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She's got it covered

Detail-oriented manager Mary Ann Topper believes in giving young jazz musicians 'someone to turn to.' Sometimes they turn away.

October 26, 2003|Don Heckman | Special to The Times

Jane MONHEIT slips onto the stage at Feinstein's at the Cinegrill. Silk gowned, beautifully poised, she stands in the curve of a grand piano, her creamy skin and jet-black mane contrasting dramatically with a vase overflowing with lush, colorful flowers.

Seated in a center booth on the second level of the elegant Hollywood room's semi-circular risers, Monheit's personal manager, Mary Ann Topper -- the super-manager who played a vital role in Diana Krall's rise to fame -- nods her head appreciatively, a broad smile crossing her face as her new young star kicks off the opening tune.

She leans over, whispers to a companion. "Aren't the flowers beautiful? I had them done especially for Jane. Don't they fit her perfectly?"

The music begins. Completely engrossed, ignoring food and drink, Topper sways in sync with the shifting nuances of each phrase as Monheit applies her velvety contralto to a set of torch-song standards. After every number -- and sometimes during --Topper leads the applause, hooting enthusiastically, easily the most responsive member of the crowd.

In jazz, where the stars (with the exception of singers) and the managing powers have traditionally been male, Topper is one of a small but influential contingent of women who've begun to thrive in a role that's part mother hen, part marketing strategist, part incorrigible nudge. By refusing to acknowledge jazz's glass ceiling for women, she has pushed through it to become one of the jazz Pygmalions of the 21st century music scene.

Topper has done so at a time when jazz record companies have had less success with new artists than they have with the repackaging of their valuable catalogs. Although jazz sales have grown recently, with SoundScan reporting a 21% increase from 2002 to 2003, the spike has been aided by the success of some acts that are only loosely jazz-related, such as Norah Jones, Steve Tyrell and Boz Scaggs.

Aware of the importance of this kind of star power, Topper maintains a small roster of acts that she feels have strong breakout potential.

But it hasn't been easy. Along the way, she's taken her share of potshots, bruised more than a few male egos and been managerially divorced by some of her highest-profile clients.

A few days after Monheit's appearance at Feinstein's, Topper is having lunch at her West Hollywood hotel.

"I wasn't over the top, was I?" she says, referring to her effusive response to the performance. Her smile makes it clear that she doesn't really feel that she was over the top, that Monheit fully deserved every iota of the response she received.

"Isn't that what a personal manager's supposed to do? Be a cheerleader?" says her lunch companion.

"Sure. That's one thing," replies Topper. "That's the fun part of being a manager. But there's much more."

'An enormous responsibility'

When Topper, who is never at a loss for words, says "much more," she means it. She hasn't become one of the most successful personal managers in jazz by being reticent.

Her talent roster over the past two decades has included such established jazz artists as Herbie Hancock, Wayne Shorter, Tony Williams, Freddie Hubbard, Ray Brown, J.J. Johnson, Joe Henderson and Jim Hall. Add to that a long line of younger musicians whose careers have been nurtured to maturity by Topper -- Krall, Joshua Redman, Christian McBride, Russell Malone and Wallace Roney.

Her current list includes, in addition to Monheit and singer-pianist Peter Cincotti, the superb, multi-skilled Cameroonian bassist-singer Richard Bona and the vocal quartet New York Voices.

"Personal management is an enormous responsibility," she continues, "for careers, for lives, for talents. 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."

Topper's involvement reaches into the creative arena as well. Trained as a musician with a master of music degree in music literature and vocal performance from the University of Michigan, she takes an active, in-the-trenches role with every aspect of her clients' careers.

"Mary Ann is a very hard worker," says Bill Traut, the veteran manager of singer Kurt Elling. "And that's one of the things that makes her a very strong manager. But also, as a woman, she gets seriously, hands-on involved in a performer's appearance -- clothes, makeup, hair styles -- in a way that just doesn't happen with male managers."

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