Cumberland inducted into Gulf Coast Band Directors Hall of Fame

Published 1:24 am Sunday, January 30, 2011

When Jerry Cumberland was in the seventh grade in the Mississippi Delta river city of Greenville, his birthplace, his mother, Mallie Willis Cumberland took little Jerry to a music store and rented an instrument for him, paying $5 a month for it, after he had joined the Greenville Junior High Band.

At the time, Jerry (everyone calls him Jerry, but his real name is Jerome D. Cumberland) had no idea that rental would be the first step toward a career as a respected music teacher and band director, in which he would devote more than 30 years of his life to teaching music and directing bands in Mississippi, and 17 years as a music director in a Southern Baptist Church, Pine Grove Baptist Church in Pine Grove Community seven miles west of Picayune.

Formal recognition of that career and his accomplishments occurred last weekend after his peers voted him into the Gulf Coast Band Directors Hall of Fame. He was honored at ceremonies in Biloxi at the annual band directors’ clinic. Cumberland was recognized with the honor at the directors’ luncheon.

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Cumberland graduated from Greenville High in 1972 and attended the University of Southern Mississippi on a Choctaw Indian Nation grant. His mother was a full-blooded Choctaw and a member of the Choctaw Indian Nation.

It took him only three years to graduate from Southern rather than the usual four. While in high school, he excelled, being a member of the Mississippi All-State Lions Band and also a member of the USA Band and Chorus, with which he toured Europe.

“I understood from where the money was coming, so I really applied myself at USM and was serious about getting my degree. I wanted to earn what I had been given,” said Cumberland.

Twenty-seven of his teaching years were spent in Picayune schools, where the youngsters to whom he taught music and choreographed in marching band routines number into the thousands. He retired from Picayune in 2007 after directing the junior high band for six years and the “Pride of the Tide” high school marching band for 21 years. He is currently the band director of the Pearl River Central Blue Brigade marching band at Carriere.

He began his career here after stints as a band director at Clinton, Choctaw Central High School in Philadelphia and in Lumberton. In 1979, he became director of the Picayune Junior High band and in 1984, was named director of the “Pride of the Tide.”

He met his wife, Lauren, here in Picayune. She teaches high school English at Picayune Memorial High School, and they have a daughter, Mallory, who is a junior at PMHS. He and his family still reside in Picayune.

The 56-year-old Cumberland, and the bands he has led, have won just about every honor one can win, but there is no doubt that the honor last weekend will probably be one of his most cherished because it comes from his peers.

“I was humbled by the honor,” says Cumberland. “When you realize that you have been inducted into a Hall of Fame which numbers such great inductees, it is a humbling experience.”

Cumberland said his life has always revolved around music. That $5 a month trumpet his mom rented for him soon turned into a tuba when his eighth grade band director talked him into changing instruments.

Then, for three consecutive years, he attended summer band camps at Southern and fell in love with the Hattiesburg campus. So instead of State or Ole Miss, which were closer to home, he attended Southern, majoring in radio, television and film because he wanted to be a disc jokey. He had hung around a lot of Delta radio stations and was intrigued with the profession.

He found out that he really wasn’t that interested in that profession when he tackled some of the courses and switched to a music major. Then — Presto. “I never looked back. I had found what I loved to do,” said Cumberland.

While at Southern, he did some crazy things, too, with his music, as a member of the “Bigger Better Bug Tussle Bosom Buddies Box Top Choir Extension,” for short, “The Bug Tussle.” The five-member barbershop quintet performed throughout Mississippi to alumni groups and any crowds the group could get together.

“We specialized in political satire,” he said.

He also was a member of the USM band, “The Pride of Mississippi.”

As Cumberland got into the teaching profession, however, he found out that he had really found his calling and what he wanted to do. “You know, it’s like I can’t believe I am doing what I really love to do, and they are paying me for it,” said Cumberland.

“It’s the teaching thing. It is all worth it when you see that light come on in the head of a student, and they realize what they can accomplish and what they can be, and that they are worth it, and they can make a contribution,” said Cumberland.

“I did not really know that is what kept me going and motivated me to get up every morning and go face my kids and work with them and try and teach them,” he said.

Cumberland said when he retired, he had been retired for about a month when it hit him. “I can’t do this,” he said. “I realized that interacting with my students was what had kept me going all these years. I knew that I didn’t want to get back into it full-time, but I knew I had to get back into it in some way.”

Cumberland found a position at Hancock High School at Kiln helping the band director and then worked awhile at St. Patrick in Biloxi. Then he heard about an opening at Pearl River Central, applied for that job, and got it.

“I have to tell you that I have a bunch of kids as enthusiastic and eager to learn and perform as any group I have ever taught. All they need is for you to lead and point the way and they eagerly follow. I have great plans for this group and for the kids that are with me now,” he said.

He said that Cindy Leggett, the Pearl River Central Junior High band director, is “doing a great job of laying a foundation with each student.”

So what does 30 years teach a guy who is totally dedicated and loves his profession?

“There’s a lot of things that goes into having a great relationship with the kids you are charged with,” said Cumberland.

“But I knew that I was doing my best and doing what I was supposed to do, when I could connect eye-to-eye with that kid and really know that they would tell me the truth and be real with me — I knew then I was connecting and getting through to them,” said Cumberland.

“Teaching, whether it’s music or math or English,” he added, “is such a personal thing, and you have to respect that child and reach them as a real person in order to win their trust.

“But when you see that light bulb go off in their head, you know you are where you ought to be,” he said.

“A good teacher gets up every day wanting to go to school and help people and his or her students,” said Cumberland.

“The greatest thing is when the light comes on in those kids, when they are so excited about what they are preparing to do, and you know that you have had a part in it. It’s because these students have something they want to do and they want to show the world that they can do it,” he added.

“I can say that I have never had a bad band, and I have also had some great ones,” he said.

“As a band director, I am a teacher, a coach, a counselor, a psychologist; you name it; you need to be all of the above when you teach,” he said. “The number one thing is you have to love kids, and you have to want to see them succeed. When you can get a student every day to look you in the eye and tell you the truth and be real with you, you have really accomplished something.”