath – and plays from the Brecht canon. I was also a member of several independent touring companies (7:84, Belt & Braces, Monstrous Regiment); it was the heyday of political theatre, of company-devised work, of the collective and above all artist-led companies.

This was John’s world too, as director, writer and above all lighting genius. We encountered each other from time to time on the DALTA (Dance and Lyric Theatre) stopover touring network. This was an inspired initiative of the Arts Council (of  ‘Great Britain’ in those days – decentralisation is not always beneficial!), which brought ‘Alternative’ theatre companies and small- to mid-scale regional venues together under one umbrella, with some central funding and support. You can imagine how this encouraged experiment and vastly broadened audiences.

At that time John was working with companies like John Fox’s Welfare State International, its love-child IOU Theatre and the Albany Empire, mainly as a highly inventive lighting designer, embracing performance art as well as drama. This work always had a substantial original music component, and when we met on the circuit, John and I would talk of working together some time. My first group RedBrass emerged from one of these touring companies (Belt & Braces Roadshow), and I remember clearly John dropping in to hear us one night in a Jazz Centre Society (remember them?) gig in Covent Garden, and booking us for the Jazz Festival that he’d just started at Bracknell Arts Centre.

The opportunity to collaborate fully arose when he came to me with an idea in early 1981. He had wangled a commission from David Porter, then programming the Studio at the Lyric Theatre Hammersmith, to create a show based loosely on the life and times (and some of the music!) of New Orleans legend Jelly Roll Morton. I leapt at the chance.

Pinching the title from a Charles Mingus composition, it was called Jelly Roll Soul, and was played around a full-size pool table (John’s idea). Performed by two Black actor-musicians and three white musician-actors (multi-instrumentalists), it ran for a month in the summer (premiered spookily on my birthday, which was also the day Jelly Roll died – what price voodoo?). It was very successful, played to full houses and garnered impressive reviews.

Time I think for a musical break…

SPOILER ALERT: the recordings that follow belong to another age, recorded live to cassette 40 years ago (when we also evidently had a rather casual regard for singing in tune!). 

…here is the company in an a capella version of The Red Hot Peppers’ classic 1926 recording of Doctor Jazz:

I was already impatient to get back on the road again, ideally with a company that was theatrical in form, but with music – rather than a script, with actors and director – at the core. Jelly Roll Soul proved ideal for this, so we formed a company, the Grand Union, to produce and tour it. The founder-directors were myself and John, Julie Eaglen (who had been my assistant in compiling a Report for the Gulbenkian Foundation) as general manager and David Bradford, a writer and actor colleague from touring days (now Grand Union’s Poet Laureate!).

John and David rewrote the show from the Hammersmith version; David mostly took over the direction; and John redesigned the show and revised the lighting for touring. The performers – all of whom sang too – were Tony Armatrading (also bass guitar), Claudette Williams (also percussion), Josefina Cupido (voice, congas), Keith Morris (guitar, soprano sax) and myself (piano, trombone).

We quickly arranged a 3-month nationwide tour (including the Scottish Highlands) on the strength of the reviews and reputation of the original show. We also persuaded the Arts Council – which at that time did not subsidise music touring – to give us some funding and support, and access to some of the DALTA touring scheme venues.

Although drawing inevitably on Alan Lomax’s classic Library of Congress biography, Jelly Roll Soul was emphatically not a loosely-dramatised documentary bio-pic or tribute show. It was a freshly-minted piece of music-theatre that made some use of Jelly Roll’s music, but was more a meditation on the rise to fame and fall into obscurity of a creative genius – universalised in the anecdotes and new music and songs. All the lyrics were by John, the music by me; here is one that celebrates Jelly’s wife Anita Gonzales:

The show was one of the highlights of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival that year, performed in a pop-up venue The Hole in the Ground, managed by a moonlighting Jude Kelly. This paved the way for two more Grand Union music-theatre touring productions, again supported by the Arts Council. I should like to pay tribute (and I know John would concur) to two dedicated Arts Council officers running touring and the DALTA scheme at that time – Ruth Marks and Sue Timothy.

Our next show was The Lost Chord, a haunting enigmatic piece by David Bradford, with a diaphanous set and atmospheric lighting by John, and music by Keith Morris. It was about two identical twins in late Victorian times (Francesca Ryan and Helena Paul, also a fine cellist): one had been carried off in an unspecified epidemic, only to be continually re-imagined by the other. This brought Sheelah Sloane into the Company as touring stage manager, who also had to play the flute mysteriously from the lighting box! To this day, Sheelah (who later became GU general manager) refers reverently to John as her inspiration and guru when it comes to lighting.

Then came the Grand Union’s defining show Strange Migration, featuring eight multi-instrumentalists (from Chile, Ghana, the USA and the Caribbean as well as the UK), which firmly established the Company’s future trajectory. Written by myself and David Bradford, John again designed the lighting and co-directed the show. Premiered at the first Mayfest in Glasgow (1982), it toured for a whole year, across three seasons.

John was then the catalyst for perhaps the most significant breakthrough in the Grand Union’s history. He had an office at that time in Soho (where else? – and above a whisky shop!), and was in his element with the denizens of Soho and Covent Garden. Among them was the redoubtable Maggie Pinhorn of Alternative Arts, operating from Seven Dials. She had been commissioned by Ken Livingstone’s GLC to produce an event to celebrate its Year Against Racism, which she wanted to do in the portico of St Paul’s (‘the Actors’ Church’) in Covent Garden Market.

John recommended the Grand Union to Maggie (he was still a director), and so the Grand Union Orchestra was born. Initially a 16-strong ensemble of singers and musicians – with a Brazilian percussionist and Trinidadian steel pan player, plus trumpeter Claude Deppa and trombonist Rick Taylor, added to the combined Strange Migration touring line-ups – we performed my brand new work The Song of Many Tongues, in the warm sunshine of the first Sunday afternoon in September. Here is the opening number, which introduced the GUO to the world (the lead singer is Gail Dorsey, the tenor soloist Courtney Pine):

John was unstinting in his support and advocacy of the Orchestra, enabled other gigs (with John Cooper Clark in Greenwich Town Hall!) and programmed it at that year’s Bracknell-in-exile Festival in Tring. He was also tireless in recommending performers he believed would suit the Company’s ethos and artistic purpose, and suggesting directions and opportunties it might pursue; he was also an invaluable sounding board for discussing future projects and their themes.

The last time we fully collaborated was in 1985. Grand Union had been commissioned to produce a work to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of D.H.Lawrence. I had long wanted to produce a show with dance the principal element, and this was the opportunity. The choreographer was Corrine Bougaard, who went on to found her own cross-cultural company Union Dance; the cast included Alison Limerick, not only a charismatic dancer, but a fine singer too.

One of my most vivid memories is Corrine putting us through Martha Graham dance moves in rehearsal, and John criss-crossing the rehearsal room corner to corner, arms and legs flailing like a demented starfish on speed! Later, when the moment was propitious, he could be persuaded to re-enact this hilarious routine; and when we were really lucky, play Satin Doll on the piano. This was the only piece I ever heard him play;  “but Ma…” (as Jelly said of Mamie Desdoumes) “…he really could play that number.”

With director Jonathan Chadwick, John and I mined Lawrence’s complete works, choosing poems which could be set as songs, and create a viable narrative.and structure. It was an unusual piece, memorably enhanced by John’s atmospheric lighting. It was called The Lightning and the Rainbow, which – referring also to the costumes worn by the musicians – with his characteristic mischievous wit, John dubbed ‘the lighting and the raincoat’. One of the poems I set was ‘Piano’; the final couplet has a particularly poignant resonance in this context:

The glamour of childish days is upon me, my manhood is cast
Down in the flood of remembrance, I weep like a child for the past

After that I still worked with John from time to time. When Camden Jazz Week, precursor of the London Jazz Festival, decamped from the Roundhouse to the Shaw Theatre, for example, he asked me to run professional development workshops – and facilitate a scary masterclass with Ornette Coleman! This led also to the GUO forming a fruitful relationship with the legendary Radio 3 jazz producer Derek Drescher.

We remained close friends and met for a drink from time to time, alternately to mock or lament the caprice, the folly, the vanity of the arts world – an occasional lock-in in the Harlequin by Sadler’s Wells stage door, or in John Eichler’s eccentric Three Kings, when Serious moved across the road from Hatton Garden to Clerkenwell, Grand Union’s home for its first 20 years. We would chuckle over the extravagant dressing-room riders in the contracts of eminent American ensembles, or their outrageous demands for post-show ‘entertainment’.

I sometimes wondered whether, having created the Behemoth that is Serious, he might occasionally hanker after his roots. Like Citizen Kane, did he perhaps have a ‘Rosebud’ moment?

John was a generous host, and a good cook too. It was always a delight to spend a convivial evening at home with him, his wife Ginnie – life-long loving partner, distinguished historian and expert gardener – and their daughter Kate. On the last occasion I visited, he dished up the most delicious, succulent shepherd’s pie ever, which is perfect cue for a final track from Jelly Roll Soul. Let this serve as an epitaph, celebrating his friendship, his creative inspiration, and above all his irresistible sense of fun:

Related in memoriam Posts:

69: https://wp.me/p1EvPu-Vs – Gillian Hanna

68: https://wp.me/p1EvPu-Vh – Rick Taylor

55: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-JW – Alan Dossor

44: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-zt – Cengiz Saner

26: http://wp.me/p1EvPu-nE – Vladimir Vega

One comment on “73: In Memoriam John Cumming

  1. Kevin
    May 24, 2020

    Sad news. I have great memories of plotting events at the Phoenix Theatre in Leicester, in London from the Young Vic and of course as Artistic Director of the DH Lawrence Centenary Festival. Kevin West.

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