MCG Jazz evolved from Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, a non-profit arts program started in 1968 by Bill Strickland. Beginning with no more than a single ceramic art wheel and a radio playing jazz in the background, the program was initially housed in the basement of a row home in the Manchester section of Pittsburgh, targeting inner-city high school students and utilizing arts to transform their lives.
Executive director Marty Ashby was hired in 1987 to launch the MCG Jazz series, during which visiting jazz artists interacted with students during week-long residencies. Ashby, a guitarist who has also been a participant in some of the performances, is enthusiastic about the series: "Visiting artists not only perform several concerts but become a part of the social outreach of the center.
Prior to the beginning of the label, hundreds of hours of live performances were recorded for the center's library, with excerpts of some of them initially gaining public exposure for the organization through their NPR-distributed public radio series "Jazz at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild , which was available during a four-year period.
The MCG Jazz label was a natural evolution, though it is one of relatively few non-profit ones. Though it has only issued 22 CDs so far, it has gained substantial publicity for its releases, which no doubt helped in the label earning four Grammy nominations (and three awards), while some of their other CDs, such as Herbie Mann and Phil Woods (Beyond Brooklyn), the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band (Dizzy's Business), the Clayton-Hamilton Orchestra (Live at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild) and Slide Hampton & the World of Trombones (Spirit of the Horn) merit just as much, if not higher, praise.
The executive director is enthusiastic about the center's ongoing jazz series: "While there are certain memorable moments with Dizzy Gillespie, Carmen McRae, Max Roach, Nancy Wilson and many others, the reality of the last 20 yearsin terms of most exciting or most successful for me is always the next concert. Dr. Billy Taylor was just here this past weekend for the opening of our 20th anniversary and I would say, at this moment, that that was our most successful concert, but I'll probably say that after the next one.
Nor is there any chance of a detour from their mission to preserve, present and promote jazz. "Over the next five to ten years, we are looking at going back into the archive to clear the rights for some of the special concerts we have captured for the school library over the years. The first two collections of archive recordings for the MCG Jazz archive series will include a very special concert with Dr. Billy Taylor and Gerry Mulligan and an energized performance by Dave Liebman and his group from the early 1990s. There are hundreds of hours of MCG concerts recorded over the last 20 years.
Ashby doesn't expect a lot of legal problems obtaining release rights. "Generally we find that there is very little conflict as the MCG Jazz releases are special one-time events that are often combinations of musicians that may only take place live at MCG. Since we do not technically 'sign' artists, to date other record companies have been more than happy to have their artists be a part of our recordings; as it only helps to market their individual projects to the existing MCG Jazz consumer base.
Anyone who has attended the MCG Jazz series or heard the "Jazz at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild series when it was aired during the '90s is aware of some of the possible releases that may be in store, including the Jim Hall-Ron Carter Duo, the Art Farmer-Clifford Jordan Quintet, Joe Williams, the Milt Jackson Quartet and countless other jazz masters and rising stars.