THIS ’BURG CAN SMOKE & SIZZLE!
By Janice Milliner
At home with: Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild
Known around the country for its innovative, successful development of healthy community through culture and enterprise, the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (MCG) has been visited by heads-of-state and dignitaries, including former presidents and first ladies. It has also hosted some of the greatest names in jazz history. The MCG Jazz Performance Series is one the longest-running jazz series in the country, and includes of 1,400 concerts, over 40 recordings including 3 Grammy® Award Winning Albums with artists such as Nancy Wilson, Paquito D’Rivera and The Count Basie Orchestra. Now the MCG is celebrating 20 years of being Pittsburgh’s premier home for all things jazz.
The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild began as the brainchild of Bill Strickland and quickly grew in recognition as a life-changing community force, largely due to its successful development of individuals and community revitalization through arts education and business enterprise. Understanding that the two are interchangeable, Strickland’s approach has successfully transformed displaced adults and at risk students with life/job skills, through the disciplines derived from lessons in the arts via mentorship-style instruction. Learning and education become very individualized and personal when channeled through creative experiences, and the effects are life altering. Strickland himself is a product of such an experience and MCG is the work of his own mentorship influences, creativity and social entrepreneurial networking.
MCG is a world that is captivated by passion, inhabited by talent and prized with individual personal celebrations of the human spirit, all of which have come together to celebrate collectively. It’s so evident—even in the architecture—the moment you walk through the door.
Upon entering MCG & Bidwell Training Center on Pittsburgh’s Northside, you are introduced to a place that encapsulates resourcefulness and regeneration. The building itself was designed by a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who keenly expressed space as a composition of natural and human elements harmoniously supporting one another. It is an energizing life-size example of form following function.
MCG is a social enterprise supporting the youth education programs of the Manchester Craftmen’s Guild. MCG sister organizations include: Bidwell Training Center (for vocational education), the Drew Mathieson Center for Horticultural and Agricultural Technology and Harbor Gardens Park.
When opportunity presents itself, the willing will appear. Hence, one typical afternoon in 1986, Bill Strickland himself personally introduced Marty Ashby, now Executive Producer of MCG Jazz, to his future dream. While being extended a courteous tour of the MCG facility as Director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, Marty Ashby was last shown the pristinely vacant concert hall. It’s a moment he still remembers clearly.
“Bill just kind of shrugged his shoulders and said, something like, ‘I thought that an art school should at least have a concert hall. It just seemed right that it all be here.’” It was at that moment when Ashby felt his spirit dancing with considerations. That evening, consumed with enthusiasm, Ashby wrote a proposal to Bill Strickland and shortly thereafter took a 60 percent pay cut to bring the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild the sweet tune of jazz.
As part of the 20th anniversary, a photo exhibition will be on display from September 15 - October 15, 2006. “When it came to the selection of photos,” said Ashby, “I decided that we would dedicate the Artist Exhibition to world renowned artists who’ve performed here who have passed away. I thought maybe there would be 10 or 15, but it ends up that there are 36!
“Jazz is about the rich legacy of American music,” Ashby continued. “It represents the soul of the melting pot; a celebration of human spirit that focuses on improvisation. These men and women are our national treasures.”
That legacy is what fuels MCG Jazz mission to preserve, present and promote jazz. The MCG Jazz program is expanding in order to extend to area educational facilities the opportunity to expose students to the world of jazz. The numerous professional performances and recordings strengthen the long-time Pittsburgh jazz community and contribute to the overall cultural and artistic diversity at international levels. MCG Jazz educational programs expose students to the unique taste of cultural experiences through concert attendance at low or no cost to them. In addition, MCG Jazz also coordinates artists available for master classes and provides opportunities for internships in production and marketing.
In keeping with all arts and music programs of MCG, MCG Jazz is united with a common vision born from Founder Bill Strickland’s personal experience.
“Through direct involvement in the making of art,” said Strickland, “and through personal exposure to the masters who teach and perform it, our lives will be enriched, even transformed.”
Marty Ashby asserts this philosophy passionately.
“There are no boundaries in Jazz,” said Ashby. “It’s all encompassing individually and collectively. As an ensemble, the sum is better than its parts. Jazz swings with freedom and diversity. It’s why jazz has become a common language spoken around the world and knows no age or race.”
Artists who perform at the Guild do so with the understanding that MCG Jazz is also a school. Many leave feeling rewarded and enriched as much or more than they gave. They try to express the wonderful energy that moves them and often will voice words like ‘hope’ and ‘the spirit of the place.’ It’s unmistakably authentic.
“You will hear what they find difficult to express in words through the music in their recordings,” said Ashby. “Jazz is that way; MCG Jazz label recordings are unusually celebratory. Artists spread the word and encourage others to perform here. Many come back time and again, choosing to record something unique on the MCG Jazz label and more often than not, will generously give proceeds to support our programs.”
The MCG Jazz 20th Anniversary Celebration will continue through May of 2007, with performances scheduled both at the MCG Concert Hall and at destinations throughout the city. Artists from all over the world are participating, including Dr. Billy Taylor, Pop Music and Jazz with Tim Ries of the Rolling Stones, and Nancy Wilson & The Clayton-Hamilton Jazz Orchestra to name only a few.
Don’t miss out on this wonderful celebration of jazz—a true American original.