“Jazz Club Friday” Music from Pittsburgh’s Renowned Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

The Music Hall at MCG Jazz. The 350 seat venue is a great place to see, and record, live music. Photo: John Goldsmith, courtesy of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

Sculptures in Sound: The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild

Fridays on All Night Jazz, since we can’t get out to see live jazz right now, Mike Cornette brings the music to you on “Jazz Club Friday” on the Jazz Trip@Ten. This week, Mike featured music recorded at The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild, a live music venue in Pittsburgh with a totally unique history.  It started out improbably, as a place for disadvantaged kids to learn how to make pottery. It was founded by William Strickland, whose life was changed forever by a chance meeting with a high school art teacher.  Our Mike Cornette visited MCG a few years back and met the charismatic founder. 

By Mike Cornette/WUSF

A Pittsburgh teenager wanders the hallways of his high school and contemplates dropping out.

His future in the Manchester section of town where he resides seems limited.  Jobs are scarce, poverty rampant and options reduced to slim or none. He hears music emanating from an unfamiliar classroom. He sticks his head in and sees a teacher spinning clay for pottery. From the other side of the room the music pulsates. It was like nothing he had ever heard before.

What William Strickland heard that day was his first taste of jazz. It was also his first up close glimpse into the making of pottery. From that day forward, jazz and pottery forged together in his soul as if the music and clay were one. The teacher, Frank Ross, and the student bonded.

Strickland remained in school and became a master potter. He traded pottery for grades and matriculated. Ross told him, “You’re too smart to die, and I don’t want it on my conscience, so I am leaving this school and I am taking you with me.” He drove Strickland to the University of Pittsburgh. Ross got a job teaching there and Strickland began his college career.

While still an undergrad, Strickland felt the opportunities granted him were special. He wanted to pay it forward. In 1968, he secured a row house in his neighborhood, blasted jazz on the porch next to some pottery wheels and placed a kiln in the basement.

The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild was born.

He offered pottery classes to the young and underprivileged. They came in droves. The Guild was a success. Strickland graduated the next year.

Shortly thereafter, the city of Pittsburgh approached him for another opportunity. Bidwell Training Center, a nearby vocational school known for its programs that retrained laid off steel workers, was struggling, and the city asked if Strickland could run it.

MCG Founder William Strickland in 2008 with a copy of his book “Make the Impossible Possible.” Photo: Charlie Cowins.

He initially refused but eventually agreed but only if he could set the curriculum. He started by teaching medical coding for the insurance business, laboratory training as well as the arts. Classes that led to employment and careers. Now known as Manchester Bidwell, this venture was also success. Other vocational training opportunities followed. Heinz Corporation, based in Pittsburgh, asked Strickland to come in for a meeting. Strickland says the visit to Heinz was like going to see “The Wizard of Oz.”

“John Heinz had about 600 million dollars at the time and I had about 60 cents,” Strickland said. Heinz offered them a seven-figure grant to open a culinary school. It now also serves as the school cafeteria.

Another Pittsburgh based corporation, Alcoa, eventually helped build a downtown greenhouse. Manchester Bidwell grew orchids and other floral items there, with Whole Foods as the principal customer. Flowers always abundantly adorn the school. People got jobs. Grant money and endowments flowed. Eventually they outgrew their space and needed a new building. He engaged a Frank Lloyd Wright student, who later built the Pittsburgh Airport, to design it.

The Manchester Craftmen’s Guild’s 62,000 Square foot facility in Pittsburgh Pa. It is a non-profit art, education, and music organization. Photo: Boyzell Hosey, courtesy of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

Opened in 1986, it was, at 62,000 square feet, a formidable structure, tan bricks with a multitude of windows to let in the light. It included labs, kitchens, classrooms and an art gallery. It became such a showcase and a beacon for the community and the city that signs of typical urban blight, such as graffiti and vandalism bypassed its walls. After a city riot destroyed the surrounding buildings, it remained untouched.

All the while, Strickland wanted to add a jazz element to the complex but could find no one to help fund it.  Strickland even used tape to outline an arch to where he hoped the entrance to his future jazz hall would reside. VIPs constantly visited the facility. Strickland pointed out his archway to them all. Eventually one said, “I can’t build you a jazz hall, but we could certainly help with an auditorium.” Close enough.

Now, with the creation of MCG Jazz, a 350-seat venue, The Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild was complete.

Jazz icon Dizzy Gillespie toured the facility early on. He had heard about the great things taking place at MCG. Strickland asked Gillespie to play the new hall. Gillespie not only said yes, but also strongly recommended MCG record the show and release the recording free of charge.

Piano legend Dr. Billy Taylor at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild standing in front of a row of photos of past performances at MCG Jazz. Photo: Robert Bowman, courtesy of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

Now, not only did Strickland have his concert hall but also a fledgling  record label, MCG Jazz, too. Fifty albums and three Grammys later, the label, MCG Jazz, is still going strong with a catalog of recordings from Nancy Wilson, Bob Mintzer and many others.

Each year the MCG Jazz books a diverse and robust series of concerts and offers jazz education to the community. The list of artists who have played at MCG is a roster of legends; the green room accented with a stunning array of photographs including those of Art Blakey, Tommy Flanagan, Dave Brubeck and many more. All shot at while performing at MCG Jazz.

The Green Room at MCG Jazz, which provides musicians a great place to hang out while waiting to perform. And it doubles as a gallery for photos of past performances. Photo: John Goldsmith, courtesy of the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild.

Strickland has also served on the boards of the National Endowment for the Arts, Carnegie Museum, Mellon Financial Corporation and was a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship “Genius” Award. Along the way, he also picked up his commercial pilot’s license and, during his “spare time,” flew internationally for Braniff Airlines for several years.

Strickland says, “The moral of the story is you must be prepared to act upon your dreams just in case they do come true.”

Asked to lead a TED Talk session in 2002 Strickland brought in a battered box of slides asked for two things – a slide projector, a rare request for the tech driven organization, and a grand piano so that his friend, piano legend Herbie Hancock, could play live during the talk. During his 35-minute chat, Strickland recalled a conversation with Quincy Jones who asked Strickland, “Where did the idea for centers like this come from?”

Strickland says that he told Jones, “’It came from you and your music, man. Because my (teacher) brought in your albums when I was 16 years old in the pottery class, when the world was all dark and your music got me to the sunlight; and I thought, if I can follow that music, I’ll get out into the sunlight and I’ll be OK.. And if that’s not true, how did I get here?’”

All because a student saw inspiration and possibilities in both sound and clay. And he turned those dreams into a reality and built a multicultural icon where to this day, you can still take pottery lessons.