Obituary: Jazz Summers, music manager

Born: 15 March, 1944, in England. Died: 15 August, 2015, in England, aged 71.

Sharp-tongued music manager whose clients included Wham! and Snow Patrol. Picture: David Hartley/REX Shutterstock
Sharp-tongued music manager whose clients included Wham! and Snow Patrol. Picture: David Hartley/REX Shutterstock

Jazz Summers, who has died of lung cancer, was a music manager who had a hand in the success of many of the major British recording artists of the past 35 years. One of his greatest achievements was also one of his earliest, when, in 1985, alongside partner Simon Napier-Bell, he struck a deal for then-clients Wham! to become the first Western pop group to tour China. The following year he founded his own management company, Big Life, alongside Tim Parry, and it continues to this day, having steered the careers of artists including Lisa Stansfield, Soul II Soul, the Verve, Scissor Sisters, Dundee-formed Northern Irish indie-rockers Snow Patrol and, most recently, La Roux and London Grammar.

At the same time he also founded a record label of the same name with Parry, and their successes there included hits for artists like Yazz (his former wife, with whom he had a daughter), the Orb, De La Soul, Coldcut and Bellshill indie group the Soup Dragons.

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Summers’ reputation in the contemporary music industry went before him; he was known to be sharp-tongued with those who had fallen on the wrong side of him, but those whose careers he created have been full of praise for his genuine interest in them and his willingness to fight their corner.

Snow Patrol’s lead singer Gary Lightbody perhaps summed up this dichotomy best when he was quoted in a Music Week profile of Summers in February last year, using terms of which Summers may have approved. “Jazz Summers is a ****ing lion,” he said. “If you’re part of his pride he will fight to the death for you.” He added that Summers was “essentially a kind man with a big heart with a big capacity for love”, but one who you shouldn’t annoy.

Born in 1944, Summers had developed a passion for music and particularly the drums by his mid-teens. His father sent him off to the army when he was 15, an experience Summers has described as an “incarceration”, although he accepted it may have helped turn him into the tough competitor he later was in business.

He loved his father, a man who had himself joined the army in his teens, trained to be a musician, and been discharged straight into the dole queues of the Great Depression. Stymied as a musician by the decline of silent cinema, Summers Snr became a labourer.

The intention for Summers Jnr was always to join the army as young as possible and learn a trade.

He was sent to Gordon Boys Military school in Woking at the age of 12 and signed up in Brighton in 1959, for a non- negotiable duration of 11 years and six months. Despite attempts to have himself discharged so he could go to Hamburg and work with a jazz band and time spent playing music with the army, he eventually trained as a radiographer. His father died when he was 18.

Summers spent most of his army career in the Far East, in places like Hong Kong and Malaysia, and he played drums while off-duty, even earning some local success with a group called Shades of Blue, who mirrored the late-60s style which was popular at that point in the UK and America.

For the decade after his discharge he moved further towards the management side of the industry, taking on clients who largely remain unheard-of – the novelty comedy songwriter Richard Digance was the biggest name he was involved with – until he heard a tape by the then-unknown Wham! while visiting another label’s office. Teaming up with Napier-Bell, formerly the manager of Marc Bolan and the Yardbirds, Summers successfully funded a lawsuit to have George Michael and Andrew Ridgley released from the contract they were already under and secured them an advance with CBS.

Through the hard work and persistence for which he would later become known in his professional career, Summers broke the band in America in the face of initial indifference from labels, with 1984’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go becoming the first of five major American hits he engineered for the duo.

Recognised in the industry as a specialist in breaking bands in America and in developing young artists from the ground up, Summers was described in Big Life’s obituary of him as one of the music industry’s “most vibrant, most notorious and most brilliant characters… a champion of new music, a non-conformist and a visionary”.

He was awarded the Peter Grant Award in 2003 and Music Week’s Strat Award in 2007, and spoke up for artists’ rights as chairman of the Music Managers’ Forum. He also helped found the Featured Artists’ Coalition and Julie’s Bicycle, an organisation which works for sustainability in the creative industries.

Speaking of his own reputation in Music Week last year, he said: “I don’t think I’m the best diplomat in the world, but everyone who’s ever dealt with me knows that I tell you how it is. Years ago, I was a drunken, drug-taking, screaming loony. Today, I’m much more Zen. Do I use my reputation today? People know I’m not a pushover.”

Diagnosed with lung cancer more than two years before his death, Summers had continued to work until his condition meant that was no longer possible. The disease eventually took his life.

He is survived by his wife Dianna, their three daughters and three granddaughters, and his brother Don. Summers’ 2013 autobiography Big Life is regarded as an essential text of music management, while his wit and wisdom inspired its own unofficial Twitter feed, @QuotableJazz.