All that Jazz: the soldier who took on Wham! and Snow Patrol
Jazz Summers, band manager extraordinaire, is a good example of a behind-the-scenes guy who has a better backstory than his charges
The only way is up? Jazz Summers with his wife Yazz
George Michael at the Great Wall of China during the Wham! years
Jazz Summers in the British army
Sometimes the people behind the pop scenes are far more interesting than those in the limelight. This especially holds true when you look at music managers who’ve ruled the roost. The lives, times and views of people such as Led Zeppelin handler Peter Grant or Rolling Stones and Beatles manager Allen Klein (who took over the Stones from the equally fascinating Andrew Loog Oldham) can be even more colourful than their charges.
You can add Jazz Summers to this gallery. The man who has managed such acts as Wham!, Snow Patrol, The Verve, Scissor Sisters, The Charlatans, London Grammar and dozens more has long been regarded as a formidable character within the business, willing to fight to the bitter end for this clients.
As Gary Lightbody from former clients Snow Patrol notes, “If you’re part of his pride he will fight to the death for you. He can make grown men cry and shit themselves. He is, though, essentially a kind man with a big heart and a deep capacity for love. Just don’t piss him off.”
You’ll find Lightbody’s words as a blurb accompanying Big Life, Summers’s no-holds-barred book on his life’s journey from soldier to pop manager. It’s a remarkably honest account.
“A lot of music books are just full of rock’n’roll cliches about getting drunk and doing drugs and being outrageous,” says Summers. “I wanted to write a book to inspire people rather than just tell a load of stories about getting pissed for breakfast or falling over at a gig. I know I’ve achieved that because I get an email or text every day from someone who has read the book saying it has inspired them.”
The army years
Summers was 17 years old when he enlisted in the British army. He was trained as a radiographer, but music had caught his ear and it didn’t take him long to realise he wanted out. The army had other ideas and kept him for more than nine years.
“When I sat down with Joe Stretch [the book’s ghostwriter], he asked me, ‘Where will we start?’ and I said, ‘Well, I suppose with the army’, and he went, ‘You were in the army?’ I said, ‘Yeah, my dad kind of pushed me and I had no choice.’ He had no idea the stories were so entertaining.”
The stories are certainly that. Unable to leave the army (even trying to fake his own death didn’t work), Summers dabbled with music and mischief. He played gigs in Malaysian cities such as Penang and Malacca with Shades of Blue, bootlegged Tiger beer, planned unauthorised incursions into Vietnam and was a hand model for cigarettes in Singapore.
“I would not accept the fact that I was incarcerated in the army and couldn’t do anything about it until I got out,” he says now. “The army was my determination training. I’m still like that today. If I listen to a song like Strong from London Grammar and every record company says no or doesn’t get it, it doesn’t change the fact that I will do everything I can to make it work.”
The music industry
When Summers eventually found himself back on Civvy Street, he got a part-time job as a radiographer in a hospital and continued to dabble in music.
He was soon booking bands for pubs, playing drums and appearing on Top of the Pops albums. His first management charge was a folk singer called Richard Digance.
“It was a life-changing decision, I knew absolutely nothing about managing an artist.” He quickly learned, however, and this lead to other clients.
Management, he says, comes down to belief. “You have to go through life believing in what you do and who you work with,” he says. “If I go into a room with 20 executives round a table listening to Careless Whisper and they don’t get it, I’m not bothered. Well, it bothers me because I have to get this lot motivated, but it doesn’t shake my confidence in the music.
“All through the book, you can see that. If I like a piece of music – it gets me in my soul and it gets me in my gut – then I believe in it, whether it’s All Around the World [by Lisa Stansfield] or Run [by Snow Patrol].”
But if his business life was hugely successful, his private life was a different matter. Summers is unsparing in the book about his problems with alcohol, health (acne rosacea, which causes his face to break out in red splotches) and domestic life (ups and downs with Yazz, who was both his wife and charge).
Did he view the book as a form of therapy? “I went through the pain at the time,” he says. “What I wanted to put over in the book is the fact that when you’re faced with some pretty traumatic problems, like my relationship with Yazz or my alcohol problem or losing your biggest band, you have to pick yourself up and get going.
“You got to find things to help you. I found books like Louise Hay’s You Can Heal Your Life very helpful. I wanted to show that, even when things are really tough, the universe will take you for a cup of tea and say: here, read this book, it might help.”
Abandoned by Snow Patrol
biggest band Summers refers to are Snow Patrol. Summers and his partner Tim Parry started managing the Irish band when no one else was interested. They turned them into megastars – helped, says Summers, by him going to every music business contact in London to sing the “light up, light up” chorus from Run at them – but the band eventually abandoned them for another management company.
“It took a while to recover. I knew we had done an amazing job with them and it was a kick in the teeth. It was like grief. When you’re passionate about a band, it’s like the break-up of a relationship. You can’t have the passion without the emotions or the feelings or the belief or loving working with someone. When they walk away, it’s tough.
“Gary [Lightbody] later rang me up and I’ve put that in the book. He’s a shy person when he’s offstage, so it took a lot of strength for him to phone me and say: listen, I know what you’ve done for us, I appreciate it and I’ll never forget it.”
Summers is still very much in the game. One of his current charges is London Grammar, who have gone from zero to heroes in the space of a few months (“100,000 sales in six weeks”, he notes). The industry might have changed – “the people who are now working in the record business really know what they’re doing, the industry is much more efficient and professional” – but Summers still operates today as he always did – with passion.
“If someone walks into the office with an amazing voice or amazing songs or a belief in what they’re doing, that’s what gets me. Regardless of whether they go on to sell 10 records or 10 million records, you have to believe in them. You have to have that passion”.
Big Life by Jazz Summers is published by Quartet Books