John Kumjian: a life revised

By Linda Alice Dewey
Sun contributor

Singer-songwriter-instrumentalist John Kumjian’s new CD, “Vulnerable,” is particularly poignant in light of his recent health scare. The popular “Mr. K,” as he’s known to hundreds of kids he taught at Glen Lake School, nearly died on the operating table two years ago.

Kumjian first came to this area in 1999 and took the job as band director at Glen Lake. Nine years later, he underwent an amicable divorce. Four years after that, he retired from public eduction at the age of 58. “It was time to move on,” says Kumjian, who felt he wasn’t having a real impact on the kids. “I’m not happy with public education nationally right now,” he explains. “I felt it was time to go, and took the early retirement incentive.”

As things would have it, Kumjian fell ill almost immediately after he retired. After an on-again, off-again Fall of 2013, he landed in emergency right after the new year. A March 2014 colonoscopy revealed colon cancer, Stage 2.

Those of us who follow Kumjian on Facebook received regular updates from him on his health. His sister Judy took over the updates when he had surgery in early April, but four days after surgery, the updates stopped. The silence was maddening. Something was wrong.

Indeed it was. Kumjian’s stitches had broken open, which may have been a Godsend, for when they went in this time, the surgeons found something new: a stromal tumor lodged in his small intestine. “It was a whole different cancer,” Kumjian says. “It hadn’t spread anywhere.” But during surgery, he nearly died. “They said I faded away a few times on the table.”

After that was a pretty “rough stretch.” All through his 17-day hospital stay, Judy remained at his side and got back in touch with everyone on Facebook. “My sister took care of me, and a lot of friends kept an eye on me, too. I was getting emails from people I didn’t know — prayer groups and teachers. [R]ight after I got home, a whole crew of people showed up with farming equipment and completely fixed my yard gardens. It was astounding … in their raincoats in terrible weather. I sat outside in my wheelchair and watched all the activity for as long as I could.”

Then began chemo. “It was tough,” he acknowledges. “That stuff really whacks you out. Eventually I could function — the grocery store, played at Boonedocks, did some drumming.”

How did he handle it all mentally at that time? “It was like — I had to accept it. It happened. It’s okay. I’ve got to deal with it,” Kumjian would tell himself when he first found out. As he went through chemo, his attitude became, ‘”I’m not gonna let the bastard win. I’m going to continue doing the things in my life.” At times, however, he couldn’t do anything but just be. “When I couldn’t do it, I couldn’t do it,” he says.

For Kumjian, music — and writing music — was his saving grace. “I actually played at Cherry Fest — we opened for Tommy James and the Shandels. That was the highlight of my summer. In some ways, music was the magic elixir that kept me going.”

As for the painful time when he’s waiting for test results, Kumjian says, “I just move on. Life goes on, and it is what it is. Obviously, you think about it and pray that — You’re always saying in the back of your mind, ‘I hope this is it; I can’t deal with this any more.’

“I don’t wish this on anyone,” he continues. In the next breath, he says, “People come out of the woodwork that have had the same thing,” like Facebook friend Jessie Colling Young, a survivor of Lyme disease. “We were messaging back and forth. He said something about the cancer thing, which led to a slew of emails from [Jessie’s friends] saying ‘Hang in there;’ ‘We know what you’re going through.’”

Kumjian has nothing but praise for his experience at Munson, both during his hospital stay and his chemo treatments. “Munson is one hell of a hospital. I think that, if you’re gonna be sick, you don’t necessarily have to run down to Ann Arbor or other hospitals. Locally, we’re very fortunate to have…such a facility.”

After a second round of chemo, things look good. His colostomy was reversed, and, “As of right now,” he affirms, “I’m cancer free.”

Does Mr. K feel he’s got a new life now? “It’s a revised life,” he says. During his illness, he dedicated himself to writing music and putting together music ideas he had jotted down for years. He collected it all for his new CD. Regarding its title, “Vulnerable,” he says, “We’re all vulnerable to something. Sometimes the best way to deal with it is to meet it head on, swallow your pride or accept that it’s going to be painful. There’s light at the end of the tunnel. Even if you have a Stage 4 prognosis, then you deal with that, because what else can you do?”

A lot of his music is about his own vulnerabilities, “and hopefully people will say, ‘Well, I’ve been there, too,’” he says. His favorite song to sing from the new CD is “Angel on your shoulder,” because it reminds him of when he was young and used to think, “Nothing’s going to hurt me.” He now knows that he’s been nothing but lucky. For instance, one Valentine’s Day he was driving from his home in Lake Ann to Boonedocks in a terrible snowstorm. It was “blowing badly. On M-72, I couldn’t see a thing.” Suddenly, he saw a sign for Art’s Tavern. “How in hell did I get there? Well there was an angel with me on this one. That’s how the song evolved. It became a reflection of my past and how I made it through to the present. I’ve been lucky, really, really lucky.” Although he doesn’t feel there is a real message in his songs, in “Angel on my Shoulder” he confesses that he’s saying, ‘if you’re gonna mess with fate, then you better be prepared.’

The song, “Understand it All,” took him six years to finish. It’s “the first real song about my divorce, about divorce in general, lack of communication, that wall that goes up.” Another on the album, “Silence is King,” a beautiful song, “talks about the mixed messages that we send out through our actions but without words.”

Although he may have retired from public school teaching, Mr. K makes it clear that he’s not retired. “I’m teaching privately, playing music.” And he takes that music very seriously, which he admits wasn’t always the case. “But then I said, ‘If I’m going to invest all this time and money, I’m going to take this seriously… I don’t want to go out there and say, ‘Ah, it’s good enough.’ It’s never good enough. You can always do better. I’ll drive home at night and say, ‘Boy did I stink at that solo.’”

Kumjian plays with many of the same musicians in different combinations. Each band has a different purpose. His new band with music buddies Chris Skellenger and Pat Niemisto, called “Looking Forward,” focuses totally on covering Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young (CSN&Y) music. Their first stint last winter sold out. “I realized, ‘Wow, this is really something,’” he says. “We’ve always loved playing CSN&Y. But the fact that we focused on that made a huge difference.” They plan to book four to five concerts each a year.

Mr. K also has plans for another band to do his own music at concerts and festivals. Alternatively, Kumjian sits in with his friends on various gigs. “If I go in and play with Chris and Pat at LTI (Little Traverse Inn) or Boonedocks, I’m going in to play as guest for the evening as Good Boy, Pat’s other band.”

One thing is for sure. “We’re all brothers,” he maintains, speaking of his fellow musicians. “We would bend over backwards to help each other, musically or otherwise. That’s the thing. We’re not competing with one another.”

If music is the elixir, audiences are part of that magic for John Kumjian. “Boy when you see people singing along with one of your songs, is that joyful?” he exclaims. “When somebody can say, ‘Gee, we played your CD all day long, we need another copy,’ — you can’t make that stuff up. Wow, that’s powerful.”