Originally from Canterbury in Kent, Suzy Jackson studied for a B.Mus at King’s College London, which has a partnership with the Royal Academy of Music, and where she studied flute. Suzy ran the University of London’s Big Band from 2009-2011, and also formed an events company, Bright Young Events, while still a student.
She joined a large professional services firm after university, left the UK to work in their New York office in 2014, and lived there until 2020, when she moved to Charlotte, North Carolina. She is now a Managing Director at the firm and a leadership coach through her own company SKJ Coaching (link below).
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In this interview for International Women’s Day 2022, Suzy reflects on how the lessons learned by being active (and pro-active) in music in London just over a decade ago have informed and inspired her subsequent career. Interview by Sebastian Scotney.
LondonJazz News: It is not often that students put the amount of positive energy that you did into the ULU Big Band. What led you to want to step up and take the lead?
Suzy Jackson: If you know me, you’ll know I’m not the kind to take a back seat, whatever the scenario! But, in all seriousness, I quickly understood that we had a great unique value proposition that deserved some airtime in the market – we were tight, well-rehearsed, and half the price of a professional band – it just made sense to me that the band deserved the opportunity to gig in professional settings and I wanted to be instrumental in making that happen.
LJN: As you mention, you were determined to get the band out there, performing. Was it easy to persuade the students to commit to high quality and to “showing their best selves”? Were there difficult moments?
SJ: Oh gosh so many! I vividly remember nearly missing a flight because one of the players was held up on the underground and trying to convince the airline to hold the cargo load. Or trying to organise van loads and unloads in the middle of central London…the logistics were always fun and games. However, the people were a dream to work with. I had some of my best friends in that group and everyone always turned up ready to put their best foot forward. Everyone also chipped in as peers – we really were a cohesive unit all working towards the same end goal.
LJN: And you also set up your own company… while still a student. What’s the story there?
SJ: In my second year of university, it started to occur to me that there was a huge gap in the market when it came to music for corporate events (which, through a series of peculiar events also evolved into high fashion events). Clients were looking for polished, well organised groups but were struggling to work with some, ahem, more “casual” musicians whose strengths weren’t perhaps legal agreements, dress codes, or client liaison. I set up Bright Young Events (my thesis at University was on the Bright Young Things & jazz – I’m still fascinated by that time in history) and stepped in as a middle-woman to work between clients and musicians, and really loved every second of it.
LJN: Looking back, how have these experiences helped you to pursue the career you now have?
SJ: Running Bright Young Events and ULUBB was the first time I realised how much I loved the business side of the music world. I’d been interested for a long while – in fact it was a driving force in my choosing to study Music (because I knew that the firms I was interested in were open to any degree) – but BYE and ULUBB really cemented that fascination in business and coaching for me. I loved spending time thinking about what was working well, what could be improved, advising clients, and working in a large team to accomplish goals, and my career has luckily afforded me the opportunity to continue doing all of those things in a myriad of ways.
LJN: Have there been any instances/lightbulb moments when remembering your big band days has given you the answer to navigating your career later on?
SJ: Probably two key ones spring to mind for me today:
- The power of having a mentor and friend throughout your career. Pete Long was that person for me during my ULU years. He came in regularly to coach the band, but always went above and beyond to make introductions, give advice, and gently guide me in the right direction. We’re still friends today and he was the first person I ever really viewed as a trusted advisor. I really look up to him as someone who is a giant in his industry, and yet still so humble and kind. Thankfully now, I’ve continued to be surrounded by many true mentors, and I coach my SKJ Co. clients on their “Personal Board of Directors” – Pete was my first “Director”!
- The power of butterflies. There were many, many performances that I felt physically ill with nerves beforehand (Kent Young Musician of the Year, I’m looking at you), but always came out the other side so glad I pushed myself and did it. I’ve embraced that mentality my entire career – if I don’t have butterflies / feel uncomfortable, I’m not growing fast enough!
LJN: Is the big band or jazz ensemble a metaphor for the corporation?
SJ: Absolutely, and one I use a lot! The concept of a group only being as strong as its individual sections (departments), the idea and importance of culture, teamwork, and recognition, the orientation around team work to deliver a gig (product or deliverables). I could go on…it’ll make for a great book one day!
LJN: Music students are now being told that they need “viable” careers. Are there skills that musicians develop, maybe even without knowing it, things they do instinctively, that equip them for the corporate world you know?
SJ: Is the insinuation that music isn’t a viable career? That makes me sad! For sure, I love working with fellow creatives – the ability to think outside the box, comfort in high pressure environments / public settings, working well as an individual performer as well as a team, the understanding of the need to practise and commit to improving etc. SKJ Coaching offers a discount for clients who work in the arts, and always will, it’s an incredibly important segment of clients to me personally.
Interestingly, one of the key things I coach through SKJ Coaching is public speaking, and the key tenets of my approach are anchored in what I learned at the Royal Academy of Music about Alexander Technique, how to practise consistently, and how I was coached to handle nerves before performances.
LJN: Did you manage to get to any memorable jazz in your New York years?
SJ: Of course! My favourite is (I still go to New York every couple of weeks) Village Vanguard – I just love the vibe. Funnily enough, I credit my fascination with New York, and my eventual move there, to a summer when I was 15 when I had gone to the States for a course at Berklee College of Music in Boston, and my aunt, who lived in the States at the time, met me in Boston and took me on a trip to New York. She took me to Iridium (I’m not even sure how I got in at that age!) and I was completely entranced.
LJN: Do you ever miss Canterbury or London?
SJ: Of course! I have a group of school friends in Kent and a couple of friends from King’s in London who make being away really hard sometimes. My sister recently had her first child, so I’m officially an aunt, and definitely looking forward to spending more time with my nephew. I refuse to live anywhere that doesn’t have a direct flight to London, and my husband and I travel back regularly. I love to travel and really hope we get to live in another country in the future for work…my wandering days are certainly not over.
LJN: This is one of LJN’s features for IWD. What are your thoughts about the whole idea of IWD?
SJ: I think it’s a vitally important initiative and asks us all to consider the work that still needs to be done for women’s equality, whilst celebrating all the amazing things women around the world have achieved. A joyous day, but rooted in a call for action.
LINK : SKJ Coaching website