Marty Ashby labeled jazz genius
By Bob Karlovits
Published: Sunday, Aug. 10, 2008
Marty Ashby's career constantly twists and turns, but he never gets lost.
"Like music, your work doesn't always go from A to B," says the executive producer at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild in the North Side. "It doesn't always go in a straight line."
Straight lines seem nonexistent in the work of this jazz musician and organizer who has, in 22 years, established the Craftsmen's Guild as the dominant jazz-presenting force in Pittsburgh and led to the capture of four Grammy awards.
He has done that in ways that have gone from presenting free programs in city parks to fancy evening shows at Downtown concert halls. And he's done it by playing his guitar in a small restaurant on the South Side and in a recording sessions with the Dizzy Gillespie All Star Jazz Band.
He has done that in concerts at the Guild featuring some of the biggest names. And in laid-back gigs with local performers.
Ashby's ambition never fades. His latest project has him involved in planning a Jazz Day in America with the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., as another way to put jazz in the face of those who otherwise don't glance its way.
Ashby, 47, has done his work with one philosophy in mind: To bolster respect for jazz in a formal setting and in the street life where it developed.
"Clearly, the goal right now is to celebrate the masters," he says, "but also to look at the fine, young musicians who are taking the music into the future."
"We need 1,000 more of him on the jazz scene," says Todd Barkan, the director of programming at Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola in New York City. The executive from the venue at Jazz at Lincoln Center and producer of more than 1,000 albums calls Ashby "one of the most dedicated people we have had in jazz in the past 30 years."
Saxophonist Ben Opie, who also teaches at the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, says Ashby's value is obvious.
"If he and the Guild weren't doing what they are doing, nobody else would be," he says.
The road to the North Side
Another example of Ashby's ever-turning route are the detours that brought him to Pittsburgh.
One kept him home because of the mumps. One made him give up desires of a Major League pitching career. Another led him to a marketing position for the Cleveland Orchestra.
"I didn't know what I didn't know," he says about his move to New York City after graduating from Ithaca College.
That often seems to be the case for Ashby, but it doesn't stop him from learning.
When he was 7, the mumps kept him home from school for weeks and led him to studying guitar with his dad, James Ashby. His father, who died in 2000, ran a music store, taught private lessons at home and performed around their hometown of Baldwinsville, N.Y.
The elder Ashby was something of a local star, once taking first place on the "Ted Mack Amateur Hour" radio show and running his band, Jimmy Ashby and the Treble Tones.
"Six months later, I had my first gig," Ashby says of his performance with the Ashby Family, which included his dad; mother, Henrietta, who played bass; brother Jay on trombone; and brother Dale on drums..
"We played a lot, and I never had to have a summer job or do a paper route," he says.
In high school, he discovered jazz and baseball, and developed some strength in both. His love for music overtook his interest in baseball, however, and led him to Ithaca College. It also led him to organize the Ithaca Jazz Festival in 1979, creating his initial foray into the business of presenting.
That gave him some experience when he moved to New York City after graduation with no job and "$300 in my pocket."
Retail background from his father's shop led him to a job at an art gallery, whose owner also produced a crafts festival. That led to work at a larger street fair, where Ashby was able to bring in some of the musicians he had met at the Ithaca festival, musicians such as Paquito D'Rivera and Claudio Roditi, who have become presences at the Guild, too.
These jobs, however, weren't making him rich, so he got a telemarketing job selling subscriptions to the New York Philharmonic.
That work, with which he wasn't totally satisfied, led him to similar jobs in Cleveland in 1984 and Pittsburgh in 1986.
"I was selling people the music, not tickets," Ashby says, admitting he really wanted to be doing that for jazz.
That chance was about to come.
Finding a course at the Guild
In 1987, guitarist Emily Remler came to Pittsburgh to talk about a concert at the Guild with its founder and president, Bill Strickland. She asked her friend Ashby to go with her for talk.
Ashby says he was floored by the construction of the Guild and Strickland's thinking.
"I walked into that Frank Lloyd Wright-knockoff place that wanted to do jazz, and I said to Bill, 'Uhhhhhh, I have to talk to you.'" Ashby says. He had stayed up most of the night putting together a job proposal for a meeting with Strickland the next day.
Strickland was impressed.
"I basically gave him the key and said, 'Run the place,' " Strickland says. "And the events are a credit to his genius. They have far exceeded what I hoped for."
Ashby put together the first concert that year, featuring pianist Billy Taylor, and began series programming the following year, bringing in talent from trumpeter Wynton Marsalis to fusioneers Spyro Gyra.
While there are performers who show up steadily, there also are those who are pioneering their music. Saxophonist David Murray was there with his big band and, next season, singer Luciana Souza will appear.
"We have pretty much been able to present what we want to," Ashby says, "There are fine young performers out there who we want to present."
Opie says one of the keys to the Guild's success is the "little surprises" that emerge in the schedule. He points to performers such as bassist Charlie Haden or guitarist Pat Metheny on the schedule.
He also commends Ashby on his help in bringing in avant-garde composer-saxophonist Anthony Braxton for a weekend here at the end of May.
New York City saxophonist Bob Mintzer has been at the Guild in small groups, with his big band and with the Yellowjackets, the contemporary band.
"It is always such a comfortable experience to play and record at MCG, as it is an organization run by artists for artists," Mintzer says. "Just a great overall situation for all concerned."
Looking down the road
Ashby's programming continues to extend beyond the North Side. He and the Guild were behind jazz festivals at the Hidden Valley Four Season Resort and Seven Springs Mountain Resort in Somerset County from 1988 to 2001.
He put together events in Mt. Gretna, Lebanon County. He remains the programmer for a festival in Racine, Wis., and constantly is doing jazz outreach efforts at clubs and restaurants here and in schools.
Strickland says he wants Ashby to continue that direction -- "particularly the work in the schools. I fee like our real legacy will be our work there. He is exposing the next generation to jazz."
Ashby also has put together a recording program at the Guild that has led to three Grammy awards, one Latin Grammy, the nomination for one other album, and nominations for three individual arrangements.
"Grammy awards?" Strickland says. "I would have never imagined that at the Guild."
His brother Jay Ashby, who also is a producer at the Guild and leads a busy life performing nationwide, says he is impressed with the work Marty does.
"I frankly would like to see Marty play more, but I really am glad he has chosen the path he has," he says.
Besides locally centered work, Ashby acts as chairman of the events committee for the Smithsonian's Jazz Appreciation Month Initiative.
Joann Stevens, program director of that program at the Smithsonian, says Ashby is focusing much of his efforts on organizing a Jazz Day in America program for 2010 in which towns all across the nation will celebrate the music.
Events from various big events would be televised "like Dick Clark's New Year's Eve celebration," Ashby says of his vision.
Stevens looks at the work Ashby has done in Pittsburgh and has little doubt he can get it done.
"He is just a genius," she says, "Let's be up-front about it."
Seeing (and hearing) is believing
Three DVDs from MCG Jazz display not only the talent that often visits the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, but the strength of local performers as well.
Just hitting the stands are the Bob Mintzer Big Band's "Live at MCG with Special Guest Kurt Elling," the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra's "Live at MCG" and duets by bassists Peter Ind and Rufus Reid, "Alone Together."
All were recorded at the Guild, the big bands before audiences at concerts and the duets alone, appropriate to the title, on the stage.
The cast of talent is impressive, and that makes all the DVDs top-notch. The Smithsonian band is led by famed Indiana University jazz educator David Baker, but also features regional standouts such as sax player Mike Tomaro, trumpeter Steve Hawk and trombonist Jay Ashby.
The Mintzer band is laden with famed New York City session players such as trumpeters Scott Wendholt and Michael Philip Mossman. But the singing of baritone bopper Elling makes the work stand out.
The bass collection simply is a display by two virtuosos of the standup instrument.
All of the sound engineering on the discs was done by Jay Dudt, who runs a studio bearing his name in Ross. The video work on the band recordings is by the Guild's Marty Ashby while his brother, Jay, did the bass disc.
All are on the MCG Jazz label and sell for $24.95.
The Marty Ashby file
Born : 1961 in Baldwinsville, N.Y.
Title : Executive producer, MCG Jazz at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild, North Side
Parents : James and Henrietta Ashby
Education : Baldwinsville High School, bachelor's degree from Ithaca College, master's degree from Duquesne University
Career highlights: Has put together the concert series at Manchester Craftsmen's Guild since 1988. Guided projects to four Grammy awards and to nominations for four others. Produced festivals in Somerset and Lebanon counties in Pennsylvania, as well as in Wisconsin. Served as events chairman of Smithsonian Institution Jazz in America Initiative.
Family : Lives in Thornburg with wife, Carol, son Eric, 9, daughter Linda, 6
Quote: 'The golden rule of jazz is: Treat everybody on the bandstand the way you want them to treat you. That should apply to life, too.'
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