CELEBRATING
50 YEARS

London Jazz Festival Founder John Cumming Dies at 71

The revered British live jazz promoter and producer had been battling cancer

John Cumming
John Cumming (photo: David Sinclair)

John Cumming, OBE, a promoter and producer who founded the London Jazz Festival and co-founded the European Jazz Network, died peacefully at his home in North London on May 17. He was 71.

His death was announced in a statement from Serious, the jazz promotion company he co-founded with John Ellson in 1984. He had been battling cancer for the last year.

Cumming was, per the British publication Jazz Journal, “probably the leading promoter of jazz in Britain in the modern period.” In addition to the London Jazz Festival, he created the Bracknell Jazz Festival and Camden Jazz Week. He was also a frequent producer of stand-alone special jazz events in the U.K. and Ireland, including most recently the international tour of Jason Moran’s Harlem Hellfighters Project and an August 2019 BBC performance of Duke Ellington’s Concert of Sacred Music.

In addition to jazz, Cumming was a passionate advocate for the theater. He worked as a director and producer, co-founded the Pool Theatre in Edinburgh, and designed lighting for several theater companies.

“Although he is celebrated for his work in music, it was that sense of theatre that drove him to create inspiring festivals and produce extraordinary musical collaborations,” Serious said in its statement.

John Duncan Cumming was born September 30, 1948 in Edinburgh, Scotland, the son of Robert Cumming, a doctor, and the former Marian Williams, a nurse. John attended the prestigious Edinburgh Academy, followed by Edinburgh University, where he studied English and history. It was at university that Cumming began working in the theater, joining the University Dramatic Society and eventually becoming its president despite never taking a course in the school’s theatre studies department.

In 1973, after several years of working in theater in and around Edinburgh, Cummings became director of theater and arts programming at the South Hill Park Arts Centre in Bracknell, England. Under these auspices he founded the Bracknell Jazz Festival in that same year. Four years after that, in 1977, he went to work for the Contemporary Music Network, through which he managed British tours for Charlie Haden and the Liberation Music Orchestra, Carla Bley, Gil Evans, and George Russell. He also, as a freelancer, began programming Camden Jazz Week, the jazz component of London’s annual Camden Festival.

In the mid-1980s, Cummings and John Ellson co-founded Serious Productions, managing tours for U.K. jazz greats John Surman and Andy Sheppard. As a means of extending production and promotion possibilities throughout Europe, Cummings co-founded (with Italy’s Filippo Bianchi) the European Jazz Network, an association of jazz presenters, producers, and promoters that as of 2020 had grown to include 156 organizational members.

After the late-’80s shutdown of the Camden Festival, Cummings sought to close the gap by creating the London Jazz Festival, which debuted in 1992. Now known as the EFG London Jazz Festival, it has become one of the most important and prestigious festivals in the world, held annually each November. Cummings continued to run both Serious and the London Jazz Festival through 2018. During that time he was recognized as a major figure in U.K. jazz, receiving awards from the BBC in 2005 and an all-party parliamentary jazz appreciation group in 2012. In 2014, he was appointed an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE).

Cumming retired as the director of the London Jazz Festival in 2018 (succeeded by its current director, Pelin Opcin). He continued in day-to-day administration of Serious until 2019, when he was diagnosed with cancer. This necessitated a step back, although he continued producing individual events where and when he was able, including last August’s Ellington performance for the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall.

Cumming is survived by his wife, the former Ginnie Smith, and a daughter, Kate.

Michael J. West

Michael J. West is a jazz journalist in Washington, D.C. In addition to his work on the national and international jazz scenes, he has been covering D.C.’s local jazz community since 2009. He is also a freelance writer, editor, and proofreader, and as such spends most days either hunkered down at a screen or inside his very big headphones. He lives in Washington with his wife and two children.