Summerlin was a pioneer in the field of jazz music for church services; one of his earliest works was Requiem for Mary Jo, written for the memorial service of his baby daughter. He also wrote a modern jazz setting for a prayer service written centuries earlier by John Wesley, the founder of Methodism.
He composed jazz services for a range of faiths, settings which were performed by jazz combos and orchestras. His purpose, writes the Times, was to create appealing music but also to challenge convention. He explained in a recent radio interview that he wanted to "get the congregation to change the way they approach the whole worship service."
Summerlin also founded the jazz program at the City College of New York, which he directed in the 1970s and '80s.
Summerlin was born in Marianna, Florida, graduated from Central Missouri State University and received a master's degree from the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. He taught at North Texas State College, then at City College from 1971 to 1989, according to the paper.
He was active in the avant-garde scene of the 1960s and performed with leading jazz figures.
He died in Rhinebeck, New York, from pneumonia resulting from cancer treatments, according to the Times.