The MCG Jazz Series Celebrates 30 Years with Marty Ashby
By Matthew Guerry | Photograph from Jimmy Cho
When the construction of a new home for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild was completed in 1986, founder Bill Strickland sought to fill the new center’s auditorium with music.
Seeking someone with experience in concert production, Strickland tapped Marty Ashby — who had by then made a name for himself as a jazz guitarist and producer — for the job. “I was working with the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra in marketing and development and telemarketing, and got the call to go meet Bill Strickland,” Ashby recalls. “He gave a tour, we ended up in the music hall, and Mr. Strickland said, ‘Now, I built the music hall to do jazz concerts because jazz saved my life. But I don’t know anything about doing concerts.’ And I said, ‘Mr. Strickland, we need to talk.’”
And Ashby had a lot to say, particularly about jazz. “It is a music that celebrates the individual spirit of the musicians on the bandstand. And jazz in some ways, unlike other music forms, is all about the unit. It’s about the collective nature of the musicians working together,” he says. “I think the spirit of improvisation and democracy that jazz represents is really part of the answer to the planet.”
His love of the genre began at age 7, when his father taught him how to play guitar. He continued to play over the years and eventually decided to study music at Ithaca College. There, he learned the art of concert production and even produced the first Ithaca Jazz Festival in 1979. “I really dug creating opportunities for musicians to have their music played in a dignified environment,” he says.
After graduation, Ashby moved to New York City, then went on to work at the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra before landing at Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, seeking a way to apply his business knowhow to the world of jazz music. When he got the call from Strickland in 1987, he had the opportunity to do just that.
“I felt like I had died and gone to heaven,” Ashby says. “I had a music hall, I had a boss who understood jazz like I understood jazz. I had this big, blank, white canvas, which I still feel today when I walk in the building. I’d say ‘What colors are we going to paint with today?’”
Ashby created the Guild’s annual concert series, MCG Jazz, which kicks off its 30th season on September 23 with Michael Feinstein, founder of the Great American Songbook Foundation, and his trio. And with Ashby still at the helm as executive producer.
Over the years, Ashby has produced memorable concerts, some of them featuring the very jazz legends he listened to growing up, such as Dizzy Gillespie, Joe Williams, and Ray Brown. He’s even worked with big names like Monty Alexander, Paquito D’Rivera, Nancy Wilson, and Ahmad Jamal, people who Ashby now considers friends.
“It’s been great these last 30 years to settle in one place and create amazing projects, both for records and for concerts, and get to work with a lot of my idols,” he says. “It’s really been a stunning opportunity to realize this musical gamut that we have here in Pittsburgh.”
Though a lot of his idols have since passed, Ashby feels that jazz music is still as strong as ever and looks forward to where it’s headed. With February 4’s “Under 30 for the 30th” concert featuring younger musicians like Etienne Charles, Jazzmeia Horn, and Melissa Aldana, MCG Jazz will take a peek at the
future of jazz.
“I think that concert will represent the best of the best of this new generation that will one day be the Ray Browns and the James Moodys of the jazz world.”
MCG Jazz, mcgjazz.org.