Michael Manning is a complex man. Just talking to him, you are taken aback by his calm, easygoing way. Listen closely and you can still hear traces of his southern upbringing. But turn the conversation to instrument repair or cases making and you will discover the fire and passion that has made him one of the top technical craftsman in the industry.
Manning grew up in West Memphis, Arkansas, the son of two musicians. Manning notes, “My father was a band director and is an excellent clarinetist. I was exposed to all the great clarinetists from an early age.” As a youth the young Manning would distinguish himself on the clarinet, winning a number of completions and playing in the Memphis Youth Symphony.
After high school, he attended the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music fulfilling a childhood dream. It was here that he would pick up the saxophone as a secondary instrument. But it was his dissatisfaction with a cruise ship gig, taken during his sophomore year, that set him on the path towards his current profession.
“I didn’t want to return to CCM mid year so my father suggested that I contact AMRO Music about teaching. AMRO is one of the largest music stores in the country. They didn’t have a lesson program but asked if I would be interested in working in their repair department. I jumped at the chance and began repair work in February of 1993.” At AMRO Manning learned at the “front lines” of instrument of instrument repair. He offers, “There are little options for a young repair person. You either attend one of a handful of repair schools or you find a large music store to take you on. I believe the latter is the best way to learn.” And learn he did. AMRO had well over 10,000 instrument in its rental program at the time, which offered plenty of on-the-job training for the young Manning.
After transferring to Arkansas State, he continued his repair work with James Hallbrook in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Manning remembers, “James was a brass player and really gave me room to explore my own perspective on repair. He had the most up to date tools and supplies. I only had a year and a half with James but what I learned there put me on the path to the tech I a today.”
After an important four month stint with Paul Maslin (PM Woodwinds) it was time to take the plunge and move to New York City. “I lived in Hoboken, New Jersey and didn’t know anybody”, remembers Manning. But as fate would have it, Hoboken was also the home of alto saxophone-great Pete Yellin. Manning had met Yellin in Chicago and it was on Yellin’s suggestion that Manning applied for an open position at famed Sam Ash Music. “I didn’t really want to go back working for a music store, but he [Yellin] said it was a good way to meet people and learn the city.” Over time, any of Manning’s childhood idols would soon become valued customers. Once armed with a clientele he opened Manning Custom Woodwinds in 2003.
Manning was known for his excellent repair work but his explorations in other areas were now able to come to fruition. “I started making custom necks in the late 90’s and then instruments. These weren’t Chinese stenciled horns, we spent months on these instrument finding materials from all over the world to meet our exacting standard. To date I’ve made about 60 instruments.” However if you are wanting a custom Manning instrument you may have to wait. “I don’t make many instruments anymore. It stopped being fun. The wait just became too long and they were so expensive to make because of the time involved. I limit it to one per year now.”
It was actually his custom instruments that gave birth to his now famous cases. “My business partner Kevin Bouleys and I just didn’t see the feasibility of putting one of our custom instrument into a stock case and watch it get destroyed. So we decided I should make my own. Neither one of us had no idea how to make a case from scratch. It wasn’t like you could just go on YouTube and watch a video like you can today. That first mold took about a year to create. We tired some really stupid ideas.”
It was Manning’s day to day interactions with the finest professional musicians in the world that gave him his unique perspective on repair and case making. “When you work on a pro’s instrument, you get an insider’s view of what happens to an instrument in the life of a professional musician.”
Over 15 years Manning has made a case for just about everything. From making an antique Torah case and triple case that holds clarinet, oboe and cornet, to a case that held bass, alto and c flutes fully assembled, nothing is too challenging. “That particular case belonged to a Broadway musician. He wanted a case that would allow him to come to the show a bit later and just pull the instruments out and play.”
If you want to know what makes Manning’s cases different, stand in line. Anyone familiar with the music industry knows that an original idea is often copied and seldom protected. And many Manning’s details have been copied in other, lesser products. While he has resigned himself that he can’t protect all of his ideas, he adds, “Without Manning Custom making the case, it just won’t be the same case. The honest truth is anyone who tried to do our cases the way we do it would be an idiot. I make cases as a labor of love. I see a need and I want to solve it.”
So you may ask, “What are his thoughts about aftermarket cases?” Well, as you might imagine they are not positive, and these strong views has garnered Manning a fair amount of criticism over the years. He is stedfast and unapologetic about his views, “Listen, I hate giving bad news to customers but there isn’t an aftermarket case made that doesn’t have a least one major flaw. I laugh when I see videos of people driving over their cases. You take that same case and slide it off end of the bed and your saxophone is going to be damaged. So much attention goes into the outside of the case, which is important for sure. But, what sets our cases apart is our attention to the interior of the case.
This author can attest to this. I had Manning make me a dual case and as you can see in this review (CLICK HERE), a great deal of attention is given to the precise fit of the instrument. If you desire a Manning case you must deliver or ship your instrument to his factory. This is actually a simple process and one that is crucial to the precise fit of each case. “The one thing people don’t really understand about our cases is that every case we have ever made has been designed for just one specific instrument. There is something very special about the way we create the interior that can’t be done with measurements. If my customer feels their instrument is the only instrument they could play, then why would I sell them a case that is generic?”, explains Manning.
But famous cases are but a portion of his business. For over 15 years, Manning has branched out into custom key work, neck straps, barrels, and custom instruments including a clarinet made for Paquito D’Rivera, affectionately called the Paquinete. And judging by his client list, which includes Branford Marsalis, Paquito D’Rivera, John Ellis, Marcus Strickland, Anat Cohen, and Gary Smulyan, to name a few, Manning is addressing the needs of the modern woodwind artist. When asked about what makes Manning so special Baritone Saxophonist Gary Smulyan offers, “It has to be an awareness of what a musician wants and needs. Mike understands that I am a bari player and how hard it is to travel with my saxophone. Likewise, he has done modifications to my key work that allows the action to be just what I desire. He has never told me no. He just finds a solution.” Manning adds, “When people ask me what I do, my answer is always so vague. We basically do anything and everything a professional clarinetist and saxophonist would need.