MCG Jazz: Celebrating 25 Years of Innovation
Like an opening set, the 25-year-old Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) is just getting warmed up.
This one-of-a-kind arts presenter continues to showcase, document and release state-of-the-art live jazz recordings in addition to working with students, performing community outreach and cultivating innovative online promotions.
According to Marty Ashby, executive producer of MCG Jazz, it all stems from the organization’s links to the players. Along with fondly remembered legends like Dizzy Gillespie, Ray Brown and Billy Taylor, “artists like Paquito D’Rivera, Nancy Wilson and Dave Liebman have trusted the fact that we’ve had their best interests in mind,” Ashby says. “The notion of capturing their art with high quality and a fantastic audience in a great building that was built to celebrate the legacy of their music, that’s what the music hall was built for … I think that’s why we’ve been able to capture performances that you just can’t hear any place else. And with the same piano for 23 of 24 years that Ahmad Jamal picked out.”
That hall—which is joined by adjacent art galleries, bar and gift shop—is the comfortable 350-seat performance space that MCG Jazz has used since its inception back in 1987 when the presenter began its innovative four-day performances and recordings. The room and recording methods have changed little, except for the move from analog to digital and, according to Ashby, “a few sonic treatments here and there.”
“It’s about audience development and audience expansion,” Ashby says. And is every show sold-out? “Pretty close,” he reveals. “Last year, we ran at just about 90 percent capacity, which is a miracle. And this year we’re on track to do that, or potentially even better. We were 74 percent sold-out for the entire season the day before opening night.” Ashby attributes this excitement to MCG’s 25th anniversary, where he called in a lot of the favorites, a lot of his friends, “from Pat Metheny on down. We have all these different ways of getting people to come to the shows and our store.”
A big reason for this success is that MCG Jazz continues to embrace technology as a means to bring people together. “We’re selling more and more online,” Ashby notes. “People are finding us, they’re interacting with us. At our store, at the MCG website, you can digitally download everything in the catalog. On a worldwide basis, it’s opened up a lot, people know who we are.” And in January at the Arts Presenters Conference, MCG Jazz will launch something called Jazz Commons, funded as part of the Doris Duke Jazz.NEXT program. “We’re working on an app that will extend the consumer experience when people come to a concert here,” Ashby says. “So when someone comes to a concert, on their way home they’re gonna get pinged with a set list that, say, Pat Metheny just played, along with his five desert-island recordings that he likes, maybe a link to his complete discography and a link to the pre-concert interview that will be transcribed a week later that we’ll email to them.”
The 26th season, which began in September, will continue to present shows all spring that feature, among others, Jon Faddis, reunion concerts with MCG-album Grammy winners New York Voices with the Count Basie Orchestra and Paul Winter with Oscar Castro Neves, and a special closing engagement with Kurt Elling.
That 26th season, by the way, will present yet another innovative touch from Ashby and MCG Jazz: live streaming through television, cable and the web. “The goal for the 26th season,” Ashby concludes, “is for every show to be part of some sort of additional experience, so that people around the world can also experience what happens in the music hall.”