Nomination for John W.Cummings for the Rochester Music Hall of Fame
Excerpts from several publications and articles in the Democrat and Chronicle Times- Union
Even in the face of cancer, former Monroe County Parks Band leader John W. Cummings found comfort in his love for music.
“I remember one night in the hospital the doctors were rubbing their chins trying to figure out what to do and they turned to Dad and asked him what he thought He said, “Don’t pass the ball to me on this one, boys, you’re the experts. But if you have any problem with the music around here, I’ll take care of it.”
Mr. Cummings, head of the county parks band for 42 years until he was replaced in a controversial move last (1988) year, died yesterday in Scottsdale. He was 84.
Mr. Cummings could play almost any instrument, his friends say, and he had a marvelous ability to arrange music. But they say he was especially skilled at inspiring his musicians “He cajoled, swore, let his hair go in front of his face,” said August “Tedo” D’Aurizio of Pittsford, who played the trumpet for Mr. Cummings for about 30 years. “He just knew how to get music out of people.” Mr. Cummings also had a great sense of humor. “Nobody laughed ahead of Cummings,” said Edward Nier of Victor, a longtime friend and former member of the Damascus Shrine band in Rochester, which Mr. Cummings used to direct.
And Mr. Cummings loved to tell a story about the jazz and big band era. “He could keep people in stitches. He told stories for hours. He knew anecdotes about everyone that lived.”
MR. CUMMINGS was born in 1905 in Waterloo, Seneca County. His father, a railroad worker, moved the family to Rochester when Mr. Cummings was a young boy. Cummings began his music career when he was a child in the old 19th Ward. The school system started music lessons for the local kids, and Cummings thought it looked interesting. He became expert in “the reeds”. Mr. Cummings graduated from West High School where as a student he was Assistant Director. At the age of 17 during Prohibition, to help his family financially, he played flute with local dance bands.
He attended the University of Rochester’s Eastman School of Music where he was elected Class President and one of the first Eastman students to play football for the U of R. He graduated from Ithaca College in the 1927 with a degree in music instruction.
As a young man in the 1920”s, Mr. Cummings switched to the saxophone, and with his new instrument, went to New York City signed up with the William Morris Agency and joined “The California Ramblers” traveling with them throughout the world, toured on a cruise ship to Europe and the Near East. After the tour he moved to New York City, where he played with big-time musicians such as Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey and Nat King Cole. He had just received an audition for the assistant directors position with the Radio City Music Orchestra, when his father fell ill during the Great Depression, he returned to upstate New York, and started his teaching career at Elmira Free Academy. As one of the first laypersons, he also taught and led bands at Aquinas Institute, West High School, Webster, Canandaigua, Williamson and Sodus High Schools. “He had a tremendous knack for teaching,” said Nier. “He understood all the instruments. He had such a background in music. By day he taught students, by night he played in many of the downtown Rochester’s clubs, theaters and hotels.
The Rochester Park Band was started in 1908 and Cummings joined it in 1934. When the then leader fell ill in 1945, Cummings took over as acting leader, receiving the official appointment in 1946. The Rochester Park Band it was taken over by Monroe County in the 1950’s and “I went with it,” says Cummings.
The band schedule was 24 concerts a season. One by one, the other Rochester Bands disappeared (i.e. The Veterans Park Band, Army Band, etc.), but Cummings kept the group together, and its 50 part-time members. When he took over the Rochester Park Band in the mid-1940s, the musical section shifted from former band director Herman Dossenbach’s more classical selections to band’s repertoire includes semi-classical, current tunes, modern Broadway and motion picture music, in addition to the traditional marches.
If one thinks of an 83-year-old musician, who has been directing and for 40 years playing in the band, one would normally expect an old fogy who might be a fan of “the oldies but goodies” from the ‘50s at the best, or possibly ranging back into the ‘30s. Not so of John Cummings! A man who speaks with great joy about all kinds of music, he is a great fan of the tunes produced by the Beatles, has gone to great trouble to obtain band arrangements of such as “Hey, Jude,” checks up on current musicals on Broadway, and agonizes over the current songs he hears on the television, when he
can’t obtain arrangements. The “West Side Story” music was one of Cumming’s favorites and “(Leonard) Bernstein is my god,” Cummings says.
“You have to give people something all will enjoy,” is his philosophy. So while, listeners to the band will still hear “The Stars and Stripes Forever,” they’re also likely to get some stirring renditions of the current top 100. He used to say, “We’re not here to educate the crowd. We’re playing to entertain them”, said Don W. Cook, former Henrietta supervisor. He loved to feature members of the band and always found ways to arrange solos into his concerts. In addition to Mr. Cummings activities with the Park Band concerts and parades, he was Recording Secretary for the local Shrine organization for 30 years. Mr. Cummings as a Musical Contractor, provided music for several other venues, including the annual Lilac Festival, Harvest Queen, Opera under the Stars, annual Auto and Boat shows. Broadway Shows at the Auditorium Theatre, as well as special events at the War Memorial and RKO Theatre.
Mr. Cummings led the parks band until 1988, when the county officials replaced him and triggered a whirlwind of controversy. Officials in the County Executive Thomas R. Frey’s administration blamed the previous administration under Lucien A. Morin for the decision to replace Mr. Cummings. Ralph J. Esposito, Morin’s deputy, said Morin never gave the directive. Frey said he was carrying out Morin’s plans.
Mr. Cummings told the Times- Union at the time, “I say a lot of things sometimes, but I never remember telling anyone I was going to resign. If I were going to resign, I would have written a letter. I want to forget about it,” he said of the brouhaha. “I’ve had a good run. There’s no need to make a federal case over this. Whoever those folks want to have is OK with me. They should have who they want.”
Mr. Cummings’ friends say he never lost his touch. “He was wonderful,” Don Cook said. “He had mellowed like an old beautiful violin. Like a Stradivarius.”
Over his musical life, he shared his talents with students and local musicians by the thousands, and most of all, music to the hundreds of thousands in this community.
John W.Cummings 1905-1989
Tuesday, January 17, 1989
‘He just knew how to get the music out of people’
West High Music Director in the West High Year Book 1922