When it comes to this year's Grammy Awards, MCG Jazz executive producer Marty Ashby finds himself in a familiar, enviable spot.
The label, part of the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild's acclaimed jazz program, with six Grammys to its credit, has two nominations in tonight's ceremony for the Bob Mintzer Big Band's 2012 album "For the Moment." One is for best large jazz ensemble album. Mr. Mintzer's arrangement of Brazilian guitarist Chico Pinheiro's composition "Irrequieto" is nominated for best instrumental arrangement.
Previous MCG Grammys honored one album uniting the New York Voices with The Count Basie Orchestra, another pairing the Voices with Cuban-born reedman Paquito D'Rivera. Two were for albums by vocalist Nancy Wilson, two more for Mr. D'Rivera's "Panamericana Suite."
Mr. Ashby believes the performer-centered philosophy of MCG Jazz enhances its stature. "It's not by accident," he emphasizes. "The environment we create here for artists to record -- since it's run by artists, my brother [trombonist Jay Ashby] and I and other folks, really gives people the opportunity to create something very special.
"The artists also understand the mission of [Manchester-Bidwell] at large. It's not just a record company or a presenting organization. It's a school and a training center, and now there are six centers like this around the country with plans for another dozen ..."
Since its first release in 1995, MCG Jazz has issued 40-odd albums showcasing local and international jazz greats, including David Liebman, Brazilian vocal master Ivan Lins, Joe Negri, Gary Burton, Slide Hampton, Tom Scott, Sheryl Bailey and a Billy Taylor-Gerry Mulligan collaboration.
MCG began at a time when major record companies were thriving, some still releasing newly recorded jazz material. Early 21st century digital realities, however, present a vastly altered landscape. Sales and profits falling, the majors have largely abandoned jazz. Small independent labels, a few even owned by artists, had to fill the void.
"It has changed dramatically," Mr. Ashby asserts. Yet he senses a silver lining. "You see a bunch of indie labels. Sometimes you see artist-presented records, which I think is fantastic. It's leveled the playing field for all of us."
Mr. Ashby, who promoted jazz events while working with ballet and symphony orchestras [including the Pittsburgh Symphony] before joining MCG in 1987, sees a solid business model as crucial for a niche market like jazz, especially in changing times.
"You have to say, where do people get music? They get it online. They get it at Amazon and CDBaby, and they get it at live performances. Those are the three new distribution points, as opposed to brick-and-mortar." MCG Jazz releases, sold digitally through iTunes and other online outlets, are also available from their own digital online store. "You can buy all 40 records digitally right from our site," he adds.
But he injects a qualifier. "I believe jazz fans will always want physical product, regardless of what the trends say, that it's all going digital forever. I don't agree with that. ... People at heart are collectors. Having said that, our digital sales have definitely grown over the past 18 months."
Historically, the standards Mr. Ashby describes have a precedent going back well over half a century, when indie jazz labels such as Blue Note, Pacific Jazz, Contemporary and Verve thrived, each having clearly defined philosophies. "Some [of their releases] sold, some didn't sell. But the quality, you couldn't argue with," he says.
"We focus on high art on the covers," he adds, noting some MCG Jazz covers feature reproductions of fine acrylic paintings. "High art on the cover, high art on the music and a dignified, very thought-through approach on how to market it.
"The recordings that we do are once in a lifetime," he continues. "There will never be another Panamericana concert like the one here. The Bob Mintzer Big Band this year with Peter Erskine and Chico Pinheiro and all those cats -- that band will probably never play together in that configuration again. "
Among the exacting criteria that earned those previous Grammys: slow, methodical production. "Nancy Wilson records take 21/2 years to make," Mr. Ashby explains. "Mintzer's record took a year. They're kind of long-term investments in a historical legacy. We don't put out a record a month like a lot of other labels," he declares. "We only put out one or two a year."
Having its own audio and video recording studio, and a technological upgrade every three years, makes those standards easier to maintain.
"You have to take your time to mix, master, edit, overdub if needed, at your leisure," Mr. Ashby explains. "It's a luxury, something the artist appreciates as well, because they don't feel rushed. They can make the art be all that they want it to be."
Rich Kienzle is a freelance writer who writes the Get Rhythm blog for the Post-Gazette.