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Jazz planners find success in change

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Sunday, May 31, 2009

Marty Ashby is guiding MCG Jazz the way smart jazz club owners run their places.

Give people good material, and they show up. There. It's easy.

His work and that of Janis Burley Wilson at the Pittsburgh Cultural Trust show that route to success is not hard to understand.

Ashby, this year, gave the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild program some twists in its 22-year-old program. The executive producer of MCG Jazz provided some music that was a little edgy for some of the Guild's somewhat mainstream audience.

But it all worked. He says the Guild sold more actual tickets than any other season and was 20 percent above their projections.

So, he's doing even more than that for the 2009-10 season.

Burley Wilson, vice president of education and outreach at the Trust, went new ways, too. She put on some shows that started at 10:30 p.m. She took her Jazz Appreciation Month events a notch above those in 2008. She brought in some little-known performers and drew solid audiences. That worked, too.

Just goes to show you. Quality sells.

When Ashby made the changes to what had been a system, he seemed a bit hesitant. But his thinking was that there were fewer acts that could do the four-day, five-show lineup that was the Guild trademark. He still had a few of them, but decided it was worthwhile to bring in acts that were important to see, even if they would not fill five houses.

So jazz fans got to see Kurt Elling, Mike Stern and Luciana Souza, among others. Ashby says that simply points to appealing to sub-genres in the jazz audience.

It has the look of the days when the Balcony in Shadyside and Walt Harper's clubs Downtown were successful jazz sites. The two clubs became places a fan could trust. The acts that played there had one thing in common -- even if the music was different. If a jazz fan was hunting a good evening out, stopping in at those places almost was a sure thing.

"It's all about quality," Ashby says. "I think people know whoever is out on that stage is going to be good."

Quality seemed to pay off at the Cultural Trust, too. Three of the four Jazz Appreciation Month Tuesday night shows Downtown were sold out or close to it. Trumpeter Sean Jones, who presented one of them, did the same at a late-night show on Valentine's Day. So did Ray Vega in January.

Burley Wilson says one of the main reasons for the overall success is that presenters were watching out for each other and advertising each other's efforts. That reaches out to sub-audiences and keeps fans in the know, she says.

"If we all look out for each other, we can all stay around," she adds.

For the upcoming season, Ashby is taking his presentations a bit further. He is collaborating with a number of groups, including Burley Wilson and the Cultural Trust. Shows will include mainstream giants such as McCoy Tyner, Afro-jazz newcomer Lionel Loueke and a Broadway show Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn did in 1947.

The Trust will be co-sponsoring pianist Ahmad Jamal and a big band at the Byham Theater, Downtown. It will be part of the Jazz Appreciation Month activities for 2010, and Burley Wilson says she is looking at other events to do.

At a time when jazz festivals across the country are staggering, if they are alive at all, and clubs are disappearing, Ashby and Burley Wilson have found ways of succeeding.

When concert promoters or club owners look at unimpressive crowds and say "I thought Pittsburgh was a great jazz town," they need to look at the performers who have perhaps become a little too familiar.

Variety helps almost as much as quality.

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