Dave on Jeff

The enclosed note on Jeff Whittaker ‘s career is by Dave Gelly and is written purely in a private capacity

Dave Gelly is popular music critic of the Observer, exclusive editor of publications to the Inner London Education Authority and a member of the music panel of the arts council of Great Britain.

Jeff Whittaker’s credentials as a community arts organiser are rare, and possibly unique. In the first place, he was one of the first workers in this field. As early as 1963 he set up and operated Afro-Caribbean Cultural Centre in Cambridge, where artists and performers could develop their work. At that time there were no established channel through which to organise such an enterprise, and little in the way of public understanding or support. Jeff himself had no training in arts administration, either, but it soon became obvious to those who observed this early effort that he had and usual talent for the job. This showed itself in his impressive tenacity and infectious enthusiasm – qualities which have distinguished his work ever since. As long as Jeff was on hand, the Cambridge centre prospered. Upon leaving Cambridge, Jeff devoted himself to music, his first love, and worked with several successful bands. He toured Britain and Europe as a percussionist and even had his own band for a time. But, valued professional though he was, Jeff found that he was increasingly being called upon to manage and organise the ventures in which he was engaged. Such is the confusion of the entertainment business that a person with diplomatic skill and orderly approach to problems is cast in the role of mediator.

Jeff went on in this way for almost decades – part musician part manager. Gradually he became involved in the growing community arts movement, at first simply as a friendly advisor but, in the early 70’s, in the position of ideas man and practical worker. Classic example of Jeff Whittaker’s Enterprise is can be seen in his efforts on behalf of the group led by the African musician, Lord Eric. This talented but somewhat disorganised body had been trying for sometime to produce a show for children in which Afro-Caribbean music blended with games, dancing and visual art. The ideas are good, but they lacked focus and a strong organising hand, Jeff was approached and, with much hard work and persuasion, secured a presentation at London’s Round House. Hundreds of children took part and the enterprise was hailed as great success by teachers, parents and community workers. Indeed, so successful were Jeff’s efforts that the local authority have adopted the show and now present it – almost unchanged – as a regular Christmas event. From this, Jeff went on to work as organiser for the best’s known British group in the field, Steel and Skin. He arranged a very successful tour of Holland for them and played a significant part in their latest success. Jeff was also largely responsible for the Arts council of Great Britain’s film about Steel and Skin, having been introduced the group to film-maker Steve Shaw, who directed the picture. All these enterprises were, in a sense, thrust upon him. He was still working as a musician and helped out because he was asked. It had become a kind of tradition that, when you wanted a solid, practical job done you approached Jeff Whittaker.

The next obvious step is for Jeff to originate and organise his own project. His qualifications are obvious and everyone who has worked with him speaks admiringly of his organising ability. The world of community arts is not over-blessed with methodical people who understand the problems of artists. One finds either inspired dreamers or hidebound committee-man, but really sympathetic, capable managers who can gain everyone’s confidence and co-operation. Jeff Whittaker is exactly the right person for such a job. He is eager to take charge of his own project and I know that he will see it through.

Dave Gelly 26th Dec 1979