Jeff Cumpston Passes Away in Zimbabwe

Posted on by pdxjazz

Update: please see the Cumpston family blog at:

This past weekend, percussionist Jeff Cumpston passed away in Zimbabwe.  He was struck and killed by a motorist while riding his bicycle.

Obviously this is terrible news for his family, friends, and students.  Rather than focus on the sad, I’m going to use this space to share a story about meeting and playing with Jeff – something that was probably a positive experience for all of the musicians or students that had the pleasure to know him.  If others would like to add their stories here as well, please do so in the comments or email and I’ll add the stories into the post.

One of the gigs that I look forward to most in Portland is playing with the Mel Brown Septet.  The group swings hard and can bring a ton of energy when they are in the groove.  Of course, one of the most important voices in that band is Mel’s, but he can’t always be there.  When he’s gone and I’ve been subbing, I’ve had the chance to play the gig with Ron Steen, Carlton Jackson, Drew Shoals, and Jeff Cumpston.  All of the drummers seem to relish the chance to play with the band – burning tempos, being able to kick the band behind Renato’s screaming solos, etc.

I’d had the chance to play other gigs with the Ron, Carlton, and Drew, but when Jeff showed up to sub one night, I didn’t really know what to expect.  My only experience with him had been limited to seeing him conduct the West Linn bands at High School band festivals.  High School directors are not always known for their performing ability; apparently, this did not apply to Jeff.

The book for the septet is an homage to Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers, but it is by no means just standards and arrangements that appeared on their records.  There’s also a healthy body of originals (many contributed by Gordon Lee) that are complicated and involved for the drummer – I’ve seen a couple sit in and be cautious about entrances, dynamics, etc.  Again, this did not apply to Jeff.

Jeff absolutely blew me away on that first gig I played with him.  He brought as much (if not more) energy to the bandstand as any drummer I’ve every performed with.  When he played, he seemed to be wholeheartedly invested in the music.  He played in a way that was not at all selfish, but rather in a manner that was supportive and sensitive to everyone else playing while pushing to bring the whole band to his energy level.

When we weren’t on the the bandstand, Jeff was a truly warm and kindhearted individual.  Even though I’m sure he’s seen thousands of students play and has taught that many as well, he remembered meeting me and hearing me when I was at Grant High School.  He wasn’t a teacher just trying to get through the day and the years looking forward to retirement – he was genuinely interested in education, his students, and the art form.

After that gig (probably sometime in 2006) I only had a few more chances to play gigs with him, but each one was just as enjoyable.  I remember hearing he was leaving for Zimbabwe (I found this out when Art Abrams mentioned it while announcing the rhythm section to the audience at a gig at Lewis and Clark) and wishing I had more chances to learn from and perform with him.  I still wish that were true.

- John Nastos

I can’t believe this. Jeff was such a great guy, an inspirational teacher with an amazing amount of positive energy. He was also hysterically funny. I had a phone message from him in my voice mail box for a couple of years that I’d listen to every time my voice mail was full for a good laugh. It was five minutes of him trying unsuccessfully to remember someone’s name and eventually giving up, classic. I wish I would’ve kept it now.

- Tim Willcox

I remember needing a drummer from Marcus and I Sense of Direction Band and he called Jeff. I really didn’t know him at that time “5 years ago” and was thinking AH HELL this is going to be a rough night. We got this drummer who is a high school band teacher and he probably can’t even swing. lol

So after the first song and after I finally got over the shock of how Jeff Cumpston played the Hell out of Marcus Reynolds song I was like this is going to be a great gig!

- Farnell Newton

Such a loss; Jeff was a very warm, friendly guy with a great sense of humor. I’ll always remember having great conversations with him and his great playing.

- Derek Bondy

One of the first great drummers I played with, back when I was just starting to gig. I will never forget his positive energy and ferocious drumming back then. we were literally covered in sweat for hours. He played really great and cared about being honest and sincere. Everyone respected him on all levels as he was beyond reproach. He can not be replaced.

- Dan Schulte

So many memories… I remember coming home for Christmas my first year of college and meeting up with him and Alex Geffel to see some jazz. We went up to Portland, to some bar in a hotel. Zanny and I were only 19, but he was able to convince them to let us stay as long as he stayed with us and didn’t drink. I hadn’t really played bass since the Read Moresummer, and I was out of shape. I can still remember the feeling of playing together when we sat in. He was pushing me so hard, I was so tired, but he wouldn’t let me lag. He pushed me all the way to the end of the tune, supporting me with his encouraging playing and smile. I still need him to push me…

- Amy Roesler Stout

Out of everyone in the Portland-metro area, Jeff Cumpston has had the biggest impact on my lifeRead More—as an educator, as a father, as a musician, and an incredible friend. I realized we were close when Jeff began including me more in his life. Picnics with his close friends, sipping wine while listening to the latest Metheny album, handing out on my deck and shooting the breeze, endless hours of conversation about raising kids, teaching, drumming…
I could go on and on—there is so much to say—so much will be said. The guy was one of my best friends and mentors. I will miss him

- Ronnie LaGrone

I am still in shock… i have known Jeff for over 20 years. He was a wonderful person, great teacher, and a great player.

- Dave Mills

I first met Jeff after I decided, on a whim, to go see a West Linn High band concert.  It was the last concert of the 2003 (I think) school year.  Jeff always made the last concert a special one for all his Seniors.  It was full of goofiness and fun.  I was so blown away by the quality of all the bands not to mention the fact that this one director ran three concert bands and a jazz band really amazed me.  The Jazz Band played an arrangement of Synchronicity by the Police that he had commissioned just for them, and it was stunning.  It wasn’t just the playing and musicianship that floored me; everyone in that old, small auditorium could see the special bond Jeff had with his students.  The all truly love him, and he loved them.

I left that concert determined to be a part of such a program.  I e-mailed him and asked if he could use any volunteer help with the percussion sections.  To my surprise, he responded, and was eager to meet me and involve me.  He invited me to work with his Concert Band I group, and it was a magical experience for me.  His students were so receptive to this ‘Old Guy’ coming in to coach them, and they made me feel welcome as a fellow musician.

Through the next few years, until he left for Zimbabwe, I showed up once a week to work with whichever band he wanted help with.  I learned almost as much from him in that time as his students did, and I was able to witness his incredible talent in teaching music to his kids.  You have to understand, I had a band director through junior high and high school that openly despised his students.  That director said, in front of the whole band – more than once: “There’s nothing dumber than a drummer”.  Jeff, in all my time working with his bands, never ever said anything hurtful or disrespectful to his students.  He was always the consummate leader and mentor, and thousands of students have benefitted from his beautiful spirit.

He was a truly great man, and I will miss him sorely.

Thank you for presenting this forum for letting us all remember and honor him.

- Bryan Wynn

This entry was posted in Recommended-Shows. Bookmark the permalink.

Major Sponsors

See All Sponsors

Festival Photos

See All PDX Jazz Photos on