I first met Mary Ann Topper when New York Voices invited her (rather brazenly, we thought at the time) to our first professional gig. It was at Town Hall in New York in February of 1988. Her reputation as a manager certainly preceded her: Ray Brown, Ron Carter, Jim Hall, Tony Williams, and J.J. Johnson, to name a few (and years later, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Benny Green, Diana Krall, Russell Malone, Jane Monheit, Taylor Eigsti, etc.). The Voices were new on the scene and couldn’t believe she was actually coming to check us out. The moment our set finished that evening so long ago, she was the first person in the audience to give us a standing ovation. And we never looked back. She immediately became our manager and our main agent for the next two decades. She helped us navigate the relentless highs and lows of the music business and traveled with us all over the world, from Indonesia to Tokyo to South Africa, from Moscow, Idaho to Moscow, Russia (that tour really happened—we always wished we’d made an “official” T-shirt for it). She wasn’t just our manager, she was our impresario, our den mother, an equal voice in the never-less-than-vocal Voices.
Mary Ann was unapologetically over-the-top. Imagine Moira Rose from Schitt’s Creek, with a smattering of Bette Davis mixed in for even more drama. She was very funny, very imaginative, full of it, and determined beyond words. We kiddingly called her “the Grand Dame of Jazz,” but out of that affectionate sarcasm came a substantial amount of respect. She was certainly a pioneer for women in the jazz world, a world which, in the ’70s and ’80s, must have been one hell of a boys’ club. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for Mary Ann to prove herself as a jazz manager, put on the bravest of faces and, as a woman, be taken even somewhat seriously in those early days. But she did it, for about 40 years. She was so committed to those artists on her roster that I’d bet promoters and club owners and even record labels could at times feel all but invisible. Her artists were her family, her children. Others (including artists’ spouses and significant others) were merely players, outsiders. We felt as though we were part of some exclusive club at the Jazz Tree, the company Mary Ann founded back in 1980, because of that intensity and energy. There was never a doubt that she was all in.
One of my favorite moments with Mary Ann (and one that I believe substantiates her insightfulness as a manager) happened during one of our occasional one-on-one dinner hangs in her neighborhood in the West Village. She’d recently seen one of my solo gigs in NYC and wanted to talk with me about it. In the middle of some sublime Italian food, she took out a bunch of notes she had scribbled, looked me in the eye and said, “Don’t make the stage your living room, don’t introduce your band like they’re your big brothers, and don’t make the audience your family—they are there to be moved, impressed, entertained and inspired. They don’t want to be your buddy, they want you to be a star.” As much as I might not have wanted to accept that information at the time, I remember thinking these were on-the-money words of wisdom, at least as they pertained to me.
Admittedly, there were times in later years when Mary Ann seemed to “wax poetic” in her opinions of what the Voices needed to do to reinvent ourselves, as I think she too was trying to do the same thing. Yet again, there was always something uniquely perceptive and steadfast percolating under the surface. Although the group stopped working with Mary Ann a number of years ago, our relationship remained intact. We stayed in each other’s lives via email and phone, and it was always a joy whenever we got to actually see her. To be honest, her passing hit me much harder than I would have even imagined. I think I’ve always been drawn to people who put on a tough exterior, but who I know are unsure of themselves and searching on the inside as much as I am. Mary Ann Topper was one of those people, a lamb inside a lioness.
Mary Ann, if there’s an “Afterlife” bar, you’re smack dab in the middle of it, holding court with a very dry martini in your hand, throwing your hair back and laughing, and making some poor cocktail waiter’s life hell.
Said with a lot of love.