The Jazz.com Blog
May 20, 2009 · 1 comment
Willard Jenkins is looking behind the scenes and talking to people who have found ways of building and sustaining the audience for jazz in communities across America. Recently he profiled Seattle’s Earshot Jazz in this column. Now he turns his attention to an organization that is at the forefront of jazz advocacy in Pittsburgh—MCG Jazz. Marty Ashby of MCG Jazz has some ambitious plans for growing the jazz fan base that he wants to take to a national level. He shares some of the details below. T.G.
For jazz in a concert setting MCG Jazz is one of the jewels. Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, located in a post-industrial section of Pittsburgh near the Steelers’ Heinz Field home, is a multi-discipline center for arts and learning. Founded and built by Bill Strickland, a visionary potter and certified genius who recognized the inspirational and restorative powers of jazz music, MCG's training center was geared from the start towards Pittsburgh’s disadvantaged community, and was blessed with a small concert hall and outfitted with a recording studio. In 1987 Strickland engaged guitarist and arts administrator Marty Ashby to develop MCG Jazz.
The result has been 23 years of exemplary jazz concert activity that has also birthed MCG Jazz recordings that have garnered three Grammy awards and become a late career home for NEA Jazz Master Nancy Wilson. Marty Ashby has been one of the leading evangelicals of the jazz-in-the-concert-setting movement. Additionally his holistic approach has engaged the jazz community in thoughtful conversations towards ensuring the future health of the art form, including spearheading a major conference at the Johnson Foundation’s Wingspread facility in Racine, Wisconsin. After working in administration particularly with orchestras, Ashby has long extracted lessons that jazz presenters could effectively apply to their efforts from practices of their colleagues in the other performing arts. A guitarist, Marty continues to work with the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band and in other contexts at MCG and on MCG recordings. Our conversation took place in late April.
When you started at MCG you came there from the orchestral world and were eager to apply some of the lessons you learned to jazz presenting.
I spent several years in opera, theater, ballet, and symphony companies and what I found from them was their business structure to do a couple of things on a large scale that I didn’t see happening on a large scale in jazz: very organized subscription marketing campaigns, a very organized donor base and donor relations program. . . . So as I moved into presenting jazz in subscription series format I really focused on taking the techniques I learned and try to identify a subscription marketing campaign for jazz, some very specific donor-based management kind of things for jazz donors, and instituted those at MCG 23 seasons ago.
With 23 seasons under your belt, do those tools still apply in 2009 to your efforts at MCG?
They really do. I think the opportunity to have an identifiable subscriber base still does a couple of things: you end up being able to program within the context of a season some things that for MCG—just trying to sell 250, or if it’s two shows 700 seats, or 1200 seats for a weekend—as a single ticket event would be very difficult for some of the things I’ve presented in the last 23 years. Having it be part of a package that people buy 4, 6, 8, 12, or 20 concerts assures you of a certain percentage of the audience sold in subscription. And that formula still gives me the flexibility to do that. Our season runs September through May.
So the subscription series model for jazz concerts still holds up after 23 years; but now in this tight economic climate is your audience more selective about what they’ll buy tickets to?
Yep, no question; the formula for the last 23 years—for at least the last 15 or 16—was I’ve got an artist… Ahmad Jamal, Randy Weston, Nancy Wilson. . . . they play five shows over four days: Thursday, Friday, Saturday nights, Sunday matinee. . . . That’s no longer working, with people’s schedules they don’t want to buy 8-concert packages, although I have some that still do that; people want to pick and choose and select four concerts. So in the last 2 years we’ve had to develop a choose-your-own series. I found last year that was by far the number one ticket seller. That does a couple of things for us—it allows us to do some more market-specific advertising in group sales for certain shows. Last weekend with Poncho Sanchez, we had a pretty good number of single tickets available for the weekend so we were able to do some specific marketing just for that show and we brought in some folks who had never been here before. Whereas some other shows in the season were completely sold out in subscription—I don’t have to market those shows; I only have to market those shows with available tickets.
When you speak of marketing partners what do you mean?
It comes in a lot of different forms. For instance with the Global Beats folks they have their own radio show, events they do in the community, a newsletter. . . . So what we’ve agreed to do is we market their events in exchange for them marketing our events in a partnership. That’s kind of a generic form of a marketing partnership. Other times it would include things like shared media buys in publications, some electronic media shared buys—we’ve got a marketing partnership with a car dealership here which has been fantastic in terms of getting our 10-second spots on television this year in a very meaningful way because those folks are able to do large media buys and they’re able to generate opportunities for us to piggyback on that.
What efforts do you foresee necessary for jazz presenters to overcome current economic woes and better maximize their potential?
Maybe the silver lining to this economic crunch is it will kinda force jazz presenters to do a couple things—work better together; I’ve been saying we’ve gotta play nicer in the sandbox and share resources, share assets, share marketing opportunities, share sponsor leverage. . . . I’m finding that in Pittsburgh already. My season for 2009/10 is called The Jazz Collaboration and I’ve forged partnerships with the Pittsburgh Symphony, the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust, the brand new August Wilson Center downtown, the Guitar Society. It’s all about partnerships to present this music. . . . I think that’s critical nationally for us to do that more. And secondly as a consumer experience now, when people aren’t taking the weekend trip to Vail or the weekend trip to New York and they’re really looking at conserving dollars because of their asset portfolio going away. . . . the $35-40-50 ticket to see a Poncho Sanchez, a Randy Weston or Ahmad Jamal is a really good deal and a great value for the experience. I think its incumbent upon presenters to make sure that the experience we give them is of the highest quality at all times.
Talk about your efforts for the future of jazz, like the conference you spearheaded in Racine at the Johnson Foundation.
There’s a variety of things we’ve been trying to do at MCG to rally the troops, to bring the asset base together. . . . We did the conference at Wingspread in Racine that really was looking at the kinds of things the jazz community can do together. There’s no global branding for jazz. . . . no NASCAR, no NBA for jazz. . . . we came up with a loosely defined Jazz is Life as a potential brand for jazz. We said that if in fact we could take 20 or 50 jazz properties around the country and aggregate those assets there would be an opportunity for a national sponsorship campaign. I think the work we’re doing with the Smithsonian around Jazz Appreciation Month and the efforts to create a Jazz Day in America. . . . I think will be the launching point for all that other work we did at Wingspread; that if we can focus the lens—of America and the world for that matter—and say on this day in the U.S. we’re going to have jazz events in every nook and cranny around the communities—education events, film events, live presentations—band them together for Jazz Night Out in America, and use it as the state of the union for jazz on a yearly basis: here’s what we’ve done in jazz this year, here’s what we want to do in jazz next year. . . . I think that kind of effort in the next 3-5 years could prove to be very fruitful for all of us in the industry.
We’re working on it now; lots of parties to pull together since there’s no precedent for it and its going to take a little time. . . . I think we’re going to be able to do a soft launch in 2010 and then get other critical partners involved. I can foresee in 3-5 years an institutionalized event that has some legs and a great group of partners like Jazz Appreciation Month does. To focus it down to a day will take a different collection of partners to leverage it in a meaningful way and we’re working on it as we speak.
Talk about the evolution of MCG Records and how that has worked with MCG jazz presenting.
When we built the building it was outfitted with analog recording equipment 23 years ago. In the early 90s we did four years of a 5-6 part NPR series that had tremendous success and was carried on 300 stations. We’re recording all of this music but then it’s gone, we should begin to put out product. So we did that with a record with Count Basie and the New York Voices 14 years ago and won a Grammy with that which set the bar kinda high. But since then as we’ve refined the process and begun to sell product around the world, it’s become a calling card in as much as some concerts only happen once here at MCG that are special programs that we curate. Because the CDs get heard around the world people send in the little cards that are in the CDs, go to our web site, and become part of our mailing list. What that’s done is when we do certain concerts that are special we get people coming from all over the country and that would never have happened without them hearing the CDs, and the Grammys we’ve gotten and all the accolades we’ve received for this music.
Give a couple of examples of these special projects that have been translated to record and subsequently assisted in your presenting efforts.
One that comes to mind is the Brazilian Dreams project we did with Paquito D’Rivera and the New York Voices, who are family here. It was a project Paquito had wanted to do since the late 70s. He was mesmerized with vocal jazz, Brazilian jazz, because of a radio program he listened to in Cuba. So we recreated some aspects of that for a live concert that was turned into a recording and won a Grammy. They still go out and tour that sporadically now almost 10 years later! And that has clearly brought in patrons to our other concerts. We just did a big project with Ivan Lins and the Pittsburgh Symphony; when we recreated the music from our Nancy Wilson Christmas record it brought in people from all over the country and there are many examples of that. Ms. Wilson has become family here; the last three records she’s done have been with us.
Our 2009/10 season includes Gary Burton and the New Generation Band, Herb Alpert & Lani Hall, Stanley Jordan; a special thing with Pittsburgh Opera Theatre is Beggar’s Holiday with the music of Duke Ellington from a 1947 Broadway show that has been recreated very few times; the Regina Carter Reverse Thread program is going to be at the August Wilson Center; Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra is doing a tribute to Ella Fitzgerald; David Sanborn, McCoy Tyner; Ahmad Jamal is going to recreate his big band music with the MCG Jazz Orchestra; a special duo with Bob James & Keiko Matsui; Paquito D’Rivera and his quintet will be back; Lionel Loueke on a double-bill with Gretchen Parlato; and several other events.
This blog entry posted by Willard Jenkins.