Mary Ann Topper, Manager of Noted Jazz Artists, Dies at 79

Longtime manager represented dozens of jazz greats, including Ray Brown, Jim Hall, Ron Carter, Diana Krall, Christian McBride, and many more

Mary Ann Topper
Mary Ann Topper

Mary Ann Topper, manager to numerous notable jazz artists including Ray Brown, Diana Krall, Joshua Redman, Jane Monheit, and Ron Carter, died on Nov. 14 in Hyndman, Pa., where she had been living for the last few years. She was 79. Topper had a long history as a starmaker and could rightfully claim credit for launching the careers of more than a dozen successful jazz artists.

Topper was born on June 17, 1940 in Cumberland, Pa., and she received her B.A. in music from Bucknell University in 1962. Most people didn’t know that she, like many music-industry professionals, was a musician as well, receiving her master of music degree in music literature and vocal performance from the University of Michigan. She worked as an educator—music professor at Oklahoma College of Liberal Arts in Chickasha and high-school music teacher in Boston—as well as a vocalist for about 15 years before crossing over to the business side of the music business.

Encouraged by Ray Brown, Topper founded her management company, the Jazz Tree, in 1980 and started working with greats such as Brown, J.J. Johnson, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, and Ron Carter. She soon transitioned into managing more up-and-coming artists and became known for raising their profiles. Diana Krall, introduced to Topper by Brown, was an early success story and perhaps her greatest, but certainly not her last. During the late ’80s and early ’90s she also managed Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Russell Malone, Benny Green, and other notable artists, each of whom recorded as leaders for major labels and established themselves as headliners at clubs and festivals around the world.

Longtime publicist and industry veteran Don Lucoff of DL Media worked extensively with Topper when he was consulting with Blue Note Records during that period. “I experienced her optics and methodology in relation to public relations and its timely and valued role within the structure of artist development,” he says. “Her imprimatur was omnipresent going in both directions; collaborating with the young lions and elder statesmen alike. This was a transitional time for ‘Tops’ as she was deftly reinventing herself as a manager/impresario on the front end of the Young Lions movement.”

During a subsequent phase of her management career, she took on the young and relatively unknown singers Jane Monheit and Peter Cincotti, and engineered their commercial success as recording artists and performers. A New York Times Magazine piece on Monheit by David Hajdu in 2000 chronicled her relationship with her manager and provided a rare glimpse behind the starmaking machinery that Topper so tirelessly and fastidiously operated. Yet the piece was a two-edged sword for Topper, because in showing her relentless efforts to promote her artists, the article led some observers to perceive her involvement with Monheit and others as excessive and controlling. For her part, Topper was unapologetic about her dedication to her talented clients.

“Personal management is an enormous responsibility for careers, for lives, for talents,” Topper told Don Heckman of the Los Angeles Times in 2003. “We’re not just talking about performance bookings and recording deals. We’re talking about insurance policies, health insurance, homes, cars, children, their education—all of this surrounding a decision that you may or may not make with that artist, and for that artist.”

Benny Green remembers Topper coming to hear his trio with Christian McBride and Carl Allen nightly at the terrace of the Village Gate, the week before they recorded his album Greens for Blue Note in 1991. “Mary Ann lived two blocks away from the Gate at Thompson and MacDougal Streets,” Green wrote in an email to JazzTimes. “She wrote pages and pages of thoughts and comments for every single arrangement we played that week in her large yellow legal pad; for each set she’d begin anew and she wrote a visual novel that week in her notebook, seemingly unconcerned for appearances to the other clubgoers by her having all these papers covering her small dining table, complexly ensconced in her labor of love. This was of course before emailing and use of laptop computers was prevalent. She would talk with me at length after each set, to review her observations with me, often having to defend against my strong will in terms of her wanting the best for my professional profile as a recording artist. She was there in the studio at the Power Station, which later became Avatar Studios, and sometimes we felt that we just wanted to be ‘left alone,’ either to do things our own way or even to unwittingly shoot ourselves in the foot, so as to have our ‘boy’s club’ as young players. Today I realize the depth of involvement that Mary Ann assumed was out of profound care for the ultimate outcome of our youthful efforts, and I feel grateful for who Mary Ann was and for the fact that at the core of her every action, she really cared about the art form of jazz.”

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As happens to nearly every manager with high-profile artists, Topper’s professional relationships with her clients inevitably ended as the artists moved on to different managers or simply managed themselves. Nonetheless, she often retained personal relationships with the artists, offering occasional input and direction as a de facto consultant.

One act with whom she had a long-term relationship was the vocal group New York Voices, whom she saw at their first professional gig at Town Hall in NYC in 1988 and whom she managed from then until 2009. “She was a staunch supporter through thick and thin, and helped keep us on the road and moving forward for over two decades,” says the group’s Darmon Meader. “Mary Ann was one-of-a-kind for sure.  She was big, loud and opinionated, and when she believed in an artist, she was your best ally. New York Voices has many fond memories of Mary Ann on the road with us, from NYC to Jakarta, from Moscow to Amsterdam, Tokyo and every spot in between. If I’m not mistaken, we might have had the longest professional relationship of any of her artists, and even when we stopped working together, we’d enjoy catching up with her when we’d cross paths in NYC over the last few years.”

Cutting Through the Clutter: An Interactive Session at the 2013 Jazz Connect Conference, the New York Hilton, January 2013 (left to right): Lee Mergner, John Ernesto, Mary Ann Topper, Todd Barkan, Jana Herzen

In addition, Topper mentored numerous industry professionals, many of them women, who worked for her over the years. “She was a pioneer for women in the jazz industry,” Meader says, “and she helped open doors for many others who have followed in her footsteps.”

Gail Boyd, a longtime manager of artists such as John Clayton and Terell Stafford, was referred to Topper by the late record executive Steve Backer in 1991 when she started managing artists. “She was the only jazz manager that I knew of in New York—male or female,” Boyd says. “Steve advised me to get in touch with her to get some advice, but I never did. Perhaps I was a bit intimidated. Within the past few years, we developed a more cordial relationship where we often emailed each other to discuss either her clients or mine. Mary Ann was the consummate professional. She wondered in an interview in the Los Angeles Times what could have been achieved if all of the female managers had combined forces. I wonder that too. She was what I call a ‘fire starter.’ She started the careers of so many artists who are now first-call artists. I think that is the highest honor that can be paid to her. Mary Ann Topper, the fire starter.”

Looking back at her past and present experience shepherding artists’ careers, Topper told Heckman, “No one trains to do this, you know, to be a manager. They don’t have a school for that. So I suppose this is my gift, the way the music is a musician’s gift. It’s like when you hit a high C as a singer, and it comes out just perfectly, and you know you can do it.” Indeed, Topper did it for four decades, on behalf of a who’s-who of modern jazz.